Κύρια 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

21 Lessons for the 21st Century

EPUB, 3.11 MB
Κατεβάστε (epub, 3.11 MB)

You may be interested in Powered by Rec2Me


21 Lessons for the 21st Century

MOBI , 838 KB

21 Lessons for the 21st Century

EPUB, 3.00 MB

21 Lessons for the 21st Century

EPUB, 1.40 MB

21 Lessons for the 21st Century

EPUB, 1.40 MB

Most frequently terms

You can write a book review and share your experiences. Other readers will always be interested in your opinion of the books you've read. Whether you've loved the book or not, if you give your honest and detailed thoughts then people will find new books that are right for them.

The Secret of ZI

EPUB, 284 KB

Milk and honey

PDF, 2.54 MB



God now serves the nation

So far, modern ideologies, scientific experts and national governments have failed to create a viable vision for the future of humanity. Can such a vision be drawn from the deep wells of human religious traditions? Maybe the answer has been waiting for us all along between the pages of the Bible, the Quran or the Vedas.

Secular people are likely to react to this idea with ridicule or apprehension. Holy scriptures may have been relevant in the Middle Ages, but how can they guide us in the era of artificial intelligence, bioengineering, global warming and cyberwarfare? Yet secular people are a minority. Billions of humans still profess greater faith in the Quran and the Bible than in the theory of evolution; religious movements mould the politics of countries as diverse as India, Turkey and the United States; and religious animosities fuel conflicts from Nigeria to the Philippines.

So how relevant are religions such as Christianity, Islam and Hinduism? Can they help us solve the major problems we face? To understand the role of traditional religions in the world of the twenty-first century, we need to distinguish between three types of problems:

	Technical problems. For example, how should farmers in arid countries deal with severe droughts caused by global warming?

	Policy problems. For example, what measures should governments adopt to prevent global warming in the first place?

	Identity problems. For example, should I even care about the problems of farmers on the other side of the world, or should I care only about problems of people from my own tribe and country?

As we shall see in the following pages, traditional religions are largely irrelevant to technical and policy problems. In contrast, they are extremely relevant to identity problems – but in most cases they constitute a major part of the problem rather than a potential solution.

Technical problems: Christian agriculture

In premodern times religions were responsible for solving a wide range of ; technical problems in mundane fields such as agriculture. Divine calendars determined when to plant and when to harvest, while temple rituals secured rainfall and protected against pests. When an agricultural crisis loomed as a result of drought or a plague of locusts, farmers turned to the priests to intercede with the gods. Medicine too fell within the religious domain. Almost every prophet, guru and shaman doubled as a healer. Thus Jesus spent much of his time making the sick well, the blind see, the mute talk, and the mad sane. Whether you lived in ancient Egypt or in medieval Europe, if you were ill you were likely to go to the witch doctor rather than to the doctor, and to make a pilgrimage to a renowned temple rather than to a hospital.

In recent times the biologists and the surgeons have taken over from the priests and the miracle workers. If Egypt is now struck by a plague of locusts, Egyptians may well ask Allah for help – why not? – but they will not forget to call upon chemists, entomologists and geneticists to develop stronger pesticides and insect-resisting wheat strains. If the child of a devout Hindu suffers from a severe case of measles, the father would say a prayer to Dhanvantari and offer flowers and sweets at the local temple – but only after he has rushed the toddler to the nearest hospital and entrusted him to the care of the doctors there. Even mental illness – the last bastion of religious healers – is gradually passing into the hand of the scientists, as neurology replaces demonology and Prozac supplants exorcism.

The victory of science has been so complete that our very idea of religion has changed. We no longer associate religion with farming and medicine. Even many zealots now suffer from collective amnesia, and prefer to forget that traditional religions ever laid claim to these domains. ‘So what if we turn to engineers and doctors?’ say the zealots. ‘That proves nothing. What has religion got to do with agriculture or medicine in the first place?’

Traditional religions have lost so much turf because, frankly, they just weren’t very good in farming or healthcare. The true expertise of priests and gurus has never really been rainmaking, healing, prophecy or magic. Rather, it has always been interpretation. A priest is not somebody who knows how to perform the rain dance and end the drought. A priest is somebody who knows how to justify why the rain dance failed, and why we must keep believing in our god even though he seems deaf to all our prayers.

Yet it is precisely their genius for interpretation that puts religious leaders at a disadvantage when they compete against scientists. Scientists too know how to cut corners and twist the evidence, but in the end, the mark of science is the willingness to admit failure and try a different tack. That’s why scientists gradually learn how to grow better crops and make better medicines, whereas priests and gurus learn only how to make better excuses. Over the centuries, even the true believers have noticed the difference, which is why religious authority has been dwindling in more and more technical fields. This is also why the entire world has increasingly become a single civilisation. When things really work, everybody adopts them.

Policy problems: Muslim economics

While science provides us with clear-cut answers to technical questions such as how to cure measles, there is considerable disagreement among scientists about questions of policy. Almost all scientists concur that global warming is a fact, but there is no consensus regarding the best economic reaction to this threat. That does not mean, however, that traditional religions can help us resolve the issue. Ancient scriptures are just not a good guide for modern economics, and the main fault lines – for example between capitalists and socialists – don’t correspond to the divisions between traditional religions.

True, in countries such as Israel and Iran rabbis and ayatollahs have a direct say about the government’s economic policy, and even in more secular countries such as the United States and Brazil religious leaders influence public opinion on matters ranging from taxation to environmental regulations. Yet a closer look reveals that in most of these cases, traditional religions really play second fiddle to modern scientific theories. When Ayatollah Khamenei needs to make a crucial decision about the Iranian economy, he will not be able to find the necessary answer in the Quran, because seventh-century Arabs knew very little about the problems and opportunities of modern industrial economies and global financial markets. So he, or his aides, must turn to Karl Marx, Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek and the modern science of economics to get answers. Having made up his mind to raise interest rates, lower taxes, privatise government monopolies or sign an international tariff agreement, Khamenei can then use his religious knowledge and authority to wrap the scientific answer in the garb of this or that Quranic verse, and present it to the masses as the will of Allah. But the garb matters little. When you compare the economic policies of Shiite Iran, Sunni Saudi Arabia, Jewish Israel, Hindu India and Christian America, you just don’t see that much of a difference.

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Christian thinkers railed against modern materialism, against soulless capitalism, and against the excesses of the bureaucratic state. They promised that if they were only given a chance, they would solve all the ills of modernity and establish a completely different socio-economic system based on the eternal spiritual values of their creed. Well, they have been given quite a few chances, and the only noticeable change they have made to the edifice of modern economies is to redo the paintwork and place a huge crescent, cross, Star of David or Om on the roof.

Just as in the case of rainmaking, so also when it comes to economics, it is the long-honed expertise of religious scholars in reinterpreting texts that makes religion irrelevant. No matter which economic policy Khamenei chooses, he could always square it with the Quran. Hence the Quran is degraded from a source of true knowledge to a source of mere authority. When you face a difficult economic dilemma, you read Marx and Hayek closely, and they help you understand the economic system better, see things from a new angle, and think about potential solutions. Having formulated an answer, you then turn to the Quran, and you read it closely in search of some surah that, if interpreted imaginatively enough, can justify the solution you got from Hayek or Marx. No matter what solution you found there, if you are a good Quranic scholar you will always be able to justify it.

The same is true of Christianity. A Christian may be a capitalist as easily as a socialist, and even though a few things Jesus said smack of downright communism, during the Cold War good American capitalists went on reading the Sermon on the Mount without taking much notice. There is just no such thing as ‘Christian economics’, ‘Muslim economics’ or ‘Hindu economics’.

Not that there aren’t any economic ideas in the Bible, the Quran or the Vedas – it is just that these ideas are not up to date. Mahatma Gandhi’s reading of the Vedas caused him to envision independent India as a collection of self-sufficient agrarian communities, each spinning its own khadi cloths, exporting little and importing even less. The most famous photograph of him shows him spinning cotton with his own hands, and he made the humble spinning wheel the symbol of the Indian nationalist movement.1 Yet this Arcadian vision was simply incompatible with the realities of modern economics, and hence not much has remained of it save for Gandhi’s radiant image on billions of rupee notes.

Modern economic theories are so much more relevant than traditional dogmas that it has become common to interpret even ostensibly religious conflicts in economic terms, whereas nobody thinks of doing the reverse. For example, some argue that the Troubles in Northern Ireland between Catholics and Protestants were fuelled largely by class conflicts. Due to various historical accidents, in Northern Ireland the upper classes were mostly Protestant and the lower classes were mostly Catholic. Hence what seems at first sight to have been a theological conflict about the nature of Christ, was in fact a typical struggle between haves and have-nots. In contrast, very few people would claim that the conflicts between communist guerrillas and capitalist landowners in South America in the 1970s were really just a cover for a far deeper disagreement about Christian theology.

So what difference would religion make when facing the big questions of the twenty-first century? Take for example the question whether to grant AI the authority to make decisions about people’s lives – choosing for you what to study, where to work, and whom to marry. What is the Muslim position on that question? What is the Jewish position? There are no ‘Muslim’ or ‘Jewish’ positions here. Humankind is likely to be divided into two main camps – those in favour of giving AI significant authority, and those opposed to it. Muslims and Jews are likely to be found in both camps, and to justify whichever position they espouse through imaginative interpretations of the Quran and the Talmud.

Of course religious groups might harden their views on particular issues, and turn them into allegedly sacred and eternal dogmas. In the 1970s theologians in Latin America came up with Liberation Theology, which made Jesus look a bit like Che Guevara. Similarly, Jesus can easily be recruited to the debate on global warming, and make current political positions look as if they are eternal religious principles.

This is already beginning to happen. Opposition to environmental regulations is incorporated into the fire-and-brimstone sermons of some American Evangelical pastors, while Pope Francis is leading the charge against global warming, in the name of Christ (as witnessed in his second encyclical, ‘Laudato si’).2 So perhaps by 2070, on the environmental question it will make all the difference in the world whether you are Evangelical or Catholic. It would go without saying that Evangelicals will object to any cap on carbon emissions, while Catholics will believe that Jesus preached we must protect the environment.

You will see the difference even in their cars. Evangelicals will drive huge gasoline-guzzling SUVs, while devout Catholics will go around in slick electric cars with a bumper sticker reading ‘Burn the Planet – and Burn in Hell!’ However, though they may quote various biblical passages in defence of their positions, the real source of their difference will be in modern scientific theories and political movements, not in the Bible. From this perspective, religion doesn’t really have much to contribute to the great policy debates of our time. As Karl Marx argued, it is just a veneer.

Identity problems: The lines in the sand

Yet Marx exaggerated when he dismissed religion as a mere superstructure hiding powerful technological and economic forces. Even if Islam, Hinduism or Christianity may be colourful decorations over a modern economic structure, people often identify with the decor, and people’s identities are a crucial historical force. Human power depends on mass cooperation, mass cooperation depends on manufacturing mass identities – and all mass identities are based on fictional stories, not on scientific facts or even on economic necessities. In the twenty-first century, the division of humans into Jews and Muslims or into Russians and Poles still depends on religious myths. Attempts by Nazis and communists to scientifically determine human identities of race and class proved to be dangerous pseudo-science, and since then scientists have been extremely reluctant to help define any ‘natural’ identities for human beings.

So in the twenty-first century religions don’t bring rain, they don’t cure illnesses, they don’t build bombs – but they do get to determine who are ‘us’ and who are ‘them’, who we should cure and who we should bomb. As noted earlier, in practical terms there are surprisingly few differences between Shiite Iran, Sunni Saudi Arabia and Jewish Israel. All are bureaucratic nation states, all pursue more or less capitalist policies, all vaccinate kids against polio, and all rely on chemists and physicists to make bombs. There is no such thing as Shiite bureaucracy, Sunni capitalism, or Jewish physics. So how to make people feel unique, and feel loyal to one human tribe and hostile to another?

In order to draw firm lines in the shifting sands of humanity, religions use rites, rituals and ceremonies. Shiites, Sunnis and Orthodox Jews wear different clothes, chant different prayers, and observe different taboos. These differing religious traditions often fill daily life with beauty, and encourage people to behave more kindly and charitably. Five times a day, the muezzin’s melodious voice rises above the noise of bazaars, offices and factories, calling Muslims to take a break from the hustle and bustle of mundane pursuits, and try to connect to an eternal truth. Their Hindu neighbours may reach for the same goal with the help of daily pujas and the recitation of mantras. Every week on Friday night, Jewish families sit down for a special meal of joy, thanksgiving and togetherness. Two days later, on Sunday morning, Christian gospel choirs bring hope to the life of millions, helping to forge community bonds of trust and affection.

Other religious traditions fill the world with a lot of ugliness, and make people behave meanly and cruelly. There is little to be said, for example, in favour of religiously inspired misogyny or caste discrimination. But whether beautiful or ugly, all such religious traditions unite certain people while distinguishing them from their neighbours. Looked at from the outside, the religious traditions that divide people often seem trifling, and Freud ridiculed the obsession people have about such matters as ‘the narcissism of small differences’.3 But in history and in politics, small differences can go a very long way. Thus if you happen to be gay or lesbian, it is literally a matter of life and death whether you live in Israel, Iran or Saudi Arabia. In Israel, LGBTs enjoy the protection of the law, and there are even some rabbis who would bless the marriage of two women. In Iran, gays and lesbians are systematically persecuted and occasionally even executed. In Saudi Arabia, a lesbian could not even drive a car until 2018 – just for being a woman, never mind being a lesbian.

Perhaps the best example for the continuing power and importance of traditional religions in the modern world comes from Japan. In 1853 an American fleet forced Japan to open itself to the modern world. In response, the Japanese state embarked on a rapid and extremely successful process of modernisation. Within a few decades, it became a powerful bureaucratic state relying on science, capitalism and the latest military technology to defeat China and Russia, occupy Taiwan and Korea, and ultimately sink the American fleet at Pearl Harbor and destroy the European empires in the Far East. Yet Japan did not copy blindly the Western blueprint. It was fiercely determined to protect its unique identity, and to ensure that modern Japanese will be loyal to Japan rather than to science, to modernity, or to some nebulous global community.

To that end, Japan upheld the native religion of Shinto as the cornerstone of Japanese identity. In truth, the Japanese state reinvented Shinto. Traditional Shinto was a hodge-podge of animist beliefs in various deities, spirits and ghosts, and every village and temple had its own favourite spirits and local customs. In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, the Japanese state created an official version of Shinto, while discouraging many local traditions. This ‘State Shinto’ was fused with very modern ideas of nationality and race, which the Japanese elite picked from the European imperialists. Any element in Buddhism, Confucianism and the samurai feudal ethos that could be helpful in cementing loyalty to the state was added to the mix. To top it all, State Shinto enshrined as its supreme principle the worship of the Japanese emperor, who was considered a direct descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu, and himself no less than a living god.4

At first sight, this odd concoction of old and new seemed an extremely inappropriate choice for a state embarking on a crash course of modernisation. A living god? Animist spirits? Feudal ethos? That sounded more like a Neolithic chieftainship than a modern industrial power.

Yet it worked like magic. The Japanese modernised at a breathtaking pace while simultaneously developing a fanatical loyalty to their state. The best-known symbol of the success of State Shinto is the fact that Japan was the first power to develop and use precision-guided missiles. Decades before the USA fielded the smart bomb, and at a time when Nazi Germany was just beginning to deploy dumb V-2 rockets, Japan sank dozens of allied ships with precision-guided missiles. We know these missiles as the kamikaze. Whereas in present-day precision-guided munitions the guidance is provided by computers, the kamikaze were ordinary airplanes loaded with explosives and guided by human pilots willing to go on one-way missions. This willingness was the product of the death-defying spirit of sacrifice cultivated by State Shinto. The kamikaze thus relied on combining state-of-the-art technology with state-of-the-art religious indoctrination.5

Knowingly or not, numerous governments today follow the Japanese example. They adopt the universal tools and structures of modernity while relying on traditional religions to preserve a unique national identity. The role of State Shinto in Japan is fulfilled to a lesser or greater degree by Orthodox Christianity in Russia, Catholicism in Poland, Shiite Islam in Iran, Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia, and Judaism in Israel. No matter how archaic a religion might look, with a bit of imagination and reinterpretation it can almost always be married to the latest technological gadgets and the most sophisticated modern institutions.

In some cases states might create a completely new religion to bolster their unique identity. The most extreme example can be seen today in Japan’s former colony of North Korea. The North Korean regime indoctrinates its subjects with a fanatical state religion called Juche. This is a mix of Marxism–Leninism, some ancient Korean traditions, a racist belief in the unique purity of the Korean race, and the deification of Kim Il-sung’s family line. Though nobody claims that the Kims are descendants of a sun goddess, they are worshipped with more fervour than almost any god in history. Perhaps mindful of how the Japanese Empire was eventually defeated, North Korean Juche for a long time also insisted on adding nuclear weapons to the mix, depicting their development as a sacred duty worthy of supreme sacrifices.6

The handmaid of nationalism

No matter how technology will develop, we can expect that arguments about religious identities and rituals will continue to influence the use of new technologies, and might well retain the power to set the world ablaze. The most up-to-date nuclear missiles and cyber bombs might well be employed to settle a doctrinal argument about medieval texts. Religions, rites and rituals will remain important as long as the power of humankind rests on mass cooperation and as long as mass cooperation rests on belief in shared fictions.

Unfortunately, all of this really makes traditional religions part of humanity’s problem, not part of the remedy. Religions still have a lot of political power, inasmuch as they can cement national identities and even ignite the Third World War. But when it comes to solving rather than stoking the global problems of the twenty-first century, they don’t seem to offer much. Though many traditional religions espouse universal values and claim cosmic validity, at present they are used mainly as the handmaid of modern nationalism – whether in North Korea, Russia, Iran or Israel. They therefore make it even harder to transcend national differences and find a global solution to the threats of nuclear war, ecological collapse and technological disruption.

Thus when dealing with global warming or nuclear proliferation, Shiite clerics encourage Iranians to see these problems from a narrow Iranian perspective, Jewish rabbis inspire Israelis to care mainly about what’s good for Israel, and Orthodox priests urge Russians to think first and foremost about Russian interests. After all, we are God’s chosen nation, so what’s good for our nation is pleasing to God too. There certainly are religious sages who reject nationalist excesses and adopt far more universal visions. Unfortunately, such sages don’t wield much political power these days.

We are trapped, then, between a rock and a hard place. Humankind now constitutes a single civilisation, and problems such as nuclear war, ecological collapse and technological disruption can only be solved on the global level. On the other hand, nationalism and religion still divide our human civilisation into different and often hostile camps. This collision between global problems and local identities manifests itself in the crisis that now besets the greatest multicultural experiment in the world – the European Union. Built on the promise of universal liberal values, the EU is teetering on the verge of disintegration due to the difficulties of integration and immigration.



There is just one civilisation in the world

While Mark Zuckerberg dreams of uniting humankind online, recent events in the offline world seem to breathe fresh life into the ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis. Many pundits, politicians and ordinary citizens believe that the Syrian civil war, the rise of the Islamic State, the Brexit mayhem and the instability of the European Union all result from a clash between ‘Western Civilisation’ and ‘Islamic Civilisation’. Western attempts to impose democracy and human rights on Muslim nations resulted in a violent Islamic backlash, and a wave of Muslim immigration coupled with Islamic terrorist attacks caused European voters to abandon multicultural dreams in favour of xenophobic local identities.

According to this thesis, humankind has always been divided into diverse civilisations whose members view the world in irreconcilable ways. These incompatible world views make conflicts between civilisations inevitable. Just as in nature different species fight for survival according to the remorseless laws of natural selection, so throughout history civilisations have repeatedly clashed and only the fittest have survived to tell the tale. Those who overlook this grim fact – be they liberal politicians or head-in-the-clouds engineers – do so at their peril.1

The ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis has far-reaching political implications. Its supporters contend that any attempt to reconcile ‘the West’ with ‘the Muslim world’ is doomed to failure. Muslim countries will never adopt Western values, and Western countries could never successfully absorb Muslim minorities. Accordingly, the USA should not admit immigrants from Syria or Iraq, and the European Union should renounce its multicultural fallacy in favour of an unabashed Western identity. In the long run, only one civilisation can survive the unforgiving tests of natural selection, and if the bureaucrats in Brussels refuse to save the West from the Islamic peril, then Britain, Denmark or France had better go it alone.

Though widely held, this thesis is misleading. Islamic fundamentalism may indeed pose a radical challenge, but the ‘civilisation’ it challenges is a global civilisation rather than a uniquely Western phenomenon. Not for nothing has the Islamic State managed to unite against it Iran and the United States. And even Islamic fundamentalists, for all their medieval fantasies, are grounded in contemporary global culture far more than in seventh-century Arabia. They are catering to the fears and hopes of alienated modern youth rather than to those of medieval peasants and merchants. As Pankaj Mishra and Christopher de Bellaigue have convincingly argued, radical Islamists have been influenced by Marx and Foucault as much as by Muhammad, and they inherit the legacy of nineteenth-century European anarchists as much as of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs.2 It is therefore more accurate to see even the Islamic State as an errant offshoot of the global culture we all share, rather than as a branch of some mysterious alien tree.

More importantly, the analogy between history and biology that underpins the ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis is false. Human groups – all the way from small tribes to huge civilisations – are fundamentally different from animal species, and historical conflicts greatly differ from natural selection processes. Animal species have objective identities that endure for thousands upon thousands of generations. Whether you are a chimpanzee or a gorilla depends on your genes rather than your beliefs, and different genes dictate distinct social behaviours. Chimpanzees live in mixed groups of males and females. They compete for power by building coalitions of supporters from among both sexes. Amid gorillas, in contrast, a single dominant male establishes a harem of females, and usually expels any adult male that might challenge his position. Chimpanzees cannot adopt gorilla-like social arrangements; gorillas cannot start organising themselves like chimpanzees; and as far as we know exactly the same social systems have characterised chimpanzees and gorillas not only in recent decades, but for hundreds of thousands of years.

You find nothing like that among humans. Yes, human groups may have distinct social systems, but these are not genetically determined, and they seldom endure for more than a few centuries. Think of twentieth-century Germans, for example. In less than a hundred years the Germans organised themselves into six very different systems: the Hohenzollern Empire, the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, the German Democratic Republic (aka communist East Germany), the Federal Republic of Germany (aka West Germany), and finally democratic reunited Germany. Of course the Germans kept their language and their love of beer and bratwurst. But is there some unique German essence that distinguishes them from all other nations, and that has remained unchanged from Wilhelm II to Angela Merkel? And if you do come up with something, was it also there 1,000 years ago, or 5,000 years ago?

The (unratified) Preamble of the European Constitution begins by stating that it draws inspiration ‘from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe, from which have developed the universal values of the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person, democracy, equality, freedom and the rule of law’.3 This may easily give one the impression that European civilisation is defined by the values of human rights, democracy, equality and freedom. Countless speeches and documents draw a direct line from ancient Athenian democracy to the present-day EU, celebrating 2,500 years of European freedom and democracy. This is reminiscent of the proverbial blind man who takes hold of an elephant’s tail and concludes that an elephant is a kind of brush. Yes, democratic ideas have been part of European culture for centuries, but they were never the whole. For all its glory and impact, Athenian democracy was a half-hearted experiment that survived for barely 200 years in a small corner of the Balkans. If European civilisation for the past twenty-five centuries has been defined by democracy and human rights, what are we to make of Sparta and Julius Caesar, of the Crusaders and the conquistadores, of the Inquisition and the slave trade, of Louis XIV and Napoleon, of Hitler and Stalin? Were they all intruders from some foreign civilisation?

In truth, European civilisation is anything Europeans make of it, just as Christianity is anything Christians make of it, Islam is anything Muslims make of it, and Judaism is anything Jews make of it. And they have made of it remarkably different things over the centuries. Human groups are defined more by the changes they undergo than by any continuity, but they nevertheless manage to create for themselves ancient identities thanks to their storytelling skills. No matter what revolutions they experience, they can usually weave old and new into a single yarn.

Even an individual may knit revolutionary personal changes into a coherent and powerful life story: ‘I am that person who was once a socialist, but then became a capitalist; I was born in France, and now live in the USA; I was married, and then got divorced; I had cancer, and then got well again.’ Similarly a human group such as the Germans may come to define itself by the very changes it underwent: ‘Once we were Nazis, but we have learnt our lesson, and now we are peaceful democrats.’ You don’t need to look for some unique German essence that manifested itself first in Wilhelm II, then in Hitler, and finally in Merkel. These radical transformations are precisely what define German identity. To be German in 2018 means to grapple with the difficult legacy of Nazism while upholding liberal and democratic values. Who knows what it will mean in 2050.

People often refuse to see these changes, especially when it comes to core political and religious values. We insist that our values are a precious legacy from ancient ancestors. Yet the only thing that allows us to say this, is that our ancestors are long dead, and cannot speak for themselves. Consider, for example, Jewish attitudes towards women. Nowadays ultra-Orthodox Jews ban images of women from the public sphere. Billboards and advertisements aimed at ultra-Orthodox Jews usually depict only men and boys – never women and girls.4

In 2011, a scandal erupted when the ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn paper Di Tzeitung published a photo of American officials watching the raid on Osama bin-Laden’s compound but digitally erased all women from the photo, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The paper explained it was forced to do so by Jewish ‘laws of modesty’. A similar scandal erupted when HaMevaser paper expunged Angela Merkel from a photo of a demonstration against the Charlie Hebdo massacre, lest her image arouse any lustful thoughts in the minds of devout readers. The publisher of a third ultra-Orthodox newspaper, Hamodia, defended this policy by explaining that ‘We are backed by thousands of years of Jewish tradition.’5

Nowhere is the ban on seeing women stricter than in the synagogue. In Orthodox synagogues women are carefully segregated from the men, and must confine themselves to a restricted zone where they are hidden behind a curtain, so that no men will accidentally see the shape of a woman as he says his prayers or reads scriptures. Yet if all this is backed by thousands of years of Jewish tradition and immutable divine laws, how to explain the fact that when archaeologists excavated ancient synagogues in Israel from the time of the Mishnah and Talmud, they found no sign of gender segregation, and instead uncovered beautiful floor mosaics and wall paintings depicting women, some of them rather scantily dressed? The rabbis who wrote the Mishnah and Talmud regularly prayed and studied in these synagogues, but present-day Orthodox Jews would consider them blasphemous desecrations of ancient traditions.6

Similar distortions of ancient traditions characterise all religions. The Islamic State has boasted that it has reverted to the pure and original version of Islam, but in truth, their take on Islam is brand new. Yes, they quote many venerable texts, but they exercise a lot of discretion in choosing which texts to quote and which to ignore, and in how to interpret them. Indeed, their do-it-yourself attitude to interpreting the holy texts is itself very modern. Traditionally, interpretation was the monopoly of the learned ulama – scholars who studied Muslim law and theology in reputable institutions such as Cairo’s Al-Azhar. Few of the Islamic State’s leaders have had such credentials, and most respected ulama have dismissed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his ilk as ignorant criminals.7

That does not mean that the Islamic State has been ‘un-Islamic’ or ‘anti-Islamic’, as some people argue. It is particularly ironic when Christian leaders such as Barack Obama have the temerity to tell self-professing Muslims such as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi what it means to be Muslim.8 The heated argument about the true essence of Islam is simply pointless. Islam has no fixed DNA. Islam is whatever Muslims make of it.9

Germans and gorillas

There is an even deeper difference distinguishing human groups from animal species. Species often split, but they never merge. About 7 million years ago chimpanzees and gorillas had common ancestors. This single ancestral species split into two populations that eventually went their separate evolutionary ways. Once this happened, there was no going back. Since individuals belonging to different species cannot produce fertile offspring together, species can never merge. Gorillas cannot merge with chimpanzees, giraffes cannot merge with elephants, and dogs cannot merge with cats.

Human tribes, in contrast, tend to coalesce over time into larger and larger groups. Modern Germans were created from the merger of Saxons, Prussians, Swabians and Bavarians, who not so long ago wasted little love on one another. Otto von Bismarck allegedly remarked (having read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species) that the Bavarian is the missing link between the Austrian and the human.10 The French were created from the merger of Franks, Normans, Bretons, Gascons and Provençals. Meanwhile across the Channel, English, Scots, Welsh and Irish were gradually welded together (willingly or not) to form Britons. In the not too distant future, Germans, French and Britons might yet merge into Europeans.

Mergers don’t always last, as people in London, Edinburgh and Brussels are keenly aware these days. Brexit may well initiate the simultaneous unravelling of both the UK and the EU. But in the long run, history’s direction is clear-cut. Ten thousand years ago humankind was divided into countless isolated tribes. With each passing millennium, these fused into larger and larger groups, creating fewer and fewer distinct civilisations. In recent generations the few remaining civilisations have been blending into a single global civilisation. Political, ethnic, cultural and economic divisions endure, but they do not undermine the fundamental unity. Indeed, some divisions are made possible only by an overarching common structure. In the economy, for example, division of labour cannot succeed unless everyone shares a single market. One country cannot specialise in producing cars or oil unless it can buy food from other countries that grow wheat and rice.

The process of human unification has taken two distinct forms: establishing links between distinct groups, and homogenising practices across groups. Links may be formed even between groups that continue to behave very differently. Indeed, links may form even between sworn enemies. War itself can generate some of the strongest of all human bonds. Historians often argue that globalisation reached a first peak in 1913, then went into a long decline during the era of the world wars and the Cold War, and recuperated only after 1989.11 This may be true of economic globalisation, but it ignores the different but equally important dynamic of military globalisation. War spreads ideas, technologies and people far more quickly than commerce. In 1918 the United States was more closely linked to Europe than in 1913, the two then drifted apart in the interwar years, only to have their fates meshed together inextricably by the Second World War and the Cold War.

War also makes people far more interested in one another. Never had the US been more closely in touch with Russia than during the Cold War, when every cough in a Moscow corridor sent people scrambling up and down Washington staircases. People care far more about their enemies than about their trade partners. For every American film about Taiwan, there are probably fifty about Vietnam.

The Medieval Olympics

The world of the early twenty-first century has gone way beyond forming links between different groups. People across the globe are not only in touch with one another, they increasingly share identical beliefs and practices. A thousand years ago, planet Earth provided fertile ground to dozens of different political models. In Europe you could find feudal principalities vying with independent city states and minuscule theocracies. The Muslim world had its caliphate, claiming universal sovereignty, but also experimented with kingdoms, sultanates and emirates. The Chinese empires believed themselves to be the sole legitimate political entity, while to the north and west tribal confederacies fought each other with glee. India and South East Asia contained a kaleidoscope of regimes, whereas polities in America, Africa and Australasia ranged from tiny hunter-gatherer bands to sprawling empires. No wonder that even neighbouring human groups had trouble agreeing on common diplomatic procedures, not to mention international laws. Each society had its own political paradigm, and found it difficult to understand and respect alien political concepts.

Today, in contrast, a single political paradigm is accepted everywhere. The planet is divided between about 200 sovereign states, which generally agree on the same diplomatic protocols and on common international laws. Sweden, Nigeria, Thailand and Brazil are all marked on our atlases as the same kind of colourful shapes; they are all members of the UN; and despite myriad differences they are all recognised as sovereign states enjoying similar rights and privileges. Indeed, they share many more political ideas and practices, including at least a token belief in representative bodies, political parties, universal suffrage and human rights. There are parliaments in Tehran, Moscow, Cape Town and New Delhi as well as in London and Paris. When Israelis and Palestinians, Russians and Ukrainians, Kurds and Turks compete for the favours of global public opinion, they all use the same discourse of human rights, state sovereignty and international law.

The world may be peppered with various types of ‘failed states’, but it knows only one paradigm for a successful state. Global politics thus follows the Anna Karenina principle: successful states are all alike, but every failed state fails in its own way, by missing this or that ingredient of the dominant political package. The Islamic State has recently stood out in its complete rejection of this package, and in its attempt to establish an entirely different kind of political entity – a universal caliphate. But precisely for this reason it has failed. Numerous guerrilla forces and terror organisations have managed to establish new countries or to conquer existing ones. But they have always done so by accepting the fundamental principles of the global political order. Even the Taliban sought international recognition as the legitimate government of the sovereign country of Afghanistan. No group rejecting the principles of global politics has so far gained any lasting control of any significant territory.

The strength of the global political paradigm can perhaps best be appreciated by considering not hardcore political questions of war and diplomacy, but rather something like the 2016 Rio Olympics. Take a moment to reflect on the way the Games were organised. The 11,000 athletes were grouped into delegations by nationality rather than by religion, class or language. There was no Buddhist delegation, proletarian delegation, or English-speaking delegation. Except in a handful of cases – most notably Taiwan and Palestine – determining the athletes’ nationality was a straightforward affair.

At the opening ceremony on 5 August 2016 the athletes marched in groups, each group waving its national flag. Whenever Michael Phelps won another gold medal, the Stars and Stripes was raised to the sound of the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’. When Emilie Andéol won the gold medal in judo, the French tricolour was hoisted and the ‘Marseillaise’ was played.

Conveniently enough, each country in the world has an anthem that conforms to the same universal model. Almost all anthems are orchestral pieces of a few minutes in length, rather than a twenty-minute chant that may only be performed by a special caste of hereditary priests. Even countries such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Congo have adopted Western musical conventions for their anthems. Most of them sound like something composed by Beethoven on a rather mediocre day. (You can spend an evening with friends playing the various anthems on YouTube and trying to guess which is which.) Even the lyrics are almost the same throughout the world, indicating common conceptions of politics and group loyalty. For example, to which nation do you think the following anthem belongs? (I changed only the country’s name into the generic ‘My country’):

My country, my homeland,

The land where I have shed my blood,

It is there I stand,

To be my motherland’s guard.

My country, my nation,

My people and my homeland,

Let us proclaim

‘My country unite!’

Long live my land, long live my state,

My nation, my homeland, in its entirety.

Build its soul, awaken its body,

For my great country!

My great country, independent and free

My home and my country which I love.

My great country, independent and free,

Long live my great country!

The answer is Indonesia. But would you have been surprised if I told you that the answer was actually Poland, Nigeria or Brazil?

National flags display the same dreary conformity. With a single exception, all flags are rectangular pieces of cloth marked by an extremely limited repertoire of colours, stripes and geometrical shapes. Nepal is the odd country out, with a flag consisting of two triangles. (But it has never won an Olympic medal.) The Indonesian flag consists of a red stripe above a white stripe. The Polish flag displays a white stripe above a red stripe. The flag of Monaco is identical to that of Indonesia. A colour-blind person could hardly tell the difference between the flags of Belgium, Chad, Ivory Coast, France, Guinea, Ireland, Italy, Mali and Romania – they all have three vertical stripes of various colours.

Some of these countries have been engaged in bitter war with one another, but during the tumultuous twentieth century only three Games were cancelled due to war (in 1916, 1940 and 1944). In 1980 the USA and some of its allies boycotted the Moscow Olympics, in 1984 the Soviet bloc boycotted the Los Angeles Games, and on several other occasions the Olympics found themselves at the centre of a political storm (most notably in 1936, when Nazi Berlin hosted the Games, and in 1972, when Palestinian terrorists massacred the Israeli delegation to the Munich Olympics). Yet on the whole, political controversies have not derailed the Olympic project.

Now let’s go back 1,000 years. Suppose you wanted to hold the Medieval Olympic Games in Rio in 1016. Forget for a moment that Rio was then a small village of Tupi Indians,12 and that Asians, Africans and Europeans were not even aware of America’s existence. Forget the logistical problems of bringing all the world’s top athletes to Rio in the absence of airplanes. Forget too that few sports were shared throughout the world, and even if all humans could run, not everybody could agree on the same rules for a running competition. Just ask yourself how to group the competing delegations. Today’s International Olympic Committee spends countless hours discussing the Taiwan question and the Palestine question. Multiply this by 10,000 to estimate the number of hours you would have to spend on the politics of the Medieval Olympics.

For starters, in 1016 the Chinese Song Empire recognised no political entity on earth as its equal. It would therefore be an unthinkable humiliation to give its Olympic delegation the same status as that granted to the delegations of the Korean kingdom of Koryo or of the Vietnamese kingdom of Dai Co Viet – not to mention the delegations of primitive barbarians from across the seas.

The caliph in Baghdad also claimed universal hegemony, and most Sunni Muslims recognised him as their supreme leader. In practical terms, however, the caliph barely ruled the city of Baghdad. So would all Sunni athletes be part of a single caliphate delegation, or would they be separated into dozens of delegations from the numerous emirates and sultanates of the Sunni world? But why stop with the emirates and sultanates? The Arabian Desert was teaming with free Bedouin tribes, who recognised no overlord save Allah. Would each be entitled to send an independent delegation to compete in archery or camel racing? Europe would give you any number of similar headaches. Would an athlete from the Norman town of Ivry compete under the banner of the local Count of Ivry, of his lord the Duke of Normandy, or perhaps of the feeble King of France?

Many of these political entities appeared and disappeared within a matter of years. As you made your preparations for the 1016 Olympics, you could not know in advance which delegations would show up, because nobody could be sure which political entities would still exist next year. If the kingdom of England had sent a delegation to the 1016 Olympics, by the time the athletes came home with their medals they would have discovered that the Danes had just captured London, and that England was being absorbed into the North Sea Empire of King Cnut the Great, together with Denmark, Norway and parts of Sweden. Within another twenty years, that empire disintegrated, but thirty years later England was conquered again, by the Duke of Normandy.

Needless to say, the vast majority of these ephemeral political entities had neither anthem to play nor flag to hoist. Political symbols were of great importance, of course, but the symbolic language of European politics was very different from the symbolic languages of Indonesian, Chinese or Tupi politics. Agreeing on a common protocol to mark victory would have been well-nigh impossible.

So when you watch the Tokyo Games in 2020, remember that this seeming competition between nations actually represents an astonishing global agreement. For all the national pride people feel when their delegation wins a gold medal and their flag is raised, there is far greater reason to feel pride that humankind is capable of organising such an event.

One dollar to rule them all

In premodern times humans have experimented not only with diverse political systems, but also with a mind-boggling variety of economic models. Russian boyars, Hindu maharajas, Chinese mandarins and Amerindian tribal chiefs had very different ideas about money, trade, taxation and employment. Nowadays, in contrast, almost everybody believes in slightly different variations on the same capitalist theme, and we are all cogs within a single global production line. Whether you live in Congo or Mongolia, in New Zealand or Bolivia, your daily routines and economic fortunes depend on the same economic theories, the same corporations and banks, and the same currents of capital. If the finance ministers of Israel and Iran were to meet for lunch, they would have a common economic language, and could easily understand and sympathise with each other’s woes.

When the Islamic State conquered large parts of Syria and Iraq, it murdered tens of thousands of people, demolished archaeological sites, toppled statues, and systematically destroyed the symbols of previous regimes and of Western cultural influence.13 But when its fighters entered the local banks and found there stashes of American dollars covered with the faces of American presidents and with slogans in English praising American political and religious ideals – they did not burn these symbols of American imperialism. For the dollar bill is universally venerated across all political and religious divides. Though it has no intrinsic value – you cannot eat or drink a dollar bill – trust in the dollar and in the wisdom of the Federal Reserve is so firm that it is shared even by Islamic fundamentalists, Mexican drug lords and North Korean tyrants.

Yet the homogeneity of contemporary humanity is most apparent when it comes to our view of the natural world and of the human body. If you fell sick a thousand years ago, it mattered a great deal where you lived. In Europe, the resident priest would probably tell you that you had made God angry, and that in order to regain your health, you should donate something to the church, make a pilgrimage to a sacred site, and pray fervently for God’s forgiveness. Alternatively, the village witch might explain that a demon had possessed you, and that she could cast the demon out using song, dance and the blood of a black cockerel.

In the Middle East, doctors brought up on classical traditions might explain that your four bodily humours were out of balance, and you should harmonise them with a proper diet and foul-smelling potions. In India, Ayurvedic experts would offer their own theories concerning the balance between the three bodily elements known as doshas, and recommend a treatment of herbs, massages and yoga postures. Chinese physicians, Siberian shamans, African witch doctors, Amerindian medicine men – every empire, kingdom and tribe had its own traditions and experts, each espousing different views about the human body and the nature of sickness, and each offering their own cornucopia of rituals, concoctions and cures. Some of them worked surprisingly well, whereas others were little short of a death sentence. The only thing that united European, Chinese, African and American medical practices was that everywhere at least a third of children died before reaching adulthood, and average life expectancy was far below fifty.14

Today, if you happen to be sick, it makes much less difference where you live. In Toronto, Tokyo, Tehran or Tel Aviv, you will be taken to similar-looking hospitals, where you will meet doctors in white coats who learned the same scientific theories in the same medical colleges. They will follow identical protocols and use identical tests to reach very similar diagnoses. They will then dispense the same medicines produced by the same international drug companies. There are still some minor cultural differences, but Canadian, Japanese, Iranian and Israeli physicians hold much the same views about the human body and human diseases. After the Islamic State captured Raqqa and Mosul, it did not tear down the local hospitals. Rather, it launched an appeal to Muslim doctors and nurses throughout the world to volunteer their services there.15 Presumably, even Islamist doctors and nurses believe that the body is made of cells, that diseases are caused by pathogens, and that antibiotics kill bacteria.

And what makes up these cells and bacteria? Indeed, what makes up the entire world? A thousand years ago every culture had its own story about the universe, and about the fundamental ingredients of the cosmic soup. Today, learned people throughout the world believe exactly the same things about matter, energy, time and space. Take for example the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programmes. The whole problem is that the Iranians and North Koreans have exactly the same view of physics as the Israelis and Americans. If the Iranians and North Koreans believed that E = mc⁴, Israel and the USA would not care an iota about their nuclear programmes.

People still have different religions and national identities. But when it comes to the practical stuff – how to build a state, an economy, a hospital, or a bomb – almost all of us belong to the same civilisation. There are disagreements, no doubt, but then all civilisations have their internal disputes. Indeed, they are defined by these disputes. When trying to outline their identity, people often make a grocery list of common traits. That’s a mistake. They would fare much better if they made a list of common conflicts and dilemmas. For example, in 1618 Europe didn’t have a single religious identity – it was defined by religious conflict. To be a European in 1618 meant to obsess about tiny doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants or between Calvinists and Lutherans, and to be willing to kill and be killed because of these differences. If a human being in 1618 did not care about these conflicts, that person was perhaps a Turk or a Hindu, but definitely not a European.

Similarly in 1940 Britain and Germany had very different political values, yet they were both part and parcel of ‘European Civilisation’. Hitler wasn’t less European than Churchill. Rather, the very struggle between them defined what it meant to be European at that particular juncture in history. In contrast, a !Kung hunter-gatherer in 1940 wasn’t European because the internal European clash about race and empire would have made little sense to him.

The people we fight most often are our own family members. Identity is defined by conflicts and dilemmas more than by agreements. What does it mean to be European in 2018? It doesn’t mean to have white skin, to believe in Jesus Christ, or to uphold liberty. Rather, it means to argue vehemently about immigration, about the EU, and about the limits of capitalism. It also means to obsessively ask yourself ‘what defines my identity?’ and to worry about an ageing population, about rampant consumerism and about global warming. In their conflicts and dilemmas, twenty-first-century Europeans are different from their ancestors in 1618 and 1940, but are increasingly similar to their Chinese and Indian trade partners.

Whatever changes await us in the future, they are likely to involve a fraternal struggle within a single civilisation rather than a clash between alien civilisations. The big challenges of the twenty-first century will be global in nature. What will happen when climate change triggers ecological catastrophes? What will happen when computers outperform humans in more and more tasks, and replace them in an increasing number of jobs? What will happen when biotechnology enables us to upgrade humans and extend lifespans? No doubt, we will have huge arguments and bitter conflicts over these questions. But these arguments and conflicts are unlikely to isolate us from one another. Just the opposite. They will make us ever more interdependent. Though humankind is very far from constituting a harmonious community, we are all members of a single rowdy global civilisation.

How, then, to explain the nationalistic wave sweeping over much of the world? Perhaps in our enthusiasm for globalisation, we have been too quick to dismiss the good old nations? Might a return to traditional nationalism be the solution to our desperate global crises? If globalisation brings with it so many problems – why not just abandon it?



	About the Book

	About the Author

	Also by Yuval Noah Harari


	Title Page


	Part I: The Technological Challenge

	1. Disillusionment: The end of history has been postponed

	2. Work: When you grow up, you might not have a job

	3. Liberty: Big Data is watching you

	4. Equality: Those who own the data own the future

	Part II: The Political Challenge

	5. Community: Humans have bodies

	6. Civilisation: There is just one civilisation in the world

	7. Nationalism: Global problems need global answers

	8. Religion: God now serves the nation

	9. Immigration: Some cultures might be better than others

	Part III: Despair and Hope

	10. Terrorism: Don’t panic

	11. War: Never underestimate human stupidity

	12. Humility: You are not the centre of the world

	13. God: Don’t take the name of God in vain

	14. Secularism: Acknowledge your shadow

	Part IV: Truth

	15. Ignorance: You know less than you think

	16. Justice: Our sense of justice might be out of date

	17. Post-Truth: Some fake news lasts for ever

	18. Science Fiction: The future is not what you see in the movies

	Part V: Resilience

	19. Education: Change is the only constant

	20. Meaning: Life is not a story

	21. Meditation: Just observe











Acknowledge your shadow

What does it mean to be secular? Secularism is sometimes defined as the negation of religion, and secular people are therefore characterised by what they don’t believe and do. According to this definition, secular people do not believe in any gods or angels, do not go to churches and temples, and do not perform rites and rituals. As such, the secular world appears to be hollow, nihilistic and amoral – an empty box waiting to be filled with something.

Few people would adopt such a negative identity. Self-professing secularists view secularism in a very different way. For them, secularism is a very positive and active world view, which is defined by a coherent code of values rather than by opposition to this or that religion. Indeed, many of the secular values are shared by various religious traditions. Unlike some sects that insist they have a monopoly over all wisdom and goodness, one of the chief characteristics of secular people is that they claim no such monopoly. They don’t think that morality and wisdom came down from heaven in one particular place and time. Rather, morality and wisdom are the natural legacy of all humans. So it is only to be expected that at least some values would pop up in human societies all over the world, and would be common to Muslims, Christians, Hindus and atheists.

Religious leaders often present their followers with a stark either/or choice – either you are Muslim, or you are not. And if you are Muslim, you should reject all other doctrines. In contrast, secular people are comfortable with multiple hybrid identities. As far as secularism is concerned, you can go on calling yourself a Muslim and continuing to pray to Allah, eat halal food and make the haj to Mecca – yet also be a good member of secular society, provided you adhere to the secular ethical code. This ethical code – which is indeed accepted by millions of Muslims, Christians and Hindus as well as by atheists – enshrines the values of truth, compassion, equality, freedom, courage and responsibility. It forms the foundation of modern scientific and democratic institutions.

Like all ethical codes, the secular code is an ideal to aspire to rather than a social reality. Just as Christian societies and Christian institutions often deviate from the Christian ideal, so too secular societies and institutions often fall far short of the secular ideal. Medieval France was a self-proclaimed Christian kingdom, but it dabbled in all kinds of not-very-Christian activities (just ask the downtrodden peasantry). Modern France is a self-proclaimed secular state, but from the days of Robespierre onwards it took some troubling liberties with the very definition of liberty (just ask women). That does not mean that secular people – in France or elsewhere – lack a moral compass or an ethical commitment. It just means that it is not easy to live up to an ideal.

The secular ideal

What then is the secular ideal? The most important secular commitment is to the truth, which is based on observation and evidence rather than on mere faith. Seculars strive not to confuse truth with belief. If you have a very strong belief in some story, that may tell us a lot of interesting things about your psychology, about your childhood, and about your brain structure – but it does not prove that the story is true. (Often, strong beliefs are needed precisely when the story isn’t true.)

In addition, seculars do not sanctify any group, any person or any book as if it and it alone has sole custody of the truth. Instead, secular people sanctify the truth wherever it may reveal itself – in ancient fossilised bones, in images of far-off galaxies, in tables of statistical data, or in the writings of various human traditions. This commitment to the truth underlies modern science, which has enabled humankind to split the atom, decipher the genome, track the evolution of life, and understand the history of humanity itself.

The other chief commitment of secular people is to compassion. Secular ethics relies not on obeying the edicts of this or that god, but rather on a deep appreciation of suffering. For example, secular people abstain from murder not because some ancient book forbids it, but because killing inflicts immense suffering on sentient beings. There is something deeply troubling and dangerous about people who avoid killing just because ‘God says so’. Such people are motivated by obedience rather than compassion, and what will they do if they come to believe that their god commands them to kill heretics, witches, adulterers or foreigners?

Of course, in the absence of absolute divine commandments, secular ethics often faces difficult dilemmas. What happens when the same action hurts one person but helps another? Is it ethical to levy high taxes on the rich in order to help the poor? To wage a bloody war in order to remove a brutal dictator? To allow an unlimited number of refugees into our country? When secular people encounter such dilemmas, they do not ask ‘What does God command?’ Rather, they weigh carefully the feelings of all concerned parties, examine a wide range of observations and possibilities, and search for a middle path that will cause as little harm as possible.

Consider, for example, attitudes to sexuality. How do secular people decide whether to endorse or oppose rape, homosexuality, bestiality and incest? By examining feelings. Rape is obviously unethical, not because it breaks some divine commandment, but because it hurts people. In contrast, a loving relationship between two men harms no one, so there is no reason to forbid it.

What then about bestiality? I have participated in numerous private and public debates about gay marriage, and all too often some wise guy asks ‘If marriage between two men is OK, why not allow marriage between a man and a goat?’ From a secular perspective the answer is obvious. Healthy relationships require emotional, intellectual and even spiritual depth. A marriage lacking such depth will make you frustrated, lonely and psychologically stunted. Whereas two men can certainly satisfy the emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs of one another, a relationship with a goat cannot. Hence if you see marriage as an institution aimed at promoting human well-being – as secular people do – you would not dream of even raising such a bizarre question. Only people who see marriage as some kind of miraculous ritual might do so.

So how about relations between a father and his daughter? Both are humans, so what’s wrong with that? Well, numerous psychological studies have demonstrated that such relations inflict immense and usually irreparable harm on the child. In addition, they reflect and intensify destructive tendencies in the parent. Evolution has shaped the Sapiens psyche in such a way that romantic bonds just don’t mix well with parental bonds. Therefore you don’t need God or the Bible to oppose incest – you just need to read the relevant psychological studies.1

This is the deep reason why secular people cherish scientific truth. Not in order to satisfy their curiosity, but in order to know how best to reduce the suffering in the world. Without the guidance of scientific studies, our compassion is often blind.

The twin commitments to truth and compassion result also in a commitment to equality. Though opinions differ regarding questions of economic and political equality, secular people are fundamentally suspicious of all a priori hierarchies. Suffering is suffering, no matter who experiences it; and knowledge is knowledge, no matter who discovers it. Privileging the experiences or the discoveries of a particular nation, class or gender is likely to make us both callous and ignorant. Secular people are certainly proud of the uniqueness of their particular nation, country and culture – but they don’t confuse ‘uniqueness’ with ‘superiority’. Hence though secular people acknowledge their special duties towards their nation and their country, they don’t think these duties are exclusive, and they simultaneously acknowledge their duties towards humanity as a whole.

We cannot search for the truth and for the way out of suffering without the freedom to think, investigate, and experiment. Secular people cherish freedom, and refrain from investing supreme authority in any text, institution or leader as the ultimate judge of what’s true and what’s right. Humans should always retain the freedom to doubt, to check again, to hear a second opinion, to try a different path. Secular people admire Galileo Galilei who dared to question whether the earth really sits motionless at the centre of the universe; they admire the masses of common people who stormed the Bastille in 1789 and brought down the despotic regime of Louis XVI; and they admire Rosa Parks who had the courage to sit down on a bus seat reserved for white passengers only.

It takes a lot of courage to fight biases and oppressive regimes, but it takes even greater courage to admit ignorance and venture into the unknown. Secular education teaches us that if we don’t know something, we shouldn’t be afraid of acknowledging our ignorance and looking for new evidence. Even if we think we know something, we shouldn’t be afraid of doubting our opinions and checking ourselves again. Many people are afraid of the unknown, and want clear-cut answers for every question. Fear of the unknown can paralyse us more than any tyrant. People throughout history worried that unless we put all our faith in some set of absolute answers, human society will crumble. In fact, modern history has demonstrated that a society of courageous people willing to admit ignorance and raise difficult questions is usually not just more prosperous but also more peaceful than societies in which everyone must unquestioningly accept a single answer. People afraid of losing their truth tend to be more violent than people who are used to looking at the world from several different viewpoints. Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.

Finally, secular people cherish responsibility. They don’t believe in any higher power that takes care of the world, punishes the wicked, rewards the just, and protects us from famine, plague or war. We flesh-and-blood mortals must take full responsibility for whatever we do – or don’t do. If the world is full of misery, it is our duty to find solutions. Secular people take pride in the immense achievements of modern societies, such as curing epidemics, feeding the hungry, and bringing peace to large parts of the world. We need not credit any divine protector with these achievements – they resulted from humans developing their own knowledge and compassion. Yet for exactly the same reason, we need to take full responsibility for the crimes and failings of modernity, from genocides to ecological degradation. Instead of praying for miracles, we need to ask what we can do to help.

These are the chief values of the secular world. As noted earlier, none of these values is exclusively secular. Jews also value the truth, Christians value compassion, Muslims value equality, Hindus value responsibility, and so forth. Secular societies and institutions are happy to acknowledge these links and to embrace religious Jews, Christians, Muslims and Hindus, provided that when the secular code collides with religious doctrine, the latter gives way. For example, to be accepted into secular society, Orthodox Jews are expected to treat non-Jews as their equals, Christians should avoid burning heretics at the stake, Muslims must respect freedom of expression, and Hindus ought to relinquish caste-based discrimination.

In contrast, there is no expectation that religious people should deny God or abandon traditional rites and rituals. The secular world judges people on the basis of their behaviour rather than of their favourite clothes and ceremonies. A person can follow the most bizarre sectarian dress code and practise the strangest of religious ceremonies, yet act out of a deep commitment to the core secular values. There are plenty of Jewish scientists, Christian environmentalists, Muslim feminists and Hindu human-rights activists. If they are loyal to scientific truth, to compassion, to equality and to freedom, they are full members of the secular world, and there is absolutely no reason to demand that they take off their yarmulkes, crosses, hijabs or tilakas.

For similar reasons, secular education does not mean a negative indoctrination that teaches kids not to believe in God and not to take part in any religious ceremonies. Rather, secular education teaches children to distinguish truth from belief; to develop their compassion for all suffering beings; to appreciate the wisdom and experiences of all the earth’s denizens; to think freely without fearing the unknown; and to take responsibility for their actions and for the world as a whole.

Was Stalin secular?

It is therefore groundless to criticise secularism for lacking ethical commitments or social responsibilities. In fact, the main problem with secularism is just the opposite. It probably sets the ethical bar too high. Most people just cannot live up to such a demanding code, and large societies cannot be run on the basis of the open-ended quest for truth and compassion. Especially in times of emergency – such as war or economic crisis – societies must act promptly and forcefully, even if they are not sure what is the truth and what is the most compassionate thing to do. They need clear guidelines, catchy slogans and inspiring battle cries. Since it is difficult to send soldiers into battle or impose radical economic reforms in the name of doubtful conjectures, secular movements repeatedly mutate into dogmatic creeds.

For example, Karl Marx began by claiming that all religions were oppressive frauds, and he encouraged his followers to investigate for themselves the true nature of the global order. In the following decades the pressures of revolution and war hardened Marxism, and by the time of Stalin the official line of the Soviet Communist Party said that the global order was too complicated for ordinary people to understand, hence it was best always to trust the wisdom of the party and do whatever it told you to do, even when it orchestrated the imprisonment and extermination of tens of millions of innocent people. It may look ugly, but as party ideologues never got tired of explaining, revolution isn’t a picnic, and if you want an omelette you need to break a few eggs.

Whether one should view Stalin as a secular leader is therefore a matter of how we define secularism. If we use the minimalist negative definition – ‘secular people don’t believe in God’ – then Stalin was definitely secular. If we use a positive definition – ‘secular people reject all unscientific dogmas and are committed to truth, compassion and freedom’ – then Marx was a secular luminary, but Stalin was anything but. He was the prophet of the godless but extremely dogmatic religion of Stalinism.

Stalinism is not an isolated example. On the other side of the political spectrum, capitalism too began as a very open-minded scientific theory, but gradually solidified into a dogma. Many capitalists keep repeating the mantra of free markets and economic growth, irrespective of realities on the ground. No matter what awful consequences occasionally result from modernisation, industrialisation or privatisation, capitalist true-believers dismiss them as mere ‘growing pains’, and promise that everything will be made good through a bit more growth.

Middle-of-the-road liberal democrats have been more loyal to the secular pursuit of truth and compassion, but even they sometimes abandon it in favour of comforting dogmas. Thus when confronted by the mess of brutal dictatorships and failed states, liberals often put their unquestioning faith in the awesome ritual of general elections. They fight wars and spend billions in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan and the Congo in the firm belief that holding general elections will magically turn these places into sunnier versions of Denmark. This despite repeated failures, and despite the fact that even in places with an established tradition of general elections these rituals occasionally bring to power authoritarian populists, and result in nothing grander than majority dictatorships. If you try to question the alleged wisdom of general elections, you won’t be sent to the gulag, but you are likely to get a very cold shower of dogmatic abuse.

Of course, not all dogmas are equally harmful. Just as some religious beliefs have benefited humanity, so also have some secular dogmas. This is particularly true of the doctrine of human rights. The only place rights exist is in the stories humans invent and tell one another. These stories were enshrined as a self-evident dogma during the struggle against religious bigotry and autocratic governments. Though it isn’t true that humans have a natural right to life or liberty, belief in this story curbed the power of authoritarian regimes, protected minorities from harm, and safeguarded billions from the worst consequences of poverty and violence. It thereby contributed to the happiness and welfare of humanity probably more than any other doctrine in history.

Yet it is still a dogma. Thus article 19 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights says that ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression’. If we understand this is a political demand (‘everyone should have the right to freedom of opinion’), this is perfectly sensible. But if we believe that each and every Sapiens is naturally endowed with a ‘right to freedom of opinion’, and that censorship therefore violates some law of nature, we miss the truth about humanity. As long as you define yourself as ‘an individual possessing inalienable natural rights’, you will not know who you really are, and you will not understand the historical forces that shaped your society and your own mind (including your belief in ‘natural rights’).

Such ignorance perhaps mattered little in the twentieth century, when people were busy fighting Hitler and Stalin. But it might become fatal in the twenty-first century, because biotechnology and artificial intelligence now seek to change the very meaning of humanity. If we are committed to the right to life, does that imply we should use biotechnology to overcome death? If we are committed to the right to liberty, should we empower algorithms that decipher and fulfil our hidden desires? If all humans enjoy equal human rights, do superhumans enjoy super-rights? Secular people will find it difficult to engage with such questions as long as they are committed to a dogmatic belief in ‘human rights’.

The dogma of human rights was shaped in previous centuries as a weapon against the Inquisition, the ancien régime, the Nazis and the KKK. It is hardly equipped to deal with superhumans, cyborgs and super-intelligent computers. While human rights movements have developed a very impressive arsenal of arguments and defences against religious biases and human tyrants, this arsenal hardly protects us against consumerist excesses and technological utopias.

Acknowledging the shadow

Secularism should not be equated with Stalinist dogmatism or with the bitter fruits of Western imperialism and runaway industrialisation. Yet it cannot shirk all responsibility for them, either. Secular movements and scientific institutions have mesmerised billions with promises to perfect humanity and to utilise the bounty of planet Earth for the benefit of our species. Such promises resulted not just in overcoming plagues and famines, but also in gulags and melting ice caps. You might well argue that this is all the fault of people misunderstanding and distorting the core secular ideals and the true facts of science. And you are absolutely right. But that is a common problem for all influential movements.

For example, Christianity has been responsible for great crimes such as the Inquisition, the Crusades, the oppression of native cultures across the world, and the disempowerment of women. A Christian might take offence at this and retort that all these crimes resulted from a complete misunderstanding of Christianity. Jesus preached only love, and the Inquisition was based on a horrific distortion of his teachings. We can sympathise with this claim, but it would be a mistake to let Christianity off the hook so easily. Christians appalled by the Inquisition and by the Crusades cannot just wash their hands of these atrocities – they should rather ask themselves some very tough questions. How exactly did their ‘religion of love’ allow itself to be distorted in such a way, and not once, but numerous times? Protestants who try to blame it all on Catholic fanaticism are advised to read a book about the behaviour of Protestant colonists in Ireland or in North America. Similarly, Marxists should ask themselves what it was about the teachings of Marx that paved the way to the Gulag, scientists should consider how the scientific project lent itself so easily to destabilising the global ecosystem, and geneticists in particular should take warning from the way the Nazis hijacked Darwinian theories.

Every religion, ideology and creed has its shadow, and no matter which creed you follow you should acknowledge your shadow and avoid the naïve reassurance that ‘it cannot happen to us’. Secular science has at least one big advantage over most traditional religions, namely that it is not terrified of its shadow, and it is in principle willing to admit its mistakes and blind spots. If you believe in an absolute truth revealed by a transcendent power, you cannot allow yourself to admit any error – for that would nullify your whole story. But if you believe in a quest for truth by fallible humans, admitting blunders is an inherent part of the game.

This is also why undogmatic secular movements tend to make relatively modest promises. Aware of their imperfections, they hope to effect small incremental changes, raising the minimum wage by a few dollars or reducing child mortality by a few percentage points. It is the mark of dogmatic ideologies that due to their excessive self-confidence they routinely vow the impossible. Their leaders speak all too freely about ‘eternity’, ‘purity’ and ‘redemption’, as if by enacting some law, building some temple, or conquering some piece of territory they could save the entire world in one grand gesture.

As we come to make the most important decisions in the history of life, I personally would trust more in those who admit ignorance than in those who claim infallibility. If you want your religion, ideology or world view to lead the world, my first question to you is: ‘What was the biggest mistake your religion, ideology or world view committed? What did it get wrong?’ If you cannot come up with something serious, I for one would not trust you.

This ebook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorized distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

Epub ISBN: 9781473554719

Version 1.0

1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2

20 Vauxhall Bridge Road,
London SW1V 2SA

Vintage is part of the Penguin Random House group of companies whose addresses can be found at global.penguinrandomhouse.com

[image: penguin logo]

Copyright © Yuval Noah Harari 2018
Cover painting from the series We Share Our Chemistry with the Stars, Marc Quinn, oil on canvas, © and courtesy Marc Quinn studio
Design © Suzanne Dean

Yuval Noah Harari has asserted his right to be identified as the author of this Work in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

First published by Jonathan Cape in 2018


A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library



Never underestimate human stupidity

The last few decades have been the most peaceful era in human history. Whereas in early agricultural societies human violence caused up to 15 per cent of all human deaths, and in the twentieth century it caused 5 per cent, today it is responsible for only 1 per cent.1 Yet since the global financial crisis of 2008 the international situation is rapidly deteriorating, warmongering is back in vogue, and military expenditure is ballooning.2 Both laypeople and experts fear that just as in 1914 the murder of an Austrian archduke sparked the First World War, so in 2018 some incident in the Syrian desert or an unwise move in the Korean peninsula might ignite a global conflict.

Given the growing tensions in the world, and the personalities of leaders in Washington, Pyongyang and several other places, there is definitely cause for concern. Yet there are several key differences between 2018 and 1914. In particular, in 1914 war had great appeal to elites across the world because they had many concrete examples of how successful wars contributed to economic prosperity and political power. In contrast, in 2018 successful wars seem to be an endangered species.

From the days of the Assyrians and the Qin, great empires were usually built through violent conquest. In 1914 too, all the major powers owed their status to successful wars. For instance, Imperial Japan became a regional power thanks to its victories over China and Russia; Germany became Europe’s top dog after its triumphs over Austria-Hungary and France; and Britain created the world’s largest and most prosperous empire through a series of splendid little wars all over the planet. Thus in 1882 Britain invaded and occupied Egypt, losing a mere fifty-seven soldiers in the decisive Battle of Tel el-Kebir.3 Whereas in our days occupying a Muslim country is the stuff of Western nightmares, following Tel el-Kebir the British faced little armed resistance, and for more than six decades controlled the Nile Valley and the vital Suez Canal. Other European powers emulated the British, and whenever governments in Paris, Rome or Brussels contemplated putting boots on the ground in Vietnam, Libya or Congo, their only fear was that somebody else might get there first.

Even the United States owed its great-power status to military action rather than economic enterprise alone. In 1846 it invaded Mexico, and conquered California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and parts of Colorado, Kansas, Wyoming and Oklahoma. The peace treaty also confirmed the previous US annexation of Texas. About 13,000 American soldiers died in the war, which added 2.3 million square kilometres to the United States (more than the combined size of France, Britain, Germany, Spain and Italy).4 It was the bargain of the millennium.

In 1914 the elites in Washington, London and Berlin knew exactly what a successful war looked like, and how much could be gained from it. In contrast, in 2018 global elites have good reason to suspect that this type of war might have become extinct. Though some Third World dictators and non-state actors still manage to flourish through war, it seems that major powers no longer know how to do so.

The greatest victory in living memory – of the United States over the Soviet Union – was achieved without any major military confrontation. The United States then got a fleeting taste of old-fashioned military glory in the First Gulf War, but this only tempted it to waste trillions on humiliating military fiascos in Iraq and Afghanistan. China, the rising power of the early twenty-first century, has assiduously avoided all armed conflicts since its failed invasion of Vietnam in 1979, and it owes its ascent strictly to economic factors. In this it has emulated not the Japanese, German and Italian empires of the pre-1914 era, but rather the Japanese, German and Italian economic miracles of the post-1945 era. In all these cases economic prosperity and geopolitical clout were achieved without firing a shot.

Even in the Middle East – the fighting ring of the world – regional powers don’t know how to wage successful wars. Iran gained nothing from the long bloodbath of the Iran–Iraq War, and subsequently avoided all direct military confrontations. The Iranians finance and arm local movements from Iraq to Yemen, and have sent their Revolutionary Guards to help their allies in Syria and Lebanon, but so far they have been careful not to invade any country. Iran has recently become the regional hegemon not by dint of any brilliant battlefield victory, but rather by default. Its two main enemies – the USA and Iraq – got embroiled in a war that destroyed both Iraq and the American appetite for Middle Eastern quagmires, thereby leaving Iran to enjoy the spoils.

Much the same can be said of Israel. Its last successful war was waged in 1967. Since then Israel prospered despite its many wars, not thanks to them. Most of its occupied territories saddle it with heavy economic burdens and crippling political liabilities. Much like Iran, Israel has lately improved its geopolitical position not by waging successful wars, but by avoiding military adventures. While war has ravaged Israel’s erstwhile enemies in Iraq, Syria and Libya, Israel has remained aloof. Not getting sucked into the Syrian civil war has arguably been Netanyahu’s greatest political achievement (as of March 2018). If it wanted to, the Israel Defense Forces could have seized Damascus within a week, but what would Israel have gained from that? It would be even easier for the IDF to conquer Gaza and topple the Hamas regime, but Israel has repeatedly declined to do so. For all its military prowess and for all the hawkish rhetoric of Israeli politicians, Israel knows there is little to be won from war. Like the USA, China, Germany, Japan and Iran, Israel seems to understand that in the twenty-first century the most successful strategy is to sit on the fence and let others do the fighting for you.

The view from the Kremlin

So far the only successful invasion mounted by a major power in the twenty-first century has been the Russian conquest of Crimea. In February 2014 Russian forces invaded neighbouring Ukraine and occupied the Crimean peninsula, which was subsequently annexed to Russia. With hardly any fighting, Russia gained strategically vital territory, struck fear into its neighbours, and re-established itself as a world power. However, the conquest succeeded thanks to an extraordinary set of circumstances. Neither the Ukrainian army nor the local population showed much resistance to the Russians, while other powers refrained from directly intervening in the crisis. These circumstances will be hard to reproduce elsewhere around the world. If the precondition for a successful war is the absence of enemies willing to resist the aggressor, it seriously limits the available opportunities.

Indeed, when Russia sought to reproduce its Crimean success in other parts of Ukraine, it encountered substantially stiffer opposition, and the war in eastern Ukraine bogged down into unproductive stalemate. Even worse (from Moscow’s perspective), the war has stoked anti-Russian feelings in Ukraine and turned that country from an ally into a sworn enemy. Just as success in the First Gulf War tempted the USA to overreach itself in Iraq, success in Crimea may have tempted Russia to overreach itself in Ukraine.

Taken together, Russia’s wars in the Caucasus and Ukraine in the early twenty-first century can hardly be described as very successful. Though they have boosted Russia’s prestige as a great power, they have also increased distrust and animosity towards Russia, and in economic terms they have been a losing enterprise. Tourist resorts in Crimea and decrepit Soviet-era factories in Luhansk and Donetsk hardly balance the price of financing the war, and they certainly do not offset the costs of capital flight and international sanctions. To realise the limitations of the Russian policy, one just needs to compare the immense economic progress of peaceful China in the last twenty years to the economic stagnation of ‘victorious’ Russia during the same period.5

The brave talk from Moscow notwithstanding, the Russian elite itself is probably well aware of the real costs and benefits of its military adventures, which is why it has so far been very careful not to escalate them. Russia has been following the playground-bully principle: ‘pick on the weakest kid, and don’t beat him up too much, lest the teacher intervenes’. If Putin had conducted his wars in the spirit of Stalin, Peter the Great or Genghis Khan, then Russian tanks would have long ago made a dash for Tbilisi and Kyiv, if not for Warsaw and Berlin. But Putin is neither Genghis nor Stalin. He seems to know better than anyone else that military power cannot go far in the twenty-first century, and that waging a successful war means waging a limited war. Even in Syria, despite the ruthlessness of Russian aerial bombardments, Putin has been careful to minimise the Russian footprint, to let others do all the serious fighting, and to prevent the war from spilling over into neighbouring countries.

Indeed, from Russia’s perspective, all its supposedly aggressive moves in recent years were not the opening gambits of a new global war, but rather an attempt to shore up exposed defences. Russians can justifiably point out that after their peaceful retreats in the late 1980s and early 1990s they were treated like a defeated enemy. The USA and NATO took advantage of Russian weakness, and despite promises to the contrary, expanded NATO to eastern Europe and even to some former Soviet republics. The West went on to ignore Russian interests in the Middle East, invaded Serbia and Iraq on doubtful pretexts, and generally made it very clear to Russia that it can count only on its own military power to protect its sphere of influence from Western incursions. From this perspective, recent Russian military moves can be blamed on Bill Clinton and George W. Bush as much as on Vladimir Putin.

Of course, Russian military actions in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria may yet turn out to be the opening salvoes of a far bolder imperial drive. Even if so far Putin has not harboured serious plans for global conquests, success might fan his ambitions. However, it would also be well to remember that Putin’s Russia is far weaker than Stalin’s USSR, and unless it is joined by other countries such as China, it cannot support a new Cold War, let alone a full-blown world war. Russia has a population of 150 million people and a GDP of $4 trillion. In both population and production it is dwarfed by the USA (325 million people and $19 trillion) and the European Union (500 million people and $21 trillion).6 Together, the USA and EU have five times more people than Russia, and ten times more dollars.

Recent technological developments have made this gap even bigger than it seems. The USSR reached its zenith in the mid twentieth century, when heavy industry was the locomotive of the global economy, and the Soviet centralised system excelled in the mass production of tractors, trucks, tanks and intercontinental missiles. Today, information technology and biotechnology are more important than heavy industry, but Russia excels in neither. Though it has impressive cyberwarfare capabilities, it lacks a civilian IT sector, and its economy relies overwhelmingly on natural resources, particularly oil and gas. This may be good enough to enrich a few oligarchs and keep Putin in power, but it is not enough to win a digital or biotechnological arms race.

Even more importantly, Putin’s Russia lacks a universal ideology. During the Cold War the USSR relied on the global appeal of communism as much as on the global reach of the Red Army. Putinism, in contrast, has little to offer Cubans, Vietnamese or French intellectuals. Authoritarian nationalism may indeed be spreading in the world, but by its very nature it is not conducive to the establishment of cohesive international blocs. Whereas Polish communism and Russian communism were both committed, at least in theory, to the universal interests of an international working class, Polish nationalism and Russian nationalism are by definition committed to opposing interests. As Putin’s rise sparks an upsurge of Polish nationalism, this will only make Poland more anti-Russian than before.

Though Russia has embarked on a global campaign of disinformation and subversion that aims to break up NATO and the EU, it does not seem likely that it is about to embark on a global campaign of physical conquest. One can hope – with some justification – that the takeover of Crimea and the Russian incursions in Georgia and eastern Ukraine will remain isolated examples rather than harbingers of a new era of war.

The lost art of winning wars

Why is it so difficult for major powers to wage successful wars in the twenty-first century? One reason is the change in the nature of the economy. In the past, economic assets were mostly material, so it was relatively straightforward to enrich yourself by conquest. If you defeated your enemies on the battlefield, you could cash in by looting their cities, selling their civilians in the slave markets, and occupying valuable wheat fields and gold mines. Romans prospered by selling captive Greeks and Gauls, and nineteenth-century Americans thrived by occupying the gold mines of California and the cattle ranches of Texas.

Yet in the twenty-first century only puny profits can be made that way. Today the main economic assets consist of technical and institutional knowledge rather than wheat fields, gold mines or even oil fields, and you just cannot conquer knowledge through war. An organisation such as the Islamic State may still flourish by looting cities and oil wells in the Middle East – they seized more than $500 million from Iraqi banks and in 2015 made an additional $500 million from selling oil7 – but for a major power such as China or the USA, these are trifling sums. With an annual GDP of more than $20 trillion, China is unlikely to start a war for a paltry billion. As for spending trillions of dollars on a war against the USA, how could China repay these expenses and balance all the war damages and lost trade opportunities? Would the victorious People’s Liberation Army loot the riches of Silicon Valley? True, corporations such as Apple, Facebook and Google are worth hundreds of billions of dollars, but you cannot seize these fortunes by force. There are no silicon mines in Silicon Valley.

A successful war could theoretically still bring huge profits by enabling the victor to rearrange the global trade system in its favour, as Britain did after its victory over Napoleon and as the USA did after its victory over Hitler. However, changes in military technology make it difficult to repeat this feat in the twenty-first century. The atom bomb has turned victory in a world war into collective suicide. It is no coincidence that ever since Hiroshima, superpowers never fought one another directly, and engaged only in what (for them) were low-stake conflicts, in which the temptation to use nuclear weapons to avert defeat was small. Indeed, even attacking a second-rate nuclear power such as North Korea is an extremely unattractive proposition. It is scary to think what the Kim family might do if it faces military defeat.

Cyberwarfare makes things even worse for would-be imperialists. In the good old days of Queen Victoria and the Maxim gun, the British army could massacre the fuzzy-wuzzies in some far-off desert without endangering the peace of Manchester and Birmingham. Even in the days of George W. Bush, the USA could wreak havoc in Baghdad and Fallujah while the Iraqis had no means of retaliating against San Francisco or Chicago. But if the USA now attacks a country possessing even moderate cyberwarfare capabilities, the war could be brought to California or Illinois within minutes. Malwares and logic bombs could stop air traffic in Dallas, cause trains to collide in Philadelphia, and bring down the electric grid in Michigan.

In the great age of conquerors warfare was a low-damage, high-profit affair. At the Battle of Hastings in 1066 William the Conqueror gained the whole of England in a single day for the cost of a few thousand dead. Nuclear weapons and cyberwarfare, by contrast, are high-damage, low-profit technologies. You could use such tools to destroy entire countries, but not to build profitable empires.

In a world filling up with sabre-rattling and bad vibes, perhaps our best guarantee of peace is that major powers aren’t familiar with recent examples of successful wars. While Genghis Khan or Julius Caesar would invade a foreign country at the drop of a hat, present-day nationalist leaders such as Erdogan, Modi and Netanyahu talk loud but are very careful about actually launching wars. Of course, if somebody does find a formula to wage successful wars under twenty-first-century conditions, the gates of hell might open with a rush. This is what makes the Russian success in Crimea a particularly frightening omen. Let’s hope it remains an exception.

The march of folly

Alas, even if wars remain an unprofitable business in the twenty-first century, that would not give us an absolute guarantee of peace. We should never underestimate human stupidity. Both on the personal and on the collective level, humans are prone to engage in self-destructive activities.

In 1939 war was probably a counterproductive move for the Axis powers – yet it did not save the world. One of the astounding things about the Second World War is that following the war the defeated powers prospered as never before. Twenty years after the complete annihilation of their armies and the utter collapse of their empires, Germans, Italians and Japanese were enjoying unprecedented levels of affluence. Why, then, did they go to war in the first place? Why did they inflict unnecessary death and destruction on countless millions? It was all just a stupid miscalculation. In the 1930s Japanese generals, admirals, economists and journalists concurred that without control of Korea, Manchuria and the Chinese coast, Japan was doomed to economic stagnation.8 They were all wrong. In fact, the famed Japanese economic miracle began only after Japan lost all its mainland conquests.

Human stupidity is one of the most important forces in history, yet we often discount it. Politicians, generals and scholars treat the world as a great chess game, where every move follows careful rational calculations. This is correct up to a point. Few leaders in history have been mad in the narrow sense of the word, moving pawns and knights at random. General Tojo, Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong-il had rational reasons for every move they played. The problem is that the world is far more complicated than a