Here in the United States it's our misfortune to be suffering through a president who blabs incessantly about "fake news." Which, in his addled mind, means any news that tells the truth about the lies, misdeeds, and unwise policies being foisted on Americans by Donald Trump and his cronies.
But historian Yuval Noah Harari talks about a different sort of fake news in his third book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. As noted in a recent post of mine that included some quotes from Harari's new book, I liked his first books (Sapiens and Homo Deus).
This offering from Harari strikes me as even better than his first two. Harari is a marvelously clear thinker with a knack for making complex ideas seem appealingly simple. When I read him, I'm constantly saying to myself, I knew this, but I didn't know that I knew it until Harari pointed it out.
Here's an excerpt from the "Post-Truth" chapter in 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.
You'll see that while Harari considers all religions to be in the business of promulgating fictions, he recognizes that these can be useful fictions. Obviously that doesn't make them true. Just useful.
In fact, humans have always lived in the age of post-truth. Homo sapiens is a post-truth species, whose power depends on creating and believing fictions. Ever since the Stone Age, self-reinforcing myths have served to unite human collectives.
Indeed, Homo sapiens conquered this planet thanks above all to the unique human ability to create and spread fictions. We are the only mammals that can cooperate with numerous strangers because only we can invent fictional stories, spread them around, and convince millions of others to believe in them
As long as everybody believes in the same fictions, we all obey the same laws and can thereby cooperate effectively.
So if you blame Facebook, Trump, or Putin for ushering in a a new and frightening era of post-truth, remind yourself that centuries ago millions of Christians locked themselves into a self-reinforcing mythological bubble, never daring to question the factual veracity of the Bible, while millions of Muslims put their unquestioning faith in the Quran.
For millennia, much of what passed for "news" and "facts" in human social networks were stories about miracles, angels, demons, and witches, with bold reporters giving live coverage straight from the deepest pits of the underworld.
We have zero scientific evidence that Eve was tempted by the serpent, that the souls of all infidels burn in hell after they die, or that the creator of the universe doesn't like it when a Brahmin marries a Dalit -- yet billions of people have believed in these stories for thousands of years.
Some fake news lasts forever.
I am aware that many people might be upset by my equating religion with fake news, but that's exactly the point. When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one month, that's fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years, that's a religion, and we are admonished not to call it "fake news" in order not to hurt the feelings of the faithful (or incur their wrath).
Note, however, that I am not denying the effectiveness or potential benevolence of religion. Just the opposite. For better or worse, fiction is among the most effective tools in humanity's tool kit.
By bringing people together, religious creeds make large-scale human cooperation possible. They inspire people to build hospitals, schools, and bridges in addition to armies and prisons. Adam and Eve never existed, but Chartres Cathedral is still beautiful.
Much of the Bible may be fictional, but it can still bring joy to billions and can still encourage humans to be compassionate, courageous, and creative -- just like other great works of fiction, such as Don Quixote, War and Peace, and the Harry Potter books.
Again, some people might be offended by my comparison of the Bible to Harry Potter. If you are a scientifically-minded Christian, you might explain away all the errors, myths, and contradictions in the Bible by arguing that the holy book was never meant to be read as a factual account, but rather as a metaphorical story containing deep wisdom.
But isn't that true of the Harry Potter stories too?
If you are a fundamentalist Christian, you are more likely to insist that every word of the Bible is literally true. Let's assume for a moment that you are right, and that the Bible is indeed the infallible word of the one true God. What, then, do you make of the Quran, the Talmud, the Book of Mormon, the Vedas, the Avesta, and the Egyptian Book of the Dead?
Aren't you tempted to say that these texts are elaborate fictions created by flesh-and-blood humans (or perhaps by devils)?