For July’s edition of YIAGA AFRICA’s Knowledge Management Series, team members express profound thoughts through their written reflections on Yuval Harari’s somewhat controversial, but philosophical book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018), which sets out to give the world a guide towards settling in the 21st century world.
Fewer things are as aggravating as religiously inspired arguments in Nigeria’s socio-political and economic landscape. But one of the few takeaways from Chapter 8 of Yuval Harari’s 2018 book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, tells us that religions will remain important as long as mass cooperation and shared beliefs (or faith) continue to be the driving force of humankind. It follows that no matter how advanced or knowledgeable society becomes in technology and education, we can expect that arguments decorated with religious identities will continue to hold influence.
Harari urges us to ponder some issues, and this process requires an intellectual humility—a willingness to eliminate part of our biases and learn anew. To enable us understand the role of religions in the 21st century; he explains how religions’ brilliance for interpretation clouds our judgement. In a vivid illustration according to him, “When Ayatolah Khamenei [a major leader in Iran] needs to make a crucial decision about the Iranian economy, he will not be able to find necessary answers in the Quran and must turn to Karl Marx and the modern science of economics to get answers. After getting these answers, he’ll then use his religious knowledge and authority to wrap the scientific answer in the garb of Quranic verses and present it to the masses as Allah’s will” (Harari, 2018). But he explains that this garb is of little importance because when you compare the economic policies of Shitte Iran, Sunni Saudi Arabia, Hindu India, Jewish Israel and Christian America, you won’t see that much of a difference. As a result, Harari posits that the Bible and Quran are just a decorative covering; degraded from a source of true knowledge to a mere source of authority.
While his two points about how religions’ genius for interpretation makes “current political positions look as if they are eternal religious principles”, and how religion “divides our human civilization into hostile camps” are valid, he is oblivious to the fact that some of the starting point of technology (architecture, as per Noah’s ark in the Bible; and Physics/Mathematics, as per Samson’s calculative grasp/hold of the pillars during his fight in the Bible or economic structures, as per Jesus’ teaching to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar) are highlighted in the scriptures, which he simply dismisses as obsolete ideas because according to him “ancient scriptures such as the Bible or Quran are not a good guide for modern economics”. He however genuinely admits that people’s religious identities have been a powerful historical force in building structures and managing conflicts, as religious movements have influenced the development of politics in countries as diverse as India, Nigeria, Turkey and even the United states. Yet, religion has also fuelled conflicts from Nigeria to the Philippines including religiously inspired misogyny and caste discrimination.
So really, what difference would religion make when facing the big questions of the 21st century, especially in matters concerning Artificial Intelligence (AI); Data Mining/Data Gathering? Should we grant AI the authority to make decisions about people’s lives? To choose for people what to study, where to work and whom to marry? What is the Muslim position on this question, and what is the Christian position? Harari asks. The truth is although this question is merely about those in favour of granting AI the authority or those opposed to it, both Christians and Muslims will be found on both sides of this argument, justifying their positions through interpretations of the Quran and Bible.
Today, our society is guided by modern economic theories and public policies that have been developed outside of religious teachings (say communism, socialism, capitalism, Marxism or Artificial Intelligence) but it has become common to interpret problems that exist in our society in ostensibly religious terms. It is because of such religious influence that there is a lot to be learnt in Harari’s book about how religion unites but divides us as a people, and the need to check and balance our fundamental religious values against our prevailing economic conditions and social realities.
Oluwafisayo Okare is a graduate intern at YIAGA AFRICA’s Media and Communications department; she studied Mass Communication at Pan-Atlantic University, Lagos, and can be reached via [email protected]