Book Review: Sapiens

Book Review

I’ve been a little bit nervous about writing this review. Sapiens was the book that brought down the walls for me. Many Christians I’ve spoken to about how Sapiens affected me have always been surprised. ‘Surely you knew we evolved?’, ‘What’s the big problem with what this book says and faith in God?’, ‘How can a book built upon best guesses start a journey out of faith?’. These are all good questions, and I hope to some extent that this book review will answer them.

I remember the paperback copy that I read in 2017. I remember the warn cover and dirty pages as I read and re-read the words. Like I had found something elicit and wrong, but so eye-opening and relevant that I couldn’t stop. I could literally feel my mind change as things dropped away from within me. I remember the pain I had in my lower back (and still do in 2020 as I write this), and how I couldn’t run with my little boy (our eldest now). I remember understanding my desires to run with my little boy, and why I had this pain in my back, from an evolutionary viewpoint, as I read Sapiens. Christian told me that I could be pain-free, either in this life with prayer or in the next with Jesus. Sapiens told me that life is very very different from the hopes that religions place within one’s heart.

Why did Sapiens affect me so?

I have always believed in evolution via natural selection, as taught in school. But believing in an all-powerful God who knows and loves me will trump evolution every time. They can go together, but if you really begin to dig into what evolution entails you can’t help but begin to see the space in the timeline that Homo Sapiens fit in.

As a Christian I believed that God was moving humanity towards a place of union with Him, fully realised when He returns in glory. I lived my life, enjoying the world around me that humanity had created, and accepted that the story of how we got here is both incredible and miracles, not needing to find answers, because you know, God did it.

But what Sapiens did was open my eyes to how far humanity has strayed from its original role upon the earth as hunter-gatherer groups. It helped me to see the harm, damage, and destruction that humanity has placed upon the very world into which it was born.

‘Well surely that is just Sin, and Christ came to deal with that’.

No, it is not just sin. We can’t help but encourage slavery, destruction, and greed, from the clothes we wear to the smart devices we are using to read this blog post right now. Humanity is locked into a conflict with this planet, and other humans. Exploiting and storing up the ‘wealth’ and things that we see as important, whilst neglecting so very much that we can maintain and enjoy for generations to come. We didn’t have a ‘choice’ to ‘sin’, we are in this place due to elements outside of our control.

What Sapiens did, was it fully woke me up to the reality that humanity is not the partner of some divine rescue plan. It made me realise that I can’t continue to go on hoping that one day God would return and undo all the damage that I am doing now. It made me realise that I need to do my part, to the furthest extent that I can, today.

Yuval Noah Harari is a brilliant writer. I remember reading this book back in 2017 when I first felt the questions of doubt grip my mind like cold tendrils coming out from the depths of my subconscious. The way he explains things and draws in the relevance to life today in the 21st century is a masterpiece, which explains why this book has sold as well as it has.

Don’t get me wrong, this book isn’t perfect, far from it in fact. Mr Harari seems to brandish the term ‘science’ around without properly defining it, which leaves him to the error of using it in different ways, in different chapters, to justify points, rather than using it as a measuring stick upon which to reflect on what he says.

The narrative that is woven together in Sapiens is very challenging, but it also reflects more coherently upon the world than, say, the narrative the is usually derived from the Bible in church settings. Rather than being told we are here to live in union with God and experience Him, Sapiens tells us that humanity is the harbinger of death, attempting to control life, the environment, and the man-made systems we have established (money or corporations for example) for our own power and advancement.

Yes, humanity has done a lot of good, and it is also seemingly becoming more and more aware of the death it seems to usher in time and time again, as we reflect and use tools, like Sapiens, to see from our past where our present truly sits and what our future could very well look like.

A major thread of this book, which rings true for me upon reflection, is my desire to explain things in story form. Humans have used imagination and story to bring about change that affects everything.

‘Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.’ Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens (p. 31). Random House. Kindle Edition.

We believe in these stories so much that we willingly send our children to die for them in wars, we live our whole lives to enable the story to flourish, and we tell ourselves of the roles we play in the various stories we inhabit to keep us going through each day. When you stop and think about it, it’s scary.

Just a few pages later Mr Harari goes on to say, ‘Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.’ Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens (p. 36). Random House. Kindle Edition.

This is one of the biggest challenges for me. Humanity seems to have created a world outside of the real world, upon which we must believe in order to keep the real world alive. For me, it’s time to begin to unpick the little bits I can, which is why I have started meditating and reflecting on this far more. One person stuck partway along the reality of these stories can’t step outside of the whole thing, it is impossible. But one person can begin to question what they can unpick to enable them to make the next generation a bit closer to being able to live in the real world once again.

I am not saying stories are bad, just look at this blog, it’s all about my story. But what I am saying is that we get so caught up in the fictions of our collective minds that we miss the reality that is around us, more often than not.

To maintain these stories we must maintain lifestyles, ‘One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations.’ Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens (p. 98). Random House. Kindle Edition. And so, the story winds on, moving consistently further away from the reality of how our actions are changing the very face of this planet, possibly irreconcilably.

I am not saying we must give up our jobs, our livelihoods, our aspirations, or our technology. Rather I am saying we should re-evaluate the stories upon which these things have emerged. Much like the story of Christianity, which I no longer hold to be literally true. I think it has metaphorical truths that are embedded within society and have done a lot of good. I also think it has done a lot of bad. Though this isn’t the place for that conversation.

We need to pull our stories apart in a safe way, we need to weave new stories that enable us to love and live on this planet.

We need to continue to improve life, by removing the horror of cancer for example. As well as trying to get back to how humans live when we were one with the planet in a hunter-gather environment. I think we can have this if we strive for this and re-write our stories to aim for this.

Sapiens made me realise that the stories of ancient religions have brought us so far, and now we need to look to new stories to take us the next step of the way. It made me realise how short a timeframe humanity has been on the scene, and how much horror and destruction we have caused. It also helped me see how things are integrated in a way that my religious faith never did. Sapiens made me take some stuttering steps back from the narrative that I held within my head from my upbringing, reading and church setting.

As always, your support enables When Belief Dies to grow, so please consider hitting ‘support’ at the top of this page. You will also find links to the YouTube Channel, Podcast and social accounts up there. You can subscribe via email at the bottom of this post. This blog is roughly twelve to twenty-four months behind where I currently am in my journey out of religion. It’s important to remember that when reading and commenting. –Sam

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