Syncretism - Yuval Noah Harari - Sapiens


Modern Christianity, along with other dominant religions (though I know very little about any world religion besides Christianity – and even then I don’t know that much), is a monotheistic religion. If you attend a church service in the United States then you are likely to hear about a single tripartite deity who controls the world. The deity is omnipotent and omniscient, yet allows humans a level of autonomy and free will, for reasons human mortals cannot understand. At the same time, however, modern Christianity, as you may hear it described on a typical Sunday in the United States, also has many dualist characteristics. The religion claims to be purely monotheistic, with frequent denouncements of false idols such as money, the Dallas Cowboys, or other spirit gods (like the gods of traffic lights who shine their green lights upon us – or punish us with red lights at every intersection when we are running five minutes late), yet still manages to violate it’s own monotheistic principals.
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes about the incredible ability for humans to create religious organizations and institutions that simultaneously hold and violate ideas of monotheism, dualism, polytheism, and other structures. Harari writes,
“The average Christian believes in the monotheist God, but also in the dualist Devil, in polytheist saints, and animist ghosts. Scholars of religion have a name for this simultaneous avowal of different and even contradictory ideas and the combination of rituals and practices taken from different sources. It’s called syncretism. Syncretism might, in fact, be the single great world religion.”
Syncretism is an amalgamation of beliefs and belief structures formalized into a religious framework, as described in the passage above. But syncretism really isn’t that different from anything else we may come to believe. I consider myself a pretty rational person, but I have conflicting and contradictory beliefs in terms of personal responsibility. I have even gone so far as to believe in two different forms of personal responsibility based on reference points. I think we should view ourselves as responsible for our life outcomes, while viewing everyone else basically as a victim of circumstances and luck. This ensures that each of us individually works hard and does our best to reach our goals and be successful, while looking at others in a sympathetic light, giving them a pass for bad behavior and seeing them as deserving of a helping hand. These two beliefs contradict each other, but just as Christianity demonstrates, there is no reason opposing and contradictory beliefs cannot be tied together in an influential manner.
The truth is that humans and our societies are complex and we don’t understand society by thinking in terms of statistical chance and variation. When someone yells at a an employee of a company when being told to pull their mask up over their nose, we assume that there was a personal and individual reason for why the mask-averse individual yelled at the employee. We don’t see it as simple statistical chance that some amount of people are generally disagreeable, won’t have enough coffee on a given day, will have lost something important while running late, and will be short tempered when told to fix their mask. We don’t do a good job holding statistical chance in our minds and instead view causal explanations, even when chance and randomness may be the better perspective. In the end, we pull a lot pieces together in how we understand the world, and those pieces may narratively work together, but may not be the best rational fit together.
Syncretism is the result of an amalgamation of different narratives with individual perspectives and experiences as they relate to religious beliefs. We have different experiences and interactions with the world which manifests in different ways of explaining and interpreting the world. We fit all these contradictory and complimentary understandings into larger frameworks, fudging the edge when necessary and adopting beliefs that are convenient and consistent with the narratives that support our experiences.  The result is a worldview and belief system that seems jumbled together, like a monotheistic religion where an all powerful deity allows an antagonistic lesser deity to run amuck . This normally isn’t a problem of human existence, but rather a feature that allows us to come together with various shared beliefs for cooperation and trust among a diverse group of individuals and experiences.
Cognitive Dissonance is Vital

Cognitive Dissonance is Vital

In the book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “Cognitive dissonance is often considered a failure of the human psyche. In fact, it is a vital asset.”
Cognitive dissonance refers to the inconsistencies within our beliefs. It doesn’t feel like it, but all of us have incompatible beliefs. The simple example that Harari uses in the book to demonstrate incompatible beliefs is the example of liberty merged with equality. At the extremes, these two values, which are central to effectively all functioning democracies, are entirely incompatible. On the margin, the two require constant trade-offs where one value is applicable in one situation but not as applicable in another. We argue whether one person’s liberty should be curtailed for another person’s equality, whose liberty and whose equality matters most, and what measures of liberty and equality should be the most important. There is no perfect rule for delineating between equality and liberty or finding the right balance and mixture between the two incompatible views. Cognitive dissonance is what enables us to manage.
“Consistency is the playground of dull minds,” writes Harari. Great stories involve conflict and challenges with what a character knows they should do versus what they want to do. Much of art is in some ways about conflict, overcoming limitations, and somehow trying to merge the incompatible. Cognitive dissonance is our ability to live with conflicting and contradicting views without recognizing it. It enables us to have complex societies and to pursue individual goals while simultaneously being dependent on others. Like in art, where conflict creates something more interesting and engaging, cognitive dissonance in our lives enables us to live richer and more interesting lives – even if those lives are based on incompatible beliefs, ideas, actions, and values.
Attempts to Reconcile Contradictory Beliefs

Attempts to Reconcile Contradictory Beliefs

I studied Political Science at the University of Nevada, Reno, and was always a little unnerved to hear about studies that demonstrated substantial ideological contradictions within a single individual. The studies showed even the smartest and most learned people to be almost hypocritical at worst or gullible and ignorant at best. Changing small contexts, adopting slightly different perspectives, and wording questions in different ways or orders  can seemingly produce very different answers and preferences from a single individual with little consistency between the answers. You can find instances where people who identify as conservative favor large scale state intervention in the lives and liberties of individuals. You can also find instances where people who identify as liberal prefer some form of cultural conservatism. People seem to have trouble being internally consistent with their stated values, and that was unnerving for a young college undergrad and grad student who was hoping to better understand how people reached their political and ideological beliefs.
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari shows how these internal contradictions and inconsistencies stretch back much further than our current political moment. He writes about Medieval knights struggling to reconcile Christianity with ideas of chivalry and he writes about the struggles of creating a system that incorporates both social equality and individual freedom today. On the latter he writes, “ever since the French Revolution, people throughout the world have gradually come to see both social equality and individual freedom as fundamental values. Yet the two values contradict each other. … The entire political history of the world since 1789 can be seen as a series of attempts to reconcile this contradiction.”
Equality and individual freedom form the backbone of many WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) societies, and while many citizens don’t think about the contradiction of the two values, they are not easily merged together. An authoritarian regime could force some sort of equality onto all people, but it would require a loss of individual freedoms. At the other extreme, society could radically favor individual liberties to the extent where there was no law enforcement because individual freedoms were maximized. This of course would be extremely unequal as some people would literally die while others kept living due to personal choices that threatened the lives of some. These two examples are the extreme poles that few would argue in favor of, but it is worth noting that we are arguing for some sort of balance between two contradictory ideas.
Humans live with more internal inconsistencies than we realize, and we can even flourish within such inconsistencies. Democracies which struggle between liberty and equality have created middle classes, have pushed technological advances, and have generally been attractive places to live. But they are difficult and sometimes unwieldly as people fail to reach cohesive decisions on how much liberty and how much equality a society should strive toward. Much of our lives is spent trying to reconcile inconsistent and even contradictory beliefs within our own lives and within our larger societies. It is a distressing reality, but one that humans seem perfectly able to flourish within. 
Biased in Predictable Ways

Biased in Predictable Ways

“A judgment that is based on substitution will inevitably be biased in predictable ways,” writes Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. Kahneman uses an optical illusion to show how our minds can be tricked in specific way to lead us to an incorrect conclusion. The key take-away, is that we can understand and predict our biases and how those biases will lead to specific patterns of thinking. The human mind is complex and varied, but the errors it makes can be studied, understood, and predicted.


We don’t like to admit that our minds are biased, and even if we are willing to admit a bias in our thinking, we are often even less willing to accept a negative conclusion about ourselves or our behavior resulting from such a bias. However, as Kahneman’s work shows, our biases are predictable and follow patterns. We know that we hold biases, and we know that certain biases can arise or be induced in certain settings. If we are going to accept these biases, then we must accept what they tell us about our brains and about the consequences of these biases, regardless whether they are trivial or have major implications in our lives and societies.


In a lot of ways, I think this describes the conflicts we are seeing in American society today. There are many situations where we are willing to admit that biases occur, but to admit and accept a bias implicates greater social phenomenon. Admitting a bias can make it hard to deny that larger social and societal changes may be necessary, and the costs of change can be too high for some to accept. This puts us in situations where many deny that bias exists, or live in contradiction where a bias is accepted, but a remedy to rectify the consequences of the bias is not accepted. A bias can be accepted, but the conclusion and recognition that biases are predictable and understandable can be rejected, despite the mental contradictions that arise.


As we have better understood how we behave and react to each other, we have studied more forms of bias in certain settings. We know that we are quick to form in-groups and out-groups. We know that we see some people as more threatening than others, and that we are likely to have very small reactions that we might not consciously be aware of, but that can nevertheless be perceived by others. Accepting and understanding these biases with an intention to change is difficult. It requires not just that one person adapt their behavior, but that many people change some aspect of their lives, often giving up material goods and resources or status. The reason there is so much anger and division in the United States today is because there are many people who are ready to accept these biases, to accept the science that Kahneman shows, and to make changes, while many others are not. Accepting the science of how the brain works and the biases that can be produced in the brain challenges our sense of self, reveals things about us that we would rather leave in the shadows, and might call for change that many of us don’t want to make, especially when a fiction that denies such biases helps propel our status.