city with skyscrapers, river, and sunA relative of mine recently emailed me and other relatives to ask a philosophical question: Does it matter whether people actually believe the tenets of their religious faith?

I wrote back with a response, which went something like this: Our beliefs and the stories we tell are extremely important. These cannot be discounted as superfluous aspects of a religion. They are important because they affect our real-world decisions. How we think about things matters.

Not long after that, I read the masterpiece Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari. Harari, in this book, delves into this topic in a much more comprehensive way than I did. The book helped to clarify my understanding of this philosophical point.

Stories and beliefs have a childlike reputation, as if they are merely tricks to get us to fall asleep; but therein lies their incredible power. Because, as Harari explains, the tricks work: and we are lulled into a world where everyone gets along under the magical umbrella of the story.

He writes: “Myths, it transpired, are stronger than anyone could have imagined.” Humankind is the only species that uses language to tell stories about things not present in the immediate surroundings. My chickens can make a distress call that means “There’s a hawk nearby!” But they cannot make a sound that means “That’s the same hawk we saw yesterday, but different from the one we saw the day before that,” or “That hawk is beautiful, look at those marvelous feathers,” or “That hawk was sent by a great and powerful god!”

Humans can say such things, and through language and myth they are able to build large societies of strangers working together under the same belief systems. Harari calls a belief system an imagined order. And he explains that religion is only one of many spheres in which people use stories and beliefs to foster cooperation. Here’s an interesting passage from the book:

“An imagined order can be maintained only if large segments of the population—and in particular large segments of the elite and the security forces—truly believe in it. Christianity would not have lasted 2,000 years if the majority of bishops and priests failed to believe in Christ. American democracy would not have lasted almost 250 years if the majority of presidents and congressmen failed to believe in human rights. The modern economic system would not have lasted a single day if the majority of investors and bankers failed to believe in capitalism.”

Harari points out that unless you are a true cynic, you believe in at least one, and probably many, imagined orders. The true cynic, he explains, is not apt to cooperate with anyone. In the cynic’s mind, all that talk about religion, patriotism, human rights, finance, politics, romance, and so on is just so much B.S. The true cynic will conclude that it’s better to sit alone with one’s home-brewed beer, cherry tree, and shotgun and try to enjoy life before it’s all over.

But then Harari points out the flip side of this. If you’re not a true cynic and thus do believe in something, it’s ultimately impossible (if you decide to go down that rabbit hole, which may or may not be advisable) to prove the truth of your cherished imagined orders. They are likely, upon logical scrutiny, to evaporate into nothing. This is where the word faith comes in.

And so, as Harari explains, because we have faith in the existence of the monetary system, we can have booming economies, home mortgages, business loans, and one-day Amazon deliveries. Because we have faith in the existence of our countries, we can have complex societies that provide schools, police, libraries, mail service, defense, unemployment benefits, and scientific research. Harari does not try to claim that these things are necessarily better than what humans had originally in their hunter-gatherer state; but he does explain that there’s no going back.

(In order to go back to a pre-imagined-order state, we would have to get everyone to agree to do this together. Otherwise, those with an imagined order would simply cooperate and trounce those without. But the only way to get a large group of people to agree to do something is through an imagined order.)

And so, Harari provides a somewhat tragic but interesting and ultimately, I think, correct answer to my relative’s philosophical question. It is important for people to actually believe something if they are to form a cohesive group of strangers—one that’s not just an accidental encounter of isolated cynics who are unlikely to cooperate. Of course, a few members of a religious group, nation, or financial market can be cynics without the whole operation falling apart. But the majority must believe—especially, as Harari explains, the leaders and the enforcers.

Are you a believer or a cynic?