Humanism is your religion. Even if you’re an atheist, you’re probably a humanist. It’s the basis for most of our society, truly rising to prominence since the Enlightenment. It’s a secular philosophy, one that forwards rationality and critical thinking over divinity and supernatural beings. It is a philosophy that places humans at the apex of all things, and makes us responsible for our own greatness and our own destinies.
But how is that a religion? If you follow the reasoning of Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens (and I do, and I think you should read this book), a religion is “a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order.”
Note the word superhuman here. This doesn’t mean supernatural, and it doesn’t mean Spider-Man. It means order that is not mandated by humans, that is above humans. Under Harari’s definition Communism is a religion, and I love his reasoning:
Whereas Buddhists believe that the law of nature was discovered by Siddhartha Gautama, Communists believed that the law of nature was discovered by Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. The similarity does not end there. Like other religions, Communism too has its holy scripts and prophetic books, such as Marx’s Das Kapital, which foretold that history would soon end with the inevitable victory of the proletariat.
Communism had its holidays and festivals, such as the First of May and the anniversary of the October Revolution. It had theologians adept at Marxist dialectics, and every unit in the Soviet army had a chaplain, called a commissar, who monitored the piety of soldiers and officers. Communism had martyrs, holy wars and heresies, such as Trotskyism. Soviet Communism was a fanatical and missionary religion. A devout Communist could not be a Christian or a Buddhist, and was expected to spread the gospel of Marx and Lenin even at the price of his or her life.
So how is humanism a religion? I’ll let Harari explain it again:
Humanism is a belief that Homo sapiens has a unique and sacred nature, which is fundamentally different from the nature of all other animals and of all other phenomena. Humanists believe that the unique nature of Homo sapiens is the most important thing in the world, and it determines the meaning of everything that happens in the universe. The supreme good is the good of Homo sapiens. The rest of the world and all other beings exist solely for the benefit of this species.
Before you disagree with this, consider the fact that we all unquestioningly believe there is such a thing as human rights. We all accept that humans have certain rights, even if we don’t quite agree from where they come. It would be crazy for you to stand up in the United States of America and say “I actually don’t believe that human beings have any specific or special rights.” You’d be undermining our entire moral system, as well as throwing away the Declaration of Independence.
So where do human rights come from? And why do only humans get them? You live in a world where humans are treated fundamentally differently from animals, and most of us do not get up in arms about that. We have internalized the idea that humans are special and should be treated better than other living beings. It’s such an obvious part of our moral structure that you might be rolling your eyes at me even bringing this up – it’s a real no duh concept. It’s totally okay to keep a dog on a leash and locked in a cage, but it’s not at all okay to do that to a human being. We get really upset when we see humans treating other humans the way humans treat animals.
Why is that? It’s because of this religious belief that humans are in some way special. That we are some kind of apex, and that we deserve special treatment. That our happiness, comfort and feeding come before – and usually at the expense of – all other living beings. This is unquestioned, and if you start questioning it living in the modern world gets complicated and even upsetting.
Most cinema is inherently humanist. Most movies are about the triumph of humans, of their will and their spirit. Even movies about non-humans are anthropomorphized in order to make their stories more humanist. Which is what makes Darren Aronofsky so interesting as a filmmaker, especially in recent years. Aronofsky, who is a vegan and who is a huge climate activist, has in his last couple of movies taken on a post-humanist stance that can be shocking, strange and even disorienting.
I think this has been present in his films from the beginning; Pi is interrogating man’s relationship to God and his position in the universe. But it wasn’t until Noah that Aronofsky got really up front about his biocentric* (as opposed to anthropocentric) leanings. Noah is, on the surface, a movie about the environment and our responsibility towards it, but it’s also a movie that espouses deeply biocentric themes while refuting some of the more extreme post-humanist viewpoints.
*biocentric philosophy says that all humans are part of a community of species in an interdependent ecosystem, that all life forms pursue their own good and that no life form is inherently superior to any other.
Noah begins with a scene that explicitly relates the killing of an animal to the killing of a human; Lamech, Noah’s father, is killed by young Tubal-Cain, who is hunting an animal in the wastelands. Aronofsky sees no functional difference between lives of the beast and Lamech, but in a good way; this isn’t about humans just being another animal but rather the idea that all life is absolutely sacred. He has to ease us into this, and so the animal being killed is some rare, weird prehistoric beast that is clearly the last of its kind. But later in the film we will see that ALL animal sacrifices/killing are seen by Aronofsky as hideous atrocities.
This becomes clear when Noah, all grown up and slowly going nuts from the burdens placed on him by God, ventures into Tubal-Cain’s camp and is sickened not just by the sin and exploitation of humans, but also by the killing of animals. Aronofsky’s camera makes no difference between the humans being hurt and killed and the animals being hurt and killed; their blood runs together into a river at Noah’s feet.
It’s easy to believe that Aronofsky is on Noah’s side throughout the film. After all, the movie is called Noah and it’s about a megalomaniac who sacrifices everything to bring his project to life, which is basically what being a film director is all about. But Aronofsky pushes Noah well past the boundaries of his own philosophy so that he can make a point.
Noah falls prey to a nihilistic vision of post-humanism, one that says human beings are actually a virus on this world and that our continued existence is inherently bad. It’s easy to get there, and not just if you’re Agent Smith from The Matrix. This past week the Trump administration cut NASA’s funding for monitoring carbon just as our climate gets perilously close to a disastrous tipping point – the argument that people suck and shouldn’t even be here anymore takes on a lot of logic in that light.
And that’s how Noah thinks; he believes that God wants Noah’s family to be the end of humanity, that the whole race will die out when his kids die. When he discovers that his daughter is pregnant, and that the human race might make it past this one final boat ride, he becomes an absolute maniac, trying to kill the babies (she ends up having twin girls). But Noah is wrong, and God doesn’t want humanity ended. The message here is truly biocentric (as opposed to anthropocentric) in that humanity isn’t any better than the birds and the beasts… but it also isn’t any worse. For Aronofsky all life is sacred, even the life of a madman like Noah.
At the end of the film there is a new covenant between God and humanity, and this is perhaps where Aronofsky modifies some of his biocentric messaging. Noah, after a period of shameful exile, returns to his family and blesses his grandchildren*. There he says that Adam and Eve were given the role of caretakers over the Earth, and that this role has passed on to him and he passes it on to his children and grandchildren. Aronofsky is placing responsibility on humans, finding some difference between people and animals, although he is careful not to set Noah and his family ABOVE all other life on Earth, and is simply saying that humans should take care of all life on Earth.
*he does this while wrapping the skin of the serpent from the Garden of Eden around his arm, as modern Jews wrap the tefillin around their arms. Something of interest here: by making the first tefillin be serpent skin, Aronofsky is rejecting the dualism that lies at the heart of all Abrahamic religion, which is exciting. The tefillin is a reminder of the covenant between God and the Jews, and bringing Satan into it is fascinating. Also fascinating is that the tefillin is worn as a remembrance of God getting the Jews out of Egypt, an event that is yet to happen when Noah blesses his grandchildren. So Aronofsky is retconning the hell out of these arm straps.
That might seem like I’m bending over backwards – taking care of someone is placing yourself above them, right? – but I think that caretaking should be something that happens between equals. To pretend that an adult doesn’t have more knowledge or ability than a child would be silly, and so it’s silly to pretend that humans don’t have our own unique abilities and gifts. But as Ram Dass says about the nature of life: “We’re all just walking each other home.” A good parent/child relationship shouldn’t be condescending, but enriching. That is the sense I get from the end of NOAH, not that Noah believes his family should subjugate life on Earth (which has all too often been the modern reading of the Torah) but rather that his family should walk all life on Earth home, make sure it all gets where it needs to get okay and in one piece.
And in the end, Noah says “Be fruitful and multiply,” repeating God’s words to Adam and Eve in the Garden. Here Aronofsky offers us the ultimate hope: that we can always go back to the beginning and try again. Noah can return from his exile and humanity can make another attempt at being stewards of the Earth, as opposed to subjugators. Obviously that hasn’t worked our for humanity, but Aronofsky isn’t really telling us a story of the past, he’s talking about our present. He’s saying it’s never too late to get better, to do better. Don’t wander off into a cave and get wine drunk and pass out naked – pick your sorry ass up and do the work to become the man you should have been, and to make the world the place it can be.
In his next film, mother!, Aronofsky pulls the camera back and makes the world itself his protagonist. Or more accurately, Gaia, the spirit of life on Earth. There’s a lot more going on in mother! – I think this is one of the most ambitious movies ever made, in terms of both concept and theme – but we’ll focus on this one small part, and how it relates to Noah and Aronofsky’s biocentric spirituality.
mother! takes a darker view of humanity than NOAH; Aronofsky’s biocentric worldview seems to have gotten bleaker in just a few short years. Thematically it’s all very similar – we see one cycle in what is clearly a continuing cycle of creation and destruction (this is very Vedic), one reflected in Noah returning the Earth to its initial post-Garden state (as well as the cyclical nature of experience in The Fountain) – but this time the focus isn’t on humans. It’s truly biocentric in that the story is told from the point of view of life on Earth, even if Aronofsky has to anthropomorphize Gaia while giving a non-anthropocentric message.
Aronofsky is actually closer to the humanity as a virus idea here; Adam and Eve are unwelcome guests, and their children are unruly beasts who bring destruction to Mother’s home. But he’s doing this not to tear humanity down but rather to wake it up; it’s why he structures the movie as he does, with us identifying with Gaia first and foremost as a being like us. It’s all metaphorical, but he understands that we need to identify with a character, and he gives us one. Then he gives us a genre, creating a suspenseful, horror-tinged mystery story about how this woman’s world has gone out of control.
He’s forcing us to identify with what would otherwise be a vague ‘lifeforce’ of which we are a part. I could quarrel a bit with humanity arising separate from Mother Earth, interlopers into her perfect ecosystem, but I think that by anthropomorphizing both Gaia and God (or perhaps the demiurge? There’s a whole possible weird Gnostic reading of this movie) Aronofsky gets to have it both ways – we identify with the lifeforce while also being able to see, from a distance, the havoc humans are wreaking upon it.
That distance is vital because the climax of the movie is all about how unimportant humans are in the big picture. This planet will survive us, and when we are all gone it will return to a habitable state over time. Whether you believe in a Vedic cycle of creation and destruction on a cosmic level you can understand that it certainly happens on a micro level, with many great extinctions happening over time… but with Earth trucking along after each one, and with life always continuing, if changed.
If Noah is a loving biocentric movie – yes, we’re fucked up but we can get better, and there are second chances and there is hope – mother! is all about shaking us by the shoulders and screaming in our faces. “You are fucking up! And it’s not all about you, so in the end the rest of this stuff will keep spinning and growing and being, but you will have wiped yourselves out! And you’ll have done terrible damage to other things that are equally as important and wonderful as you are!”
That, I think, is the vital takeaway of post-humanist thinking in the modern moment. By focusing solely on humans, by focusing solely on our needs and desires, we have created a world that is actively working to get rid of us. It’s the ironic curse of all narcissists – by focusing only on the self, narcissists create situations that eventually hurt themselves (as well as everyone around them, but that’s not the ironic part). In Noah Aronofsky is talking about species egalitarianism and offering healing for a species that has put itself ahead of others time and again. In mother! he’s not healing, he’s warning, screaming in the streets like Kevin McCarthy at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. He couldn’t convince us with love, so he’ll take a shot with fear.
Aronofsky’s latest project is the National Geographic Channel show One Strange Rock, which tries to get across the awesome majesty of the various forms of life on this planet of ours. It’s perhaps his most nakedly biocentric project yet (he’s only executive producing, not directing), and it’s similar to mother! in that the docuseries pulls the camera back from mankind yet again. But this time he’s pulling it back to an astronaut’s view, attempting to take in the totality of the Earth from a bigger perspective. That follows in the footsteps of the Blue Marble photo, a picture of the Earth taken by Apollo 17 astronauts that truly captures the way we’re all stuck here together on beautiful little sphere. That image recontextualized the way humanity thought about the Earth, and our place on it. Although not enough, it seems.
So Darren Aronofsky rejects the religious concept of humanism, the idea that humans are special and unique beings with special and unique rights. Instead he takes on the larger spiritual concept of biocentrism, placing humans as one part of a wonderful, interconnected system that holds us and nourishes us… and if things get too rough, will take appropriate measures to contain and even destroy us. This is true 21st century thinking, an ethical and philosophical view that aligns with thousands of years of natural law philosophy (it’s quite Buddhist) and that offers a way forward not just for our species, but for all lifeforms on this planet and elsewhere. It isn’t that humans have rights, it’s that living beings have rights.
Now let’s get to the messy business of discussing what defines a living being….