There’s a peculiar delusion that seems to effect only humankind. It doesn’t happen to rats in labs, or to chimpanzees, or to dolphins. It is a thing, a mental illness, that is only observable in human beings.
There’s a chaos to humanity. This is not exclusive to us; it’s a thing shared by all the animals of the land, sea, and air. Every one of them, down to the microscopic level, has its share of what we would describe as chaos. Bloodshed, wars, violence, greed… these things happen all over the world, even inside our own bodies. Humankind bears the distinction of being the only animal to deny that these things are an intrinsic part of who and what they are.
You know what I’m talking about. The insistence that we can somehow end hunger, end war, end desperate poverty, end racism, end violence, end abuse, end corruption. The view that world peace could just happen if everyone just stopped. If everyone just settled for enough, and stopped clawing through the mud for more.
And try as I might, I can’t figure out where these ideas come from. Maybe it’s the ideas of right and wrong, our inborn concept of fairness that helps us to maintain the social relationships so vital for our survival. Maybe it’s the intelligence, born from our intensely social nature and also vital to our survival, that makes us think ourselves so different from all of the millions on millions of earth’s other residents.
But I was thinking today, maybe it’s also religion. Monotheistic religion. The faiths of the Abrahamic God, to be specific.
Prior faiths, from the simplest nature worship cults now all but lost to the mists of time and a short memory, to Hinduism, a tradition so incredibly complex that one could study it their whole life and still not learn all of it, leave room for the natural complexity and chaos of the human spirit. But monotheistic religions showed up, with their one perfect god, and their one perfect evil, and attempted to divide all of human endeavor, all of human behavior… all of humanity, into two categories.
If you were good, you would earn yourself a place in a heaven of some kind.
If you were bad, or if you committed any in a very very long and seemingly arbitrary list of sins, you would go to some version of hell.
And in most versions there is little to no room in the middle for the vast variety of human behavior and motivation.
We are told that there is god inside all of us, and that god is perfect. We are told that we must be as close to perfect as we can, to strive for perfection, to secure some kind of blissful immortality.
Heaven was the first utopia ever invented by mankind.
This theistic duality is at the root of a lot of our social ills; most notably, it makes us easier to control and manipulate. I don’t necessarily believe that this intent was in the founding of these religions, and I haven’t studied them enough to know whether there was an earlier mysticism to them that reflected humanity rather than reflecting an impossible but necessary perfection. But I do believe that in many cases, the establishment has been built up since founding in a way that made it a weapon, and a way to coerce people, to anesthetize them, to manipulate them. The striving for perfection is a distraction that so many of us fall in to, especially in the western world, where so much of our culture is built on an abusive tradition of religious authority.
I’m not saying that I think that these religions are by nature bad, or that faith itself is bad. You can read more about my feelings on that here. What I am saying is that the theistic duality changed the way that people interact with one another, and with the world.
Utopian thinking, the idea that we can solve all of humanity’s problems, does not appear to be an inherent quality of human thought. This is probably something that you’d have to travel outside the western world to observe, though, because our culture (not american specifically, but western culture) is drenched in it. When you travel among people not infected by the theistic duality, utopia doesn’t seem to be much of a consideration.
There is a widely held belief that utopian thinking is the province of the political left, but it infects all segments of society like a virus. Indeed, for every peacenik hippie on the left insisting that food should be free, there is someone on the right telling you that the world would be just if we gave all people absolute liberty. One end seeks utopia by imposing structure, and the other side seeks it by eliminating all structure. On the one side is the Soviet Union, and at the other is Somalia, each with their share of human suffering.
Many people, many very smart people, have thought that progress toward a state of utopia is noble and just, and even that utopia is the eventual destiny of mankind. And on the surface, it seems as though it is a desirable state… everyone gets what they need or deserve, everyone is treated fairly, war and human suffering end. Sounds great, right?
Except it’s not the way people work, and it’s not the way other animals work either. Even the chimpanzee, who some try to paint as a gentle forest dweller, will kill one another in territorial disputes and are known as one of few animals who will kill humans for food (human children, but still). They eat a lot of meat, and they hunt for it. They hold territories and expand them whenever they get the chance, stealing resources from neighboring troupes. These are not bad behaviors; they are behaviors that have evolved in the chimp brain over thousands of years. And we have a lot of that wiring.
This doesn’t mean that I think that we should engage in violence and murder in pursuit of material gain; we also have a greater degree of intelligence and social awareness than does the chimpanzee, and with that comes a degree of responsibility for individual behavior.
Utopia means a lot of different things to different people, but one thing is true. It either is, or it isn’t. It is good, or it is a lack of good. It is a new duality; an aspirational form of government in which the goal itself is by nature unachievable. And what happens then? The same thing that happens with the theistic duality; all necessary actions are taken to maintain the illusion that the goal is being met. The failings are hidden away, swept under the rug, and dissent is crushed. This happens regardless of who it is that’s in charge… it happens on the right and the left and in the middle.
Imposing a state on humanity that isn’t supported by human behavior requires such a tremendous amount of governance and structure that it becomes impossible on a national scale without the implementation of fascism. At some point during that process, the goals of this utopian progression fall away, and the maintenance of the structure of control becomes the new and absolutely vital goal. The structure takes so much support to maintain it that there is nothing left to ensure that the original utopian goals are met. Justice falls by the wayside and humanity is crushed under a new and overpowering god.
Utopia is an aspirational goal, and it is the same as all other aspirational pursuits. It is like a sugar-water… sweet to the tongue, but ultimately unfulfilling and without substance. In order to be wholly human, we must turn our faces toward suffering and hatred, acknowledge it as a part of ourselves, and balance it with as much kindness and joy as we can muster. We must live as undistractedly as we can bear. Anything else is a lie.