The bigger picture

Poltics and personal life, science and religion

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg
Rochester, New York, US
June 20
I am a writer ("The fiction of a thinkable world: Body, meaning, and the culture of capitalism" [Monthly Review Press 2005]; "A new biology of religion: Spiritual practice and the life of the body" [Praeger, 2012]; "Enlightenment Interrupted: The lost moment of German Idealism and the reactionary present" [Zero Books, 2014]) and an attorney. I'm most interested in how we got into our present-day mess and how we can't separate our self-image from the experience of the world.


NOVEMBER 12, 2010 6:28PM

In defense of Utopian thinking

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In response to the over-the-top and generally ignorant attacks of the new atheists it's common for writers to point to Hitler and Stalin, two non-religious people who did more harm than any two religious figures ever have. The lesson that gets drawn from this is, quite often, that the problem isn't religion. It's "utopian thinking," the belief that we can make the world into something like Dr. Seuss's Solla Sollew, "Where they never have troubles / Or at least, very few."

To be honest, it never seems like a good way of getting at the truth of social institutions or traditions by referring to a couple of psychopaths. Hitler and Stalin don't show us where utopian thinking has to lead any more than Torquemada shows us where religious ideas necessarily end up. Psychotics will find a way of turning any system of thought into something lunatic and murderers will take whatever's at hand to justify their crimes.

Besides, simply because you have an end in mind doesn't mean that you're going to justify your means with it. I'm very leery of pictures of where we ought to be, mostly because I know how thoroughly those are shaped by today's world and how little we notice that influence. (It's kind of like hairstyles in costume dramas; what looked authentically Roman to audiences of the 'thirties now looks comically anachronistic, and I'm sure that fifty years from now people will look at Gladiator and laugh for just the same reasons.) But you have to have some notion of a better world or you're not likely to get up off your couch.

The trick is to dream your dreams and let them go when reality brings you other dreams. That is, not to be attached to them. And, above all, not to be attached to the results--something that's been a central teaching in all kinds of spiritual traditions for thousands of years. There was nothing so wrong with the outlines of the Soviet dream; the terror started when Lenin and Trotsky insisted that it be realized right there and right then. Real change takes place, but it's unnervingly slow for us short-lived humans.

Utopias are bad blueprints but they're very good ways of distancing yourself from the here-and-now and thinking about what's wrong with the world. We can't do without them. Well-meaning opponents of the new atheists would do well to stop sniping at utopian thinking because that's not the real problem. The real problem is impatience. That, and the social pathologies that make so many of us run after psychopaths.

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This is very relatable, not just to politics. I agree about utopias being good for creating distance from what's wrong with the world because we must always remember that what we focus on is what we create! Nice posting.
Thanks...I'm trying to find the place where spirituality, politics, psychology, and everything else is all of a piece. It seems to me that out parceling out of the world into different kinds of activity is one of our bigger problems...