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Zombies Fighting Over Who Is Right: A Nightmare on Main Street

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Every religion, every ideology and every construct of self implies a perspective on what constitutes the good life, as well as some kind of critique of the bad. Religions would be thin gruel in a nihilistic wasteland without some blissful vision of transcendence. Political ideologies would be empty chatter without the promise of a better world. Human existence would become insufferably shallow without a personal sense of possibility and nobility. But what are we to do when our ideals are in conflict? If we don't want to be like zombies fighting over who is right, then we need some intellectual, practical and spiritual tools for adjudicating between our divergent narratives.

In our hermeneutics of many religions, many ideologies and many social sciences, I turn again to the work of philosopher Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005). His 1986 book "Lectures on Ideology and Utopia" can help to further clarify the structure of foundational narratives as we seek peaceful and productive disagreements and adjudications between our many conflicting and entangled stories of the good life.

In common usage, the words "ideology" and "utopia" are pejorative. Ideologies are always denounced as "false ideologies." Utopias are "unattainable fantasies." Indeed, some of the worst tragedies in human history have been committed in the process of promoting some ideology or pursuing some utopia. As Steven Pinker elucidates in his recent book, "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined":

Means-ends reasoning becomes dangerous when the means to a glorious end include harming human beings. The design of the mind can encourage the train of theorization to go in that direction because of our drives for dominance and revenge, our habit of essentializing other groups, particularly as demons or vermin, our elastic circle of sympathy, and the self-serving biases that exaggerate our wisdom and virtue. An ideology can provide a satisfying narrative that explains chaotic events and collective misfortunes in a way that flatters the virtue and competence of believers, while being vague or conspiratorial enough to withstand skeptical scrutiny. Let these ingredients brew in the mind of a narcissist with a lack of empathy, a need for admiration, and fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, and goodness, and the result can be a drive to implement a belief system that results in the deaths of millions.

Add social contagion and some epidemiology to these common thought processes and we witness the firestorms of destructive passions throughout history. No one is immune from these dark possibilities of our evolved human natures.

Thus, humans can become mindless zombies fighting over empty fantasies. Religions frequently fall and fail in just this way, in spite of noble teachings to the contrary. To prevent such eventualities in oneself and others, it helps to understand the currencies of hope and fear, of promise and peril, and of continuity and change in the marketplaces of religions, ideologies and philosophies.

Ricoeur is only too aware of these dangers, having lived through two European wars and Nazi prisons. Ideology and utopia are curiously correlated and ubiquitous, he observes. And both terms contrary to popular usage can also have positive functions in the realm of social integration and cultural imagination. Nobody escapes ideology. And every ideology implies some utopic vision of the good life.

Ideologies tend to be authorless, their content extracted from many sources. Ideologies present a picture of reality, trying to mirror and reproduce a social order as "natural." Utopias, on the other hand, are presented as fictions by acknowledged authors. They seek to re-describe "what is" in a way that disrupts the existing social order. Utopias seek to transfigure society from the perspective of "nowhere" and, thus, produce a vision and motivation to change society or abandon it.

Ideologies function to legitimate "what is" in a particular social context. They are the mechanism by which societies integrate their members around a certain set of values, beliefs, symbols, and traditions. No society will long persist without some ideology of identity that integrates individuals within a common culture and shared motivations. Ideologies are societies' way of controlling and programming social harmony and orderly change.

In the first stage of Ricoeur's analysis, both ideology and utopia appear in their negative form -- ideology as a distortion of reality and utopia as a fantasy incapable of dealing with reality. In the second stage, ideology serves to legitimate the status quo precisely because the political system falls short of its claims of legitimacy due to internal contradictions. Utopia in this second stage can be seen as an attempt to expose this contradiction in society, to show that "what is" could be otherwise -- indeed much, much better. In the third stage, ideology is always necessary and serves the positive role of integrating humans within social groups. By virtue of being social and symbolic creatures, we need powerful meaning systems to bind us together in functional groups. In this third stage, utopia functions as a form of social imagination that allows societies to envision alternate futures, critique the present, and thus open up the hermeneutical circle into a progressive spiral.

Ideologies function as distortion, legitimation and integration. Utopic thought functions in a reciprocal role, as escapist, oppositional and imaginative. In varying degrees, we should expect all ideologies and all utopias to manifest all of these aspects, both positive and negative. And we should recognize that all religious and political movements exhibit both ideological and utopic dimensions.

The same could be said about our personal lives. I have a set of stories about my life journey, some of which may be distortions and legitimations of flaws and failures, but without these stories, there would be no integration of self. These stories are also part of my own utopic vision of my good life, a life that I strive to realize, involving hoped-for career successes and fulfilling personal relationships.

It is important to note that dystopia has the same function as utopia in the correlation with ideology. Dystopias, religious or secular, can also function as critiques of business as usual and visions for an alternative future. As an exercise, try writing two different stories about the future, one as a utopic vision and the other dystopic. Both would serve as critiques of the status quo and forms of social imagination. Both would be correlated to different ideological projects in society today.

Making these visions explicit in our contemporary debates would actually help clarify what is at stake in the disagreements about good governance, the end of wars, issues of cultural identity, economic development, environmental protection and the pursuit of the good life. Our visions of the future, both personal and political, are partially self-fulfilling prophecies because without the vision, it is difficult to create the motivations and sacrifices necessary for transformation. In the end, whichever ideological program can present a positive and yet realistic scenario for the future is most likely to succeed in winning support in the marketplace of ideas and ideals. The world needs realistic and modest vision of a better life, not a perfect life.

This requires that we be grounded in a common reality, if not necessarily in agreement about what it all means. We have such a foundation in the grand scientific metanarrative of the universe and us -- what we call Big History -- so that our competing religions, ideologies and utopic visions are grounded and debated within the shared reality of our global technological civilization. The positive functions of ideology and utopia -- as integration and social imagination -- must be made explicit but also tempered by our understanding of the distortion and escapism involved. In such a way, we may hope to become pragmatic visionaries crafting a safer, healthier and smarter world.