Utopia scholars such as Ronald Schaer have argued that the concept of utopia, properly understood, is a secular one that originated in the early sixteenth century with Thomas Moore. Yet, as Schaer himself points out, the most powerful of 20th century utopian movements can not really be understood with out reference to the eschatological visions of the Judeo-Christian, and one should add Islamic, traditions
Indeed the worldly paradise predicted at the end of days ,and hoped for by elements these religions to a greater or lesser extent, is, even if we proceed with intellectual caution, more intimately connected with the political consequences of the idea of utopia than Schaer would have us believe. In many ways the most powerful of the secular utopian movements have borrowed so much from their religiously conceived predecessors as to be almost indistinguishable.
One might wonder where human agency has gone in religious utopianism, for underneath the secular version of utopia lies the humanist assumption that we can build the future. Yet, the most powerful secular utopian movements also seem to lack this quality of human agency, with some other entity serving the role once ascribed to God. For communists, utopia was to emerge through the deterministic forces of history, for Nazis through the war of nature, for the current Transhumanist/Sigularian movement the promises of religion- immortality, collective consciousness, omniscience are to emerge through the deterministic evolution of technology.
The difference between utopianism which wears the guise of religion in comparison to plain vanilla religion is that religious-utopianism promises the eminent arrival of a new and perfect world within the life-time of believers. Religious utopianism points to a future state not a lost paradise at the beginning of human history. Lastly, whereas religion guides individual moral behavior, often for the purpose of obtaining happiness after death, the goals of religious utopianism are collective in character and serve as a guide to political action now.
The reason we should be paying close attention to utopia as religiously conceived is that, today, secular utopias are far less potent than religious ones, and failing to take heed of religious utopias blinds us to their very real capacity to effect the world in the here-and-now, rather than merely affect the state of human spiritually, or subsist as some ethereal hope for some promised land, far-off, at the “end of history”.
Utopian thinking continues to have a great hold on the human psyche, and utopian movements are one of the major forces guiding political action today. We should, therefore, try our best to understand them. In the immediate future, such an understanding would provide some insight when comes to the looming showdown with Iran- the subject of my next post.