Individualism is a Deadly Delusion

“God created everything” is an ancient truth-claim. According to this claim, everything and everyone is related, for all comes from the same Creator. Human beings do not exist in the singular, only in the plural. We are not monads any more than ants in a colony or bees in a hive. We are here with and for each other and for the planet given us to keep, repair, and complete. I am because we are. In the beginning, and forever after, are relationships.

Modern Western science and many spiritual traditions are converging on this matter of relationship: we and all that is exist in a great chain of related being and beings. Joni Mitchell accurately sang, “We are stardust.” All matter, all that is seen and unseen, extends from the Big Bang about 15 billion years ago.

So, why is American society so rooted in the delusion of individualism, especially when our individualism is killing us and despoiling our home? Many reasons for the fantasy could be offered, and religion and economics are surely implicated. The Christian evangelical emphasis on individual salvation can lead to a “me and Jesus” or “me, my Bible, and my Jesus” frame on the world. The narrative and moral order of consumer capitalism prefers detached, self-interested individuals over the bonds of community, friendship, and family.

But the evangelical spin on Christianity and capitalism’s preference for the self-interested individual do not fully account for the delusion of individualism.

Yes, I believe individualism is a delusion. Arguably, it has no rational basis in religion, science, or experience. Therefore, I call individualism a delusion.

Consider these sayings:

  • I am a self-made person.
  • I deserve to keep all the fruits of my labor.
  • I am unique.
  • Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.

Fitting responses to those allegedly delusional claims include:

  • We do not make ourselves. We rely on other human beings, from the mother who birthed us, to eyes that see us into personhood, to the language and culture that gives speech to our voices. Surely, we make choices, and those choices form us. We are not fully other-made, but no one is truly self-made.
  • One should be able to keep and enjoy the fruits of one’s labor. However, except in incredibly rare circumstances, one’s labor is dependent on the labor of others. That might include the miners who extracted the neodymium in your cell phone, employees, tool-makers, knowledge-workers, and farmers—to list but a few examples. And, receiving “fruits” depends on markets for buying and selling, transportation to get goods to markets, and a secure and relatively trustworthy internet for nearly every kind of transaction. “My” fruits depend on many other persons and institutions, private and public, doing their work.
  • Yes, I am unique. There is no one quite like me. Everyone in the world can say that. But that is only part of the story. Not every thought is original. All but a few bits of my DNA are shared with humankind, and we can boast of about a 60 percent genetic overlap with a banana!
  • Pull yourself up by your bootstraps? Yes, the contemporary meaning is akin to “get your butt in gear, use your willpower, work hard, don’t rely on others.” Not bad advice. However, the original meaning was the opposite! If you take the image literally, the image describes an impossible task. You can’t pull yourself up by pulling on your shoelaces, unless you’ve taken your shoelaces out of your shoes, looped them over a ladder rung above you, and the laces and you are of sufficient strength to pull and lift. Sometimes, the meaning of the original is closer to reality than our individualistic, contemporary take. One can’t, really, pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps. We need others.

Sociologists since Emile Durkheim have argued and demonstrated that suicide rates are higher when relationships between persons are slack or severed, when a society’s fabric is too thin. A strong, healthy society can’t be woven on individualism alone. A thin-fabric society is prone to tearing.

Along the lines of this blog post, I will confess: my perspective is not unique! I assumed someone had done research and created means of measuring the spectrum of societies, from individualist to collective. Sure enough, there are many options. Here is one set of categories that make sense to me. The additional value of equality makes the categories more interesting still.

Vertical Collectivism – seeing the self as a part of a collective and being willing to accept hierarchy and inequality within that collective.

Vertical Individualism — seeing the self as fully autonomous, but recognizing that inequality will exist among individuals and … accepting this inequality.

Horizontal Collectivism — seeing the self as part of a collective but perceiving all the members of that collective as equal.

Horizontal Individualism — seeing the self as fully autonomous, and believing that equality between individuals is the ideal.

Imagine how societal matters such as tax policy, wealth accumulation, social safety nets, corporate responsibility, criminal justice, tolerance for social inequalities and inequities, the roles of function of government, public health, the goals of political processes, and religion play out in each quadrant. All around us, we can see, for example, how vertical individualism deeply conflicts with horizontal collectivism in clashes between political parties.

When the current worldwide pandemic is over, I wonder what will be evident regarding societies that organize in a collectivist rather than an individualist basis, and what difference the value of equality makes. Which organizational values helped to save lives, and which are based on delusions, on false narratives about what humankind is?

The moral claim we heard often at the beginning of the pandemic was, “We are all in this together.” Based on a community/collectivist understanding of human relatedness, that is a true claim. For a society that values equality, all the more so.

However, in a vertical individualist society, which may be the dominant culture in the U.S. today, the gap between the claim of “we are all in this together” and our reality is wide.

Faith-based communities and people of conscience ought to reject the deadly delusion of individualism.

Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.

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