In Search of Utopia | KCRW

Searching for Utopia is a series on utopian societies exploring the benefits of community cooperation and its dark sides – how rejection of the status quo can turn into extremism and fanaticism. We explore communities both abroad and at home, alongside American history with utopian ideas, cults and cults past and present.

Aerial view of Auroville. Auroville is an experimental township in the Viluppuram district, mainly in the state of Tamil Nadu, India, with parts of the Union Territory of Pondicherry in India. Photo by Vyas Abhishek / Shutterstock.

Utopian societies are not a modern invention. The word “utopia” was first coined in 1517 by Sir Thomas Moore. While his view of the perfect society is more puritanical than the free-loving hippie communes of the ’60s and’ 70s, the ideal is the same – a rejection of the tyrannies of the established state and an adherence to a more form of society. egalitarian.

History is replete with examples of such communities and, for better or worse, utopian systems continue to exist – communes, monasteries, ashrams and intentional communities all embrace community, simplicity and values. egalitarian. But what happens when the noble intentions of the collective collide with the complexities and differences of human nature?

Akash Kapur is the author of “Better To Have Gone: Love, Death And The Quest For Utopia In Auroville”. Kapur was raised in an intentional community in India, then moved to the United States at the age of 16, where he attended a prestigious East Coast boarding school and then attended Harvard University. He joins Life Examined host Jonathan Bastian to talk about the realities of living in utopian communities and his experiences in Auroville, the intentional community in India where he and his wife Auralice Graft grew up.

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How the America of the 60s and 70s gave birth to cult leaders

John Shodo Flatt of the Osho movement prepares for ordination. Photo courtesy of Big Mind Zen Center / Creative Commons

Host Jonathan Bastian chats with Ben Zeller, associate professor of religion at Lake Forest College and author of “Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion”, on the characteristics of cults and cult leaders and their utopian impulses to create a better world.

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The past and present of American utopianism

Residents of the utopian Oneida Community House spend time together outdoors. Photo courtesy of Oneida Community House.

Long before the counterculture years of the 1960s and 1970s, 17th and 18th century America offered fertile ground for those with utopian urges. Groups like the Shakers, the Oneida community, and even the ideas of the Transcendentals were based on the idea that their societies would be so attractive and perfect that they would give rise to larger movements.

Most have collapsed, torn apart by the realities of life and human nature. Today, they provide interesting reviews of the worlds they were born into, and some even carry a lasting legacy, like public schools and libraries. Host Jonathan Bastian chats with Chris Jennings, writer and author of “Paradise Now; The Story of American Utopianism,” and traces the history of some of America’s first utopian brick-and-mortar communities
The majority of these utopian views of 18th and 19th century America were on the extreme extreme of the spectrum – imposing strict rules to achieve a perfect society used to clash with human nature.

Today, however, there are many intentional communities all over the United States, perhaps with less rigid rules and more realistic ideals. Many of them focus on creative ways of sharing land and housing. Bastian continues with a conversation with Anna Newcomb, founder and 20-year resident of Blueberry Hill, a cohabitation community in Northern Virginia, about the joys and appeal of community living.

Listen below and read more of this story here.