Stone by stone, Bregman breaks up the foundations that underpin much of our understanding of ourselves as callous, uncaring creatures hiding beneath a veneer of civilisation. That understanding has acted as a self-fulfilling prophecy, he says: if people expect the worst of each other, they’ll get it. He can cite the experiments that show even lab rats behave worse when their handlers assume they’ll behave badly. Our true nature is to be kind, caring and cooperative, he argues. We used to be like that – and we can be again.
It’s surely not a coincidence that Bregman’s father is a Protestant minister. (His mother is a special needs teacher.) Humankind is the story of a fall from grace. Back when we were hunter-gatherers, we roamed peacefully in the Garden of Eden; then we enclosed a square of land, called it our own, invented property and settled down to defend it, wars began and our innocence was lost. Somehow, we have to find our way back to the Garden. Admittedly, that’s my summary of the book, but there’s even a section called The Other Cheek. Bregman may say he’s an atheist, but this is an intensely Christian work, isn’t it?
He laughs and admits: “In many ways, it is. I couldn’t help myself, writing the epilogue, thinking about what the rules for life could be if you held this [benign] view of human nature. I found myself quoting the Sermon on the Mount over and over again.” He remembers being a student and losing interest in the traditional questions of dogma – does God exist, did Jesus die for our sins – and being more interested in the effect religious belief has on believers. “Back then there were all these books being published by famous atheist writers like [Richard] Dawkins and [Sam] Harris, with subtitles like ‘How Religion Poisons Everything’. And I was like, you guys have got to meet my parents. This is clearly wrong.” As for his father, the priest: “People often say that I followed in his footsteps, that I’m just a secular version.”
Also striking is Bregman’s account of the “real world” Lord of the Flies situation: