The Illusion of Separateness

“We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.”


Recently, I re-read the Tower of Babel story in the Bible and realized that the words I read did not resemble the familiar oral myth. The people of “one language, and of one speech” did not build a tower to profane god, they made plans for a city and a tower to prevent their greatest fear: being “scattered abroad,” or separated from one another. 

However, God did not like their unity. God declared, “Behold, the people is one . . . let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” And then, in what seems like careless cruelty, God inflicts on them their greatest fear: they are “scattered abroad,” divided from one another.

Wait. What?

The people were one? Communicating as one, building a city as one, deciding as one? And then, because they are one, God isolates them, rips them apart, and condemns them to their greatest fear? Why isn’t God thrilled about their oneness?

Contrarily, Jesus, in the New Testament, says, “I pray that they will all be one.” Paul writes to the Corinthians to be one, “Just as a body, though one, has many parts . . .” and the Doctrine and Covenants command, “Be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine.” And on and on and on throughout scripture. Why does this Genesis story condemn oneness? 

And then I realized that unrestrained, unopposed, and unquestioned oneness is unrealistic and harmful. This origin myth is less about why we speak different languages and more about moral human development: maturing from simplicity to complexity. It is about the divine need for moral diversity.

Johnathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, explores human morality and how “humans have an extraordinary ability to care for things beyond ourselves, to circle around those things with other people, and in the process, to bind ourselves into teams that can pursue larger projects.” Like the people in Genesis, we gather with people like us; however, this is just the first (and easier) step in moral progression. 

In Haidt’s book, the research demonstrates that morality binds humans together with those who express similar moral matrices; he shows how it is easy to “be one” with those who share moral foundations (other liberals, other conservatives, other nuanced Mormons, other fundamental Mormons, etc). However, it is more difficult and just as important to “be one” with other groups who do not share our moral foundations. 

Morality binds but it also blinds individuals to their group’s limitations and exclusions, as well as to the merits of other groups’ contributions and values. Morality binds and blinds so much so that groups create language to validate their morals and dehumanize others. 

For example, after the shooting of two abortion clinic workers in the 1990s, six women on opposite sides of the abortion issue met secretly for years in a basement with no windows. They met speaking different languages, languages they developed within their groups, words designed to demonize the opposing side and validate their own moral matrices. This made any communication between the two sides painful and impossible. 

However, determined to communicate in these secret meetings, the women made a list of all the words they would not use: murder, baby, fetus, etc. Not only did they excise hundreds of words from their vocabulary, they formed a new, neutral language free from triggering, dehumanizing, and exclusionary terms. None of the women changed their views or position on the abortion issue and still, they became one through their ability to speak and listen to each other, recognizing the need for women’s voices on both sides of this issue. 

These six women found oneness in their moral group but were separated from each other on a serious issue about life and death; however, they gathered with their differences, listened, and became one with their “enemies.” In the Tower of Babel story, a group of people who share one moral foundation, one vision for the future, and one language are trapped by their ignorance with no other group to voice a differing view. God omnisciently decides to split them, diversify them, and change them into many: conflict, opposition, tension, and complexity become the story’s heroes.

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan demonstrates this tension between oneness and deep and dividing differences. The book follows Chinese immigrant mothers and their American-born daughters through the generational surgery of immigration: the mothers speak one language while their daughters speak a different one. One Chinese mother reflects, “I love my daughter. She and I have shared the same body. There is a part of her mind that is part of mine. But when she was born, she sprang from me like a slippery fish, and has been swimming away ever since.” 

Like this mother-daughter relationship, the Tower of Babel story is a profound metaphor for human development: we begin life by being one, sharing the same body, ideas, and language, but then spring away, growing and developing away from our parents, our religion, our country. And then, as Jesus and the six women teach, we gather again, becoming one in a new way with our differences. 

Do you now speak a different language from the people you love? In politics or religion? How do you communicate with them when the words you use and the words they use have profoundly different meanings?

Abortiontalks documentary

Haidt, J. (2013). The righteous mind. Penguin Books.

Tan, Amy. (1989). The Joy Luck Club. New York: Putnam’s. 

Photo by Noorulabdeen Ahmad on Unsplash

Photo by Sasha Yudaev on Unsplash

Photo by Maria Oswalt on UnsplashPhoto by Manny Becerra on Unsplash

I'm a runner, mother of four darlingly varied humans, and a library clerk. While I always feel on the fringes of people, trends, and social etiquette, books, all books, are my people.


  1. I think the command to “be one” has to encompass a really, really, huge “one”. A thought I’ve been mulling over for a week or two from the book “You Belong: A Call For Connection” by Sebene Selassie: the molecules in air you are breathing right now will travel to the other side of the planet in about two weeks. You are connected to all the people and animals and beings that breathe that air. The dinosaurs breathed this air.

  2. Absolutely beautiful summary and analysis. Spot on, and very timely. Interestingly, the MWEG (Mormon Women for Ethical Government) book group is discussing Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind, tonight Thursday 9/14 7pm Mountain and tomorrow morning Friday 9/15 10 am Mountain. Meeting ID: 834 9812 9381 Passcode: bookclub
    Thanks for bringing attention to this important concept….

  3. I love that you took us through your study and pulled in great examples —from real life and books— to demonstrate what the genesis story can teach us. Thank you!

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