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Noam Chomsky

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Linguist/Social Commentator

Chomsky, the founder of modern Linguistics, is also among the leading leftist thinkers in the world. Some of his quotes:

'Like everyone participating [in Science, Religion, Reason and Survival an Edge Discussion of BEYOND BELIEF] I'm what's called here a "secular atheist," except that I can't even call myself an "atheist" because it is not at all clear what I'm being asked to deny.'

"As for the various religions, there's no doubt that they are very meaningful to adherents, and allow them to delude themselves into thinking there is some meaning to their lives beyond what we agree is the case. I'd never try to talk them out of the delusions, which are necessary for them to live a life that makes some sense to them. These beliefs can provide a framework for deeds that are noble or savage, and anywhere in between, and there's every reason to focus attention on the deeds and the background for them, to the extent that we can grasp it." (source: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival)

"...the Bible is probably the most genocidal book in the literary canon." (source: Interview with Noam Chomsky) (PDF)

"You can see that in the polls too. I was just looking at a study by an American sociologist (published in England) of comparative religious attitudes in various countries. The figures are shocking. Three quarters of the American population literally believe in religious miracles. The numbers who believe in the devil, in resurrection, in God doing this and that -- it's astonishing. These numbers aren't duplicated anywhere else in the industrial world. You'd have to maybe go to mosques in Iran or do a poll among old ladies in Sicily to get numbers like this. Yet this is the American population." (source: The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many)

"Just a couple of years ago, there was a study of what people thought of evolution. The percentage of the population that believe in Darwinian evolution at that point was 9% -- not all that much above statistical error. About half the population believed in divinely-guided evolution, Catholic church doctrine. About 40% thought the world was created a few thousand years ago." (source: The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many)

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From ZNet's ChomskyChat (www.lbbs.org):

1998 May 17

Reply from [Noam Chomsky], to Darrenn Bills, on "Definition of God."

How do I define God? I don't. Divinities have been understood in various ways in the cultural traditions that we know. Take, say, the core of the established religions today: the Bible. It is basically polytheistic, with the warrior God demanding of his chosen people that they not worship the other Gods and destroy those who do -- in an extremely brutal way, in fact. It would be hard to find a more genocidal text in the literary canon, or a more violent and destructive character than the God who was to be worshipped. So that's one definition.

In the Prophets, one finds (sometimes) a different conception, much more humane. That's why the Prophets (the "dissident intellectuals" of their day) were persecuted, imprisoned, driven into the desert, etc. -- other reasons included their geopolitical analysis, unwelcome to power. The intellectuals who were honored and privileged were those who centuries later were called "false prophets." More or less a cultural universal. There were different conceptions of divinity associated with these tendencies, and Greek and Zoroastrian influences are probable causes for later monotheistic tendencies (how one evaluates these are a different matter).

Looking beyond, we find other conceptions, of many kinds. But I have nothing to propose. People who find such conceptions important for themselves have every right to frame them as they like. Personally, I don't. That's why you haven't found my "thoughts on this [for you] criticaI question." I have none, because I see no need for them (apart from the -- often extremely interesting and revealing -- inquiry into human culture an history).

As for "First Principles," basing them on divinities is, I think, a very bad idea. That leaves anyone free to pick the "first principles" they choose on other grounds, and to disguise the choices as "what God commands." If its the warrior God of the Bible, the First Principles are horrendous (in the basic texts) and often uplifting -- in Amos, for example; but recall that he made it clear that he was no intellectual (no "prophet," as the obscure Hebrew word is translated), but an ordinary farmer.

If you like Maslow's choices, fine, then say so. But nothing is gained by investing them with divinity, and a great deal is lost: specifically, the opportunity to question, elaborate, modify, or reject them. But these are basic elements of decent human life and thought, I believe.

If you want to use the word "God" to refer to "what you are and what you want" -- well, that's a terminological decision, not a substantive one. And a bad terminological decision, I think, for the reasons just mentioned.

Is "reality an accident"? Could the laws of nature have been other than what they are? Maybe one can make some sense of such questions, but bringing divinity into the story helps not at all. It only adds confusion and deflects serious thought and inquiry.

Is it "possible that the nature of reality could be a living urge towards freedom"? As Bakunin put it, is an "instinct for freedom" part of human nature, maybe part of organic nature? Could be. I hope so. But we don't know. But again, bringing divinity in just adds confusion and bars serious inquiry and action, in my opinion.

Others feel differently. They feel they need to ground their beliefs and hopes in something they call "God." OK. I don't legislate for others, but if they want my advice (no reason why they should), it's more or less as above.

On the linguistic work, it bears on these issues only tangentially, by seeking to explore some aspects of our essential and distinctive human nature. An exciting enterprise, I think, but these questions are barely touched.

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A reader provides another quote from Noam Chomsky regarding religion. It's taken from ZNet's ChomskyChat archive at http://www.zmag.org/chomsky/other/chomchatarch.htm.

That "religion is inherently irrational" is surely true. Why one set of beliefs that are offered without argument or evidence rather than another? On the claim that "religion will die out in the next few hundred years unless it incorporates science for its explanation for cosmological events of the universe," possibly that is correct, if you mean organized religion (the Church in Rome, for example), but then they've moved in that direction long ago. As for religion being "a part of every observable society," if what is meant is that every society we know has sought to find some explanation for matters of deep human concern that we do not begin to understand (death, the origins of the universe, etc.), that's doubtless true. If one wants to call the constructs developed "religion," OK. I don't see what that implies, apart from the fact -- I presume it is a fact -- that people seek answers to hard questions, and where understanding reaches limits (very quickly, in most areas), they speculate, construct myths, etc. To draw conclusions about "human nature" from historical constructs of dominant societies in the past few thousand years seems to me quite a stretch. On "submission to an authoritarian God," that's part of some belief systems, not others. As for monotheism, I think a strong case can be made that that's not to be found in the Old Testament, pre-Babylonian exile, and may well have its roots in non-Semitic cultures, as often argued. On the divinity "allowing suffering to exist," there's a vast literature. As for "our model of god," we can "revamp" it if we have one. Not having one, I can't revamp it, or suggest how others should. On religion in an anarchistic society, I would agree with the classic anarchist slogan "Ni Dieu, ni Maitre" (No god, no master). I don't see the justification for either, but individuals make their own choices, just as I make mine.

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A poster to the [message board] had come across a quote which prompted me, the Editor, to place Chomsky in the 'ambiguous' category.

"He {Noam Chomsky} has now reached the conclusion that some "divine superengineer" endowed humans with the power of language where formerly they had none. In short, language is not the product of impersonal evolution. Language demands structure and innate understanding of structures, etc. He is in search of a universal grammar. His theories, whether he knows it or not, point to an Intelligent Designer. Another name for this One is God. It is amazing how all branches of science are pointing towards the Creator." -- New York Times, 5 December 1998.

Reader DLM pursued and received a clarification from Chomsky himself, via Michael Albert the Sysop at ZNET (in late December 1999):

"Whoever you are quoting is misquoting an interview with a NY Times reporter who wanted to know about current work in linguistics that I'm involved in. In trying to explain some points, I suggested an "evolutionary fable," which had nothing to do with anything "divine" (that was inserted by the reporter) but with an imaginary engineer who had the task of inserting a language faculty in a brain in an optimal fashion. She reported it, accurately, as a fable, intended to illustrate a point graphically. No one who is within any realm of discourse I even remotely take part in doubts that language, like everything else about humans, is the product of evolution. But evolution has many mysteries, as every biologist knows. To say that some part of the organic world is the result of evolution is close to truism; beyond truism the interesting (and mostly unsolved) questions arise." --Noam Chomsky

Chomsky is now restored to the atheist section.

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In the ChomskyChat public discussion forum, Chomsky was asked if he believes in a God. He replied in a message dated January 18, 2000:

Do I believe in God? Can't answer, I'm afraid. I'm not being flippant, but I don't understand the question. What is it that I am supposed to believe or not believe in? Are you asking whether I believe there is something not in the universe (or the universes, if there are (maybe infinitely) many of them), and that somehow stands above them? I've never heard of any reason for believing that. Something else? What. There are many concepts of spirituality, among them, various notions of divinity developed in the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic religions. Within these the concepts vary greatly. St. Augustine and others, for example, argued that one should not take seriously the Biblical account of God as an exaggerated human, and other Biblical accounts, because they were crafted so as to make the intended message intelligible to humans -- and on such grounds, he argued, organized religion ought to accept persuasive conclusions of science, a conception that Galileo appealed to (in vain) when he faced Papal censure.

Anyway, without clarification of a kind I have never seen, I don't know whether I believe or don't believe in whatever a questioner has in mind.

I don't see how one can "believe in organized religion." What does it mean to believe in an organization? One can join it, support it, oppose it, accept its doctrines or reject them. There are many kinds of organized religion. People associate themselves with some of them, or not, for all sorts of reasons, maybe belief in some of their doctrines.

Who wrote the Bible? Current scholarship, to my knowledge, assumes that the material that constitutes the Old Testament was put together from various oral and folk traditions (many of them going far back) in the Hellenistic period. That was one of several currents, of which the collection that formed the New Testament was another. Biblical archaeology was developed early in this century in an effort to substantiate the authenticity of the Biblical account. It's by now generally recognized in Biblical scholarship that

[I]t has done the opposite. The Bible is not a historical text, and has only vague resemblances to what took place, as far as can be reconstructed. For example, whether Israel ever existed is not clear; if so, it was probably a small kingdom somewhere in the hills, apparently virtually unknown to the Egyptians. That's my understanding, from casual reading; I haven't followed recent work closely.

Importance, relevance, historical-social impact? These are enormous questions. I can't try to address them at this level of generality; it requires at least an article, better a book or many books.

Elements of the Christian fundamentalist right are one of the strongest components of "support for Israel" -- support in a odd sense, because they presumably want to see it destroyed in a cosmic battle at Armageddon, after which all the proper souls will ascend to heaven -- or so I understand, again, not from close reading. They have provided enormous economic aid, again of a dubious sort. One of their goals seems to be to rebuild the Temple, which means destroying the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which presumably means war with the Arab world -- one of the goals, perhaps, in fulfilling the prophecy of Armageddon. So they strongly support Israeli power and expansionism, and help fund it and lobby for it; but they also support actions that are very harmful and objectionable to most of its population -- as do Jewish fundamentalist groups, mostly rooted in the US, which, after all, is one of the most extreme religious fundamentalist societies in the world.

Noam Chomsky


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