Remarks on Religion

Noam Chomsky interviewed by various interviewers

various sources, 1990-1999

From an interview with David Barsamian in Chronicles of Dissent (Common Courage, 1992):

QUESTION: Do you recognize or acknowledge the spiritual life, and is it a factor in who you are?

CHOMSKY: By the spiritual life, do you mean the life of thought and reflection and literature, or the life of religion? It’s a different question.

QUESTION: The spiritual dimension in terms of religion. Is that at all a factor?

CHOMSKY: For me, it’s not. I am a child of the Enlightenment. I think irrational belief is a dangerous phenomenon, and I try to consciously avoid irrational belief. On the other hand, I certainly recognize that it’s a major phenomenon for people in general, and you can understand why it would be. It does, apparently, provide personal sustenance, but also bonds of association and solidarity and a means for expressing elements of one’s personality that are often very valuable elements. To many people it does that. In my view, there’s nothing wrong with that. My view could be wrong, of course, but my position is that we should not succumb to irrational belief.


From the transcript of a 1995 America On Line chat:

QUESTION: Is it possible that Religion could ever become a more positive and healthy resource for humanity than it presently is?

CHOMSKY: I think religion has often played a very positive role. Take western civilization, the Catholic Church has played an honorable role in helping those in need. In contrast, the US carried out a virtual war against the church in central America in the 1980’s primarily because prime elements in the church were working with great courage and honor to help those in need. And to organize them to help themselves. It is more than symbolic that the decade opened with the assassination of an archbishop and ended with the murder of 6 Jesuit intellectuals, in both cases by military forces armed and trained by the US government. […]

QUESTION: Prof. Chomsky, are you concerned about the impact of the Christian Coalition on govt, schools, etc.?

CHOMSKY: I think the Christian Coalition could be extremely dangerous. We should always be concerned when any group wants to impose their doctrinal concerns on all. To an extent that’s what they are trying to do. […]

QUESTION: I didn’t think your response about the Christian Coalition was “intellectually honest.” Isn’t it the nature of politics for organized groups, like the NAACP or the ACLU to attempt to impose their will on others? Let’s get serious.

CHOMSKY: Will is one thing, doctrinal controls something else. If the NAACP were to impose a control of something towards all, then I would staunchly oppose it.


From a 1990 interview with Adam Jones:

QUESTION: I want to ask you something about your views on religion, organized or otherwise. There are passing references in your material to church organizations and communities that you’ve visited or dealt with in the U.S. and also in Central America. You’re often full of praise for the work they’re doing; you cite their human-rights reports in your books, and so on. But on a more personal level, I’m interested in how you relate. By the light of your own atheist, Enlightenment-oriented philosophy, people who believe devoutly in supernatural phenomena like resurrection, miracles, and the rest might seem a little off their rocker. You wouldn’t let that kind of mysticism pass uncriticized in the political sphere. How does it work in your relations with these people?

CHOMSKY: It basically doesn’t come up. I mean, they know where I stand, I know where they stand. You could ask the question: How important is it to fight this battle, how important to try to convince people they shouldn’t have irrational beliefs? I think it’s reasonably important, and I do it when the thing comes up. But it’s marginal to these pursuits. I don’t let it get in the way.

While I think in principle people should not have irrational beliefs, I should say that as a matter of fact, it is people who hold what I regard as completely irrational beliefs who are among the most effective moral actors in the world, in many respects. They’re among the worst, but also among the best, even though the moral beliefs are ostensibly the same. Take, say, the solidarity movement in Central America, which I think is what you probably had in mind. To a large extent, it comes out of mainstream Christianity, based on beliefs that have had outrageous human consequences in the past, and that I think are totally indefensible. In this case, they happen to lead to some of the most courageous, heroic, and honourable human action that’s taking place anywhere in the world. Well, that’s how life is, I guess. It doesn’t come in neat little packages.


From an interview with David Barsamian in Keeping the Rabble in Line (Common Courage, 1994):

QUESTION: Historian Paul Boyer, in his book When Time Shall Be No More, writes, “Surveys show that,” and I find this absolutely stunning, “from one third to one half of the population,” he’s talking about Americans, “believes that the future can be interpreted in biblical prophecies.” Have you heard of these things?

CHOMSKY: I haven’t seen that particular number, but I’ve seen plenty of things like it. I saw a cross-cultural study a couple of years ago, I think it was published in England, which compared a whole range of societies in terms of beliefs of that kind. The U.S. stood out. It was unique in the industrial world. In fact, the measures for the U.S. were similar to pre-industrial societies.

QUESTION: Why is that?

CHOMSKY: That’s an interesting question, but it’s certainly true. It’s a very fundamentalist society. It’s like Iran in the degree of fanatic religious commitment. You get extremely strange results. For example, I think about seventy-five percent of the population has a literal belief in the devil. There was a poll several years ago on evolution. People were asked their opinion on various theories of evolution, of how the world came to be what it is. The number of people who believed in Darwinian evolution was less than ten percent. About half the population believed in a church doctrine of divine-guided evolution. Most of the rest presumably believed that the world was created a couple of thousand years ago. This runs across the board. These are very unusual results. Why the U.S. should be off the spectrum on these issues has been discussed and debated for some time.

I remember reading something by a political scientist who writes about these things, Walter Dean Burnham, maybe ten or fifteen years ago. He had also done similar studies. He suggested that this may be a reflection of depoliticization, that is, inability to participate in a meaningful fashion in the political arena, which may have a rather important psychic effect, heightened by the striking disparity between the facts and the ideological depiction of them. What’s sometimes called the ideal culture is so radically different from the real culture in terms of the theory of popular participation versus the reality of remoteness and impotence. That’s not impossible. People will find some ways of identifying themselves, becoming associated with others, taking part in something. They’re going to do it some way or other. If they don’t have the options of participation in labor unions, political organizations that actually function, they’ll find other ways. Religious fundamentalism is a classic example.

We see that happening in other parts of the world right now. The rise of what’s called Islamic fundamentalism is to a significant extent a result of the collapse of secular nationalist alternatives which were either discredited internally or destroyed, leaving few other options. Something like that may be true of American society. This goes back to the nineteenth century. In fact, in the nineteenth century you even had some conscious efforts on the part of business leaders to promote and encourage fire and brimstone-type preachers who would lead people into looking in another way. The same thing happened in the early part of the Industrial Revolution in England. E.P. Thompson writes about this in his classic The Making of the English Working Class.

QUESTION: What is one to make of Clinton’s comment in his recent State of the Union speech. He said, “We can’t renew our country unless more of us, I mean all of us, are willing to join churches.”

CHOMSKY: I don’t know exactly what’s in his mind, but the ideology is very straightforward. If you devote yourself to activities out of the public arena, we folks [in power] will be able to run it straight….


From another interview with David Barsamian in Keeping the Rabble in Line (Common Courage, 1994):

QUESTION: You talk about the standard techniques and devices that are used to control the population: construction of enemies, both internal and external, the creation of hatreds, religious enthusiasm, and then you say, “the techniques are constant for the same structural reasons.” What are those structural reasons?

CHOMSKY: The structural reason is that power is concentrated. The general policy is exactly the way that Adam Smith described it: it’s designed for the benefit of its principal architects, the powerful. It serves “the vile maxim of the masters: all for ourselves and nothing for anyone else”. Those are the basic rules of the world. The way it works out depends on what the structures are. In our case [the United States] it happens to be basically corporate structure. Much of the population is going to be harmed by that. Those policies are designed to turn state power into an instrument that works for the wealthy. Maybe there are some crumbs for the rest of the population, maybe not. But that’s given.

Somehow you have to get the general public to accept this. Hume’s paradox does hold: power is in the hands of the governed. If they refuse to accept it, you’re in trouble, no matter how many guns you have. How do you do that? There are not a lot of ways. One way is to frighten people and make them cower in terror that only the great leader can save them. Saddam Hussein is coming. You’d better hide in the sand, and by a miracle I’ll save you. Then you save them by a miracle. So the combination of fear and awe is a standard technique, used all the time. Diverting people to other things. Elvis stamps. That’s a technique. Professional sports are another. Get people to go insane about somebody or other. It also has the effect of creating attitudes of subservience. Somebody else is doing it, and you’re supposed to applaud them. They’re doing something you could never dream of doing in your life. So there are many devices, but not a lot. You generally find one or another of them being employed.


THE QUESTION: In the ZNet Sustainer’s Forum System Chomsky was asked (August 1999) whether he was “perturbed” by the Kansas Board of Education’s decision to eliminate testing of natural selection on state exams [a decision since reversed]..

CHOMSKY: Very much. Also by the decision to eliminate the Big Bang — that is, to get rid of fundamentals of physics as well as the fundamentals of biology from the basic curriculum. More generally, this is another long step in the project of redesigning the school curriculum in ways that will reduce the possibility that students will have the intellectual tools to escape the fundamentalist fanaticism that the designers of the new curriculum prefer. One should not be fooled by the rhetoric that is used to disguise what they are doing, e.g., the pretense that anyone is still allowed to do as they like. Technically true, but the pressures to conform will, of course, be substantial. And we can guess how much attention students and teachers will give to material that is placed under a cloud, and is excluded from the core curriculum and examinations.

This is, as intended, a serious blow to integrity and honesty. If it were taking place in Andorra, maybe one could just laugh, although that would be unfair to Andorrans. They deserve much better than the rule of superstitious hysterics and extreme authoritarians, who try to instill obedience to their Holy Texts and chosen Divinities — and we should not fail to see that the terms are appropriate, if anything too kind. But when this is happening in the richest and by far the most powerful country in the world, with a huge capacity for destruction and harm, it’s no laughing matter. And it’s not just Kansas. This is just one part of a wave of astonishing irrationality and fanaticism; other states have introduced similar measures. Recall as well a simple fact about the economics of the textbook industry. Publishers want to have a mass market, furthermore undifferentiated. It’s expensive to produce and market separate texts for different parts of the country. Accordingly, there is a tendency, sometimes very strong, to move to the lowest common denominator. If a text won’t sell in Kansas for reasons X, Y, Z, then cut out the “offending material” for the whole country. The consequences are obvious, and doubtless just what are intended by the authoritarian extremists who seek to impose their religious doctrines on the population at large.

There have, for years, been comparative studies of religious fanaticism and factors that correlate with it. By and large, it tends to decline with increasing industrialization and education. The US, however, is off the chart, ranking near devastated peasant societies. About 1/2 the population believe the world was created a few thousand years ago: the justification for the belief is that that is what they were ordered to believe by authority figures to whom they were taught one must subordinate oneself. And on, and on. One can easily understand why great efforts should be made to keep the public at an extremely low cultural and intellectual level, subordinated to power and blind obedience to authority. But it is something that should elicit very great concern.

It’s also worth noting the hypocrisy. The same newspaper stories showed pictures of the Ten Commandments posted on walls of classrooms (a version of them, at least). Apart from the obvious questions of establishing a particular choice of religious doctrine within the public school system, have a look at what children are to be taught to believe — on the (admittedly weak) assumption that anyone is expected to take the words seriously. Thus the self-designated chief of the gods orders them not to worship any of the other gods before him: in this polytheistic system, he is top dog. They are told not to make “graven images” (which means statues, pictures, etc.) — that is, they are taught that all the priests, ministers, teachers, and other authority figures are liars and hypocrites. There’s more — all familiar in the 17th and 18th century, now to be driven from the mind by the autocrats who hope to gain control of the cultural system and demolish the threat of independent thought and rational analysis and discussion.

No slight matter, in my opinion.


Reply from NC to a forum query on his belief in God, etc. [No date available]

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 it 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 an 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.