This conversation with Professor Noam Chomsky is presented as a three part series. Part 1 covers American culture and politics. Part 2 covers media, intellectuals and imperialism, along with science, language and human nature. Part 3 includes a conversation regarding religion and spirituality, alongside a discussion about the Indian subcontinent, climate change and the migration crisis.
Religion and spirituality
Hassan Mirza (HM): Did religion have any big influence on you when you were growing up? Were your family members religious?
Noam Chomsky (NC): Judaism did, religion didn’t. My parents were not religious in the usual sense. Deeply rooted in Jewish/Hebraic culture, somewhat observant.
HM: What do you think about the event of death? And do you believe in an afterlife?
NC: As a young teenager, I used to worry about the end of personal consciousness, but after that became more engaged with living my life, and still do. I know of no reason to believe in an afterlife or divine justice.
HM: My reading tells me that ‘Religion’ means different things, concepts, ideas to different people. And it can be a useful heuristic and community building tool.
NC: Quite agree. I’ve been saying much the same things for years, though often with different examples.
HM: In my opinion, the heuristic nature of religion, and the basic interdicts of the Abrahamic religions make much more sense and help people survive more so than the thick books of Stephan Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Joseph Stitglitz and other popular figures of the western world. Does everyone in the world have to read this much and develop this much understanding in order to survive and thrive? And shouldn’t there be limits on the ‘Why’ (understanding) and more focus on the ‘How’ (survival, doing things, belief)?
NC: If people can select from the wide range of beliefs found in the major religions in ways that improve their lives, there’s no reason to object, as long as it doesn’t interfere with others. But there’s no conflict with science in that stance, or shouldn’t be.
HM: In the last few years the militant ‘New Atheism’ movement has gained popularity in the western world. Are these people guilty of ‘scientism’?
NC: I’ve criticised the “New Atheism,” but on different grounds. I don’t think the problem is ‘scientism’. Any teenager can easily find material in the holy texts that appears to be refuted by science. In fact, these topics are discussed in depth in medieval philosophy, in all the Abrahamic religions, all ignored by the New Atheists. But their deepest error I think is to dismiss with ridicule beliefs that are extremely important to people’s lives, and should be respected, whatever we think of their empirical validity. If a mother hopes to see her dying child in heaven, it is not my task to give her lessons in epistemology.
HM: One of them, the late Christopher Hitchens, became a supporter of the Iraq-Afghan wars after 9/11. I read your articles and his rejoinder in The Nation, also watched a talk of his in which he said that you thought America was not a good idea and the country was all about genocides and imperialism, or something to that effect. What went wrong with him?
NC: Around the time of the Balkan wars in the early ‘90s, Hitchens seems to have lost his mind and began writing quite crazy stuff, like what you quote. I never knew him well enough to know why, and scarcely paid attention to him after his strange conversion.
HM: Many experts of social sciences, the ‘New Atheists’ and celebrity atheists like Lawrence Krauss keep claiming that religion, or even belief, is irrelevant as we can now know everything through inquiry and can explain and model everything when it comes to human affairs and biases. Many times research in social sciences (like anthropology) is not reproducible and yet it is claimed to be scientific. Maybe the French post-modernism is an example of it?
NC: I agree with you about Paris post-modernism, mostly a cult I think. About anthropology, there’s good work that one can make use of, and lots of what you describe. I don’t think the “New Atheists” are representative of science generally, and Krauss in particular can be open-minded.
HM: People like Dawkins and Sam Harris keep disparaging religion and the idea of God but at the same time have written books about practicing spirituality via science. Does this make any sense?
NC: They can’t even come close. Dawkins I think is serious. Harris I have no time for.
HM: Why can’t religion complement philosophy in contemporary western thought?
NC: For many people they do, insofar as religious doctrines don’t infringe upon empirical inquiry into the world.
HM: Is the world moving towards or away from religion?
NC: There is a revival of religion in some circles, but also an increase of those who self-identify as non-believers.
The Indian subcontinent, climate change and the migration crisis
HM: In the Indian subcontinent, we still read the essays and speeches of Winston Churchill, which are no doubt beautifully written. It seems that we are still mentally colonised as a people.
NC: I had personal experience with the mental colonisation while visiting India, many times, sometimes astonishing.
HM: The common Anglo-American propaganda is that the Brits were far more benign in India and Africa than their Spanish, French, Belgian, Portuguese, Japanese counterparts in their colonies, the reality is that it was blood-soaked right from the beginning, as you said that Adam Smith knew about this. There are many South Asian anglophones who buy these nonsensical claims and actively perpetuate them. They are quite subservient.
NC: Your letter reminds me of a visit to India about 10 years ago. I was in West Bengal, invited by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M), then running the government. One day they took me to the museum, I think it’s called the Victoria Memorial. I was accompanied by leading left activists. When you approach, the first thing you see is a statue of Robert Clive, the brutal thug who began the destruction of Bengal. In the museum, they took me through aisle after aisle of awful paintings of Indians being beaten and humiliated, and finally, they took me to Queen Victoria’s tea room, celebrating her wondrous reign. This was all done with reverence. I could hardly believe it. I didn’t know what to say. Things are improving though in England. In the Times Literary Supplement, a couple of years ago historian Bernard Porter reviewed several recent books on the Raj and wrote that if the full story ever breaks through, the British will rank among the genocidaires of the 20th century.
HM: I have an explanation for this. The living conditions in the subcontinent are very bad. People are enslaved by each other via countless social hierarchies which are a product of the caste system. For the sake of escapism, we look towards a romanticised version of the Raj which was fed to us by our overlords.
NC: Still, I find it hard to understand how elite and quite affluent CPI(M) figures can treat the symbols of Indian degradation and humiliation in the ways I witnessed.
HM: You visited South Asia in the 2000s, and gave talks in Calcutta and Lahore. What were your impressions of poverty levels in both countries?
NC: The visits were brief, and I couldn’t explore in depth. But the miserable poverty in the midst of enormous affluence were far more striking in Calcutta (and elsewhere where I travelled in India) than in Lahore.
HM: The religious right in Pakistan has always exhorted us to increase our population levels. The country is spiralling down fast, mostly due to a population explosion.
NC: Pakistan is indeed a disaster, in many ways. And these regressive forces do exist and must be confronted somehow. Unfortunately, the US role is terrible. Under the impact of the powerful fundamentalist religious sectors, and the Catholic Church, the US blocks funding even for family planning.
HM: What do you think can be the future of the Indian subcontinent and its people given the fact there are some important threats facing people over there, like global warming and a population explosion?
NC: The future of South Asia, I’m afraid it may be grim. Global warming alone may make much of it virtually uninhabitable unless serious measures are undertaken. Poverty, particularly in India, is utterly shocking. Pakistan I don’t have to discuss. Meanwhile, instead of addressing problems of decent survival leaders are pouring money into means of destruction and constantly facing war. There are rich resources in the region – intellectual, cultural, economic, much else. But there isn’t much time to put them to proper use. On the current course, much of South Asia will soon be unliveable for mammals.
HM: Can the Arab world survive the climate crisis?
NC: Not so sure about the Arab world. Much of it is likely to be uninhabitable because of the heat.
HM: Given the fact that climate change will cause havoc in large parts of the world, do you think that western countries should allow climate refugees to resettle in their countries?
NC: Plainly what should happen. But just look at how Europe, the US, and Australia are treating a small flow of refugees today – people fleeing from the devastation of US-European crimes.
HM: The Global South will generate such a flood of people in the coming decades that I fear a major humanitarian tragedy of epic proportions is on its way. Pakistan will suffer as well, Bangladesh the most.
NC: It’s a horror story in the making. And meanwhile the powerful are fiddling while the Global South burns.
HM: Most of the refugee burden is shouldered by the developing countries.
NC: You’re quite right about the refugee burden. The major recipients are countries like Kenya, Uganda, Bangladesh. It’s well-known that Europe bribed Turkey to keep refugees away, less well-known that they did something similar even in Niger, probably the poorest country in the world – under the guise of humanitarian aid. The US is forcing them to countries that the US destroyed during the Reagan years (and long before), El Salvador and Guatemala. As Pope Francis said, the refugee problem is not a refugee crisis but a moral crisis for the West. I can’t even imagine what will happen when climate refugees begin to flee our destruction of the planet in huge numbers.
HM: Many parts of the developed world are quite empty with low levels of population density, is some climate change related population transfer plausible?
NC: I live in Tucson, not far from the border. The state is mostly empty. When you fly over the US as I’ve done many times, what you see is almost entirely empty space. The issue isn’t actually space. It’s fear of loss of the white Christian supremacy that has been a dominant feature of US culture since day one. Same in Denmark, the happiest country in the world. As soon as a minuscule fraction of the population is not blond and blue-eyed, liberal Denmark goes berserk. That’s the background for the famous caricatures of Muhammed in Jylland-Posten – which a few months earlier had rejected caricatures of Christ. And a caricature of Moses would turn into an international scandal. Generalises throughout the developed world. About Germany, they badly need immigrants because of population decline. Same with Japan. But racism conquers everything.
HM: The situation looks grim; can it get any worse in the near future? Is there any hope?
NC: It could be much worse. The Trump administration in an official study predicts that on our present course, temperatures will reach 4°C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century, about twice what scientist regards as the limit for organised human life. It’s a 500-page environmental assessment, which therefore concludes that we should not regulate auto emissions any further. And of course we should expand fossil fuel use as quickly as possible. The world’s fate is in the hands of the worst criminals in human history, by a huge margin. Though chances of survival are not great, particularly because of the arch criminals in Washington, there still is hope. And a lot of work to do.
HM: Many times depression and anxiety are the result of trying to read the world and affairs of human beings. Maybe you have experienced such emotions and contradictions during the course of your long life?
NC: I’ve been experiencing such feelings since I was a young child, during the Depression, and constantly since. Right within reach, in fact. And much worse, like huge massacres for which my own country was responsible. I never felt that it was paralysing; rather, energising.
HM: Do you intend to write your autobiography or a memoir or have you authorised someone to write your biography? It will be very interesting to read one.
NC: I don’t intend to write one, and haven’t authorised anyone else to do so.
HM: What motivates you to respond to the people who send you letters from all over the world?
NC: It takes a great deal of time. The motive is respect for people.