Religion and politics have often marched hand-in-hand in the course of human affairs. In this latest interview, leading public intellectual and father of modern linguistics Noam Chomsky shares his views about religion and its link to politics, with particular reference to American society and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Chomsky also offers his perspective on the “New Atheism” movement and assesses the claim that knowledge and reality are simply socially constructed artifacts.
C. J. Polychroniou and Lily Sage: In the course of human history, religion has provided relief from pain and suffering to poor and oppressed people around the world, which is probably what Marx meant when he said, “Religion is the opium of the people.” But, at the same time, unspeakable atrocities have been committed in the name of God, and religious institutions often function as the guardians of tradition. What are your own views on the role of religion in human affairs?
Noam Chomsky: The general picture is quite ugly and too familiar to recount. But it is worth remembering that there are some exceptions. One striking example is what happened in Latin America after Vatican II in 1962, called at the initiative of Pope John XXIII. The proceedings took significant steps toward restoring the radical pacifist message of the Gospels that had been largely abandoned when the Emperor Constantine, in the fourth century, adopted Christianity as the official doctrine of the Roman empire — turning the church of the persecuted into the church of the persecutors, as historian of Christianity Hans Küng described the transformation. The message of Vatican II was taken up in Latin America by bishops, priests, lay persons who devoted themselves to helping poor and bitterly oppressed people to organize to gain and defend their rights — what came to be called “liberation theology.”
There were, of course, earlier roots and counterparts in many Protestant denominations, including evangelical Christians. These groups formed a core part of a remarkable development in the United States in the 1980s when, for the first time ever to my knowledge, a great many people not only protested the terrible crimes that their government was committing but went to join and help the victims to survive the onslaught.
The US launched a virtual war against the Church, most dramatically in Central America in the 1980s. The decade was framed by two crucial events in El Salvador: the assassination in 1980 of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the “voice for the voiceless,” and the assassination of six leading Latin American intellectuals, Jesuit priests, in 1989. Romero was assassinated a few days after he sent an eloquent letter to President Carter pleading with him not to send aid to the murderous military junta, who [would] use it “to destroy the people’s organizations fighting to defend their fundamental human rights,” in Romero’s words. So the security forces did in the US-dominated states of the region, leaving many religious martyrs along with tens of thousands of the usual victims: poor peasants, human rights activists, and others seeking “to defend their fundamental human rights.”
The US military takes pride in helping to destroy the dangerous heresy that adopted “the preferential option for the poor,” the message of the Gospels. The School of the Americas (renamed “The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation”), famous for training of Latin American killers, announces proudly that liberation theology was “defeated with the assistance of the US army.”
Do you believe in the spiritual factor behind religion or find something useful in it?
For me, personally, no. I think irrational belief is a dangerous phenomenon and I try to avoid it. On the other hand, I recognize that it’s a significant part of the lives of others, with mixed effects.
What are your views on the rise of “New Atheism,” which seems to have come about in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks? Who are this movement’s target audiences and does it have a distinguishable political agenda around which the progressive and left forces should rally?
It’s often not very clear who the target audience is, and agendas no doubt vary. It’s fine to carry out educational initiatives aimed at encouraging people to question baseless and irrational beliefs, which can often be quite dangerous. And perhaps, sometimes such efforts have positive effects. But questions arise.
Take, for example, George W. Bush, who invoked his fundamentalist Christian beliefs in justifying his invasion of Iraq, the worst crime of the century. Is he part of the intended audience, or his variety of evangelical Christians? Or the prominent Rabbis in Israel who call for visiting the judgment of Amalek on all Palestinians (total destruction, down to their animals)? Or the radical Islamic fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia who have been Washington’s highly valued allies in the Middle East for 75 years while they have been implementing the Wahhabization of Sunni Islam, which Mideast correspondent Patrick Cockburn describes as one of the great tragedies of the modern age? If groups like these are the intended audiences [of New Atheism], the effort is not very promising, to say the least. Is it people with no particular religious beliefs who attend religious ceremonies regularly and celebrate holidays so that they can become part of a community of mutual support and solidarity, and together with others enjoy a tradition and reinforce values that help overcome the isolation of an atomized world lacking social bonds? Is it the grieving mother who consoles herself by thinking that she will see her dying child again in heaven? No one would deliver solemn lectures on epistemology to her. There may indeed be an audience, but its composition and bounds raise questions.
Furthermore, to be serious, the “new atheism” should target the virulent secular religions of state worship, often disguised in the rhetoric of exceptionalism and noble intent, the source of crimes so frequent and immense that recounting them is hardly necessary.
Without going on, I have reservations. Though, again, efforts to overcome false and often extremely dangerous beliefs [are] always appropriate.
One could make the argument that the United States is in reality a deeply fundamentalist country when it comes to the issue of religion. Is there a hope for true progressive change in this country when the overwhelming bulk of the population seems to be in the grip of religious fervor?
The US has been a deeply fundamentalist country since its origins, with repeated Great Awakenings and outbursts of religious fervor. It stands out today among the industrial societies in the power of religion. Nevertheless, also from its origins there has been significant progressive change, and it has not necessarily been in conflict with religious commitments.
One thinks, for example, of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement. Or of the powerful role of religion in African-American communities in the great civil rights movement — and as a personal aside, it was deeply moving to be able to take part in meetings of demonstrators in churches in the South after a day of brutal beatings and savagery, where the participants were reinforcing bonds of solidarity, singing hymns, gathering strength to go on the next day. This is, of course, by no means the norm, and commonly the impact of fundamentalist religious commitment on social policy has been harmful, if not pernicious.
As usual, there are no simple answers, just the old familiar ones: sympathetic concern, efforts to bring out what is constructive and worthwhile and to overcome harmful tendencies, and to continue to develop the forces of secular humanism and far-reaching and radical commitments that are urgently needed to deal with the pressing and urgent problems we all face.
So many political speeches in the United States end with, “God bless you, and God bless America.” Do linguistic expressions like these influence politics, culture and social reality?
I presume the causal relation is substantially in the opposite direction, though there may well be feedback. A drumbeat of propaganda on how “we are good” and “they are evil,” with constant exercises of self-admiration and abuse of others, can hardly fail to have an impact on perception of the world.
Examples abound, but merely to illustrate the common pattern, take a current example from the peak of the intellectual culture: Samantha Power’s August 18 article in the New York Review of Books. Without any relevant qualification or comment, the author presents Henry Kissinger’s sage reflections on “America’s tragic flaw”: namely, “believing that our principles are universal principles, and seeking to extend human rights far beyond our nation’s borders… ‘No nation… has ever imposed the moral demands on itself that America has. And no country has so tormented itself over the gap between its moral values, which are by definition absolute, and the imperfection inherent in the concrete situations to which they must be applied.’”
For anyone with the slightest familiarity with contemporary history, such fatuous musings are simply an embarrassment — or to be more accurate, a horror. And this is not talk radio, but a leading journal of left-liberal intellectuals. People bombarded with patriotic drivel from all corners are likely to have a view of themselves and the world that poses major threats to humanity. It is hardly surprising in the light, both of the historical record and the self-images concocted by ideologists, that the US is ranked in international polls as the greatest threat to world peace, no one else even close. Nor is it surprising that the population is protected from such improper facts by the “free press.”
Rhetoric is widely used in political campaigns and is frequently abused in a political context. Do you have a theory of political rhetoric?
I don’t have any theory of rhetoric, but I try to keep in mind the principle that one should not try to persuade; rather, to lay out the territory as best one can so that others can use their own intellectual powers to determine for themselves what they think is taking place and what is right or wrong. I also try, particularly in political writing, to make it extremely clear in advance exactly where I stand so that readers can make judgments accordingly. The idea of neutral objectivity is at best misleading and often fraudulent. We cannot help but approach complex and controversial questions — especially those of human significance — with a definite point of view, with an ax to grind if you like, and that ax should be apparent right up front so that those we address can see where we are coming from in our choice and interpretation of the events of history.
To the extent that I can monitor my own rhetorical activities, which is probably not a lot, I try to refrain from efforts to bring people to reach my conclusions without thinking the matter through on their own. Similarly, any good teacher knows that conveying information is of far less importance than helping students gain the ability to inquire and create on their own.
It has become popular over the years to think of knowledge as something that is socially constructed, and proponents of the idea that knowledge is simply the outcome of a consensus on any subject matter requiring research and analysis say the same goes for reality itself. Do you agree with this relativistic view of knowledge and reality?
I think it is mostly far off track, though there is an element of truth hidden within. No doubt the pursuit of knowledge is guided by prior conceptions, and no doubt it is often, not always, but typically, a communal activity. That’s substantially true of organized knowledge, say research in the natural sciences. For example, a graduate student will come in and inform me I was wrong about what I said in a lecture yesterday for this or that reason, and we’ll discuss it, and we’ll agree or disagree, and maybe another set of problems will come out. Well, that’s normal inquiry, and whatever results is some form of knowledge or understanding, which is, in part, socially determined by the nature of these interactions.
There is a great deal that we don’t understand much about, like how scientific knowledge is acquired and develops. If we look more deeply at the domains where we do understand something, we discover that the development of cognitive systems, including systems of knowledge and understanding, is substantially directed by our biological nature. In the case of knowledge of language, we have clear evidence and substantial results about this. Part of my own personal interest in the study of language is that it’s a domain in which these questions can be studied fairly clearly, much more so than in many others. Also, it’s a domain that is intrinsic to human nature and human functions, not a marginal case. Here, I think, we have very powerful evidence of the directive effect of biological nature on the form of the system of knowledge that arises.
In other domains like, for example, the internal construction of our moral code, we just know less, though there is quite interesting and revealing current research into the topic. I think the qualitative nature of the problem faced strongly suggests a very similar conclusion: a highly directive effect of biological nature. When you turn to scientific inquiry, again, so little is known about how it proceeds — how discoveries are made — that we are reduced to speculation and review of historical examples. But I think the qualitative nature of the process of acquiring scientific knowledge again suggests a highly directive effect of biological nature. The reasoning behind this is basically Plato’s, which I think is essentially valid. That’s why it’s sometimes called “Plato’s problem.” The reasoning in the Platonic dialogues is that the richness and specificity and commonality of the knowledge we attain is far beyond anything that can be accounted for by the experience available, which includes interpersonal interactions. And, apart from acts of God, that leaves only the possibility that it’s inner-determined in essential ways, ultimately by biological endowment.
That’s the same logic that’s routinely used by natural scientists studying organic systems. So, for example, when we study physical growth — metaphorically speaking, “below the neck,” everything but the mind — we take this reasoning for granted…. Let’s say I were to suggest to you that undergoing puberty is a matter of social interaction and people do it because they see other people do it, that it’s peer pressure. Well, you would laugh. Why? There is nothing in the environment that could direct these highly specific changes in the organism. Accordingly, we all take for granted that it is biologically determined, that growing children are somehow programmed to undergo puberty at a certain stage of development. Are social factors irrelevant to puberty? No, not at all. Social interaction is certainly going to be relevant. Under certain conditions of social isolation, it might not even take place. The same logic holds when inquiry proceeds “above the neck.”
Returning to the subject of the link between religion and politics, it has been argued by quite a few commentators that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a war of religion, not territory. Any validity in this?
The Zionist movement was initially secular, though religious elements have been gaining a considerably greater role, particularly after the 1967 war and the onset of the occupation, which had a major impact on Israeli society and culture. That’s particularly true in the military, a matter that has deeply concerned analysts of military affairs since the 1980s (Yoram Peri’s warnings at the time were perceptive) and increasingly today. The Palestinian movements were also largely secular, though religious extremism is also growing — throughout the Muslim world, in fact, as secular initiatives are beaten back and the victims seek something else to grasp. Still, it would be quite misleading I think to regard it as a war of religion. Whatever one thinks of it, Zionism has been a settler-colonial movement, with all that that entails.
What do you think of the French law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols? A step forward or backwards on progress and universalism?
I don’t think there should be laws forcing women to remove veils or preferred clothes when swimming. Secular values should, I think, be honored; among them, respect for individual choice, as long as it does not harm others. Secular values that should be respected are undermined when state power intrudes in areas that should be matters of personal choice. If Hassidic Jews choose to dress in black cloaks, white shirts and black hats, with hair in orthodox style and with religious garb, that’s not the state’s business. Same when a Muslim woman decides to wear a scarf or go swimming in a “burkini.”
Lily Sage is a Montessori pedagogue who is interested in questions of symbiosis, intersectional feminism and anti-racist/fascist praxis. She has studied in the fields of herbalism, visual/performance art, anthropology and political theory in Germany, Mongolia and the US.
C.J. Polychroniou is a political economist/political scientist who has taught and worked in universities and research centers in Europe and the United States. His main research interests are in European economic integration, globalization, the political economy of the United States and the deconstruction of neoliberalism’s politico-economic project. He is a regular contributor to Truthout as well as a member of Truthout’s Public Intellectual Project. He has published several books and his articles have appeared in a variety of journals, magazines, newspapers and popular news websites. Many of his publications have been translated into several foreign languages, including Croatian, French, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Turkish.