Noam Chomsky on Religion

March 31, 2017

Anyone who has talked to me for more than five minutes probably knows that I’m a huge fan of Noam Chomsky. His writings on politics, US foreign policy, corporate media, propaganda, anarchism and anarchosyndicalism has had a big influence on me and my own political philosophy. But religion and faith is not something he talks about often. Then I discovered this interview where Chomsky was asked about his thoughts on religion and faith and I found his responses thought-provoking.

It wasn’t a surprise to me that he’s an atheist, but I was hugely impressed by his very even-handed approach and perspective on the subject. It’s a perspective that I’ve come to identify with personally, independent of this interview. So it was interesting to see the parallels in thinking. Most atheist sources I’ve found—especially views from the “new atheist” movement—turn out to be extremely arrogant, aggressive and condescending. Quite off-putting to me, even though their conclusions I may agree with.

It was very easy to miss a lot of nuanced points that are made in the audio version, so I decided to transcribe the interview. I’ve added some highlights to the parts that I especially found insightful. I’d also like to hear what you think; agree or disagree. Let me know what great thinkers on the subject of religion do you align with the most? I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on the subject of faith and the role of religion in your personal life as well as society as a whole.


[Source: Noam Chomsky on Religion]

Do you consider yourself a person of faith?

I try not to have faith. I believe in a principle that was enunciated rather well by Bertrand Russell which is that you should try to keep away from having irrational beliefs. You should believe in things for which you can find some evidence or some support. Apart from commitment to principles, like equality, freedom, justice, and so on. I wouldn’t say that’s faith, those are things you’re committed to.

But as far as beliefs about the world, reality; my feeling is one should try to—as much as possible—have substantiated beliefs or at least beliefs for which evidence could be appropriate.

Would you then consider yourself a person who has faith in the scientific method?

I think it’s the only method we have to try to get some approximate understanding of the world. I don’t have faith that it’ll reach the truth or even that it’s leading us in a true direction. In fact—as someone committed to the scientific method—I’m also committed to its consequences. And among them are that you and I and the rest of the species are organic creatures who have our specific capacities and limitations and we simply don't know and have no reason to believe that these capacities are such that we can gain the truth about the world. We do our best, but that’s the most we can do.

Can you have moral principles without an adherence to a faith?

If I attribute those principles to a divine creature who I define as ordering me to have those principles the principles don't become any more better established so that's a useless step. It’s true that our moral principles are not firmly grounded in unshakable evidence and argument but nothing is going to make them any more firmly grounded.

As for having a meaningful life, that seems to me irrelevant. People have meaningful lives with faith and without faith.

Do you think holding a supernatural world view is healthy and beneficial for humanity?

It’s not for me, I don’t see any point to it at all. On the other hand, I know that religious beliefs and other forms of supernaturalism happen to mean a lot to a lot of people.

If I find someone who’s mourning the lose of a dead child and is comforted by the idea that they’ll be reunited with the child in heaven, it’s not my business to try and convince them that their belief is incorrect. In fact, in a way I think they are lucky to be able to have such a belief. I don’t have it and I don’t think in the long run it’s healthy, but you can't legislate to other people what they should believe in order to comfort themselves.

What in general do you feel about religion’s role in human society both historically and here in the 21st century?

Overall I think, in terms of its effect on policy ranging from social policy to war, it’s been mostly negative. In fact, often extremely negative. With regard to individuals, it varies. For a lot of people it just means a lot and always has.

What do you attribute to that? Do you think there’s something biological—like many people have argued—that we’re hard wired for religion?

First of all we know very little about the evolution of humans in any relevant respect. I mean, we know a lot about the fossil record and so on, but when you get to human cognitive capacities and what we call sometimes higher mental faculties, the evolutionary record is just extremely thin. We’re a very recent product of evolution. Modern humans from a cognitive behavioral perspective only emerged within roughly the last 100,000 years which is a blink of an eye in evolutionary time. And we’re all more or less identical; there’s very little relevant genetic variation among humans. We probably come from a small breading group somewhere in East Africa no later than 50,000 years ago; there’s no time for anything to have happened.

In my view it's virtually a tautology to say that commitment to religious belief is the result of evolution because we're the result of evolution. Just like my chin is, my toenails are; so are my higher mental faculties but that just doesn't tell you very much. I mean we all know without doing popular science that people do want to find ways to give an intelligible picture of the universe around them. To find comfort, to find association with others. They do it in all kinds of ways and some of them we call religion, some of it we call magic.

In the modern period with the rise of organized modern science—of course it goes way back—but it really is a major phenomenon in human life. There's been a concerted attempt to gain an understanding of the world by means that do permit confirmation, disconfirmation, building on the results of others and so on. Its what we call science. Ok, we should push that as far as we can. Surely we want to understand as much as we can about the world and that’s the best way to understand it.