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Infidels, Freethinkers, Humanists, and Unbelievers
Chomsky, Avram Noam (1928- )

"Religious fundamentalists alone are a huge popular grouping in the United States, which resembles pre-industrial societies in that regard. This is a culture in which three-fourths of the population believe in religious miracles, half believe in the devil, 83 percent believe that the Bible is the "actual" or the inspired word of God, 39 percent believe in the Biblical prediction of Armageddon and "accept it with a certain fatalism," a mere 9 percent accept Darwinian evolution while 44 percent believe that "God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years," and so on. The "God and Country rally" that opened the national Republican convention is one remarkable illustration, which aroused no little amazement in conservative circles in Europe."

-- Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky is the Institute Professor Emeritus of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Chomsky is credited with the creation of the theory of generative grammar, often considered to be the most significant contribution to the field of theoretical linguistics in the 20th century. He also helped spark the cognitive revolution in psychology through his review of B.F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior, which challenged the behaviorist approach to the study of mind and language dominant in the 1950s. His naturalistic approach to the study of language has also affected the philosophy of language and mind (see Harman, Fodor). He is also credited with the establishment of the so-called Chomsky hierarchy, a classification of formal languages in terms of their generative power.

Along with his linguistics work, Chomsky is also widely known for his political activism, and for his criticism of the foreign policy of the United States and other governments. Chomsky describes himself as a libertarian socialist, a sympathizer of anarcho-syndicalism (he is a member of the IWW), and is often considered to be a key intellectual figure within the left wing of American politics.

According to the Arts and Humanities Citation Index, between 1980 and 1992 Chomsky was cited as a source more often than any living scholar, and the eighth most cited source overall.

Chomsky was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of Hebrew scholar William Chomsky, who was from a town in Ukraine. His mother, Elsie Chomsky (née Simonofsky), came from what is now called Belarus, but unlike her husband she grew up in America and normally spoke "ordinary New York English". Their first language was Yiddish, but Chomsky says it was "taboo" in his family to speak it. He describes his family as living in a sort of "Jewish ghetto", split into a "Yiddish side" and "Hebrew side", with his family aligning with the latter and bringing him up "immersed in Hebrew culture and literature."

At the age of eight or nine, Chomsky spent every Friday night reading Hebrew literature. [1] Later in life he would teach Hebrew classes. In spite of this, and of all the linguistic work carried out during his career, Chomsky claims, "the only language I speak and write proficiently is English." Chomsky remembers the first article he wrote was at the age of ten about the threat of the spread of fascism, following the fall of Barcelona. From the age of twelve or thirteen he identified more fully with anarchist politics.

Starting in 1945, he studied philosophy and linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, learning from philosophers C. West Churchman and Nelson Goodman and linguist Zellig Harris. Harris's teaching included his discovery of transformations as a mathematical analysis of language structure (mappings from one subset to another in the set of sentences). Chomsky subsequently reinterpreted these as operations on the productions of a context-free grammar (derived from Post production systems). Harris's political views were instrumental in shaping those of Chomsky.

In 1949, Chomsky married linguist Carol Schatz. They have two daughters, Aviva (1957) and Diane (1960), and a son, Harry (1967).

Chomsky received his Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania in 1955. He conducted much of his doctoral research during four years at Harvard University as a Harvard Junior Fellow. In his doctoral thesis, he began to develop some of his linguistic ideas, elaborating on them in his 1957 book Syntactic Structures, perhaps his best-known work in the field of linguistics.

Chomsky joined the staff of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1955 and in 1961 was appointed full professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics (now the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy.) From 1966 to 1976 he held the Ferrari P. Ward Professorship of Modern Languages and Linguistics. In 1976 he was appointed Institute Professor. Chomsky has been teaching at MIT continuously for the last 50 years.

It was during this time that Chomsky became more publicly engaged in politics: he became one of the leading opponents of the Vietnam War with the publication of his essay "The Responsibility of Intellectuals" in The New York Review of Books in 1967. Since that time, Chomsky has become well known for his political views, speaking on politics all over the world, and writing numerous books. His far-reaching criticism of US foreign policy and the legitimacy of US power has made him a controversial figure. He has a devoted following among the left, but he has also come under increasing criticism from liberals as well as from the right, particularly because of his response to the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Despite his criticisms, Chomsky has stated that he continues to reside in the United States because he believes it remains the greatest country in the world.

Contributions to linguistics
Syntactic Structures was a distillation of his book Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory (1955, 75) in which he introduces transformational grammars. The theory takes utterances (sequences of words) to have a syntax which can be (largely) characterised by a formal grammar; in particular, a Context-free grammar extended with transformational rules. Children are hypothesised to have an innate knowledge of the basic grammatical structure common to all human languages (i.e. they assume that any language which they encounter is of a certain restricted kind). This innate knowledge is often referred to as universal grammar. It is argued that modelling knowledge of language using a formal grammar accounts for the "productivity" of language: with a limited set of grammar rules and a finite set of terms, humans are able to produce an infinite number of sentences, including sentences no one has previously said.

The Principles and Parameters approach (P&P) — developed in his Pisa 1979 Lectures, later published as Lectures on Government and Binding (LGB) — make strong claims regarding universal grammar: that the grammatical principles underlying languages are innate and fixed, and the differences among the world's languages can be characterized in terms of parameter settings in the brain (such as the pro-drop parameter, which indicates whether an explicit subject is always required, as in English, or can be optionally dropped, as in Spanish), which are often likened to switches. (Hence the term principles and parameters, often given to this approach.) In this view, a child learning a language need only acquire the necessary lexical items (words, grammatical morphemes, and idioms), and determine the appropriate parameter settings, which can be done based on a few key examples.

Proponents of this view argue that the pace at which children learn languages is inexplicably rapid, unless children have an innate ability to learn languages. The similar steps followed by children all across the world when learning languages, and the fact that children make certain characteristic errors as they learn their first language, whereas other seemingly logical kinds of errors never occur (and, according to Chomsky, should be attested if a purely general, rather than language-specific, learning mechanism were being employed), are also pointed to as motivation for innateness.

More recently, in his Minimalist Program (1995), while retaining the core concept of "principles and parameters", Chomsky attempts a major overhaul of the linguistic machinery involved in the LGB model, stripping from it all but the barest necessary elements, while advocating a general approach to the architecture of the human language faculty that emphasises principles of economy and optimal design , reverting to a derivational approach to generation, in contrast with the largely representational approach of classic P&P.

Chomsky's ideas have had a strong influence on researchers investigating the acquisition of language in children, though some researchers who work in this area today do not support Chomsky's theories, often advocating emergentist or connectionist theories reducing language to an instance of general processing mechanisms in the brain.

Generative grammar
The Chomskyan approach towards syntax, often termed generative grammar, though quite popular, has been challenged by many, especially those working outside the United States. Chomskyan syntactic analyses are often highly abstract, and are based heavily on careful investigation of the border between grammatical and ungrammatical constructs in a language. (Compare this to the so-called pathological cases that play a similarly important role in mathematics.) Such grammaticality judgments can only be made accurately by a native speaker, however, and thus for pragmatic reasons such linguists often focus on their own native languages or languages in which they are fluent, usually Spanish, English, French, German, Dutch, Italian, Japanese or one of the Chinese languages. However, as Chomsky has said:

The first application of the approach was to Modern Hebrew, a fairly detailed effort in 1949–50. The second was to the native American language Hidatsa (the first full-scale generative grammar), mid-50s. The third was to Turkish, our first Ph.D. dissertation, early 60s. After that research on a wide variety of languages took off. MIT in fact became the international center of work on Australian Aboriginal languages within a generative framework [...] thanks to the work of Ken Hale, who also initiated some of the most far-reaching work on Native American languages, also within our program; in fact the first program that brought native speakers to the university to become trained professional linguists, so that they could do work on their own languages, in far greater depth than had ever been done before.

That has continued. Since that time, particularly since the 1980s, it constitutes the vast bulk of work on the widest typological variety of languages. Sometimes generative grammar analyses break down when applied to languages which have not previously been studied, and many changes in generative grammar have occurred due to an increase in the number of languages analyzed. However, the claims made about linguistic universals have become stronger rather than weaker over time; for example, Richard Kayne's suggestion in the 1990s that all languages have an underlying Subject-Verb-Object word order would have seemed implausible in the 1960s. One of the prime motivations behind an alternative approach, the functional-typological approach or linguistic typology (often associated with Joseph Greenberg), is to base hypotheses of linguistic universals on the study of as wide a variety of the world's languages as possible, to classify the variation seen, and to form theories based on the results of this classification. The Chomskyan approach is too in-depth and reliant on native speaker knowledge to follow this method, though it has over time been applied to a broad range of languages.

Chomsky hierarchy
Chomsky is famous for investigating various kinds of formal languages and whether or not they might be capable of capturing key properties of human language. His Chomsky hierarchy partitions formal grammars into classes, or groups, with increasing expressive power, i.e., each successive class can generate a broader set of formal languages than the one before. Interestingly, Chomsky argues that modelling some aspects of human language requires a more complex formal grammar (as measured by the Chomsky hierarchy) than modeling others. For example, while a regular language is powerful enough to model English morphology, it is not powerful enough to model English syntax. In addition to being relevant in linguistics, the Chomsky hierarchy has also become important in computer science (especially in compiler construction and automata theory).

His best-known work in phonology is The Sound Pattern of English, written with Morris Halle. This work is considered outdated (though it has recently been reprinted), and Chomsky does not publish on phonology anymore.

Contributions to psychology
Chomsky's work in linguistics has had major implications for modern psychology. For Chomsky linguistics is a branch of cognitive psychology; genuine insights in linguistics imply concomitant understandings of aspects of mental processing and human nature. His theory of a universal grammar was seen by many as a direct challenge to the established behaviorist theories of the time and had major consequences for understanding how language is learned by children and what, exactly, is the ability to use language. Many of the more basic principles of this theory (though not necessarily the stronger claims made by the principles and parameters approach described above) are now generally accepted in some circles.

In 1959, Chomsky published an influential critique of B.F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior, a book in which Skinner offered a speculative explanation of language in behavioral terms. "Verbal behavior" he defined as learned behavior which has its characteristic consequences being delivered through the learned behavior of others; this makes for a view of communicative behaviors much larger than that usually addressed by linguists. Skinner's approach focused on the circumstances in which language was used; for example, asking for water was functionally a different response than labeling something as water, responding to someone asking for water, etc.

These functionally different kinds of responses, which required in turn separate explanations, sharply contrasted both with traditional notions of language and Chomsky's psycholinguistic approach. Chomsky thought that a functionalist explanation restricting itself to questions of communicative performance ignored important questions. Accordingly, "If we hope to understand human language and the psychological capacities on which it rests, we must first ask what it is, not how or for what purposes it is used." (Chomsky-Language and Mind, 1968) He focused on questions concerning the operation and development of innate structures for syntax capable of creatively organizing, cohering, adapting and combining words and phrases into intelligible utterances.

In the review Chomsky emphasized that the scientific application of behavioral principles from animal research is severely lacking in explanatory adequacy and is furthermore particularly superficial as an account of human verbal behavior because a theory restricting itself to external conditions, to "what is learned", cannot adequately account for generative grammar. Chomsky raised the examples of rapid language acquisition of children, including their quickly developing ability to form grammatical sentences, and the universally creative language use of competent native speakers to highlight the ways in which Skinner's view exemplified underdetermination of theory by evidence. He argued that to understand human verbal behavior such as the creative aspects of language use and language development, one must first postulate a genetic linguistic endowment. The assumption that important aspects of language are the product of universal innate ability runs counter to Skinner's radical behaviorism.

Chomsky's 1959 review has drawn fire from a number of critics, the most famous criticism being that of Kenneth MacCorquodale's 1970 paper On Chomsky’s Review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior (Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, volume 13, pages 83-99). This and similar critiques have raised certain points not generally acknowledged outside of behavioral psychology, such as the claim that Chomsky did not possess an adequate understanding of either behavioral psychology in general, or the differences between Skinner's behaviorism and other varieties; consequently, it is argued that he made several serious errors.

On account of these perceived problems, the critics maintain that the review failed to demonstrate what it has often been cited as doing. As such, it is averred that those most influenced by Chomsky's paper probably either already substantially agreed with Chomsky or never actually read it. Chomsky has maintained that the review was directed at the way Skinner's variant of behavioral psychology "was being used in Quinean empiricism and`naturalization of philosophy." (quoted in Barsky- Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent).

It has been claimed that Chomsky's critique of Skinner's methodology and basic assumptions paved the way for the "cognitive revolution," the shift in American psychology between the 1950s through the 1970s from being primarily behavioral to being primarily cognitive. In his 1966 Cartesian Linguistics and subsequent works, Chomsky laid out an explanation of human language faculties that has become the model for investigation in some areas of psychology. Much of the present conception of how the mind works draws directly from ideas that found their first persuasive author of modern times in Chomsky.

There are three key ideas. First is that the mind is "cognitive," or that the mind actually contains mental states, beliefs, doubts, and so on. Second, he argued that most of the important properties of language and mind are innate. The acquisition and development of a language is a result of the unfolding of innate propensitites triggered by the experiential input of the external environment. Subsequent psychologists have extended this general "nativist" thesis beyond language. Lastly, Chomsky made the concept of "modularity" a critical feature of the mind's cognitive architecture. The mind is composed of an array of interacting, specialized subsystems with limited flows of inter-communication. This model contrasts sharply with the old idea that any piece of information in the mind could be accessed by any other cognitive process (optical illusions, for example, cannot be "turned off" even when they are known to be illusions).

Opinion on criticism of science culture
Chomsky strongly disagrees with poststructuralist and postmodern criticisms of science, to wit:

"I have spent a lot of my life working on questions such as these, using the only methods I know of; those condemned here as "science," "rationality," "logic," and so on. I therefore read the papers with some hope that they would help me "transcend" these limitations, or perhaps suggest an entirely different course. I'm afraid I was disappointed. Admittedly, that may be my own limitation. Quite regularly, "my eyes glaze over" when I read polysyllabic discourse on the themes of poststructuralism and postmodernism; what I understand is largely truism or error, but that is only a fraction of the total word count. True, there are lots of other things I don't understand: the articles in the current issues of math and physics journals, for example. But there is a difference. In the latter case, I know how to get to understand them, and have done so, in cases of particular interest to me; and I also know that people in these fields can explain the contents to me at my level, so that I can gain what (partial) understanding I may want. In contrast, no one seems to be able to explain to me why the latest post-this-and-that is (for the most part) other than truism, error, or gibberish, and I do not know how to proceed."

Chomsky has also commented on critiques of "white male science", stating that they are much like the anti-Semitic and politically motivated attacks against "Jewish physics" used by the Nazis to denigrate research done by Jewish scientists during the Deutsche Physik movement:

"In fact, the entire idea of "white male science" reminds me, I'm afraid, of "Jewish physics." Perhaps it is another inadequacy of mine, but when I read a scientific paper, I can't tell whether the author is white or is male. The same is true of discussion of work in class, the office, or somewhere else. I rather doubt that the non-white, non-male students, friends, and colleagues with whom I work would be much impressed with the doctrine that their thinking and understanding differ from "white male science" because of their "culture or gender and race." I suspect that "surprise" would not be quite the proper word for their reaction."

Chomsky's influence in other fields
Chomskyan models have been used as a theoretical basis in several other fields. The Chomsky hierarchy is often taught in fundamental computer science courses as it confers insight into the various types of formal languages. This hierarchy can also be discussed in mathematical terms [7], and has generated interest among mathematicians, particularly combinatorialists. A number of arguments in evolutionary psychology are derived from his research results.

The 1984 Nobel Prize laureate in Medicine and Physiology, Niels K. Jerne, used Chomsky's generative model to explain the human immune system, equating "components of a generative grammar ... with various features of protein structures". The title of Jerne's Stockholm Nobel lecture was "The Generative Grammar of the Immune System."

Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee who according to some researchers learned 125 signs in ASL, was named after Noam Chomsky.

Political views
Noam Chomsky has been engaged in political activism all of his adult life and expressed a wide range of opinions on politics and world events which are widely cited, publicized and discussed. Some highlights are:

Finds "terrorism" to be an easy label for use by governments which fail to acknowledge their own terrorist activities

Holds a wide range of well-informed, sometimes unpopular criticisms of the U.S. government

Holds libertarian socialist worldview, although he provides broad criticisms for its existing implementations

Holds views that can be summarized as anti-war: Anti-Vietnam War and against most other US conflicts of his lifetime

Advocate of broad free-speech rights, especially in the mass media

Holds a notion of Zionism, but has broad criticism of Israel's policy towards Palestinians

Chomsky has a broad range of criticisms of other aspects of the US government, society and the mass media. He has had many intellectual engagements with his peers in academia. In both his academic and political writings and speech, he has enjoyed a wide audience throughout much of the world.

Criticism of Noam Chomsky
Main article: Criticism of Noam Chomsky
Due to the controversial nature of his writings and beliefs, Chomsky has acquired many critics. Among his most controversial stances was that in the Faurisson affair.

Academic achievements, awards and honors
According to the Arts and Humanities Citation Index, between 1980 and 1992 Chomsky was cited as a source more often than any living scholar, and the eighth most cited source overall.

In the spring of 1969 he delivered the John Locke Lectures at Oxford University; in January 1970 he delivered the Bertrand Russell Memorial Lecture at Cambridge University; in 1972, the Nehru Memorial Lecture in New Delhi, in 1977, the Huizinga Lecture in Leiden, in 1997, The Davie Memorial Lecture on Academic Freedom in Cape Town, among many others.

Noam Chomsky has received many honorary degrees from the most prestigious universities around the world, including the following: University of London, University of Chicago, Loyola University of Chicago, Swarthmore College, Delhi University, Bard College, University of Massachusetts, University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University, Amherst College, Cambridge University, University of Buenos Aires, McGill University, Universitat Rovira I Virgili, Tarragona, Columbia University, University of Connecticut, Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa, University of Western Ontario, University of Toronto, Harvard University, University of Calcutta, and Universidad Nacional De Colombia. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Science. In addition, he is a member of other professional and learned societies in the United States and abroad, and is a recipient of the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award of the American Psychological Association, the Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences, the Helmholtz Medal, the Dorothy Eldridge Peacemaker Award, the Ben Franklin Medal in Computer and Cognitive Science, and others. He is twice winner of The Orwell Award, granted by The National Council of Teachers of English for "Distinguished Contributions to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language."

Chomsky was voted the leading living public intellectual in The 2005 Global Intellectuals Poll conducted by the British magazine Prospect. He reacted coolly, saying "I don't pay a lot of attention to polls."

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

"The Bible is probably the most genocidal book ever written."

"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."

"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."


From ZNet's ChomskyChat (

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.


A reader provides another quote from Noam Chomsky regarding religion. It's taken from ZNet's ChomskyChat archive at

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.


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.


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 enerality; 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.

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