Noam Chomsky: on humanism, the vulnerability of secular nationalism, and the mother of all book plugs.
The Humanist: You recently got the mother of all book plugs when Hegemony or Survival was recommended by Hugo Chavez addressing the United Nations General Assembly.
Chomsky: I got a funny letter from a friend of mine. He looked the book up on Amazon.com and it was somewhere up there, and his book was about 1,253,428. He wrote: 'Could I get Chavez to write a review for me?'
The Humanist: You start off both Hegemony or Survival and your latest book, Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy, sounding very much like a naturalistic humanist. In both books, you start by considering humans as animals that have evolved, pointing out that human civilization covers only a tiny part of overall history. You consider whether this human animal's high intelligence is an obstacle to its survival and ponder whether we might be some kind of 'biological error.' This is a very scientific, naturalistic way of looking at things. So, in the world of identity politics, how do you feel about the humanist identity? Is Noam Chomsky a humanist?
Chomsky: One of the historical figures whom I very much admire, and whose work is in some sense an early precursor of my own, is Wilhelm von Humboldt. He was one of the founders of classical liberalism, one of the founders of modern linguistics, and in fact a founder of the German higher educational system. He wasn't a humanist in our terms, but in the eighteenth century was an initiator of what became secular humanism. Yes, I regard myself as being in that tradition. As for scientific naturalism in the books, I don't know of any other way to approach issues.
The Humanist: You're certainly not inclined to approach issues from a theistic viewpoint.
Chomsky: Or any other doctrine or position that doesn't accept an intellectual challenge. Though it's not quite true to say that about the theistic tradition. In fact, most of what we know about atheism in the medieval period is from arguments against it. Explicit critics of religion didn't survive very well, ranging from being burned at the stake to being quartered, but there's a lot of knowledge about that criticism because of sophisticated, thoughtful argumentation trying to reject it.
In fact, the medieval church in many respects was more liberal and rational than contemporary liberalism, which treats deviation as a heresy that you have to have tantrums about. Of course, the church was based on assumptions that one must accept without rational or empirical grounds.
The Humanist: Indeed, it was a different time. I believe it was Richard Dawkins, probably the most vocal atheist today, who said that if he had lived before Darwin he would have had a hard time being an atheist, because there would be no explanation for the apparent creation.
Chomsky: I don't agree with that. For one thing, there's no explanation now either. Most scientific questions have a very partial explanation. You can't say, for example, that contemporary biology gives an explanation for why humans are what they are, so different from other animals. You can say some things about it, but it falls far short of anything that would pass for an explanation in, say, chemistry. But before Darwin, people did challenge religious doctrine very seriously.
The Humanist: Is there a difference between being able to criticize specific religious doctrines and criticizing the basic notion of God or a creator?
Chomsky: When people ask me, as they sometimes do, 'Are you an atheist?' I can only respond that I can't answer because I don't know what it is they're asking me. When people say, 'Do you believe in God?' what do they mean by it? Do I believe in some spiritual force in the world? In a way, yes. People have thoughts, emotions. If you want to call that a spiritual force, okay. But unless there's some clarification of what we're supposed to believe in or disbelieve in, I can't answer. Does one believe in a single god? Not if you believe in the Old Testament. A lot of it's polytheistic; it becomes monotheistic later on. Take the First Commandment, which presupposes that there are in fact other gods. It says, 'You shall have no other gods before me: Well if there aren't any other gods you can't say that. And, yes, it's coming from a polytheistic period, a period when the god of the Jews was the war god and they were supposed to worship him above all other gods. And he was genocidal, as you'd expect a war god to be.
The Humanist: A lot of people will draw the distinction between doctrine, dogma, and a general belief. Many beliefs from the Old Testament are very easy to criticize because they are so obviously the outlooks of ancient men grasping to try to understand the world in prescientific times, grasping for answers in a confusing world. And that's very easy to criticize now.
Chomsky: I'm not criticizing. Seeking answers is a sensible human activity because we are reflective creatures, as distinct from chimpanzees. Due to some change that took place relatively recently in evolutionary history, we became a different kind of animal, with language, with capacity for thought, interpretation, symbolic activity, and art. And, when you're a reflective being, you try to make some sense out of the world. We have various names for those efforts--religion, myth, science--but they are all attempts to come to terms with the world, and they have plenty of problems.
If you look at the history of science, there have been major shifts in the way the world is looked at. Take, say, the modern scientific revolution beginning with Galileo. The Galilean revolution was based on the idea that the world is a machine, like a clock, created by the master creator, the master artisan, and ought to be intelligible to us because we can understand the workings of a machine. You see gears, levers, and things pushing each other, and so on, so it ought to be intelligible. Right through the seventeenth century that was the prevailing view. In fact, Newton was a mechanist. He then discovered, to his dismay, that in fact there are no machines but rather mystical forces like 'action at distance.' He spent the rest of his life to find he called the 'subtle ether' that would establish interaction from contact. Major scientists of the day sharply criticized him for introducing occult forces that modern science was trying to eliminate.
The Humanist: Considering the evolution of philosophy, religion, and science, it's rather striking that in the late twentieth century, and even into the twenty-first, we have had a very strong conservative religious demographic within the culture of the United States. Would you agree?
Chomsky: Yes, but I don't think it began in the late twentieth century. If you look at U.S. history, the notion of fundamentalism was founded here by people who could be described as religious extremists. And the successive early waves of immigration were waving the Bible and describing themselves as the children of Israel. There have been successive revivals, some that take more visible forms. The 1950s were a case in point. That's when we get 'one nation under God' and so on.
But there has been a change in the last twenty-five years as a substantial part of the population, which was always there, became mobilized as a political force. You can see it in the attitude towards the president. Nobody asked whether Richard Nixon went to church or whether Lyndon Johnson prayed every morning. Maybe he did, maybe he didn't, but it wasn't a political issue. But in the last twenty-five years every president and presidential candidate has had to present themselves as a religious extremist.
The Humanist: What do you think the reasons are for that?
Chomsky: I think it changed with Carter. Not consciously or purposely, but Carter was the first president who made a big point of his being a born-again Christian. He kind of advertised it and I think party managers recognized this is a way to obtain votes of a significant section of the population. In the 1980 election campaign, all three candidates--Carter, Reagan, and Anderson--had to present themselves as religious extremists. Now Reagan, I don't know what he believed, if anything--I think he believed that reality was what he saw in the movies. Anderson was probably about as religious as I am, I suspect, but he presented himself as what I call a religious extremist. And that's a way of automatically getting votes of a substantial part of the population.
Something else happened in the last twenty-five years which is critically important, and that is the worst period in U.S. economic history for the majority of the population. Praise for the magnificent economy is true for the people at the higher income levels, but this is a period when real wages have stagnated or declined for the majority. At the same time benefits have declined, things like healthcare are out of sight, society has been atomized, depoliticized, and there's a sense of emptiness among people. And that's the kind of situation where you turn to religion.
The Humanist: Do you think there's a causal connection between the political mobilization of religious conservatives and the decline in economic conditions that you just described?
Chomsky: I suspect there is. It's a common phenomenon around the world. Where did Islamic fundamentalism come from? It came, to a very large extent, from the collapse of secular nationalism. The secular nationalism in the Arab world collapsed partly for internal reasons, corruption and so on, and partly for external reasons because it was under terrific attack, and the United States played a big role in that. The United States has traditionally supported Islamic fundamentalism and it has fought secular nationalism, just as it fought the Catholic Church.
Archbishop Romero was assassinated by U.S.-backed forces in 1980 because he was a voice for the voiceless. The 1989 assassination of six leading Latin American Jesuit intellectuals by an elite battalion armed and trained by the United States frames a decade of massacres and destruction in Central America, which was in substantial measure a war against the church. Because the church had committed a real heresy--they had taken the gospels seriously. You can't do that. The gospels, when you think about it, comprise a radical pacifist document. Emperor Constantine turned them into the doctrine of the Roman Empire. So the cross, a symbol of people's suffering, became the predominant shield of the Roman Empire. And the religion became warlike and powerful.
The Latin American church in the 1960s and '70s began to go back to the gospels, and that made them an enemy of the Vatican and the United States. The famous, or infamous, School of the Americas advertised the fact that the U.S. Army helped defeat liberation theology. At the same time the United States was supporting extreme Islamic fundamentalism in Saudi Arabia, which is the most extreme fundamentalist tyranny in the Arab world. And the main enemy of the United States was Nassar, a symbol of secular nationalism.
When you destroy secular, nationalist options, people don't give up. They turn somewhere else. And one place they turn is to religious fundamentalism, which provides services--not only emotional and spiritual services, but also social services. So if you're a poor person in the slums of Egypt and your child is sick, you don't go to the government clinic--chances are there's nobody there, or if there is someone there, they won't do anything for you. You go to an Islamic fundamentalist clinic, where they are honest and serious, and they'll take care of you. Where does Hezbollah's strength come from? Largely from their network of social services, support systems, and so on. If secular nationalism disappears, that's where you go. It could very well happen with the U.S. healthcare system, which is a total monstrosity, the worst in the industrial world.
The Humanist: It seems to me you are saying the causal connection goes one way--that certain undesirable social and economic conditions can bring about religious fundamentalism. I'm wondering if the causal connection might go back the other way as well--that with a strong religious right, so to speak, social democracy becomes much less likely.
Chomsky: Once cynical party managers who are interested in destroying the democratic system realize that they can mobilize an always-existing religious right as a weapon against secular democracy, yes, the causal connection can go that way.
This mobilization, in my view, is a completely cynical operation intended to undermine democratic institutions and social democracy and to transfer wealth and power to narrow sectors of privilege. But you can't reach people that way. What you can do is mobilize the religious right as a political force, throw them a little meat now and then, and pursue the interests of your real constituency--the super rich. That's what leads to Thomas Frank's book, What's the Matter with Kansas? Well, the matter with Kansas is that people are voting against their interests, and they're doing so because the political agenda has been shifted by party managers through corporate backers and so on, away from issues to imagery and to issues that the rich don't care that much about. So they don't like it if people don't believe in evolution, but it doesn't hurt them very much as long as their taxes get cut.
It's interesting because the day after the 2004 election, the business press reported what they called euphoria in business circles. Was it because they opposed gay rights? Was it because they thought the world was created 6,000 years ago? No. It was because this was the best gift to business that's ever happened. And if you can get it by mobilizing the already-existing extremist religious constituency, then fine.
The Humanist: If that's the case, would it be a legitimate strategy for those interested in social democracy to turn to the concept of trying to propagate, if you will, humanism, secularist thinking, and humanist identity?
Chomsky: Sure, yes. I would propagate it. I always do, but with complete respect for people who hap pen to have religious faith. They have a right to it. If they want to believe that, it's none of my business, as long as they don't impose it on others. This may surprise you, but when I visited Nicaragua in the 1980s, it was at the invitation of the Catholic Church. I spoke at a Jesuit university; I lived in a Jesuit house. And you know how religious I am. But I see no reason to insult them. I respect what they're doing. I don't share some of their beliefs. If they ask, it's open for discussion--I'm secular, and so on. But for them it's important to read the gospels and read them for peasants, and so on, and that's their way of carrying on.
The Humanist: It's interesting that you say that the United States has always been an extremely religiously conservative country. If you look at the statistics, only about half of the population attends religious services on any regular basis. So there's an argument that they aren't all that devout.
Chomsky: That's true. But if you ask what percentage believes in miracles--I think it's about 75 percent. What percentage believes that the world was created the way it is now 10,000 years ago, it's about half. What percentage are born-again Christians, I don't remember the exact number but maybe a third. In fact, one of the interesting poll results that came out this summer is that about a third of the population of the United States believes that we must support everything Israel does because that's a sign of the Second Coming. Now, I don't frankly see any reason to think that Bush believes what he says, but suppose for a moment that he does. Think what the world looks like to some observers from Mars. There are two major figures on Earth on the verge of going to war. One believes he is waiting for the Second Coming any day and the other is waiting for the Twelfth Imam to return any day. They'd think we're insane.
The Humanist: About 90 to 95 percent of Americans identify as either belonging to some Christian denomination or some other traditional religious denomination. Only about 5 percent would openly identify as nontheistic. Yet half the population doesn't attend services and 25 percent doesn't believe in miracles. There would seem to be room for growth for the concept of humanist identity.
Chomsky: Sure. Take Europe--pretty similar societies, but the figures are totally different. There's that something about the history of the United States going back to the pilgrims that I would call religious extremism. It's a major theme in this society and culture.
And there are other strange things about the culture that are different from other societies. For example, one striking element of this country's culture, which conceivably is related to religious extremism, is fear. This is one of the most frightened societies in the world. Take the start of the war in Iraq. A large portion of the American population, maybe 60 percent, really was frightened. You have to respect that fear as authentic. They believed that Saddam was coming to get us, and we had to stop him before he did. We had to defend ourselves. Right now I get letters from people saying (and this isn't true, but they say it), how can you support Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela, when they are organizing to destroy us? If you look at it objectively, their military forces are maybe 2 percent of ours. But people feel that they're about to destroy us, that we can barely protect ourselves.
There's a very good book called War Stars by literary critic Bruce Franklin. In it he goes through American popular literature since the colonists and finds themes that run throughout. Nowadays you get them in television and movies, in past days it was magazines and books. The theme is fear. We are just on the verge of being destroyed by some powerful force, and at the last minute we're saved by a hero or superweapon. That's the theme, and it's played up by cynical politicians. That's how they drove the country to a frenzy about Iraq. It's now Iran coming after us. It's picking up this old theme.
Now, there's a subtheme to it. It turns out that the groups who are about to destroy us are the ones that we're destroying. So in the earliest period the Indians were coming to destroy us. In the first major executive war, the conquest of Florida, we were defending ourselves from runaway slaves and lawless Indians who were going to destroy us while we were exterminating them. Next it was the black slaves who were going to rise up and destroy us, and that was then connected to all kinds of sexual fantasies, like they were going to rape white women and so on. By the late nineteenth century it was the Chinese who were trying to destroy us. And now it's Cuba that's going to destroy us, or Venezuela, or somebody else.
The Humanist: Some people are genuinely afraid.
Chomsky: They are genuinely afraid. The fear is genuine, and you can't ridicule people's genuine feelings. In fact you have to sympathize with them, ask where they're coming from. In this case I think you can understand it. If you're crushing somebody under your jackboot, you have to have a reason. The reason can't be "I'm an evil monster." The reason has to be either "I'm doing it for their good," which is the usual reason, or else "I'm afraid of them and if I don't do it they'll go after me." That's a very prevailing attitude. It can be manipulated and cynical, power-hungry political figures working for concentrations of power do it all the time.
Germany, remember, was the most civilized part of the world. It was the peak of Western civilization, the center of the arts, the sciences, and literature. If you wanted to study physics, you went to Germany. Within a few years, it turned into a society of raving maniacs. Why did they destroy the Jews? Out of fear. Because, in their minds, the Jews were going to destroy them. They were defending not only themselves, but the Aryan race against the Jews.
The Humanist: That brings us back to the human animal, apparently a very fearful animal.
Chomsky: Humans are capable of many things. Some of them are horrible, some are wonderful.
David Niose is an attorney and treasurer of the American Humanist Association.
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|Title Annotation:||The Humanist Interview|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2007|
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