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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

How is Religion Like Language?

Anthropologist David Eller, in his book Atheism Advanced, draws comparisons between language and religion.

He writes:
The very idea of language must be acquired. In this sense, religion is like language. No particular language is innate, although all humans normally do acquire one and have a capacity (some say an instinct) to acquire one. . . . Which actual language a human acquires depends on his or her social environment.

A person acquires a particular language simply by and because of being raised among others who already speak it; generally, people speak whatever language is spoken around them. . . . no speakers of a particular language would ever claim that their language is "true." The very notion that, for instance, English is true while Spanish is false is nonsensical.
Interestingly, religion is like language in a number or ways--none of them fortunate for those who want to take religion seriously. First, while most humans end up believing some religion, no particular religion is inborn or natural. Therefore and second, there are very many particular real or potential religions . . . . Third, a person normally acquires religion simply by and because of being raised among others who already do speak it; and generally, people practice whatever religion is practiced around them. The profound difference between language and religion, however, is that all members of a religion think that their religion is true. The very notion that, for instance, a person would say, "I am a Christian, but I don't think Christianity is true" is contradictory and ridiculous (pp. 37-38).

Below I would like to list both comparisons and contrasts between religion and language, some of them from Eller, and some from my own thinking.

Points of comparison:

1. Religion like language is acquired.

2. People are born with a capacity or an instinct to acquire both language and religion.

3. People acquire whatever language or religion they are exposed to as a child.

4. People are better able to function in their culture by adopting the language of the culture and by adopting the religion of the culture.

5. Both language and religion acquisition is advantageous for a person who desires to "fit-in" in their social setting.

6. A person may acquire a second or more languages over the course of a lifetime.

7. In the evolution of language, words and grammatical forms are borrowed from one language and incorporated into another in a type of cross-fertilization. The same phenomena is seen in the evolution of religions.

Points of contrast:

1. Religions are thought to be true, whereas languages are not. A person may think of their language as "true" if it allows them to adequately communicate with other people in their society but they do not conceive of their language as being the only "true" language. If they are aware of other languages, they would acknowledge that those languages are "true" for the people in other cultures.

2. When a person acquires a new language, he does not then reject his old language.

While the analogy is certainly not perfect, I think it is useful in understanding how religion is a cultural phenomena.


  1. This is a helpful analogy - although I would add that language and religion are both things I find useful in expressing my perception of the universe we inhabit, and through interacting with people with other languages, religions, and cultures, we have our assumptions challenged in ways that can be painful but are ultimately beneficial.

  2. I think it's a good analogy. We learn language from constantly hearing it from birth. Growing up going to church "every time the doors are open" has quite an effect.

    Hearing ONLY English and being ONLY in your church really controls things.

    Growing up as a Muslim in Saudi Arabia speaking Arabic would be very real and very true to them.

  3. I have thought about this issue during the last 6 months, oddly enough. I will have to read this book.

    One addition for your list:
    People tend to think their native language is unique and does things other languages can't do. And they are blatantly wrong !

  4. I think you might run into a technical problem with the analogy of the acquisition of language. I can hear theologians counter with the Almighty confusing the languages at the tower of Babel, and then the promise to restore people to one pure language at the end of days.

  5. Re: Point of contrast #1, "A person ... do[es] not conceive of their language as being the only "true" language."

    Believe it or not I read an email this week from someone who does think there is 1 true language -- Hebrew.

    An additional point of Contrast:
    3. Languages are learned over time and not acquired spontaneously. Some religious belief happens spontaneously (for example when someone who grew up in 1 religious tradition suddenly converts to a different one).

    A question regarding Comparison #3, "People acquire whatever language or religion they are exposed to as a child."

    Some children grow up in non/irreligious homes and have little exposure to a particular religious view point. Just curious if you think that they then acquire the predominate religion of the surrounding culture, or that the "irreligion" they are raised in would itself be some form of religious belief, or that they essentially are "feral" with respect to religion?


  6. Scott,

    I like the additional contrasting point. I would say that children tend to pick up the worldview of their parents which includes religion or lack thereof. However, they are also influenced as they grow up by their peers and the surrounding culture. For example, a child born to secular parents in Utah might wind up converting to Mormonism or a person in the South might wind up converting to the Baptist religion. There are always exceptions too. Some people will intentionally go to the opposite extreme of how they were raised. I understand the 19th century evangelist D.L. Moody's (after whom Moody Bible Institute is named)son became an atheist. Madaly O'Hair had a son who became an evangelical Christian. So its not always "cut and dried" that a person will adopt the religion or irreligion of their parents but I would say it is generally the case.

  7. Sabio,

    You make a good point to that some people wrongly think one language is superior to another. I have heard Christians say that the NT was written in Greek because it is the most precise language. That is a failure to understand linguistics.

  8. @Ken,
    I have heard a rule that captures your exceptions above. The rule improves the simple rule but is still only part of the puzzle, of course:

    If your parents have a good relationship, you take their faith, if not, you don't.

  9. Sabio,

    It would be interesting to have statistics on - parents/relationship/religious choice. I often wonder what would have happened to me if my father had also been Catholic and I didn't grow up with the fear that he would have to burn in hell for eternity. I always say that my Catholic education ruined my Catholicism. Once I started inquiring about other belief systems, I really examined what they had to say. My motto is, "Question, you will never regret knowing".