In this post I’d like to start exploring religion from a different perspective, using language as a metaphor. I’ve been pulling together my thoughts on this for a couple of months now, and I’ve found that looking at religion in this way resolves the fundamental issues I talked about in my last post on this topic, The Search for Truth, and explains a number of other puzzles about religion such as:
- What is the purpose of religion?
- Does it make sense to ask whether a religion is “true”?
- Are some religions “better” than others?
- Is it possible to predict the future development of a religion — whether it will grow, change, or wither away?
- How is the development of a religion changed by contact with other religions?
- In what ways can religions vary? Are they infinitely variable, or are there limits?
- Why are the older religions of humanity (shamanism, paganism, etc.) quite similar all over the world, while the newer religions (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, scientific theories) so different from one another?
- Why is it that children seem to be natural born pagans?
- And of course: how do you go about choosing a religion that is best for yourself?
Religions and languages have a lot in common, so it’s not much of a stretch to compare the two. They’re both frequently associated with ethnic groups; they are learned by children and used throughout life (and the one you learn in childhood has a powerful effect on how you learn others as an adult); they are distinctive, both defining and defined by the cultures that use them; they are uniquely human; and they change over time.
If you look deeper, you see even more similarities. A language, after all, is not just a list of words; it also consists of rules governing how those words may be combined to create meaning. Similarly, a religion defines a set of rules governing interactions between humanity and Spirit. A speech act (like a sentence) is rule-governed behavior; the rules of the language define which words are allowed, how you can put them together, and what they mean when you follow the rules. A religious act is similarly rule-governed — the religion defines the underlying concepts and tenets that must be accepted, the actions required for a ritual, and what it all means.
Now, the remarkable thing is that a lot more is known about language than is known about religion. Languages are out in the open for everyone to see; they’re used all the time, morning till night; you can observe how children learn them, how people use them, and how they change over time. Perhaps most importantly, it’s easy to see what their building blocks are: words, sentences, and lesser-known things like phonemes and morphemes.
By contrast, religions tend to be little more secret, used somewhat less frequently, and a lot of it goes on in people’s heads, where you can’t see it. Plus, it’s harder to break a religion down into component parts for study. And, of course, it’s hard to really study religions objectively.
Linguists know a lot about language: what its purpose is, whether some languages are better than others, how they can vary, etc. If religion is a lot like language, maybe the answers to these questions can be mapped onto religion.
For example, take the first question: what is the purpose of religion? Well, first we ask: what is the purpose of language? Answer: language’s purpose is to allow humans to communicate with other humans. Well, then, by analogy, religion’s purpose is to allow humans to communicate with Spirit, and Spirit to communicate with humans. In this way, a religion can be thought of as a language of Spirit. Personally I think that’s at least 90% of the purpose of religion, though I’m sure there’s plenty of room for discussion on this point.
All of which is just to say that the answers below are just projections from language onto religion, and the projection might not work in all cases. But it’s a different perspective; and I think it casts a lot of light.
Answers to the Questions
Each of the questions in the list above deserves a whole book’s worth of discussion, maybe even a whole library’s worth. But since I know you’re dying to hear the answers now, I’m going to answer them all quickly in this post, and then discuss them at length in the later posts that will round out this series.
What is the purpose of religion?
The purpose of religion is to allow people to communicate with Spirit, and to allow Spirit to communicate with people. (See above.)
Does it make sense to ask whether a religion is “true”?
No. It makes no sense to ask whether a language is true; it’s just a medium of communication. By analogy, the same is true of religion.
Are some religions “better” than others?
Some languages are better at some things, others are better at other things. Computer languages are very good at allowing people to communicate with computers, but they’re rotten for communicating between people. There is also variation between human languages; some have a rich tense and aspect system (like Latin and English), some have rich noun classification systems (like Chinese and Japanese), etc. Anything can be communicated in any human language, but some can handle certain messages more parsimoniously. By analogy, some religions may be better for some things, and others better at others. But in general, a religion is better if it is rich enough to allow expressive, complex communication with Spirit.
Is it possible to predict the future development of a religion — whether it will grow, change, or wither away?
The short answer is no. The future of languages is determined largely by the forces of history. However, you can say what a language will do under certain conditions. For example, a language will always change over time. And if a language is spread over a large number of people spread out among a number of geographic areas or social strata, it will break apart — first into dialects, and eventually into separate languages. The same is probably true of religions.
How is the development of a religion changed by contact with other religions?
Contact between languages always means cross-pollination. It can be a light contact, such that just a few words are borrowed, or intensive contact, in which both languages are profoundly changed, and may even merge into a new one. The same is probably true of religions.
In what ways can religions vary? Are they infinitely variable, or are there limits?
Languages are extremely variable, but there are limits. All languages have nouns and verbs, for example. Plus, there are some things that are extremely common but not quite universal (like the letter “p”) and others that are relatively uncommon (like the sound “th”). The likelihood is that religions are the same way — some things are universal, others very common, etc. The place to look for these things is in comparative mythology.
Why are the older religions of humanity (shamanism, paganism, etc.) quite similar all over the world, while the newer religions (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, scientific theories) so different from one another?
Here we come to it. My feeling is that the older religions are more like human languages, and the newer ones are more like constructed languages, like Esperanto or computer languages. The reason for this lies in their history. An older religion, like a human language, is the product of tens of thousands of years of development; it has been enriched by contact with other religions, and has had contributions from generations of individual shamans and seers and storytellers. Over the millenia, it’s been shaped into a form the human mind is comfortable with. Younger religions, like constructed languages, are usually made by a small number of people, and so they simply aren’t as rich, and there’s a lot more variation between them.
Why is it that children seem to be natural born pagans?
Children are natural linguists. They seem to come hard-wired with knowledge about how languages work, and how to go about learning them. One of my daughters was learning nearly eighteen words a day last February and March (yes, we were counting!), when she was just one and a half. Could you do that? (Most people lose this natural linguistic ability at puberty.) I bet children come with the same hard-wired knowledge about religion. If so, and if the older religions are a more natural fit for the human mind, that would explain why children are natural pagans. (If it seems like I’m going too fast, I am! I’m just trying to answer the questions for now; I’m going to revisit this in depth later.)
And of course: how do you go about choosing a religion that is best for yourself?
Imagine if you were going to choose a language to learn. What is your purpose in learning it? Are you urgently in need of just basic communication, so that you can find a bathroom in Paris? Or is this something you want to take your time with, something you want to enjoy and get a lot out of, something you want to use your whole life in all kinds of circumstances? If the former, pick a language that is easy to learn and can help you rapidly. If the latter, pick something with a lot of history and rich linguistic and cultural texture.
The same holds true for religion. If this analogy holds, then picking a religion is not about deciding which one is “true”. It makes no sense to ask whether a religion is true! Instead, ask yourself what you’re going to use the religion for. Different religions are better at different things. If you’re dying and you need faith healing (because medical science says it can’t help you), for goodness’ sake choose a religion that you can learn quickly and has a tradition of faith healing. Christian Science might be just what you’re after. On the other hand, if you want something that can take a lifetime to master, is intuitively satisfying, and can help you in all kinds of life situations, an older religion might be the ticket.
Choose one you can learn, choose one that fits you, choose one in which you can express yourself. Use it to talk to Spirit.
Then let Spirit use your religion to speak to you.
Links to other Posts in this series: How to Choose a Religion I: Intro