Religion and Language

Anthony Campbell

Revised 22 August 2017.

The ideas discussed in this article are developed further in my new book, Religion, Language, Narrative and the Search for Meaning. Please see my currently published books for more details. See also The Origin of Religion.

A Czech translation is available.

A religion instinct?

In another article on this site, Religion as Narrative, I put forward the view that the basis of religion is not belief but is narrative. Now, narrative is largely a matter of language: narratives are primarily expressed in words (also in pictures, but the pictures generally require verbal elaboration if they are to be understood).

There is thus a trivial sense in which religion and language are related to each other. It would be impossible to acquire a religion without the medium of language. However, I want to suggest that the connection is deeper than this, and that both religion and language may be closely connected at a deep level and may be acquired in quite similar ways.

What needs to be explained about religion?

Two aspects of religion require explanation. First, it is seemingly universal in all human societies. Second, although religions may vary greatly from one society to another, they possess certain features in common that make us able to identify them as religions. We know a religion when we meet it.

Is there a 'deep structure' for religion?

Many people have interpreted this universality and similarity as indicating the presence of a "religion instinct", an inbuilt tendency to religious belief and practice in all human beings. Some have even speculated that there are brain structures that give rise to this. Now, very similar arguments have been applied to language.

Every human society we have encountered has possessed language, and Noam Chomsky has famously claimed that there are similarities in the structure of all languages that point to the existence of a "Universal Grammar" (Chomsky 1972). The grammar or "deep structure" of human languages is very complex, yet young children seem to have an innate ability to master this complexity within a short time, as if by instinct. This has suggested to many people that the rules of grammar are in some sense built into the human brain during evolution.

If this idea is correct, might not the same be true of religion? Religion, after all, is apparently a near-universal in human societies, like language, so perhaps there is a "deep structure" for religion just as there seems to be for language.

Language and religion as mind parasites

See also Religion as Parasite, Parasite as Religion

I want to take up this idea but to modify it in what I hope is a constructive way. In his book The Symbolic Species Terrence Deacon rejects Chomsky's view and proposes instead the hypothesis that languages evolve in a kind of symbiotic relation with the human mind (Deacon, 1997). The fact that young children are able to learn languages with apparent ease, he suggests, does not mean that they have some extraordinary innate linguistic ability but rather that human languages have evolved to be learned easily by immature minds.

There is a two-fold evolution going on here: certainly the human brain has evolved linguistic capabilities that are absent in the brains of other primates, but at the same time languages have adapted themselves to be readily learnable. This clearly has something in common with Dawkins's meme idea, which Deacon does mention in passing, but it places more emphasis on evolutionary change in language than we find in the writings of most memeticists.

Resemblances between language and religion

If we now look at religion we find, I believe, a number of rather close similarities with Deacon's view of language. I want to suggest that religion, like language, has evolved to be easily learned by children. The following features seem to be relevant.
  1. Religion and children

    Religious people are often reproved by the non-religious, and even by some co-religionists, for having a "childish" view of God; and this is in a sense reflected in references to God the Father (today often transformed by feminists into God the Mother). If religion has evolved to be easily learned by children, this makes good sense. Is this perhaps what Jesus meant when he said "Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18, 3)?

  2. Conversion vs early-acquired religion

    The language-learning ability of children is different from that of adults. There is a long-held view that this indicates a "critical period" for language learning, similar to the "imprinting" phenomenon in birds. Deacon disagrees, suggesting instead that a degree of immaturity may be actually necessary for language acquisition in this way.

    Whatever the explanation, the phenomenon certainly exists, as anyone who has tried to learn a new language in later life can testify. But religion is acquired by children in a very similar way to language. Many people are taught religion literally at their mothers' knees, and religions infused early in life in this way have a different "feel" from those that may be adopted later as the result of conversion.

    Religious beliefs inculcated in childhood are also difficult to shake off, just as one's "mother tongue" is more persistent in the face of disuse than languages learned in later life. Seen in this way, the well-known if apocryphal Jesuit saying "Give me a boy until he's seven and he's mine for life" takes on a new significance.

  3. The language of religion

    Acquiring a religion involves to some extent learning a new vocabulary and syntax: for example, the old Quaker use of "thee" and, in some Christian circles, phraseology such as "believing 'on' Jesus" instead of the vernacular "believing 'in'". And because what is said may partially condition what can be thought, the use of such speech patterns will have subtle psychological effects on the speakers, tending to limit what can be named and hence what can be thought. So religion and language are closely connected at the structural level.

  4. Sacred languages

    Many religions have a sacred language (Hebrew for Judaism, classical Arabic for Islam, Sanskrit for Hinduism, Pali for Theravada Buddhism). Because religions are generally ancient the languages they use are often partially or wholly unintelligible to the laity and sometimes even the clergy, but contrary to what religious modernizers suppose, this linguistic remoteness is a strength, not a weakness.

    Misguided attempts to bring the language up to date often coincide with a loss of religious faith, and it is difficult to say what is cause and what is effect. Many Roman Catholics still lament the abandonment of the Latin Mass in favour of the vernacular, and disuse of the Book of Common Prayer by the Church of England has not prompted an influx of young worshippers to the pews (Freeman 2001).

  5. Universal features of religion?

    The grammatical similarities among languages find a parallel in religions. There is a tendency for two separate trends to form within mature religions.

    (i) In Christianity we have Catholicism and Protestantism: Catholicism goes in for devotion to the Virgin Mary and the saints and produces complex vestments and rituals, all of which are frowned on to a greater or lesser extent by Protestants.

    (ii) In Buddhism there is the distinction between Theravada and Mahayana: the Theravada is relatively austere and unemotional, whereas the Mahayana has the Bodhisattvas (who compare in some ways with the saints in Catholicism) and elaborate ceremonies.

    (iii) Within Islam there are likewise differences in tone between Sunni and Shia: in a Shia country such as Iran you frequently see pictures of Ali, Hussain and other "saints" in taxis and elsewhere which are curiously reminiscent of Greek icons and Catholic saints' pictures.

    It would be wrong to push these resemblances too far, yet it is difficult not to notice the similarities in "feel". Catholicism, Mahayana, and Shiite Islam have something in common, and so do Protestantism, Theravada, and Sunni Islam.

  6. Religions, like languages, evolve

    Languages, as Deacon emphasizes, are not static but evolve over time; they behave in fact like living organisms. The same is true of religions. Deacon writes: "As a language passes from generation to generation, the vocabulary and syntactical rules tend to get modified by transmission errors, by the active creativity of its users, and by influences from other languages... Eventually words, phraseology and syntax will diverge so radically that people will find it impossible to mix elements of both without confusion. By analogy to biological evolution, different lineages of a common ancestral language will diverge so far from each other as to become reproductively incompatible."

    If we substitute "religion" for "language" we have a pretty exact description of how Christianity evolved from Judaism. They have become different species, which can no longer "interbreed". Within religions there are often subspecies—the different denominations within Christianity, for example.

  7. Did language and religion originate together?

    Finally, and very speculatively, may the origins of both language and religion go back to the very beginnings of modern human consciousness? Many people believe that there was a qualitative shift in human consciousness about 50,000 years ago—the so-called Great Leap Forward, when tool-making became more complex and the cave paintings in France and Spain first appeared. We do not know why these paintings were made but a prevalent idea is that they had some sort of religious or magical significance. We also do not know when language first developed, but again it is speculated that an elaborate form of speech first became possible to humans at about the same time as the paintings. If these ideas are at all correct, it would follow that language and religion were closely connected at their very inception.

Religion: parasite or symbiont?

According to Deacon, it is possible to think of languages as parasites or viruses. But that is probably too severe, as he concedes, since languages are after all beneficial to their hosts and should therefore better be regarded as symbionts—organisms that live together for mutual benefits. So is religion a parasite or a symbiont? We could not do without language, but could we do without religion? Perhaps it has become so deeply infused into our minds and our culture that we cannot rid ourselves of it. It may be like the mitochondria in our cells; these were originally free-living organisms, but at some stage in the distant past they became permanent denizens of all "advanced" cells, which depend on them for their ability to use oxygen for energy. Have religions become our psychological mitochondria?

As we contemplate the spread of fundamentalism and fanaticism today among many religions, with all that this portends for continuing conflict and perhaps the disintegration of society, it is difficult to avoid a sense of helplessness. If it is true, as I suspect it may be, that religion is so deeply interfused in our mental make-up that most of us cannot do without it, our outlook may be bleak.

Note added 9 February 2006
The late Ben Cullen of the Department of Archaeology and Palaeoecology, Queen's University, Belfast, wrote a paper shortly before he died called Parasite ecology and the evolution of religion. In this he criticized Richard Dawkins's view of religion as a parasite. Here is an abstract of the paper*.

It is argued that the blanket view of religion as a disease, advocated by Dawkins, is inconsistent with the principles of parasite ecology. These principles state that vertically transmitted parasites evolve towards benign, symbiotic states, while horizontally transmitted parasites increase their virulence. Most of the world's established religions are transmitted vertically, from parents to children, and are therefore expected to be benign towards their hosts. Yet, certain horizontally transmitted cults, such as the Aum Shinrikyo, seem to effectively exploit their hosts in a way similar to an infectious disease.
To which I would add that many of the recent Islamic terrorist attacks have been perpetrated either by converts to Islam or by people who are described as having been lax in their religious observance before becoming radicalised. In both cases their recent religious views were acquired mainly or entirely by horizontal transmission.

Cullen's idea fits well with the view of religion which I propose in this article: namely, that it can be either beneficial or harmful to its host (or possibly even neutral). Most of my discussion concerns vertical transmission, which would thus generally be beneficial or neutral.

*The article was published in Heylighen F., Bollen J & Riegler A. (ed.) (1999): The Evolution of Complexity (Kluwer Academic, Dordrecht). It is available on line here.