Language & Religion as Decorations

English_America“Belief” is only a small part of religion — it is the costume covering the deeper working elements of identity and community. The human mind generates all sorts of intuitions and feeling to create and protect the security and comfort it finds with its constructed identity and community. These constructs then grabs whatever decorative reinforcement it finds convenient (damning rationality, of course): theology, symbols and language are clear examples. This is why I find our habits of language so revealing of our religious habits — they are fed by the same fire.  So we can either see religious thinking in secular life, or we can recognize that the religious mind and the secular mind share far more than we’d imagine.

Take the recent US superbowl where Coca Cola did a commercial featuring a multilingual version of “America the Beautiful” with languages including English, Spanish, Keres Pueblo, Tagalog, Hindi, Senegalese French, and Hebrew. This video pissed off a lot of people to whom American Football and the Superbowl are part of their religion and it is an exclusivist religion — they know what America is, and that song was the song of an apostate. Twitter exploded with accusations like:

  • This is America. English, please.
  • We speak English is America
  • I won’t be drinking coke anymore.

I don’t want to talk about football, about America, about patriotism or about racism. This post is all about my first paragraph, the second paragraph was just an example.

Question to readers: How would you change or correct my first paragraph?




Filed under Philosophy & Religion

17 responses to “Language & Religion as Decorations

  1. “Belief” is only a small part of religion — it is the costume covering the deeper working elements of identity and community.

    That seems about right.

    The reason that I dropped out of religion probably has to do with the fact that I didn’t need the identity and community. I was comfortable in my own skin, and I had sufficient identity and community elsewhere. I was happily engaged in the mathematical community, and, later, in the open source software community. So religious community did not add anything of particular value.

    Religious fundamentalism, I suspect, has to do with people whose need for identity and community is very high. The fundamentalists are able to extract a very high price for membership in their community (the price of believing obvious nonsense).

  2. @ Sabio Lantz
    I don’t get you exactly. Please elaborate.

    Arabic is not my mother tongue; yet when Quran is recited in Arabic by a good Qari (a correct reciter); it spell bounds one.

    Yet this is one quality of Quran; its real miracle is in its meanings, its message and its appeal to reason where reason could lead one to, reasonably.

  3. @paarsurrey,
    Sorry, you will have to ask friends to help you understand.
    Besides, I inevitably find your comments merely repeating the same dull things:
    — all religions use to have the truth but they were corrupted
    — my religion knows the truth

    YAWN !
    You broke my comment policy in your last comment:

    No religious proselytizing:
    – Proselytizing (preaching, quoting scripture …) without clear interaction with a post will be deleted. Feel free to quote the Bible or other religious texts to share information pertinent to the discussion.

    Your vacuous comments are becoming annoying. If you keep breaking comment policy, I will start deleting your comment.

    Interact with the posts and stop proselyting or your comments will be deleted.

  4. I was about to point out something that sprang to my mind when I read your posting, that is, that some religions espouse a language which they consider a primary or a sacred one, Islam being one of them, but paarsurrey preempted me. Indeed [no… I’m not cynical!] one cannot understand the Qur’an properly without knowing Arabic. Since, then, I arrive second on this topic, I pass. Next issue then.

    So we can either see religious thinking in secular life, or we can recognize that the religious mind and the secular mind share far more than we’d imagine.

    I couldn’t agree more. As I mentioned before, a few times in your blog (and you are probably getting bored of my repetitive mantra), this is something I realized after moving to Sweden. The more time I spend here, the more I realize this is a very much true concept. You challenged me, at some point, to find a definition of religion when, acting intuitively, I stated “Sweden is a religious country without religion”, but, I’m afraid, I still have not found a definition of religion. I’m going through Dennett’s book “Breaking the Spell” which does give some definitions of religion, but none quite fits my purpose.

    And something for fun now. When paarsurrey claims

    yet when Quran is recited in Arabic by a good Qari (a correct reciter); it spell bounds one

    I can’t help it but recall what some naive people used to say when, back in the early 70s, Greece was ruled by a moronic dictator, a guy of such low intelligence that used to try to speak in some archaic form of Greek without, of course, ever achieving to construct any meaningful sentence consisting of more than 4 words. His supporters (typically, uneducated hill-billies) would proudly claim: “his speech was so great; I understood nothing.” And they meant it.

  5. I just clicked and saw the coca cola ad. Oh, yes, so anti-American! 🙂 Several years ago, I was visiting a research lab in NJ and, at the hotel where I was staying there was a small TV. I turned it on (I only turn TV on when I’m in a hotel) and came across a children’s program. There was a guy stating, again and again, in nice Texas or Tennessee or Alabama (or something of the sort) accent: “United States of America! Land o’ Liberty and Big French Fraaaaaahhhs“. So how dare coca cola do that?

    So, there is something else to religion. Or, rather, there are other domains where people behave as if they were following a religion. Patriotism. Football. Political affiliation. Coca cola. So, what is it that is in common?

    Back to language (and religion) now. Yes, I understand why the coca cola ad might have offended several rednecks. No surprise here. But let’s take the use of a language in a religion. For centuries, Latin was the only language of Catholic ceremonies. It has changed now, but the change was slow, and Latin (a dead language) remains the official language of Catholicism, Why? It was, after all, the language of the oppressors of the religion (who, at some point, espoused the religion for political reasons.) Rationally speaking, Latin has nothing to do with Catholicism and this can be argued even from a religious point of view. Or, take the use of ancient Greek in Greek Orthodox churches. Here one can argue that they are using the language of the Gospels and the language that St Paul had to learn in order to preach to the Greeks. But if you consider the people who are attending religious ceremonies you will quickly find out that the majority don’t understand what is really been said (although they have probably memorized the sermon by heart). And, I suppose, I don’t have to speak again about the use of Arabic in Islam…

    There is a strange relation between religion and language (I know this was not the intent of your posting…) and there is are religious things beyond what is commonly classified as religion (which was, in a broad sense, the intent of your posting….)

  6. @ Takis,

    (1) ”religion”
    Yes, it is important to realize how artificial the definition of “religion” is. Then, while we examine all the various uses, we can see how people use the word, both pejoratively and tribally, to their own ends.

    (2) ”sacred language”
    Indeed! If you will remember, Takis, I use to live in Pakistan. It was hilarious to watch religious Pakistanis Muslims treat Arabic like it was so very special. But likewise in India where Sanskrit is held sacred. The Japanese are a bit schizophrenic about Chinese, however. And of course Catholics still hold a sweet spot for Latin.

    In Karate classes here in the US, they use Japanese to say “kick”, “punch” etc — it is stupid. And 4 years ago, I wrote here about a Zen temple I attended that did the same sacred language stupidity. Here I wrote about nonsense chanting.

    But, getting back to #1, you will then see that the sacred language reflex is deeper than religion. That is why it is displayed in many other secular arenas. It is a human tendency — language is a tribal marker with magic attributes. And the point of my posting is to show (yet again) how even non-religious folks do similar things to religious people, just without apparent gods.

  7. Sabio, thanks for the informative responses.
    I absolutely agree on your statement about “religion” (including your last remark that even non-religious folks do similar things to religious people, just without apparent gods), and there are two things I wish for: (a) find a definition for it, and (b) find people who have studied the phenomenon from this, more general, point of view, rather than the narrower focus of `new atheists’. Even if we get rid of all beliefs to deities, people will still behave religiously, for reasons I don’t understand completely.

    I clicked at your links on the Soto Zen chanting and the nonsense chanting. (I had to get rid of spurious “-marks on your html.) I know what you mean regarding Japanese chanting of sutras, like, e.g., the prajna paramita sutra which the Japanese call hannya haramita sutra (because prajna sounds hannya to them, etc.) Nevertheless, the tempo and feel of the Japanse way of chanting is kinda nice. I guess this is partly due to the syllabic nature of the Japanese language. Yes, nonsense chanting, but sounds tasteful, to my ears.

  8. @ Takis,
    I think the goal of finding a definition for “religion” is a waste of time — well, unless you state clearly what you want to accomplish with the definition. The reason being, there is nothing called “religion” out there to be discovered and defined correctly. Instead, religion is an abstract term best used by folks who agree on their purpose.

    Your liking the sound of Japanese chanting reminded me on this post about Japanese Temple Bells and American Church Bells — give it a read and see if you get my point. Feel free to comment there too.

  9. @Takis Konstantopoulos:02/09/2014 at 5:51 am
    “Use of Arabic in Islam”
    @ Sabio Lantz: 02/09/2014 at 7:47 am
    “treat Arabic like it was so very special”

    What is bad about Arabic?
    Should one be biased about it?

  10. @paarsurrey:
    I’m not sure what you don’t understand. We are saying that there us NOTHING SPECIAL about Aracbic and it’s only a coincidence that Quran was written in Arabic. (This fellow, Muhammad spoke this language.) Now, all the Mohammedans in the world cry that Arabic *must* be the language of Islam and Quran. What nonsense, huh?
    Likewise, there is nothing special about Greek, it’s just that the guys who wrote the gospels wrote them in Greek. Now, all Greek Orthodox in the world say that Greek plays a special role. What nonsense, huh?

    Of course, the Gospels point out to the one-true-god, but, unfortunately, unlike the Quran, have reached us in a corrupt form, right?

  11. Every language has peculiar and different characteristics. Why should one be jealous if one language has more characteristics than the others?

  12. @paarsurrey:
    Are you joking?
    WHO is jealous?

  13. Then why object about Quran being revealed in Arabic? It had to be revealed in a human language; so it is.

  14. @paarsurrey:
    Here is my reply:
    Τρία πουλάκια κάθονταν στου Διάκου το ταμπούρι
    το ‘να τηράει τη Λειβαδιά και τ’άλλο το Ζητούνι
    το τρίτο το καλύτερο μοιρολογάει και λέει.
    “Πολλή μαυρίλα πλάκωσε, μαύρη σαν καλιακούδα.
    Μην ο Καλύβας έρχεται, μην ο Λεβεντογιάννης;

  15. I don’t understand it.

  16. @paarsurrey:
    This is my point. I was being sarcastic. To be honest, I can’t argue with you further precisely because you always reduce problems to something that defeats ordinary logic. And, to be fair, we shouldn’t occupy more space in Sabio’s blog with these discussions. All the best.

  17. @Takis Konstantopoulos :02/11/2014 at 11:25 am

    I don’t mind your sarcasm.
    Then please start a topic at your own blog “Why Quran in Arabic?” instead of the language you wrote in above; and I could not understand.

    Thanks and regards

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