Religion isn't so much what you believe, it's the stories you tell. But stories need
words (well, they can use pictures too, but words are needed to
explain the pictures properly). So there's a trivial sense in which
religion and language are related. You couldn't
acquire a religion without using language. But the connection goes
deeper than this. Both religion and language are closely connected
at another level and are acquired in quite similar ways.
Something we would recognise as a religion exists in practically all the
societies studied by anthropologists. Some people have interpreted this
universality as indicating the presence of a "religion instinct", an
inbuilt tendency to religious belief and practice in all human beings.
Tbjs in turn implies the existence of brain structures that give rise to
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 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, the same may be true of religions. Perhaps there
is a "deep structure" for religion just as there seems to be for
language. But is it correct?
Is Chomksy right?_
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, doesn't 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 by children. This
recalls Richard Dawkins's meme idea, which Deacon does mention
in passing; Dawkins relates this to the spread of religion in human
Resemblances between language and religion
If we now look at religion we find that Deacon's view of language
applies quite well to that. Like language, religion has evolved to
be easily acquired by children. Consider the following.
Religion and childishness
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 (or sometimes nowadays
God the Mother). If religion has evolved to be easily learned by
children this makes good sense. "Except ye be converted, and
become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom
of heaven." (Matthew 18, 3).
Conversion vs early-acquired religion
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 (newly hatched chicks follow the first moving object they
see, even if it's a human being). Deacon's view is rather 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 quality 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
The language of religion
Acquiring a religion
may involve 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". Those who adopt these ways
of speaking subtly distinguish themselves from non-believers,
rather as having a regional accent acts as a linguistic badge of
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 modernisers 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
confidence, and it's diffcult to separate cause and effect.
Some Roman Catholics still lament the abandonment of the Latin Mass
in favour of the vernacular; 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).
Dialects in language and religion
Over time, languages acquire regional dialects, and the same is
true of religion. There is a tendency for two separate trends to
form within mature religions, one plain, the other ornate.
(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: Theravada is relatively austere and unemotional, whereas
Mahayana has the Bodhisattvas (Buddhas-to be, who compare in some
ways with the saints in Catholicism) and elaborate ceremonies.
(iii) Within Islam there are differences in tone
between Sunni and Shia: in a Shia country such as Iran you
frequently see pictures of Ali, Husayn and other "saints" in
taxis and elsewhere which are reminiscent of Greek
icons and Catholic holy pictures.
Catholicism, Mahayana, and Shiite Islam have something in common,
and so do Protestantism, Theravada Buddhism, and Sunni Islam. We can
think of these as religious dialects. They mostly remain mutually
intelligible, at least to start with. But over time the process may
continue to a point where that is no longer true, and then we can
speak of the evolution of a new religious species.
Speciation in language and religion
Deacon describes linguistic evolution as follows.
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
Substitute "religion" for "language" and "ritual" for "syntax"
in this passage for a pretty exact description of how
Christianity evolved from Judaism. They have become different
species, which can no longer interbreed. But this is a matter of
degree. In biology there may be subspecies which are capable of
interbreeding although they seldom do so. The different
Christian denominations can be thought of as subspecies of the
Did language and religion originate together?
Finally, and very speculatively, the origins of both language
and religion may go back to the very beginnings of modern human
consciousness. Many people believe that there was a qualitative
shift in consciousness about 50,000 years ago—the Great Leap
Forward, when tool-making became more complex and the cave
paintings in France and Spain first appeared. We don't know why
these paintings were made but a prevalent idea is that they had
some sort of religious or magical significance. We also don't
know when language first developed, but some researchers think
that an elaborate form of speech first became possible to humans
at about the same time as the paintings were made. If these
ideas are at all correct, it would follow that language and
religion were closely connected at their very inception. (Recent
archaeological discoveries suggest much older starting date for art
and language but the point still stands.)
Religion: parasite or symbiont?
According to Deacon we can 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. Is that the right way to think about
We couldn't do without language, but could we do without
religion? Has it 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
As we contemplate the spread of fundamentalism and fanaticism today
in many religions, with all that this portends for continuing
conflict and perhaps the disintegration of society, it's hard
to avoid a sense of disquiet.
Postscript 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
criticised 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
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
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 neutral). Most of my discussion concerns vertical
(parents to children) transmission, which would generally be
beneficial or neutral.