13 September 2006

Me Goolies, Language, Religion

I want to write about religion, but I should note my limitations first as a language speaker (I have only studied three languages seriously and only speak two proficiently) and second as a religious scholar (I have a basic knowledge of Western, monotheistic religions and a very poor background in Eastern religion). Maybe there is some language in Uganda and a religion in PNG that would totally blow me out of the water.

I can safely say that the goal of all language is communication. Communication is essentially organized the same in every culture because we all experience processes and participants, which we try to describe to others. The goal is always to have someone else understand you. Languages, however, differ greatly (some times) in how they accomplish that. For example, Japanese does not have a future tense. For a speaker of English, this is very troubling. How do you talk about the future? For the Japanese speaker, they have a hard time understanding our obsession with counting things (plurals) and articles (a, the). Why in the world do you need such troubling little words.

The truth is that Japanese are able to communicate about the future without the future tense — you can still talk about the future effectively. Also, even though there are no articles, it turns out that you really don't need them to always make clear whether you're talking about "a chair" or "the chair" as circumstance usually takes care of these problems. We get to the same place different ways.

What is the goal of religion exactly? Could you say that all religions are after "truth"? Some might say, "To worship God," but even if there was a God, it's impossible to prove one way or the other and therefore unhelpful in our argument. I might argue that religion helps us create working societies full of safety and virtue. I might argue that somewhere along the line communities developed a sense of what was generally good for the group and bad for the group. I might argue that.

All religions have a sense of what is right and wrong, but really differ in the specifics. For example, not eating pork doesn't do me any good one way or the other unless I'm Jewish or Muslim and practicing the meaning that is associated with abstaining from pork. The rightness of it is drawn from my community, the same way as right language is drawn from where you live. Now, in religious practice, many rights and wrongs turn out to be the same because, like language, we all exist as humans in time. Our experience is pretty much the same. On one side of the world and the other, both communities have figured out that killing your neighbor for no good reason is bad for the group and therefore a bad thing.