Noam Chomsky

“Spiritual Human” Interview with Noam Chomsky

Prof Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor and Professor of Linguistics (Emeritus) at MIT, an institution at which he has taught since 1955. He is one of the most widely quoted individuals in history. A pioneer of modern linguistics and humanist philosopher who has written lectured over many decades on issues relating to international affairs and human rights.

Whilst there remains dialogue between differing faiths at a collective and individual level, through inter-faith dialogue, we cannot ignore a parallel dialogue. One that is between secular and faith-based humanists. In an attempt to continue this “spiritual humanist”, intra-world view dialogue, inspired by the work of Professor Syed Hasan Askari, presented below my brief interview with a leading thinker of our times.

Sincere thanks to Professor Chomsky for agreeing to this interview.

Musa Askari: In an interview for The Humanist in 2007 you were quoted saying, “When people say do you believe in God? what do they mean by it? Do I believe in some spiritual force in the world? In a way, yes. People have thoughts, emotions. If you want to call that a spiritual force, okay. But unless there’s some clarification of what we’re supposed to believe in or disbelieve in, I can’t answer.”

(a) When you refer to believing in a spiritual force, “in a way”, could you please elaborate on that? (b) In what way could thoughts and emotions perhaps come under the category of “spiritual” in your view?

Noam Chomsky: My point was that it’s up to those who believe there are spiritual forces to answer the questions you are raising.  I don’t use the concept myself.

Musa Askari: In August 2010 you shared with me the following, “The “prophets” were what we would call dissident intellectuals. They provided critical geopolitical analysis, condemned the crimes of the powerful, called for justice and mercy for those who needed help, etc. I wouldn’t personally endorse everything they said, any more than I would for critics of power and its crimes today. But rather generally I think they played an honorable role — and suffered accordingly.”

(a) Please explain what circumstances give rise to “dissident intellectuals” and do you see any commonality in those circumstances cutting across ancient and recent history to modern times, both secular and religious? (b) By “suffered accordingly” are you saying it was inevitable they would suffer due to the stance they took against oppression in general?

Noam Chomsky: Whenever there is injustice, oppression, aggression, violence, it’s standard for it to be supported by those we now call “intellectuals,” but typically not by all; there is typically a fringe of dissidents.  With very rare exceptions – in fact, it’s hard to think of any – they suffer in one or another way; how depends on the nature of the society.

Musa Askari: I would like to share with you the following by my late father, Prof. Syed Hasan Askari (1932-2008), from his book “Towards A Spiritual Humanism” (published 1991) and ask for your comment: “Thanks to the discourse on State, from Hegel onwards through to Karl Marx, and also through our modern insights and maturity of thought on a global level, State is one of those institutions in our history which does not need any overt ideology in order to oppress….I consider State as a divinity (a false divinity) even a State without any claims whatsoever in overt, manifest, formal terms. A State can institute its power without naming its source, without naming its ideology, and we know this much more in our times than at any other time in human history because State creates its own enslaving power. In that sense, State becomes a parallel concept to God in the religious sense of the word….if we look at Lincoln’s vision of humanity – “by the people, of the people, For the people” – this “people” was a very vital spiritual category in Lincoln’s perception. Now, today, “the people” is no more than a crowd, or the helpless, private, infirm fragmented individual. So, it was in that sense that we can refer to the peace movements, the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, as very vital attempts, however weak, to impart to the State a human dimension, or in my language, a spiritual dimension….The question is how can we confront a divinity which has no name, which has no symbol – because it uses every symbol as its instrument.”

(a) I would be grateful for your comments in response to these quotes. (b) Specifically, I am interested in your thoughts on reference to State as a “divinity” and could you talk a little about what “enslavement” means in modern times?

Noam Chomsky: I understand the usage, and there certainly are those who worship the state much as divinities are worshipped.  Not just the state but even leaders.  For example Kim il-Sung in North Korea, or Ronald Reagan in the US – not a particularly popular president, but after his death sectors of wealth and power created a huge propaganda campaign that converted this disgraceful figure into a semi-divinity.  In a publication of the prestigious right-wing Hoover Institute at StanfordUniversity, we can even read that he was a colossal figure, whose “spirit seems to stride the country, watching us like a warm and friendly ghost.” And an image has been created that is utterly at odds with his actual policies.  At this point we are moving into the domain of worship of the HolyState and its leaders.

But in general I don’t think the image of the state as a divinity is very helpful.  And while the state can coerce, with some exceptions (like North Korea) it seems to me misleading to think of it as capable of “enslavement.”

Musa Askari: In 1995 Hasan Askari, on a visit to India, delivered a speech on “Spiritual Humanism“. The following is a quote from that speech, “Democracy has become a political convenience. The great socialist dream has been eroded by the rise of multi-national empires. The uncertainty of world economic markets has made the working classes across the world almost brought to the brink of misery in the third world countries where millions do not know what awaits them within ten, twenty years. There is a slow but firm rise of religious, ethno-centric racist ideologies…..In other words the vast human system, its centre is empty, when the centre becomes empty then all sorts of emotive fascist ideologies rush in to fill, to occupy that centre. The hour is crucial. Humanity has to make a serious decision.”

(a) To what extent has Democracy become a political convenience, if at all? (b) What are in your view some of the most serious decisions that Humanity still has to face up to?

Noam Chomsky: Democracy has both expanded and declined over the years.  Take the US.  Women were not even able to vote until 90 ago, at about the same time they gained the right in Afghanistan.   Rights of former slaves were very limited until the 1960s, and in some ways still are.  In these and other domains there has been progress in democracy, though still seriously flawed.  In other dimensions – the control of concentrated wealth over the political process, for example, things have gotten much worse in recent years.  And there is much more, in both directions.

There are two decisions that overwhelm all others, since they relate to decent survival.  One was eloquently articulated in the Russell-Einstein manifesto that you quoted, referring to nuclear war.  The other has to do with environmental catastrophe, a major threat that is becoming sharply more severe, and that soon may reach a point of no return.

Musa Askari: Generally speaking there are perhaps those who refer to themselves as secular humanists and those who refer to themselves as faith-based humanists. Where do you see opportunities for these two groups/individuals, these two world views, to work more closely together for human rights, justice and freedom?

Noam Chomsky: They can choose to work together, and often do, while putting aside differences in fundamental beliefs.

see also:

Noam Chomsky on Religion in Politics

“Bulletin of Atomic Scientists”

Article VI – NPT “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

Inside the Centre: The Life of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Ray Monk (review via London Review of Books)

3 thoughts on “Noam Chomsky”

  1. Dear Musa,
    Congratulations on your meeting with Noam Chomsky and sharing his views with with your readers. Certainly, as Mr. Chomsky stated, this is a time when everyone needs to lay aside the differences that are tearing this world apart and concentrate on the what is in the best interest of the earth and all of its inhabitants. This brings to mind Hasan’s words, “How could one dare to equate the Almighty Unity and Transcendence and Mystery with the form of one faith and practice.”
    Love,
    Lee and Steven

  2. What a lovely interview – great set of questions and answers. Professor Chomsky is a one of a last remaining exceptional scholars of the West who chooses truth over his ego consistently. Thank you so much for sharing.

  3. Musa – this is a significant interview. Your questions are incredibly well thought out and sometimes Dr. Chomsky extends the dialogue. I think that there is real convergence between your approach and his on the propensity to worship the state and the limits of the ideology of democracy. I found it interesting, as you did, that he does not mind using the term spiritual, though that doing so has no import for him. My guess is that ‘mystery’ in the sense that Hasan used the term does not call out to Dr. Chomsky, though he is to be applauded for valuing factors other than rationalism in human life, much like John Avery’s view that certain forms of humanism deny one’s emotional and aesthetic dimensions. Well done Musa -Greg

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