Noam Chomsky is one of America's great dissenters. Skeptical of concentrated power in any form, for over forty years the MIT professor and world-renowned linguist has been a leading critic of U.S. foreign policy and militarism. On September 20, 2006, Chomsky's already considerable fame went up a few notches when Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, addressing the United Nations General Assembly, held up Chomsky's 2003 book, Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance (The American Empire Project), and recommended it to the world, especially to Americans. The book, which had already sold about 200,000 copies, immediately shot to the top spot on bestseller lists. On September 22, as his book was hitting number one, Chomsky sat down with the Humanist to discuss his humanism, the religious right, the American social and political landscape, and a host of other issues.
The Humanist: You recently got the mother of all book plugs when Hegemony or Survival was recommended by Hugo Chavez addressing the United Nations General Assembly.
Chomsky: I got a funny letter from a friend of mine. He looked the book up on Amazon.com and it was somewhere up there, and his book was about 1,253,428. He wrote: 'Could I get Chavez to write a review for me?'
The Humanist: You start off both Hegemony or Survival and your latest book, Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy, sounding very much like a naturalistic humanist. In both books, you start by considering humans as animals that have evolved, pointing out that human civilization covers only a tiny part of overall history. You consider whether this human animal's high intelligence is an obstacle to its survival and ponder whether we might be some kind of 'biological error.' This is a very scientific, naturalistic way of looking at things. So, in the world of identity politics, how do you feel about the humanist identity? Is Noam Chomsky a humanist?
Chomsky: One of the historical figures whom I very much admire, and whose work is in some sense an early precursor of my own, is Wilhelm von Humboldt. He was one of the founders of classical liberalism, one of the founders of modern linguistics, and in fact a founder of the German higher educational system. He wasn't a humanist in our terms, but in the eighteenth century was an initiator of what became secular humanism. Yes, I regard myself as being in that tradition. As for scientific naturalism in the books, I don't know of any other way to approach issues.
The Humanist: You're certainly not inclined to approach issues from a theistic viewpoint.
Chomsky: Or any other doctrine or position that doesn't accept an intellectual challenge. Though it's not quite true to say that about the theistic tradition. In fact, most of what we know about atheism in the medieval period is from arguments against it. Explicit critics of religion didn't survive very well, ranging from being burned at the stake to being quartered, but there's a lot of knowledge about that criticism because of sophisticated, thoughtful argumentation trying to reject it.
In fact, the medieval church in many respects was more liberal and rational than contemporary liberalism, which treats deviation as a heresy that you have to have tantrums about. Of course, the church was based on assumptions that one must accept without rational or empirical grounds.
The Humanist: Indeed, it was a different time. I believe it was Richard Dawkins, probably the most vocal atheist today, who said that if he had lived before Darwin he would have had a hard time being an atheist, because there would be no explanation for the apparent creation.
Chomsky: I don't agree with that. For one thing, there's no explanation now either. Most scientific questions have a very partial explanation. You can't say, for example, that contemporary biology gives an explanation for why humans are what they are, so different from other animals. You can say some things about it, but it falls far short of anything that would pass for an explanation in, say, chemistry. But before Darwin, people did challenge religious doctrine very seriously.
The Humanist: Is there a difference between being able to criticize specific religious doctrines and criticizing the basic notion of God or a creator?
Chomsky: When people ask me, as they sometimes do, 'Are you an atheist?' I can only respond that I can't answer because I don't know what it is...