Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Is There a “Universal Grammar” of Religion in the Same Way There Is a “Universal Grammar” of Language?

An interesting proposal that attempts to observe and apply a prevalent theory in linguistics to religious thought. 

Following Noam Chomsky, some cognitive linguists have argued that humans naturally develop a “universal grammar” for language that informs and constrains language acquisition. That is, it makes some forms of symbolic communication very easy to acquire because some of the grammatical possibilities come easily or automatically, but at the same time makes communication systems that have different sorts of grammars relatively difficult to learn. 

Analogously, early developing natural cognition creates receptivity to certain cultural concepts over others. Those that fall in the domain of “religion” might be compared to a “universal grammar” for religion, or what I have called “natural religion” (see my new book Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Beliefs. As with language, religious expression that conforms closely to the parameters of natural religion will be easily acquired by children (and adults), readily understood and talked about, and will tend to be widespread across individuals and cultures. But also as in language, the anchoring effect of natural religion allows for variability—particularly through formal instruction, study, and other forms of “cultural scaffolding” provided by institutions and guilds of specialists....

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