20 August 2008

Language and Religion

In the leadup to the Olympics, I read a lot of articles about how English is rapidly changing and being appropriated into new dialects, especially in China and India. I read another one today, via the Neuroanthropology Wednesday Round Up. All of the stories I have read tend to take the same attitude, namely that this is the normal evolution of a living language, these offshoots are valid and may eventually evolve into fully legitimate dialects or separate languages, rather than just mistakes. And that seems like a very reasonable stance, given what we know about the past evolution of language.

Anyone who has studied the history of religion (or, heck, even watched the History Channel) knows that a similar process has gone to work in that realm. Judaism has produced two full-fledged offshoots, and each of the three has multiple sects within the wider umbrella. Similarly, Buddhism mutated as it spread across Asia, into forms that more suited the history and practices of each region. Which brings me to another article, found a few clicks away from the same Round Up, on the modern westernized version of Buddhism. In The Buddha according to Brooks, Donald S Lopez, Jr (and many of the commenters) discount what they call Buddhist Modernism as somehow less authentic than those variations which evolved earlier in the East. This is a position I just can't understand. Either religion evolves like language and branches are just as valid as the trunk, or religion is The Truth and all variations from the original are invalid. You can't have it both ways and demarcate with terms like "colonial" and "elites" just to coincide with yoru own favored version.