Professionally I advertise myself as a “language expert,” which is quite accurate (see ), and I get a wide range of contacts from attorneys and private citizens regarding anonymous letters, plagiarism, contract interpretation, copyright infringement, and other issues where money, reputation, or something else of value is at stake. 

I also get questions about grammar and usage, which I answer gratis, just to shed a bit of linguistic insight on issues that usually cannot be resolved definitively because language is flexible and variable, and there just isn’t one right answer.

But a few days ago, I got this, which is indeed in a class by itself:

“My name is _______and I am student at Texas Women's University in Denton, Texas. As a philosophy major, I am currently writing a research paper outlining the argument against the Tower of Babel. The Tower of Babel is a story told within the Christian bible (Genesis 11:1-9) that tells how all the languages in the world began to exist.

“Within the bible, the people of Babylon decided to build a tower to reach the heavens. This made god angry so he decided to scatter the tower workers all around the world and gave them each a different language to speak. And this is the very reason there are many different languages.

“Within my research paper I am required to provide a professional reference. I would truly appreciate some feedback as a linguistic expert on the validity of the Tower of Babel.

“Is the Tower of Babel possible?
“Is it likely?
“Is it impossible? (I am personally inclined to believe that it is impossible)

“WHY and WHAT makes this story possible, likely or impossible?

“In a nutshell, what is the best reasoning for the many different languages that have existed?”

"I am truly grateful for your feedback and it will go a long way in my research paper.


My reply:

Dear _____,

I suggest you read my book, "An Atheist Reads the Torah" -- it answers this as well as many other questions.  Briefly, there is no archaeological or any other evidence for any of the events of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). The Tower of Babel is a complete fiction.  As far as we know, there is no evidence that everyone in the world spoke one language. I find it remarkable that this is even a viable point of view in an academic institution.

Scientific investigation tells us that the world's 5,000 or so languages are related to other languages in the distant past, and we can describe the historical processes by which ancient “proto-languages” change and ultimately divide into separate language families and individual languages and dialects as people moved farther and farther from each other.

Language is perhaps 100,000 years old. There's disagreement over whether it originated once or many times. We can't go much beyond the historical written records. I think it originated many times because the world's languages are so different. It probably started with gestures, mixed with nouns. Verbs and grammatical relations came later.

The real point of the Babel story is subjugation and dependence: God says that if humans can build the tower, they will be able to do whatever they set out to do and nothing "will be beyond their reach." We learn early on how the Torah writers felt about human ambitions.  

And who heard him say this?  The text doesn’t say that he said it to anybody in particular.  If God supposedly wrote that passage, why does he refer to himself in the third person?

Indeed, God’s method is successful, and he has a point: to this very day, language differences are the main source of cohesion within -- and the root of divisions between -- tribes and ethnic groups.

BTW, this story is not, properly speaking, in the “Christian Bible.” The first 19 books are known as “the Hebrew Bible” or “the Tanakhor “the Old Testament.”  Furthermore, all of Noah’s descendants settle in Shinar before they begin the tower; only afterward is it called Babylon (Genesis 11:2 and 9). 

I am really concerned about the quality and bias of your education.

Thanks for contacting me. I hope I have been helpful.




Humanists have long pondered the question of why religion, even though it is manifestly wrong and harmful to boot, manages, century after century, to survive and enslave most of the world’s people. 

Now comes one of the most astonishing answers I have encountered (OK, maybe I’ve been too sheltered): they teach in it college!

And they call it philosophy!  What a disgusting perversion of a noble endeavor.  In the search for an understanding of the mind, of life, of consciousness, knowledge, thought, beauty, morality, and everything else that makes us human, debating the truth of Bible passages has no place whatsoever.

The Middle Ages are gone, and good riddance.  Except at Texas Women’s University (and, no doubt, many other fine institutions).

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Comment by tom sarbeck on April 13, 2013 at 2:25am


"[Students] get all the way to college without the slightest acquaintance with critical thinking..."

I'm no historian of education, but I read long ago that people who backed free public education at first hoped for benefits such as critical thinking. Working as they were in an era when most education was done in church-connected schools, I can see why they faced powerful opposition. I understand they began winning when they obtained business support for such education's usefulness in training workers. Do others here have more information on this?


"...rather than face [life] in sweaty reality."

This is consistent with the realization by 1970s feminists that their foremothers had been taught helplessness. I was active in the effort to get the Equal Rights Amendment ratified and heard many women speak of "learned helplessness" and express anger that their mothers had not protested.

More recently a man I know who, like me went to Catholic schools in the 1940s but is unable to "leave the plantation", teased me with the line "Once a Catholic always a Catholic". He quit when I teased him back with "Once a Catholic, always helpless". My dad didn't know that by requiring quality work for spending money, he was subverting some of what those schools taught his kids.

Comment by Ted Foureagles on April 12, 2013 at 7:51pm

To be fair, it doesn't seem to me that the student referenced in the OP seriously considers the Biblical tale (she said as much herself), nor is it clear that such ideas are supported by faculty.  She seems to be merely recognizing that the story is popular and worthy of debunking -- hard to argue with that.

On why religion persists; some here and elsewhere have said that the Big Hook is fear of death, and I'd agree.  From what I see around me (upstate South Carolina), a large component is fear of life.  We see these things that comprise life and explanation is difficult or uncomfortable, therefore God -- problem solved!  We notice that life is often unfair and so imagine it perfected in an unburdened afterlife rather than face it in sweaty reality.  Many of the religious that I encounter seem to relish the idea of death to 'make all unclean clean'.

Just about the only time that I'm in churches is for funerals of friends, family and neighbors.  The rhetoric is always about how much better a place the deceased now inhabits, and how joyful we will be when we finally meet them there.  I'm surprised that these people don't kill themselves and one another even more often than they do, which is pretty damn often.


Comment by Pat on April 12, 2013 at 2:40pm

If an individual is indoctrinated into certain beliefs as a child, they hold strong sway the rest of that person's life. And if those beliefs, no matter how bat shit crazy they may be, are constantly reinforced by a person's family, peers, community, and the limited world they are exposed to without any alternative view, they can stick in the mind like a barnacle on the belly of a ship. And, stick there irrespective of other forms of education, e.g. literacy, math, history, etc.

Sadly, your story of the student and the Tower of Babel doesn't shock me in the slightest. In my own profession (the law) I am constantly amazed at the number of attorneys and judges who have deeply held religious beliefs. I want to (and have) yelled, "Did you skip law school 101 where they talked about proponents of a proposition having the burden of proof, and then needing evidence to back it up?!" Personal opinion, but the cognitive dissonance of believing in the Tower of Babel, while being educated in other areas, depends on the rationalization of magical thinking.  Your friends, peers, family and colleagues believe in magic, and always have, so why shouldn't you? 

Comment by SILVIA SAINT-CLAIRE on April 12, 2013 at 12:33pm

Religion persists because when a concept / idea is not only presented but implanted in the human brain by constant repetition the weaker minds accept said concept / idea as the truth...even when no proof either way has been provided. Is the same as saying  day in and day out a person has committed a crime; by the end of the week he/she would be seen as "guilty as charged" by the entire town. Brain manipulation is a technique pretty well used by all religions.

Comment by Alan Perlman on April 12, 2013 at 11:32am

Loren...Fear of death is at the root of it all; all you have to do is abandon rational thought and not read the fine print (i.e., the points you list under "irony").

I've come to believe that this mind-set and these thought processes are not solely the product of indoctrination but are also somewwho rooted in individual personalities. 

My stepson (now 20) was asked, as a child, religion's "killer question": what do you think happens after you die?"  Only 9, he calmly anwered that it would be the same as before he was born, only he wouldn't be there. 

On the other hand, my mother (95) has indulged in childish magical thinking all her lfe, and her theology is summed up by "someone has be to be in control" and "I just feel better knowing someone is looking out for me" (direct quotes).

To Tom...Reminds me of this quote:

There is nothing that is too obvious of an absurdity to be

firmly planted in the human head as long as you begin to

instill before the age of five by constantly repeating it

with an air of great seriousness.

– Arthur Schopenhauer


But the original point of the post is still a puzzler to me:  They get all the way to college without the slightest acquaintance with critical thinking...all the way to college and beyond, entertaining the belief that Bible stories might be true????  How does that happen??  

My other stepson Zachary (7) is fascinated by geology and astronomy.  He knows about evolution and galaxies.  There's NO WAY that kid's going to be a Christian.

Comment by Loren Miller on April 12, 2013 at 8:27am

Religion persists at least in part because there are people who are afraid of their own death.  They can't imagine that death is the end of their existence, that they will somehow persist after the loss of their bodies.  Religion exploits this fear by supplying putative answers to their questions about death, cloaking those answers in mystery and magic and insisting that their solution is THE solution, to be believed in without question, scrutiny or analysis.  The irony is that while this may give such people hope, it's hope at the price of additional fears: of hell, of their own actions, of whatever sins they may have committed which may condemn them to that awful place, yet with a chance at achieving the good place.

That these answers have not logic, reason or evidence to support them doesn't matter.  It's a straw to be grasped, and because of fear, many people grasp at it.

Comment by AgeOfAtheists14 on April 12, 2013 at 7:59am

.. oh persists? human rights abuse hello. .that's why

Comment by AgeOfAtheists14 on April 12, 2013 at 7:59am
Comment by tom sarbeck on April 12, 2013 at 6:11am

Why religion persists?

From Rudyard Kipling (infinitesimally paraphrased): What comes to children they accept as eternally established.

That's consistent with the findings of Jean Piaget, in his The Moral Judgement of Children, in which he told of children's understanding and practice of the rules of their games. For an early short period they say rules come from their elders and cannot be changed.

And of course, religions take advantage of children.

Comment by Alan Perlman on April 11, 2013 at 4:39pm

Looks like tip of the iceberg, Joan.  If someone would pay me enough, I'd go under cover and write an expose of religious fundamentalism and bigotry in so-called institutions of higher learning. 



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