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01 Maj 2006 @ 18:49
A Gedankenexperiment  

Just for fun, I'd like to ponder the ethical implications of an entirely hypothetical organization, which I will call the Highburn Institute for Comparative Religion (HICR). HICR is, let's say, about seventy years old, and a major force in the documentation and analysis of the religious beliefs all over the world. Researchers from HICR typically immerse themselves for months or years at a time in communities in inaccessible and under-studied parts of the world, soaking up all they can about these communities' religious doctrines and practices. Sometimes the researchers even convert to the religions they are studying, and in a few cases they have even been ordained as shamans or pythonesses by their hosts. They produce not only invaluable descriptive work on religious traditions that are in danger of disappearing, but also some handy tools for other researchers—e.g., software for creating databases of rituals or for formatting articles in the styles preferred by major anthropological journals. What is more, they show great respect for the agency of the members of the cultures they study; they treat them as partners in their research, give them proper acknowledgment for their contributions, and encourage them to write scholarly articles of their own.

However, this hypothetical institute also engages in what one might call linguistic imperialism. One of the central objectives of any of their expeditions is to record sacred stories, poems, songs, and liturgies—by translating them into English and writing them down. HICR's researchers make no effort to learn the languages of the people among whom they work and live; instead, they employ native translators, and they will happily offer English lessons to anyone who shows an inclination to learn. They do not force English upon anyone, but they do enthusiastically recommend that their subjects learn it, reasoning that a working knowledge of the globally dominant language of commerce and scholarship is essential for getting on in this world. In many cases, HICR has contributed to (although it certainly cannot be held solely responsible for) rapid declines in the use of endangered languages. While its members have done much to preserve some aspects of the cultures of marginalized peoples, HICR is arguably a danger to linguistic diversity.

What would you think of such an organization, morally and ethically speaking?

Poll #720682 The Highburn Institute for Comparative Religion

Is the hypothetical HICR beneficial or detrimental?

HICR is straightforwardly a force for good. I would endorse the creation of such an institute.
HICR does, on balance, more good than harm.
HICR does approximately equal amounts of good and harm.
HICR does, on balance, more harm than good.
HICR is straightforwardly a force for harm. If it existed, I would endorse its abolition.
HICR's actions are morally and ethically neutral.
HICR does both good and harm, but it is not possible to quantify or compare the amounts of good and harm it does.

What would you think if the positions of religion and language were reversed?

w1ldc47w1ldc47 on 2. Maj, 2006 07:52 (UTC)
I don't think that the researchers could effectively immerse themselves in the religion they were studying unless they learned the language spoken by its followers in the areas they were studying.
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 2. Maj, 2006 08:34 (UTC)

I agree; I think that for that reason, HICR as I've described it could never actually exist. The reason I find it interesting to imagine, though, is that its opposite does exist.

鉄観音isolt on 2. Maj, 2006 12:48 (UTC)
If you're referring to the organization I think you're referring to... they make me a bit queasy. And I'm not sure I can properly quantify why.
(Anonym) on 3. Maj, 2006 12:56 (UTC)
Is there a reason we are pussyfooting around the name of the Summer Institute for Linguistics? After all, our host linked to it in his post.

The SIL makes me queasy too. The switcheroo hypothetical employed by our host is not perfect, of course. An SIL researcher would argue that what language a person speaks is not critical to their salvation, while the religion they practice is. I hold, nowhere near as passionately, to the reciprocal opinion: the language a person speaks in some sense matters more than the religion they practice. OK, I'm not sure I think that, but it's interesting to think about. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.
acw on 3. Maj, 2006 12:57 (UTC)
Oops, that last comment was mine.