Some claim that ISIS is a political ideology stemming directly from religion. Others claim that it has little to do with religion per se and more to do with the interpretation of religion. A similar debate occurred around Nazism - some claimed that it was a political ideology stemming directly from science. Yet others claimed that it has little to do with science, and more to do with pseudo-science or the misinterpretation of science.

My question: can one, in principle, distinguish between the interpretation of a religion and the religion itself?

  • 4
    I was writing an answer, but basically, the need to separate the Nazi's from science or ISIS from religion stems form the desire for science/religion to be inherently good, and for Nazi/ISIS acts to be bad. Its the need to draw a dividing line on the edge of science or the edge of religion that causes these issues to appear. I was then going to point to Tarski's exploration of "interpreted formal languages," where language always came in couples (L, N), where L is the language, and N is an interpreter for that language. His work with formal langauges can be extrapolated to help here.
    – Cort Ammon
    Nov 25 '15 at 0:38
  • Nazi ideology stemming from science? That's news to me.
    – gnasher729
    Nov 25 '15 at 22:34
  • 2
    Of course, Nazi ideology is not stemming from genuine science - rather pertaining to stem from science (in other words - it stems from pseudo science) - the all idea of this ideology was to make it look scientific in order to influence followers. Some - as written in the body of the question - claimed nonetheless that it stems from science (and the way to reject their claim is to show Nazism to be pseudo-science)
    – Jordan S
    Nov 25 '15 at 22:38
  • 3
    @gnasher729 I think they thought science showed that Germans were the master race and all others inferior. Moreover, eugenics was pretty hot "science" at the time.
    – virmaior
    Nov 27 '15 at 7:27
  • The question seems much improved and potentially answerable at this point. Please flag any content that's not addressing the question of whether it's philosophically possible to separate interpretation of religion from the religion itself.
    – virmaior
    Nov 27 '15 at 7:28

My question: can one, in principle, distinguish between the interpretation of a religion and the religion itself?

First you would need to define what a religion is, which is already pretty hard, as mentioned elsewhere. Then using that definition, you need to somehow separate the practitioners of the religion from the religion itself. For some religions this is impossible from the get go: There's no Judaism without Jews, or no Shintoism without the Japanese.

But there are religions for which it might be possible: For example Islam or Buddhism. In these cases what remains from the religion once you have removed its practitioners? Its canonical scripture.

Even then, I think it is impossible to separate the religion from the interpretation of religion. Here are 3 ways of looking at the problem:

  • à la Derrida : Per deconstruction, no text ever has an independent fixed meaning that reflects an onotlogically independent truth. A text will only get its meaning from its relationship with other texts, and its truth will always be relative. Although one might object to the deconstructionist stance when speaking of scientific truths and texts, it clearly holds when speaking of religious scripture, given the very nature of its subject matter and the ambiguous and dated language usually used.
  • à la later Wittgenstein : There is no way of establishing a fixed correspondence between the meaning of language and truth. Instead the meaning of language is defined by the way people use the language, and this applies to religious language more than any other language game (here language game means the context within which a language is used). For religious texts to have a fixed meaning independent of interpretation, there would have to be a fixed correspondence theory of truth and language, and Wittgenstein and others have shown that this is impossible.
  • à la Quine: Every observation is theory laden, and no truly objective observation can be made. Since interpretations of a religion are observations of that religious scripture, per Quine, any observation of a religion is theory (in this case the cultural, historical and linguistic context) laden.

For the Nazi case, note that per Quine, science can never be separated from the interpretation of science either.

  • Re. paragraph 3 -- what happens if you step back and assume a fundamental ontological reality for god, and his intentions/wishes/commandments? You cite the written works, which more obviously fall into the realm of interpretation, but if you assume a blunt reality for the "source" of religion, wouldn't it have a privileged status?
    – Dave
    Mar 17 '16 at 19:17
  • @Dave, if that was the case, it would per Kant, be a thing in itself which is forever completely unknowable. the issue of interpretation remains. Mar 17 '16 at 19:30

While I cannot imagine a religious practice or experimental practice without "interpretation," one might judge a group like ISIS in relation to core of traditional, canonical, broadly held interpretation and an evolving periphery or paradigm shift.

Both religion and science arise out of the official state interpretations of "natural signs," such as the inspection of entrails, or linguistic mediations, such as the Delphic oracle. Both have a long connection to politics and military decisions.

With sacred scripture, the problem assumes a different character. For Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the "People of the Book," sacred texts mingle the interpretation of dreams, omens, and metaphors with explicit injunctions and legal codes. Having accumulated over some two millennia, such writings are full of contradictions and ambiguous rules, requiring a ceaseless hermeneutics that processes past into present.

The texts, in turn, produce the societies capable of preserving and reinterpreting them. A human-textual form of evolutionary selection in which canon accumulates around a kind of fitness. Though anyone can produce revolutionary interpretations of scripture or experimental findings, a nihilistic interpretation like that of ISIS or a theory that fails to produce new experiments may subvert historical selection.

Though it is difficult to retain a monopoly on interpretational latitude, as with the Delphic Oracle or Catholic Church, we should recall that these institutions had or have a far greater longevity than modern science. In science the "interpretation" of the "book of nature" is highly constrained and attempts to eliminate social "values." Yet the application, as a result, becomes independent and even less constrained. There was nothing essentially "unscientific" about Nazi eugenics...which is precisely its horror.

Unlike sacred texts, science itself places no special value on human beings and is open to many different classification systems and values. ISIS seems perfectly content to utilize science and technology towards its apocalyptic, "irrational" interpretations of sacred text. This is significant. We now have the weaponry produced by modern science without the assumption of "rational self-interest" and the constraint of "mutually assured destruction." A whole new level of Frankfurt School gloom.


I agree with @Alexander S King that religions and their interpretations are impossible to separate. Yet, let me add a different angle mainly about Nazi case.

  1. The Nazi case accentuates (as indicated in one of the comments) the urge to engage with the problem of demarcation posed by Karl Popper. Popper asked: Can we distinguish in a non-arbitrary way between science and pseudoscience? What are the criteria of differentiating science from its counterfeit? He answered in the positive and proposed that the criterion of the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiability, testability or refutability. According to Popper a scientific theory, unlike a pseudoscientific theory, is open to refutation by testable predictions. E.g., one may prove wrong astronomical theories; and therefore astronomy is science. But when it comes to astrology, no refutation can truly be applied: it will always be possible to propose ad-hoc adjustments and to appeal to the complexities of the matter, and contend that even if the prediction failed for a specific person it remained valid for some others.
  2. Nazism based its ideology on 'theory of race' which was a deliberate distortion (or misleading interpretation) of Darwin's theory of evolution. According to Popper's criterion, Nazi's 'theory of race' is no more than pseudoscientific (i.e. not genuinely scientific only pretending to look scientific). This is a case where the influence that science has on society was abused for the goal of political gain.

The ISIS case accentuates kind of a new problem of demarcation - that between religion and 'pseudo-religion'. But the attempt at deriving some demarcation criterion from separating between interpretation and the object of interpretation could be impossible in light of what @Alexander S King explained. In my opinion, any such demarcation criterion would therefore be arbitrary in the sense that it would amount at most to convention based on agreement.


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