This is a little bit of old news but I feel it is important, if for no other reason that the attitude toward religion that Reza Aslan displays is a common one and it’s often seen in those who rightly wish to defend religion from anti-theist fundamentalists and defend Muslims from rabid anti-Islamic bigots. A few months ago Reza Aslan had an interview with Jon Stewart in which he attempts a defense of religion. Here’s the problem, in the end the main claim Reza Aslan makes is ultimately anti-religion, in fact more anti- religion than the islamophobic and the anti-theistic.
A while ago I read Reza Alsan’s popular book on Jesus called “Zealot – The life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” and while it’s a fun read, ultimately I found it trivial in some places, and fallacious others. The idea that Jesus was a Jewish revolutionary is an old one, and has been much better presented by other Scholars. The fact that Jesus was a Jewish peasant that was killed for sedition and was a social reformer is so trivially true so as to be boring. For much of the book Reza makes the mistake, which many historical Jesus scholars make, of creating a framework, dismissing all evidence outside of that framework as fiction or later polemic, and explaining everything else within the pre-determined framework, and low and behold, the historical Jesus figure ends up matching what the scholar thought he was to begin with. Books that tend to make Jesus fit rigidly in these frameworks end up very often making his disciples the actual revolutionaries, the ones who take someone who would be (if people like Reza Aslan are right) rather trivial and boring figure, just another Jewish revolutionary, and transform him into someone of universal and supreme importance, rather than actually accept what the disciples themselves say, that they were the ones who were transformed by the extraordinary person of Jesus.
His book, however, is not the purpose of his post. What I want to address is the basic idea of his defense of religion, which I think is summed up by some quotes from Reza Aslans interview with Jon Stewart:
“Part of the problem is that there is this misconception that people derive their values from their scriptures, The truth is it is more often the case that people insert their values into their scriptures. I mean, otherwise, every Christian who read the Bible would read it exactly the same way. In this country, not 200 years ago, both slave owners and abolitionists not only used the same Bible to justify their viewpoints, they used the same verses to do so. That’s the thing about scripture, it’s power comes from its malleability. You can read it in any way you want to.”
In a trivial way, of course this is true, people bring their own biases and their own cultural backgrounds to sacred texts, everyone knows this. However there are 2 problems with what Reza Aslan says; the first is that it implies that all readings of scripture are equal, that it’s scripture itself which is malleable, the second is that religious belief and practice is influenced by individual personalities and cultural norms but not vice versa.
The first problem is simply a matter of common sense, it is possible to interpret a text wrongly, and it’s possible to interpret a text in a way that requires that you ignore the context, it’s possible to make a theology that is self-contradictory or at odds with the text from which you’re deriving it from. For example, let’s say that someone reads the Old Testament and comes out from it thinking that idolatry, or the worship of statues is taught by the text of the Old Testament, that person would be clearly wrong, that person would have misinterpreted the texts horribly. It doesn’t matter what that person’s background is or what he brings to the text, his reading and interpretation is still wrong. So then who decides what the correct reading is? Well no one in particular (unless you’re a catholic), but what one must do is show that his own reading is the most plausible, the most consistent, the most contextual, and one that it is in line with history, the evidence, and a consistent theology. It’s not easy to do, but that doesn’t mean that it’s meaningless. Exegesis matters, theology matters. Reza Aslan points to the verses used by both sides pertaining to slavery, the fact that both sides used the same data and come to different conclusions doesn’t prove anything. In every scientific debate both sides have the same data (generally), but they both interpret it differently, does that mean that both sides are equally correct? Absolutely not, one side is correct, one side is wrong. When it came to slavery, it was not an easy debate, both sides could construct a case using the scriptural data, however, in the end, the one with a better theological, hermeneutical and consistent grounding is the correct one. There was an argument and a debate, arguments and debates and meaningful dialogues can only happen if one acknowledges that there is, in fact, a fact of the matter.
This claim made by Reza Aslan, far from defending religion, disrespects and disregards it. When you say a text or a theological tradition can mean anything, what you’re essentially saying is that it means nothing. Reza Aslan says:
“The point is that without interpretation scripture is just words on a page, it requires somebody to read it, to encounter it for it to have any kind of meaning, and obviously in that transaction you are bringing yourself, your views, your politics, your social ideas into the text. How you read scripture has everything to do with who you are. God did not make you a bigot, you’re just a bigot.”
Of course text requires someone to read it and interpret it for it to have any meaning, just in the same way me talking requires someone to listen and to interpret what I say. However, the scripture is still telling us something, and we may read it wrongly or rightly. What Reza Aslan is saying is, more or less, “you’re just reading into scripture what you want to read into scripture, the scripture itself is meaningless.” This is far from defending religion, is rendering religion meaningless and pointless. If I’m giving the text meaning, but the text isn’t giving anything to me, then why not just throw it out? Personally I would prefer Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris’ (ignorant and juvenile) readings of scripture and theology, since they at least admit it has some sort of potency (although they take it as a potency for evil) rather than Reza Aslan’s claim that theology is impotent and meaningless and serves no other purpose than to support pre-held beliefs and attitudes.
The second problem I have is with Reza Aslan’s Claim that religious belief and practice is influenced by individual personalities and culture, but not vice versa. Now the fact that culture and individual personalities affect religious belief and practice is trivially true, of course it does, just as those things effect everything we think and do. But to claim that religion has no effect on cultures or individuals is both arrogant and wrong.
Take one of the main axioms of modern times, the philosophical axiom of universal human rights. Try and find universal human rights in the pre-Christian world, or try and find it outside the context of Judeo-Christian influence, you won’t find it. When Christianity came on the world scene it had a revolutionary idea, the idea that all humans are made in the image of God and that God has redeemed all of mankind, and that all men are equal under God. This idea is second nature to modern man, but it came into western culture almost entirely as a result of Christian Theology. Of course religion affects and changes culture. Or take slavery for example, find me the debate pre-Christianity about slavery, or find me abolitionists pre-Christianity. The fact that people within Christianity were pro-slavery is not surprising, most of the world for all of history has been more or less pro-slavery, or at least accepting of slavery. What is surprising is that there were a large amount of people who, motivated by Christian Theology, opposed slavery, could that have happened in a Pagan world? Perhaps, perhaps not, but it didn’t, yes there were slave uprisings, but that wasn’t abolitionism, that was people on the bottom wanting to change their positions in the system, not people wanting to get rid of the system.
So Reza aslan is completely wrong here simply on an empirical and historical basis, Religion is influenced by personal temperament and cultural norms, but the reverse is also true. When Reza Aslan denies this obvious fact, what he’s really saying is that Religion is nothing more than a pointless fun hobby, a set of symbols that celebrate norms and temperaments that already exist but which these symbols have no effect over. He’s saying that the religious may naively believe they are making a difference, but they aren’t, at least as far as their faith is concerned. Again he proclaims religion innocent, but only because he proclaims it impotent. Proclaiming a religion innocent but impotent is much more anti-religion than proclaiming it potent but guilty.
This being said, I of course don’t believe that the Sam Harris’ of the world are correct, in that, for example, Islam is the cause of Isis. The reason I don’t believe this is not because I believe the religion of Islam doesn’t shape the cultures, the political, social and economic situation of those in Islamic areas, or the minds and attitudes of Muslims, I believe it does, significantly so. The reason I don’t believe Sam Harris is correct in his analysis of Islam and society is because I know a little bit about history, I take Islamic theology seriously and don’t just accept a couple quotations from the Quran as sound theological analysis, and because I also take social, political, economic and religious aspects of the situation seriously, all of them. But at the same time, I don’t dismiss religion as meaningless and impotent as Reza Aslan does; all the while he believes he is defending religion. Yes, personal temperament, socio/economic conditions and culture matter, but these are all in part shaped by worldviews, and vice versa. Over simplified narratives, whether given by anti-theists like Sam Harris, or would be liberal religious apologists like Reza Aslan, will always miss the big Picture.