“We have to be able to criticize bad ideas,” atheist intellectual Sam Harris recently said on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher. And “at the moment,” Harris continued, “Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas.” Harris delivered his remarks over the shouted protests of fellow guest Ben Affleck, who charged him with Islamophobia.
In the weeks following this exchange, religious historian Reza Aslan made headlines with a clearer-headed critique of Harris’s remarks. In an interview with New York magazine, Aslan accused Harris of making “simplistic generalizations” that obscure the diversity of Islam. He also portrayed religion as a “Rorschach test,” a shapeless ink blot onto which people project beliefs and values they already hold. “It’s so basic, a child can understand: . . . religions are neither peaceful nor violent, neither pluralistic nor misogynistic — people are peaceful, violent, pluralistic, or misogynistic, and you bring to your religion what you yourself already believe.”
“It is a fallacy to believe that people of faith derive their values primarily from their Scriptures,” Aslan elaborated in a New York Times editorial. “People of faith insert their values into their Scriptures, reading them through the lens of their own cultural, ethnic, nationalistic and even political perspectives. . . . The abiding nature of scripture rests not so much in its truth claims as it does in its malleability, its ability to be molded and shaped into whatever form a worshiper requires.”
Aslan is certainly right that Harris’s remark obscured the bewildering diversity of Muslim sects and schools. Islam’s semi-pacifist Ahmadis and mystical Sufis are hardly prone to violence, and even Sunnis vary widely in interpretation, orthodoxy, and willingness to commit violence.
And while it’s true that all five major schools of Islamic jurisprudence in principle accept offensive jihad, there’s an important caveat: offensive jihad can only be declared by a legitimate caliph. For Shi’ites this means offensive jihad is suspended until the apocalyptic return of the messiah, or Mahdi. For Sunnis it means the IS cult’s holy war is only as legitimate its leader’s claim to be ruler of the world’s Muslims. Most Sunnis do not accept that claim. Thus most Muslims believe in offensive jihad the way most Mormons believe in polygamy: as an abstract theological principle currently suspended in practice. The IS fundamentalists are a schismatic, radical minority and certainly do not represent all Islam.
That said, Aslan’s claim that believers merely project their own values onto Islam is a gross oversimplification. Religions are not mere ink blots. They’re social networks, communities of moral concern, systems of ritual and pedagogy with profound effects on adherents’ brains and behavior. So while I agree that it’s careless to generalize about “Islam,” I can’t agree that it’s a blank slate. The contents of Islamic traditions and the shapes of Islamic institutions make a substantive difference. On this point, Harris is right: bad theology matters, and we have to be able to criticize it.
You don’t have to be a historian or social scientist to understand that religious networks and messages impact people’s behavior. Most of us have probably watched a friend become “radicalized” by political or religious propaganda. If this process rarely leads to violence, it still causes plenty of trauma and harm. Indeed, corporations and political parties spend billions of dollars every year on networking and advertising for the same reason religions do: because it works. No Coca-Cola executive ever worried that his advertisements might be mere ink blots onto which consumers project their Dr. Pepper fantasies. Market research dispels any such doubts. The US’s counterterror strategy rests on the same principle. Intelligence and law enforcement agents don’t just target the perpetrators of terrorist acts. They target the networks and advertisers that recruit and enable those perpetrators, thus stopping terrorism before it starts.
As for scripture, Aslan is right that without interpretation it’s “just words on a page.” But words aren’t infinitely ambiguous. Even creative interpreters are constrained by conventions of reading and language. Most people in fact are unimaginative scripture readers. They don’t so much mold it to their personal views as follow the lead of religious authorities. Certainly the authorities bring their own political and cultural baggage to scriptural texts. But in doing so, they turn their religious institutions into vehicles for politics and cultures that may differ widely from those of the communities they inhabit. They blur the line between religious and secular concerns.
Consider, for instance, that evangelicals are more politically conservative than other Americans. Most people remain in the faith they grew up in, so this isn’t just a result of selective affiliation. Rather, evangelical churches actively inculcate political conservatism. Even more pronounced is the role immigrant religious communities play in maintaining ethnic cultures. Second-generation immigrants to the United States, for instance, may bring Chechen nationalism or Arab honor culture to their sacred texts precisely because they’re embedded in religious networks that teach them to read scriptures through those lenses. It’s difficult, then, to understand how Aslan can blame adherents for bad behaviors that are often learned at church and mosque.
One might of course still argue that such bad behaviors are corruptions of “pure” Christianity or Islam and should be blamed on rotten religious leaders rather than on religious traditions themselves. But that’s a theological argument, not an empirical one. The distinction between true religion and false corruption is meaningless to a non-adherent like Harris (or myself). Historically speaking, neither Christianity nor Islam ever existed in a “pure” or even “original” form. Both traditions were riddled with contradictions and cultural baggage—including some violence and misogyny—right from the start.
(I always roll my eyes a bit when Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama say terrorism has nothing to do with “true Islam.” Ultimately they’re making a theological claim about a tradition they don’t even believe in. But as sociologist Robert Bellah argued in his classic 1967 essay “Civil Religion in America,” presidents have always been the prophets of American civil religion. In a way, Bush and Obama are trying to construct an Islam that all Americans can believe in—just as our presidents have been doing for Christianity since the nation’s founding.)
Aslan’s claim that terrorists project their own inherent violence onto neutral religious traditions, then, is a failure not only of social scientific understanding but also of empathy. He defends regressive faiths by scapegoating the faithful. Liberal humanitarians should empathize with the people who become terrorists, not with the traditions that indoctrinate and victimize them. Certainly terrorists are offenders, and their behavior must be forcibly restrained and corrected. But terrorists are also victims. They’ve been conned by cults, scammed by advertisers, cheated of lives and families, taken in by empty promises. Terrorists are made, not born, and it could happen to anyone. Radical Salafist fighters are no more inherently bad people than the soldiers of Nazi Germany. You don’t defeat jihadism or Nazism by exterminating jihadis and Nazis. You defeat them by deprogramming their dupes and dismantling their systems of indoctrination.
In the long run, Aslan is right that regressive scriptures and traditions are malleable and can be reinterpreted and reformed. True, women’s rights in Turkey, Indonesia, and the United States stem mostly from humanist triumphs over religious orthodoxy. But religious authorities in those countries have adapted to this state of affairs and developed ways of reconciling their faiths to secular feminism. While this doesn’t exactly exonerate the Quran, Hadith, or Bible of charges of misogyny, it does show that these texts are susceptible to reinterpretation under pressure from secular cultures. Even radical groups like ISIS or the Taliban are capable of change, but only through long struggle and the application of cultural force. Relativism will never transform religious misogyny and violence.
Religious reform can be particularly difficult when scriptural texts resist reinterpretation. Stubborn biblical texts such as 1 Timothy 2:12 and Romans 1:26–27 have anchored many conservative American Protestants to unequal gender norms despite strong feminist cultural pressures. Quranic texts on women and apostates may prove similarly stubborn for secularizing Muslims. Problem texts can also generate dangerous reactionary cults even as mainstream believers accommodate to humanist values. So while I agree with Aslan that religious reform is the most realistic solution to religious misogyny and violence, that does not mean that scripture is morally neutral or that we can afford to be blasé about “bad ideas,” as Harris put it. Reinterpretation will occur only as religious groups are held accountable for their teachings. Every moment we waste empathizing with regressive religious ideologies rather than with their victims only prolongs those victims’ suffering.