What Reza Aslan Gets Wrong about the Nature of Religion

“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.


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  1. Daniel O. McClellan says:

    I appreciate acknowledging Aslan’s oversimplification, but I would raise a few concerns with your piece, Chris. First, your usage of “cults,” and “deprogramming,” and references to religious ideology causing cognitive “trauma” and “harm” sounds uncomfortably like the lexicon of the unilaterally debunked anti- and counter-cult movements of the late-twentieth century.

    Next, there are no empirically demonstrable lines between religious and secular concerns to blur. There are rhetorical and arbitrary lines that are drawn in the interest of developing and maintain power structures, but there’s nothing empirical about that.

    Next, when it comes to “creative interpreters,” I would argue they’re not nearly as constrained as you suggest. As Aslan points out, pro-and anti-slavery arguments appealed to the exact same scriptures. You’re well aware of the fact that verses in the Book of Mormon that appear to explicitly support a trinitarian outlook have been for generations interpreted to promote the exact opposite. It’s true that conventions of reading and language have strictures on them, but they can be circumvented phenomenally easily. Those who insist on scriptural univocality need only point to a text anywhere in the canon that agrees with their presumptions and any other text that might disagree can quite easily be reinterpreted away. Paul says works don’t justify and James says, “Nu-uh. Works justify.” The conventions of reading and language go out the window here.

    Finally, I don’t think Aslan is insisting that no one is allowed to criticize bad ideas when they occur inside religion. What he’s doing is pointing out the naivety and myopia of the reductive rhetoric to which Harris and Dawkins and Maher and their ilk have to appeal in order to condemn the right groups of people while also pretending to be condemning ideas and not people.

  2. Christopher Smith says:

    Dan, I believe trauma and harm are real and should be opposed wherever they are found. While I recognize that “cult” has a neutral usage (equivalent to “sect”) among sociologists, I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with using it as a polemical term in a popular article talking about a sect that does harm. As for “deprogramming,” it’s not a great term, given the rather sordid and coercive history of the counter-cult deprogramming movement. But it hits hard, and in any case I’m not sure what other term would be appropriate to describe the process of counteracting powerful socialization designed to make people accomplices in their own subjugation. “Reculturation” or “resocialization,” perhaps. The bottom line here is, the academics who critique this sort of language are working within a paradigm of moral relativism. I understand the appeal of relativism but personally do not accept it. I am a utilitarian, and on utilitarian grounds I oppose violent and abusive cults.

    I’m not sure if you were intending to critique me in your second paragraph. Sounds like you’re agreeing with me that Aslan’s argument rests on an arbitrary and somewhat specious distinction between (supposedly impotent) religion on the one hand and (supposedly potent) culture and politics on the other.

    As for interpretation, it’s true that the “plain meaning” of passages is often bypassed, but even this process of reinterpretation is constrained by convention. Traditions develop go-to methods for reinterpreting problem texts. For example, a standard technique for evangelicals is to assert that New Testament morality supplants the Old Testament law. This allows them to ignore much of the Bible when it suits them, though this method doesn’t apply to New Testament passages. Another technique is to problematize the definitions of words. Thus, for instance, “day” in Genesis becomes “age,” though this argument has a lot of institutional momentum to overcome because most Bible translations and commentators say “day.” Anyway, the point is, what does one do when all the standard techniques fail? This is why those New Testament passages about women have proved so stubborn for evangelicals: none of the usual loopholes seem to apply. To reinterpret these passages, readers have to stretch quite a bit more than usual.

    • Daniel O. McClellan says:

      Thanks for the reply, Chris. I agree that there is such thing as trauma and harm, and I agree that religious institutions influence believers’ behavior, but the notion that they have “profound effects on adherents’ brains” is a claim originating with the anti-cult movement because they needed a good secular reason to stigmatize religions they didn’t like. I’ve not seen contemporary research that shows religious institutions alter the cognitive faculties of the membership.

      Regarding my second paragraph, you commented:

      “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.”

      Here you appear to me to suggest there’s a natural distinction of some kind between religious and secular concerns, and that there’s something inappropriate about the blurring of that distinction. If that’s not your contention, I’m happy to be mistaken.

      It’s not that the techniques have failed, though, it’s that the people don’t want to accept the implications of the alternative readings. You have plenty of feminist readings of the New Testament that function perfectly fine within communities that accept feminist ideals. Evangelicals don’t have an issue with those passages because there’s no hermeneutic available to overcome the “plain reading”––there are numerous––they have an issue because misogyny is a big problem in conservative Evangelical circles and they have no reason to abandon the “plain reading.” As soon as the people wish to be rid of that misogyny, there are numerous exegetical options available. Scriptures have always served the interests of the people who exegete them. It has never been the other way around.

      Regarding your follow-up, I would say allegorical interpretation was brought largely to an end in the fourteenth century by the dawning realization that it undermined the authority of––and thus need for––scripture. That inflexibility you mention is certainly a reality in religious institutions, but isn’t it also just a function of power structures and not something inherent to the text? In such situations, it’s still people declaring what the texts do and don’t mean in an effort to nurture those power structures. They are supplying the meaning, not the texts themselves, and I think that’s Aslan’s point. Harris and Dawkins and Maher and others try to dismiss liberal religionists as impious or less faithful or illegitimate adherents, and probably their most frequent and basic argument is that the fundies are the ones who read the scriptures literally. Liberals use secular principles to circumvent literalism, so they’re not really faithful. Since the texts command people to kill, “true” and “pure” religion is literal and is corrupt and dangerous. This is also how they sidestep accusations of bigotry. They’re not condemning people, they’re condemning the beliefs people take from the texts. The problem is that there’s no such thing as a literal reading of any scriptural corpus. There’s no such thing as a text with inherent meaning. All meaning is interpretation and is constructed by the reader. Aslan is rightly pointing this out. Even if we remove the blame from the private reader and assign it to the institutional powers––a move with which I agree––we’ve not changed the fact that it’s people bringing meaning to the text in the interest of their existent dogmas and ideologies. The texts are not the source of the corruption and danger, the people are.

      • Christopher Smith says:

        Dan, the claim that religion has profound effects on the brain is non-controversial and has nothing to do with the anti-cult movement or stigmatizing religion. Actually just about everything we do affects the brain. New memories are formed as the neurons in our brains reconfigure themselves. Our instruments for measuring these changes are still crude, but we can see, for instance, that religious belief is associated with reduced activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, or that sonic meditation thickens the regions of the brain involving perception of sound.

        Re: religion and culture, a major point of my post was that religion and culture are overlapping categories that follow the same rules. When I spoke of a “line” between them, I was talking about the line that Aslan drew.

        Re: there being no reason for evangelicals to change how they interpret the sexist NT passages, I disagree. There are both internal and external pressures that push evangelicals to be more egalitarian. It’s largely tradition and convention that constrains them. True, some interpreters have argued (wrongly, I’m afraid) that Paul meant he wouldn’t allow a woman to dominate a man, not that he wouldn’t allow her to have authority over a man. But when the English translations say have authority, and most preachers say have authority, and the lexical evidence says have authority, and the tradition says that the Bible is inerrant and that the purpose of interpretation is to discover authorial intent, those are pretty strong constraints. Most interpreters are not going to break free of those constraints, and if change happens then it will happen gradually as a few influential interpreters break new paths and pull others along with them. I challenge you to reconsider your idea that interpreters are acting in self-interest or bad faith when they read these passages as calling for the subordination of women. To the contrary, they are following hermeneutical paths clearly demarcated for them by their religious training. And not only men, but also many women read them this way. As I argued in my post, reinterpretation can happen, but it’s far from easy.

        Re: liberal apologists, when a theologically liberal apologist says “My religious tradition isn’t oppressive because I can reinterpret the scriptures in a non-oppressive way,” that’s great as a theological claim, and I fully encourage them to persuade their co-religionists that that’s the “true” interpretation of the faith. But if the purpose of the claim is to convince me as an outsider that the tradition isn’t oppressive, it won’t work. When I evaluate the tradition, I have to take into account not only its scriptures but also the way it trains people to read them. Of course, we have to be sufficiently specific about which tradition we’re talking about, because, for instance, “Islam” isn’t a tradition; it’s an umbrella term. And to the extent that Harris et al. imply there’s a “true” Islam, they’re off base. Liberal apologists may be atypical, unrepresentative, unorthodox, or non-mainstream, but it’s not for the sociologist to say they are untrue or unfaithful.

        Re: inherent meaning, you’re right that it doesn’t exist. However, if interpreters can agree (as they usually do) that the purpose of reading is to determine what the author intended to communicate, then inherent meaning becomes a more defensible concept. At the very least, it becomes possible to speak of some interpretations being more correct than others. It also becomes possible to speak of texts themselves as a source of danger.

        Re: power, sure, I suppose maintaining power could be one motive for wanting to maintain some inflexibility in interpretation. But I’m not talking about motive, here. I’m talking about group dynamics. If interpretation gets too flexible, the text ceases to function as a viable center and source of cohesion for the group. For the group to remain a healthy and viable competitor in the religious marketplace, it would have to find some other center. Liberal churches, unfortunately, just don’t do well compared to more conservative competitors.

        Anyway, we’re getting pretty far afield and spending a lot of time arguing about semantics here, so I think I’ll call it quits and let you have the last word if you like.

  3. Christopher Smith says:

    One more thought. One method used by early Christians to reinterpret problem texts was allegorical interpretation. But eventually they gave that up because it was *too* effective at letting people interpret creatively. It allowed any lunatic to justify his delusions from scripture. Healthy traditions seek hermeneutical flexibility, but they also seek some inflexibility. This is all part of achieving optimal tension with culture and maximizing the size of their audience while still maintaining a meaningful institutional shape and group cohesion. Groups that don’t strike this balance falter.

  4. I like the emphasis on religious epistemology–religion as a way of finding truth, of forming beliefs. I see no evidence that Islam is more likely to teach people to be violent than any other religion, but I agree that no religion is a moral blank slate.

    Internal religious reform can make a big difference in society, which I believe is why women have the vote in the United States. Many women didn’t want the vote until the temperance movement, when they realized that they could use the vote to protect their families, and then the vote became part of their perception of their divinely appointed role as homemakers, mothers, and caregivers.

    I’ve seen some interesting feminist interpretations of the Qur’an, and if they become widespread, then so will women’s rights.

    Thanks for your discussion of relativism vs. absolutism in interpreting scripture. It helped me understand hermeneutics a little better.

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