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MEMBERS ONLY: Examining Reza Aslan's 'Scientific' Understanding of Religion

Reza Aslan writes that New Atheists are "fundamentalists" just like religious fanatics, but when was the last time Sam Harris beheaded a person of faith?

"There is, of course, nothing wrong with an anti-theistic worldview, though I personally find it to be rooted in a naive and, dare I say, unscientific understanding of religion – one thoroughly disconnected from the history of religious thought." - Reza Aslan

If there is a better summation of Reza Aslan's shtick than this, I've yet to see it. Aslan, of course, is a "renowned scholar" of theology, which is to say he is a renowned scholar of ideas that have no grounding in reality. But he isn't just a scholar of theology. He's also a client -- a Muslim turned evangelical Christian turned Muslim once again. While the word of Allah may be immutable, Aslan's religious preference has been anything but.

One of Aslan's favorite tactics when engaging detractors is to dismiss their critiques as being "unsophisticated," which is what makes the aforementioned quote the quintessential Aslan refrain. It occurs in his latest essay in that vast repository of nonsense known as Salon. In it, Aslan makes a distinction -- as Christopher Hitchens did -- between atheists and anti-theists. An atheist, of course, is a person who lacks belief in god or gods. An anti-theist, which Aslan notes Hitchens was and Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are, is someone who thinks belief in god and religion are harmful, and this leads them to oppose it in a "militant" fashion. This anti-theism, according to Aslan, is the defining characteristic of so called New Atheists.

The notion that New Atheists (or anyone, really), have an "unscientific understanding of religion" is so absurd on its face, it'd be a wonder how Aslan could've written such a thing were it not for his past rejoinders saying as much. Religion is unscientific by definition, trafficking as it does in revealed wisdom. It is a collection of assertions backed by no evidence whatsoever. Usually, such claims owe their perseverance to texts of dubious origins, penned at times when humans knew less about the natural world than a contemporary grade schooler. Yet Aslan laments such "unscientific" criticism of these texts. No doubt there still exist some dyed-in-the-wool astrologists and alchemists out there who are disheartened by the those who make "unscientific" dismissals that, as Aslan might say, are "thoroughly disconnected from the history of [astrological and alchemic] thought."

What Aslan wants you believe is that he is uniquely qualified to understand religion because he comes bearing a Master's in theology and a Ph.D in sociology, and has spent much of his time studying not just the founding holy texts of various religions, but subsequent scholarship about said religions. This is the problem with Dawkins, Harris, and Bill Maher, he says. Their understanding of religion is just downright gauche.

But no matter how much Aslan protests, religion is not biology, or chemistry, or physics, and understanding it does not require years of specialized education and training toward that end. All that is needed is a knowledge of history and sound reading comprehension skills. When the Quran instructs believers to "kill the polytheists wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush" unless they repent, we can understand what this passage is saying and why: because in seventh century Arabia, polytheism was the main rival of Islam. Apologists such as Aslan want to obfuscate the matter by telling us that those and other unpleasant passages don't actually mean what they say. However, the Quran is the supposed word of Allah, and those who insist that such passages say something entirely different are contradicting divine revelation.

Another canard Aslan trots out is the idea that New Atheists are -- wait for it -- fundamentalists too:

"Like religious fundamentalism, New Atheism is primarily a reactionary phenomenon, one that responds to religion with the same venomous ire with which religious fundamentalists respond to atheism. What one finds in the writings of anti-theist ideologues like Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens is the same sense of utter certainty, the same claim to a monopoly on truth, the same close-mindedness that views one’s own position as unequivocally good and one’s opponent’s views as not just wrong but irrational and even stupid, the same intolerance for alternative explanations, the same rabid adherents (as anyone who has dared criticize Dawkins or Harris on social media can attest), and, most shockingly, the same proselytizing fervor that one sees in any fundamentalist community."

It's tempting to cite this passage without adding commentary and let the false equivalency it contains undermine it all by itself, but this is an idiocy that simply won't die. To say, as Aslan does, that New Atheists like Dawkins and Harris oppose religion "with the same venomous ire with which religious fundamentalists respond to atheism," is an insult to the intelligence of anyone who had the displeasure of reading that sentence. When New Atheists respond with "venomous ire," it manifests in the form of a book, essay, lecture, or, yes, snide remark critical of religion. This is the extent of the New Atheists' "venomous ire," which for Aslan earns them the description, "militant."

Since Aslan says this is the same ire with which religious fundamentalists respond to atheists, we should, if he is correct, expect to see an equal and opposite reaction from that camp. However, that is anything but the case. Ironically, the fundamentalists of Aslan's own religion at this moment comprise the group that is by far the most intolerant of atheists, and unfortunately for non-believers, religious fundamentalists aren't exactly content with merely writing articles in Salon to express their disagreement. In dozens of countries, atheists face varying degrees of official and unofficial discrimination, and in 13 countries atheism is punishable by death. Even in the United States, a majority of Americans say they would be less likely to vote for a presidential candidate if that candidate is an atheist. So until New Atheists start advocating for imprisonment, execution, and other discriminatory measures against the religious, Aslan's comparison makes as much sense as the idea that Muhammad rode into heaven on a buraq.

Speaking of bullshit, saying that New Atheists claim a "monopoly on truth" because they reject tales of Muhammad being visited by an angel and Jesus resurrecting from the dead, opens the door to all kinds of mischief. If Aslan wants to equate the denunciation of supernatural claims with a sort of intellectual arrogance, then everyone can be said to claim a monopoly on truth because of the indefensible ideas we all explicitly or implicitly reject every day.

Religion is a fundamentally indefensible thing, which is why it's called faith. Those who admit as much should be respected to the extent that they recognize what they believe is far from provable. But Aslan can't seem to bring himself to terms with this. Instead he denounces critics of religion who say it's nonsense since there's no evidence for it and that its miraculous claims would contradict everything we know about the natural world. Think astrology is nonsense? You claim a monopoly on truth. Think every religion but Mormonism is wrong? You claim a monopoly on truth. Think there's no such thing as a ghost? You claim a monopoly on truth. Think that Bigfoot doesn't exist? You claim a monopoly on truth. And on and on, ad infinitum until the meaning of the word "truth" has become so debased that it is no longer a word meaning that which we know.

Of course, that's just one man's "unscientific understanding."

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