This week, renowned scholar of religious gobbledygook Reza Aslan was interviewed by renowned copy-and-paster C.J. Werleman. During one part of the 40-minute exchange, Aslan trashed New Atheists and their anti-theistic tendencies, and accused them of thinking that “[t]hey are in sole possession of truth [and] that anyone who disagrees with them is not just wrong but evil and stupid!“
That’s quite an accusation considering it comes from a guy whose religion is based on the Quran, which claims to be the unerring and final revelation of god himself. As for Aslan’s straw man claim that anti-theists dismiss religious people as “evil and stupid,” none of them — except maybe a few twitter trolls, but certainly no widely respected anti-theist — has claimed that if a person is religious, then they are ipso facto “evil and stupid.”
After castigating Graeme Wood for not consulting Muslim scholars for his excellent piece in The Atlantic about the Islamic motivations of ISIS, Aslan turned to Sam Harris, saying, “This guy reads the scriptures more literally than any literalist I know. And that sort of reductive notion about religion — it’s just not interesting, it’s not smart.”
This is indicative of Aslan’s capricious understanding of religion, which as a believer makes him a walking paradox. On one hand, Aslan believes the Quran to be the word of god. On the other, he says we can’t believe what it says (at least not the parts he dislikes), and instead must rely on religious scholarship to ascertain the Quran’s meaning. So when the Quran instructs husbands to strike their disobedient wives, it’s actually instructing something else because to do so would be to take the verse literally, and according to Aslan reading the Quran literally is wrong, even though it’s supposed come from god. Put another way, Aslan believes that the word of god can’t be taken at face value. Rather, it’s up to mere mortal scholars of religion armed with special training to decipher many pages of holy texts to figure out what god actually meant.
In this way, Aslan is employing a rhetorical device that goes something like this: Unless you’re a scholar of religion, you don’t know what you’re talking about. But one would think that an omniscient and omnipotent being wishing to communicate his will would be able to dictate a clearer moral vision for humanity that would stand the test of time. One would think that, but one would be wrong.
At one point Werleman interjected to say, “People don’t derive their values from religion. They bring their values to religion,” to which Aslan replied, “That’s honestly like, Religion 101. That’s what you learn on the first day of the study of religion.”
Undoubtedly many people don’t derive their values from religion. If they did, the world would be a much less civilized place. However, many people do derive at least some of their values from religion and behave in ways they otherwise would not, were it not for a push from faith. Take blasphemy, for example, which is considered a “sin” in the three Abrahamic faiths. In many countries it’s even prohibited by laws designed specifically to insulate religion from critique. As such, blasphemy is sufficient to land offenders in prison or get them executed by the state. Sometimes, the government is spared the trouble of punishing blasphemers by enterprising mobs eager to kill those who insult religion.
Exactly what value are those who punish blasphemers bringing to religion? The question is absurd. Blasphemy wouldn’t exist were it not for religion, and yet the implication here is that prohibition of blasphemy is a manifestation of some value that some people would possess even were it not for religion.
Another question is, if people bring their values to religion, what purpose does religion serve? Defenders of faith occasionally acknowledge the fair amount of violence and immorality in the Bible and Quran, but protest that there is also much that is noble and moral. But all this proves is that humans are entirely capable of having a moral code that is independent from holy texts. Indeed, the very act of declaring certain scriptures moral or immoral defeats the entire raison d’être of these books, which is (or at least was) to codify timeless standards of behavior in divinely-inspired tomes.
Aslan illustrated this principle during the interview when he said,
“I have no problem with people who blame religion for every bad thing done in the name of religion, as long as they credit religion for every good thing that’s done in the name of religion.”
For a moment, let’s anthropomorphize this principle, whereby we’re told not to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to religion. Imagine a man who, 364 days out of the year, is an exemplary citizen. He helps his children with schoolwork, donates to charities, volunteers at homeless shelters, and practices the lost art of chivalry. But one day out of every year, he ceases to be this person. For on that day, he becomes an utter psychopath. He beats his children, embezzles money from charities, kills homeless people, and rapes women.
What would we think of this person who, 99.7% of the time is an outstanding human being, but for 24 horrific hours out of the year, is a complete menace to society? As with all criminals, we as a society wouldn’t point to all the good this man has done in some wayward effort to call the whole thing a wash and spare him prison or death. Yet when it comes to religion, that’s exactly the kind of bar-lowering that’s taking place. We wouldn’t do it for a person, and we shouldn’t do it for religion.
Lock it up and throw away the key.