On Wednesday’s edition of The Daily Show, “religions scholar” Reza Aslan continued his audacious attempt to fundamentally change how religion has been understood from time immemorial. For Aslan, religion isn’t so much a system of belief in the supernatural, but instead a sort of cultural identity that’s extremely pliant depending on the personal and cultural whims of believers. To wit,
“The thing about religion that people have to understand is that it’s far more a matter of identity than it is just a matter of beliefs and practices. I mean, those things are important, but when you say, ‘I’m a Jew,’ ‘I’m a Muslim,’ ‘I’m a Christian,’ you’re making an identity statement far more so than a statement of the things that you believe.”
This assertion is not even wrong. It’s gibberish masquerading as profundity. Are not “the things that you believe” very much part of one’s identity, be they religious, political, or cultural in nature? When one speaks of “Muslim identity,” for example, does that not entail an identity that involves believing in Allah and that Muhammad is his prophet?
The answer to both questions is most assuredly yes. It’s true that members of the same faith don’t all believe the same things, but they do all share a base set of beliefs that shapes their worldviews to varying degrees. When Muslims gather at mosque or Christians at church, they are there in their capacity as people who believe similar things regarding the supernatural and/or morality.
By shifting focus away from belief to some vague “identity” as a measure of religion, Aslan is engaged in a supreme act of obfuscation, and in the process has made himself a walking contradiction. Consider what he told Jon Stewart later in the interview:
“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, its power comes from its malleability. You can read it in any way you want to.”
As a believer (in Islam) Aslan isn’t doing himself any favors. The entire premise of the Quran (and the Bible) is that, as far as believers in these texts are concerned, they are the word of god. Saying of scripture, “You can read it in any way you want to,” lays waste to the whole enterprise of religion, whose purpose it is to impart (immutable) moral wisdom on those who adhere to it.
So if people bring their values to religion, then what is the point of religion? If god’s promulgated will is just something that’s adjusted in accordance with the prevailing social and cultural norms of the time, then god’s will means nothing; or better yet, god’s will is what we say it is because we made it up in the first place.
Lastly, Aslan took aim at those who fault religion for many of the world’s problems:
“[I]f you’re going to blame religion for violence in the name of religion, then you have to credit religion for every act of compassion in the name of religion, you have to credit religion for every act of love in the name of religion, and that’s not what people usually think. They focus very much on the negative.”
Unfortunately for Aslan, his perspective here essentially lowers religion to a human undertaking, which, although it is, it is not intended to be. If religion is just as capable of inspiring bad acts as good acts, then it has utterly failed in its purpose of providing a workable moral framework. It can be argued that despite our changing moral norms, god hasn’t changed his, and that we humans just seem to be misunderstanding it. But if that’s the case, then god hasn’t done a very good job of explaining himself in his holy texts.
At least not to the point where we can all agree not to hurt each other in his name.