My Two Cents on the Sam Harris / Reza Aslan Debate
In this debate (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pjyg-nmjNSk), which must have taken place at least a couple of years ago, Aslan and Harris discuss Islam for the first thirty minutes or so and then field a number of questions from audience members. In this article, I will give my opinion on the central point of discussion in the first section of the video (the debate proper) and then comment on an interesting answer Reza Aslan gives to one of the questions put to him.
Can we blame religion for Islamic extremism?
Harris says we can while Aslan says we can’t. Harris points to poll results which consistently show majorities in Islamic countries supporting extremist acts like murdering apostates or suicide bombings. Aslan doesn’t directly comment on these poll results but instead asserts that religion doesn’t exist in a vacuum and the way it is interpreted is always down to other socio-political and socio-economic factors. He claims that Harris is oversimplifying a complex situation and doing the same thing the extremists are doing; i.e. mistaking earthly conflicts for cosmic ones.
Let’s take a step back and look at the question as I have framed it in the sub-heading; can we blame religion for Islamic extremism? Is it just me or is the answer not blindingly obvious considering that Islam is a religion? I should point out that stating the topic of the discussion this way isn’t manipulating words or playing semantic games; against all rules of common sense some people are (apparently) sincerely, genuinely suggesting that we can’t blame religion for Islamic extremism, that is, we can’t blame religion for religious extremism!
Aslan claims that Harris is oversimplifying the situation, but in all honesty, it seems to me like it is Aslan who is overcomplicating the situation. Aslan wants to bring in political, economic, societal and a thousand other issues, claiming religion doesn’t operate in a vacuum. Now of course this is true. Modern thinking has by and large forced Christianity to amend its wicked ways; stop burning heretics at the stake, accept women as near equals to men
So let’s take a less inflammatory example - if Christians suddenly started stoning people who work on the Sabbath, forcing women to cover their heads and be silent in church, forcing people to convert to Christianity for their own immortal salvation, and so on; would it make sense to say their religion was not responsible for these backwards attitudes; especially considering these backwards attitudes are clearly either directly drawn from religious texts or immediately derivable from the central tenets of the faith?
Sure, any number of events might have taken place in society to provide a catalyst for these changes in religious attitude; maybe the economy took a downturn and people are turning to religion or the Christian country in question was invaded by another country, etc., but these facts are, while critical in understanding the situation as a whole, extraneous to the core issue, i.e. a specific set of concepts/beliefs leading to a specific set of actions.
This is how I think about it: I observe certain individuals exhibiting or endorsing backwards, deviant, morally reprehensible behaviour (let’s call these Z), such as blowing up innocent civilians or reducing women to chattels, and have cause to wonder where these actions/attitudes come from. I look at the tenets of the faith (e.g. heaven awaits those who believe in Allah), what their scriptures say (e.g. if you fear “rebellion” from your wife, you may beat her), what the perpetrators of these acts say themselves (e.g. “I want to blow myself up for the glory of Allah”), and the overall tone of the religion (e.g. the world is divided into two classes – the faithful and the infidel) and then conclude that the religion is clearly primarily responsible. Lumping the four examples I have cited here into a category Y, we now have Y à Z. Simple.
People like Aslan however, claim that this is overly simplistic. They argue that we must include other influences; e.g. socio-political (X), socio-economic (W), the actions of other countries (V), global trends (U), etc., ultimately giving us an equation (A + B… + U + V + W + X) à Y à Z. They argue that ostensibly religious behaviour is inseparable from the wider context in which it occurs and can only be interpreted in light of this wider context.
There are at least four problems with this:
1. When the link between belief and action is so explicit and so obvious it is quite simply absurd to ignore it or play it down as being just one factor among many others. There is really no argument possible (or necessary) for this; it just defies common sense to claim that people quoting scripture and explicitly telling us they are trying to create a global caliphate could fail to be acting from religious motivations.
2. Whether there are other factors or not is actually irrelevant. Why did the other political, economic, etc. factors cause this specific set of behaviours? If these same situations had arisen in another part of the world would we see suicide bombings, repression of women and beheadings of people who refuse to espouse our particular beliefs? Probably not. Why? What is the differentiating factor? Clearly, the religion itself and the specific doctrines to be found therein.
3. It involves a kind of arrogance to completely ignore what these extremists are saying and stubbornly assert that when they explicitly tell us they are doing what they are doing because of their religious beliefs, they are actually doing them for other reasons; i.e. Aslan knows these people better than they know themselves.
4. If Aslan really believes what he is saying then he is effectively saying religion has no influence on behaviour; it is therefore hollow. It’s completely conditioned by external factors. This is an odd thing to say, especially for someone who has made the study of religion his life’s work and who seems to think religion is an important, if not essential, part of humanity. A further unavoidable consequence of such a view is that expressions like ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ become meaningless because, as Aslan is claiming, religious beliefs don’t actually translate into behaviour. If Islam is interpreted as peaceful, that is only because the surrounding political, economic, etc. factors have all brought about that interpretation. Religions only use then is as a measure for the state of the society it appears in.
Now, Aslan will continue here by saying that religion can’t be the primary motivator because there were times when it wasn’t inspiring these kinds of behaviours. Moreover, there are entire Muslim countries where certain religious tenets (such as the subjugation of women; as endorsed in scripture) have been completely abolished.
This is completely irrelevant. It is just like saying there are good Christians and bad Christians therefore Christianity is neither good nor bad. This is just poor logic. The fact that there are good Christians and bad Christians, on its own does not let us draw any conclusions about the religion itself. We need to see what beliefs actually make up the religion and whether these beliefs the ‘bad Christians’ are acting on are based on a valid interpretation of their religion or not. If one particular bad Christian is stoning people who work on Sundays, tells us he is doing so because the Bible tells him to, and the Bible actually does command its faithful to do so, then we can say something about whether the religion is good or bad.
To continue the discussion into areas unexamined in the debate, it seems to me that the final bastion for the people who claim we ought not to blame religion for religious violence is to argue that religions can be used to defend both good and bad actions which means it’s not the religions themselves that are good or bad, rather it’s the people wielding them. Someone who emphasises love can point to passages in the Qu’ran which say Allah loves everyone, while someone who emphasises hellfire for non-believers can pull the appropriate passages from that same Qu’ran.
There are three responses to this:
1. A faith that can be used to support both good and bad isn’t much to brag about. If someone can pull out quotes that support beating women, in all honesty, it doesn’t matter what else it says. Sure, good people can focus on the good and ignore the nonsense, but why bother going to all that effort? If something needs cherry picking to be palatable, it just wasn’t that great to begin with.
2. If bad people doing bad things defend their actions with appeal to a certain set of ideas taken as a whole, then that set of ideas, as a whole, is bad. The fact that there might be some good ideas mixed in with the rubbish is irrelevant. Names matter. If the Qu’ran is the foundation of Islam, then when talking about Islam you have to take the Qu’ran and the religion as it has been practised in its entirety since its inception. If you want to pick and choose the doctrines or people or periods in history that you will base your philosophy of life around, that’s fine, but if in the process you exclude significant material from any of those aspects then you really can’t call yourself a Muslim. You may have taken some, or all, of your attitudes from Islam but in culling what you did, you can’t call yourself a Muslim, or else words mean nothing and everyone is talking at cross-purposes.
3. There is one more point to be made which I won’t go into much detail about here because it is something of a meta-point (i.e. it concerns religion in general, not the specific tenets that make them up) and as such lies outside the scope of this article. This is that all religion, irrespective of individual beliefs/tenets, is inherently harmful because they all encourage (or more usually demand) attitudes of ignorance, recommend blind submission to authority and ultimately advocate a kind of giving up, a way of saying, “Life is too hard for me; I need a comforting illusion in order to go on.”
No matter which way you slice this debate, violence perpetrated by Muslims, as Muslims, is explicitly religious in nature and wouldn’t be what it is without Islam. Of course, a myriad of factors contribute to violence in all shapes and forms but you don’t need to be a religious scholar to see a connection between the passages in the Qu’ran that incite violence towards infidels and the terrorist activities taking place in the Middle East right now, especially when the terrorists themselves are telling us they are carrying out Allah’s will. To refuse to draw the straight line between religious faith and religious violence can only be attributed to a stubborn, wilfully blind desire to preserve some kind of dignity in a subject that has disgraced itself time and time again. Taking this stance towards religion requires more faith than religious believers themselves need, and largely explains why reason and common sense seem to have so little hold on its zealots.
“Religion is the language through which one describes transcendence”
Reza Aslan makes this comment in responding to one audience member’s question in the second part of the debate. He adds that “religion is not something you believe in or you don’t believe in” and yet this misconception is found primarily amongst members of religions. He goes on to say that we can’t get rid of religion but it will change as our understanding of the world changes.
Now, when you first hear this comment it might cause you to pause and think. It certainly sounds insightful and deep, rising above the religion is good/religion is bad debate as it does. But I would invite you to think about it once more. I would be willing to bet that you, like me, probably hadn’t heard religion defined that way before. Why is that? It’s because this is, in fact, not what ‘religion’ means at all.
In what I have noted above, two things Aslan says about religion are objectively false (numbers 1 and 2 below), one is suspicious (number 3 below), and one is only partially correct (number 4 below):
1. Religion is not something one believes in or not
2. Religion changes as our understanding of the world changes
3. Religious believers have failed to understand religion
4. Religion is how we attempt to communicate our experiences of transcendence
In a classic act of ‘doublespeak’, Aslan here seems to think that he can redefine ‘religion’ as he sees fit, completely ignoring a tradition that has preceded him by thousands of years. The meaning of the word ‘religion’ was not unclear or confused and waiting for Aslan to come along and clear it up for us. We know what it means; we’ve used it meaningfully and coherently for thousands of years so why, you may ask, is Aslan throwing this redefinition at us? The answer is, simply because he doesn’t like what it means.
Here’s what we know. A religion is an organised body that adheres to a certain set of doctrines or beliefs about the universe. These tenets almost always include supernatural beliefs, are typically built around a deity or group of deities, and due to the paucity of evidence in favour of them invariably value faith over reason. ‘Religion’, as a word, is not a mystery nor is its definition internally contradictory in any way.
Considering this, we also know that religion is something one believes in or not (one can subscribe to the beliefs of a certain religion or not) and religion doesn’t change over time. Sure, different aspects of a religion can be emphasised in different ways at different points in time but in general, the core of religions almost never change. One reason for this is that religions are often built around a fundamentally unchangeable holy text/s usually written by a deity and therefore above criticism.
Given this understanding of religion we can also safely acknowledge that “people of religion” actually do understand what they believe in and contrary to Aslan’s unbelievably arrogant remark, they haven’t gotten religion all wrong.
The one thing Aslan said that is partially correct is that religion is typically the vehicle by which we attempt to communicate vivid mental experiences which seem to hint at levels of existence beyond the material (this includes dreams, seizures, and other vivid mental phenomena). It is also the vehicle by which we attempt to legitimise, not experience, but fervently held desires and fears. And what form does this vehicle take? An organised body of beliefs, in other words… a religion.
Must our attempts to communicate our experiences/beliefs have resulted in an inflexible, doctrinal, faith-centred enterprise? Of course not. We could all imagine a world where so-called ‘transcendental’ experiences or beliefs are interpreted rationally and where people don’t become so wedded to them that they are prepared to kill or be killed for them… but that isn’t our world.
In all honesty, what is happening here is that Aslan has some kind of affinity for religion (I’m not sure if he himself subscribes to any religious beliefs or not) and has noticed, like we all have, the many problems which are endemic to it. This awareness of its many, sometimes horrific, shortcomings jars with Aslan’s ‘feeling’ that religion should be something good and so he is trying to give it a legitimacy it just doesn’t have, but more importantly, which it simply doesn’t warrant. The irony is that while Aslan’s project can be seen as the justification of religion, the fact that in order to carry this out he has to completely redefine it betrays something about just how rotten it is. In effect, he has acknowledged that religion is completely irredeemable, and so, in lieu of aborting the whole misguided enterprise (which he, like many others, can’t bear to lose), he has taken the only option left, that is, attempting to redefine religion while trying to convince us that this is what it has meant all along.
This is what really makes Aslan’s opinion here, doublespeak, in the true Orwellian sense. He isn’t just trying to give religion a respectability it has failed to earn on its own up until now; he is trying to convince us that we had it all wrong, right from the start. Religion doesn’t mean what we thought it did, even the religious people had it wrong! This is of course not unique to discussions on Islam, we have also seen this kind of Orwellian doublespeak in many of the voices of modern Christians in recent years. We were unimpressed with it then and it gains nothing being used in defence of Islam.