What Reza Aslan gets Wrong About New Atheism

I really don’t understand the fascination with Reza Aslan.

Whether or not you agree with Sam Harris’ and Bill Maher’s scathing appraisal of one of the world’s larger religions, you’d have to be blind not to see Aslan’s interest in discussing his religion on the public forum. He’s an apologist, and like any other apologist he’s made a job out of twisting himself into cognitive knots trying to convince everyone his religion is anything but anachronistic and regressive. It’s quite stunning that right-thinking liberals who wouldn’t think twice about tossing the likes of William Lane Craig into the crazy bin fawn over Aslan like he’s some monolithic warrior for social justice, defending 1.57 billion people from the tyranny of two middle-aged atheist Americans.

After the much-publicized kerfuffle between Harris and white guilt poster child Ben Affleck, Aslan is still harping on them, and people are still eating his nonsense up like it’s in short supply.

This interview is long and dry and rife with nonsensical apologetics, but unsurprisingly scant on meaningful content. Aslan’s points are, in summary:

  1. People get their morality from eisegesis, not exegesis.
  2. New Atheists are a bunch of simpletons.
  3. New Atheists, therefore, do not understand the nature of morality and are patently unqualified to talk about it.

Aslan’s first point is the most poignant, but like most of his observations is a spurious half-truth. Eisegesis is a kind of confirmation bias, a process by which one’s preexisting beliefs, attitudes, opinions or biases are introduced into a religious text as he or she reads it. Morality, Aslan argues, is anterior to, and ultimately independent of, one’s reading of scripture. I don’t think this is wholly incorrect. In fact, I would argue this is, at least in part, a very sensible proposition. It would explain why, to use one of Aslan’s examples, southern slave owners placed particular emphasis on Biblical passages governing slavery, while northern abolitionist Christians did not. However, this is ultimately irrelevant because New Atheists don’t think people get their morality from scripture either. Constantly having to defend ourselves from accusations of immorality by way of faithlessness, we often argue that morality is in no way linked scripture, that one could live a perfectly moral life without believing a single word of the Bible or the Qur’an.

So, where do people get their morality? Aslan doesn’t venture an answer, but he seems to think “religious scholars” are experts on that particular topic. I, however, would think psychologists a more reliable source of information, and they seem to think socialization, influenced by genetic predisposition, explains human behavior rather nicely.

Generally speaking, people are not socialized by scripture. They are, however, socialized by religion.

See, religions are more than their foundational texts. They are shared interpretations of those texts, cultural institutions into which people are socialized from the moment of their birth.

I was raised in a Catholic household, and in Catholic households we do not eat meat on Fridays. This isn’t because there is some secular reason for not eating meat on Fridays that I, in my ignorance, read into Biblical scripture, but because some early Christian thought it best to commemorate the blood sacrifice of the risen Christ by abstaining from meat on the day He supposedly died. That became tradition, and tradition became dogma.

If 64% of Egypt’s Muslims do, in fact, believe apostasy is a crime worthy of death, their attitude is not directly a product of Islamic scripture. Rather, it is because the belief has become a matter of religious tradition, an interpretation of scripture that has been passed down from cleric-to-cleric (probably) for at least thirteen hundred years. Clerics, like priests or pastors, are respected as authority figures, especially to children, in whom credulity is a normative quality. If the man with the long beard tells you over and over again abandoning Islam is worthy of death, and this belief is echoed by your parents and immediate family members, chances are you’re going to believe it as well… even if you’ve never so much as opened a Qur’an in your life.

That is the New Atheists’ gripe with religion. The violence, misogyny, and backassward anachronisms in the texts are simply tertiary to the main issue: religion teaches people from birth to be uncritical of these fundamentally bad ideas.

That’s it, really.

As to points 2 and 3, I couldn’t care enough to bring myself to comment in any great detail. Accusations of “simplicity” (as in stupidity) are rendered somewhat inoperable by Aslan’s abjectly simple appraisal of religion’s role in shaping human social behavior.


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