Reza Aslan's atheism problem: "Fundamentalist" atheists aren't the issue, apologists for religions are

Major religions all contain macabre fables, explicit injunctions for vile behavior no civilzed person should accept

Published October 25, 2014 2:00PM (EDT)

  (HBO/Malin Fezehai/AP/Akira Suemori)
(HBO/Malin Fezehai/AP/Akira Suemori)

Bill Maher’s recent monologue on "Real Time" about the failure of liberals to speak out about the routine atrocities and violations of human rights carried out in the name of religion in the Muslim world has unleashed a torrent of commentary, much of it from progressives advocating more, not less, tolerance of Islam.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who sided with Ben Affleck against Maher in a follow-up segment a few days later, calls ISIS rebels, in an op-ed, “barbarians” who “give all Islam a bad name,” and asks us to take into account the religion’s diversity, lest we slip into “Islamophobic bigotry.” Fareed Zakaria, in his Washington Post column, cautions us to recall that Islam, Christianity and Judaism once peacefully coexisted, but acknowledges that Islam suffers from a “cancer” – extremism that incites acts of terrorism. This he views, though, as a problem of “Islam today.” (He neglects to point out that in the Muslim-dominated countries where this peaceful coexistence occurred, Christians and Jews suffered humiliating second-rate dhimmi status, unequal legally or socially to Muslims.) Writing on Al Jazeera English, Lana Asfour lauds Affleck for calling out Maher’s “racism” and espies, in the comedian’s treatment of Islam, an “overriding agenda” aimed at justifying the “past, present, and future mistakes” of U.S. foreign policy.

One pundit in particular, though, has busied himself opining on Maher and nonbelievers in general -- Reza Aslan, Islam’s most prominent apologist of late. Delivered via multiple media outlets, his remarks, brimming with condescension, tinged with arrogance and laden with implicit insults to thinking people, deserve special scrutiny for one main reason: among well-intentioned liberals who don’t know much about religion, his words carry weight.

In a New York Times editorial, Aslan accused Maher and other nonbelievers of “exhibiti[ing] an inability to understand religion outside of its absolutist connotations.” Such folk, in his telling, unjustly “scour holy texts for bits of savagery and point to extreme examples of religious bigotry, of which there are too many, to generalize about the causes of oppression throughout the world.” They fail to grasp, in his view, that “religion is often far more a matter of identity than it is a matter of beliefs and practices.”

Yet Aslan accuses the benighted critics of religion of a far more grievous misapprehension: the assumption that words mean what they actually mean. Here I’ll quote him at length.

“It is a fallacy to believe that people of faith derive their values primarily from their Scriptures. The opposite is true. People of faith insert their values into their scriptures, reading them through the lens of their own cultural, ethnic, nationalistic and even political perspectives. . . .  After all, scripture is meaningless without interpretation.  The abiding nature of scripture rests not so much in its truth claims as it does in its malleability, its ability to be molded and shaped into whatever form a worshiper requires. . . If you are a violent misogynist, you will find plenty in your scriptures to justify your beliefs. If you are a peaceful, democratic feminist, you will also find justification in the scriptures for your point of view.”

Now we have to stop and ponder what we are being sold here. Aslan is essentially taking a postmodernist, Derrida-esque scalpel to “scripture” and eviscerating it of objective content. This might pass muster in the college classroom these days, but what of all those ISIS warriors unschooled in French semiotic analysis who take their holy book’s admonition to do violence literally? As they rampage and behead their way through Syria and Iraq, ISIS fighters know they have the Koran on their side – a book they believe to be inerrant and immutable, the final Word of God, and not at all “malleable.” Their holy book backs up jihad, suicide attacks (“martyrdom”), beheadings, even taking captive women as sex slaves. This is not surprising; after all, the prophet Muhammad was a warrior who spread Islam by the sword in a dark, turbulent time in history. (Christianity’s propagation had, in contrast, much to do with the Roman emperor Constantine’s fourth-century conversion and subsequent decriminalization of the faith.)

Moreover, the razor-happy butchers of little girls’ clitorises and labia majora, the righteous wife-beaters, the stoners of adulterers, the shariah clerics denying women’s petitions for divorce from abusive husbands and awarding sons twice the inheritance allowed for daughters, all act with sanction from Islamic holy writ. It matters not a whit to the bloodied and battered victims of such savagery which lines from the Hadith or what verses from the Koran ordain the violence and injustice perpetrated against them, but one thing they do know: texts and belief in them have real-life consequences. And we should never forget that ISIS henchmen and executioners explicitly cite their faith in Islam as their motive. Tell that to Derrida – or Aslan.

Not just belief in the Koran leads to mayhem, though. Open the Book of Leviticus (in the Hebrew Bible and Old Testament) and read the prescriptions of death (often by stoning or burning) as punishment for, among other things, cursing your parents, committing adultery, practicing bestiality (with mandatory slaughter of the unwitting animal as well), engaging in prostitution or sodomy, worshipping another god or taking God’s name in vain, and being the (female) victim of rape. The New Testament is somewhat less vicious, but even gentle Jesus, meek and mild, warned in Matthew (10:34): “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword,” and preached “unquenchable fire” and damnation for sinners.

That the faithful have always been acting on the words in their holy books may not accord with how Aslan would like us to see religion, but it is hardly news. Even Shakespeare found this problematic. In "The Merchant of Venice," he wrote that “In religion, what damned error but some sober brow will bless it and approve it with a text, hiding the grossness with fair ornament.” Grosser “errors” than beheadings or female genital mutilation cannot be imagined; intentionally trying to obscure cause and effect where faith is concerned, as Aslan does, is morally reprehensible, is insensitive to the victims, and provides cover for their butchers.

The problem with religion lies not with, as Aslan would have it, interpretation – postmodern or otherwise – but with, for starters, the founding texts themselves. The canonical writings of Islam, Christianity and Judaism all contain a plethora of macabre fables and explicit injunctions for vile, sadistic behavior that no civilized person would or should accept, but which far too many do take as literal truth. (And not just in the Middle East. Even in the United States, a Gallup poll conducted this summer established that three out of four Americans consider the Bible the actual word of God.) The only way for those hoping to justify faith while shielding their scripture from censure is to do what Aslan does: shift the focus from the “holy” texts to the people reading them.

The so-called “New Atheists,” including Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, have tried to do the opposite: get people to examine religion and help them understand it as innately backward, obscurantist, irrational and dangerous. Their aggressive secularism has, of course, stirred controversy and resentment. It was bound to do so. For millennia, the faithful have held the high moral ground virtually unopposed. Now (at least occasionally) under fire, some modern-day believers have taken to levying a clever yet false counter-accusation; namely, that the so-called “New Atheism” amounts to a “religion all its own” and that nonbelief can be just as hazardous as nonbelievers say religion is.

Aslan has proven a masterly practitioner of this ruse. He has used it to muddy the rhetorical waters to the extent that both belief and nonbelief come off, in his telling, as comparable, with “fundamentalism” a problem for both.

“Atheism is a belief system like any other belief system,” he told HuffPost Live last week in a lengthy interview about – again – Bill Maher’s stance on Islam. “It’s a set of propositions about the nature of reality. And like any set of propositions, it can neither be proven nor disproven.”

This is patently untrue: nonbelief is not a “belief system.” Atheism simply denotes nonbelief in a god, and the rejection of god-related assertions, advanced without evidence, or with risible semblances of evidence drawn from the holy writings themselves in dispute, that an invisible, almighty Supreme Being superintends the universe, grants our wishes or not as He sees fit, and demands to be both loved and feared. Smart atheists know that God’s inexistence cannot be proven, but find no reason to accept the absurd claims the three Abrahamic faiths make, and every reason to react with anger and contempt when adherents of those religions attempt to impose them on the rest of us. The religious argue that the absurdity of their holy books’ tenets presents them with an opportunity to win bona fides with their god by suspending their critical faculties and believing them anyway, but no rational human being should be obligated to respect their decision – let alone submit to their mandates.

Aslan went on to compound his mischaracterization of atheism by falsifying history, and warned, on the basis of his own falsification, of the dangers of atheist “fundamentalism.” In response to a viewer’s comment that atheists don’t start wars, he stated that, “I’m sure that would be quite a surprise to the countless victims of Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot.” Wrong again. Although bloodthirsty nonbelievers, none of these tyrants committed a single atrocity (much less started a war of any sort) in the name of, or for the sake of, atheism. But if a suicide bomber blows himself up inside a mosque or a market, you can be pretty sure he believed in the Islamic doctrine of martyrdom, especially if, as has so often happened, he has left video testimony saying so.

Aslan said much more in his interview worthy of refutation, but what transpires through all the rhetorical dodges, whitewashing and clever distortions of fact he (and others defending religion) have offered us since Maher delivered his anti-Islamic monologue is not that one faith is better or less violent than another, but that religion itself is to blame. Religion, in interfering with the free exercise of our critical faculties, in setting out an outlandishly untrue history of the cosmos and humankind’s position in it, and in purporting universality that some are willing to die and kill for, is more than just what the physicist Steven Weinberg called “an insult to human dignity;” it is, in our age of weapons of mass destruction and increasing global instability, a threat to us all. The chief fons et origo of conflict and hatred today, religion must be dumped, ushered out of the public arena and back into the private, personal realm for those still inclined to harbor it or too weak to do without it. No thinking person need feel pressured into condoning or excusing faith-based brutalities out of well-meaning but incorrect liberal sentiments.

How are we to rid ourselves of religion? I don’t know a nonbeliever who considers it likely that we will. Even Christopher Hitchens likened it to the rats of Camus’ "The Plague," always scurrying about in a city’s sewers, ready to spring forth on us when we have forgotten about the pestilence they carry. But we can take action to ensure that we do not unwittingly favor religion’s continuation by taking stances, both public and private. (I wrote about this previously for Salon here.) Nonbelievers need to approach faith as a subject like any other, one we can talk about and criticize without fear of causing offense – or, in the case of Islam, concern for our physical safety.

This is in fact our constitutional right. The First Amendment forbids Congress from establishing an official religion and protects free speech – including speech that offends the sentiments of believers. If we disbelieve what religion’s canon tells us, we need to say so openly, and in mixed company, pointing out that no rational person could believe it or accept it as true and valid, were it not for indoctrination, immaturity, willful abandonment of reason, fear, or simple feeblemindedness.

We can also cease displaying knee-jerk respect for those who propagate faith. A priest, rabbi, or imam should merit no more deference than a witch doctor – all traffic in gullibility, human misery and vulnerability, and none can prove the efficacy of their ministrations. We must point out the inherent dangerousness of faith itself – of believing things to be true without evidence. The British poet Perce Bysshe Shelley, writing two centuries ago, put it bluntly: “God is an hypothesis, and, as such, stands in need of proof: the onus probandi” – the burden of proof – “rests on the theist.” Claims made on the basis of religion should be met by demands for evidence.

Atheists should proceed from a self-evident central truth: the three Abrahamic “revealed religions” are based on Iron-Age, Roman-era or Medieval texts of human authorship. This does not mean everything they say is bad – consider the Golden Rule. But no atheist, when confronted by believers nevertheless advancing solutions for what ails our society today based on one or another holy book, should shy away from stressing the temporal provenance of scripture, and evaluate such solutions on their secular merits (if they have any). Nor should we hide our disdain for the religious symbols forced upon us with regularity. (Take the cross. Is it a symbol of God’s love and benevolence toward Man, or a gory relic of a fictitious human sacrifice?) We should express our outrage and disgust with Republican (faith-motivated) attempts to have creationism taught in schools, establish legal hurdles for women desiring abortions, limit access to birth control and oppose same-sex marriage.

Humankind began advancing out of the millennium of dark theocratic rule that began with the fall of the Roman empire only with the dawn of the Renaissance and its celebration of the human experience. This celebration did not exclude religion, which inspired some of the magna opera of art, architecture and literature, as gazing at the work of Giotto or reading Dante and Milton will show. Even much that is specifically religious has aesthetic value: check out Ecclesiastes or the recitations of master qaris.  But aesthetics are one thing, and how to deal with our increasingly perilous predicaments as a species quite another.

We will all be better off when we relegate religious texts to the “fiction” section in our local bookstore. And given the violence and lurid conduct they feature, we might want to stamp their covers with “X–RATED: NOT SUITABLE FOR MINORS.”

By Jeffrey Tayler

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His seventh book, "Topless Jihadis -- Inside Femen, the World's Most Provocative Activist Group," is out now as an Atlantic ebook. Follow @JeffreyTayler1 on Twitter.

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