Features, Religion

Straight Talk about Religion: Reza Aslan Peddles False Wares to Influential Dupes

“I’m not a Muslim because I think Islam is more right” (than other religions), the media personality and scholar of religions Reza Aslan told Oprah on a recent episode of Super Soul Sunday, her television channel’s weekly spiritual chat show.  “It’s not.  I don’t think Islam is more true.  It’s not.”

Why, then, does he call himself a Muslim?

[F]or me, it’s about recognizing that the language of Islam, the language that it uses, the symbols and metaphors that it uses to define the relationship between human beings and God — that language appeals to me in a way that other languages do not.

Oprah & Aslan







By “languages” Aslan meant religions, he pointed out.  He also fessed up to not praying five times a day. A “profession of faith” such as Aslan’s — that Islam is just one “language” of many, neither necessarily more nor less valid than any other — has nothing in common with the message of the Shahada, the unmistakably clear, concise declaration of monotheism that is the first of five “pillars” (acts incumbent upon believers) of Islam: “I testify that there is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” (Ritualistic prayer five times a day is the second pillar). Yet Aslan went on to redefine the Shahada for Oprah, telling her that it is:

[N]ot a statement of monotheism, although most people think it is.  It’s a statement about the definition of God, it’s that God is in and of Himself one-ness.  That means God cannot be divided.

“So, God is all things,” answered Oprah, waving her arms slowly and expansively.

“God is,” said Aslan.

“God is, period,” intoned Oprah gravely.  “Capital I, capital S.”

The above exchange presents us with a hodgepodge of nebulous fatuities and outright falsehoods that might, to some, seem harmless.  After all, does anyone really tune in to Oprah for penetrating discourse on religion?

Yet such blather, composed almost entirely of gauzy, misleading tropes, does damage to the dialogue about religion, and specifically Islam, we so urgently need to have if we hope to safeguard ourselves from terrorist violence and protect our freedom of speech from theocrats, their apologists, and their (often unwitting) enablers.  If gullible viewers accept what Aslan says as holding for a majority of Muslims, they will come away puzzled as to how anyone could commit violence in Islam’s name.  In fact, they might just be tempted to think (as President Obama has stated) that “extremists” really are practicing a perversion of Islam in, say, ISIS land, and that ISIS, therefore, “is not Islamic.”

The line Aslan is selling us — that Islam consists not of propositions (conveyed through the Quran) regarding the origins and future of the universe and our species, accompanied by instructions to all of us about how to behave, but of ethereal, infinitely malleable abstractions — “symbols” and “metaphors” and such — may pass as credible on a talk show.  Yet among those for whom the faith retains its genuine, primordial characteristics as a divinely inspired blueprint for control and exploitation, backed by a harsh apparatus of enforcement — it would sound blasphemous, and would surely earn its telegenic peddler a caning — or worse.  Aslan is free to espouse whatever sort of Islam he chooses, obviously, but we should not confuse his fanciful version of it with reality.

Aslan, when not teaching creative writing at the University of California at Riverside, authoring books about religion, or producing television shows, has for years served as a media go-to person for Islam.  He can be relied upon to exculpate his faith when called on to opine about the latest Islamist atrocity, deflect attention from its violence-inducing doctrines of jihad and martyrdom, and propound a postmodernist interpretation of the religion according to which all blame attaches to miscreant individuals and what potentially perverse propensities they bring to their “scriptures,” plus various other societal factors, and none to the content of those scriptures. 

There is a market for this.  Many, especially in the media, wish to avoid confronting the dilemmas we face in dealing forthrightly with Islam and Islamist terrorism.  A good number have fallen for the semantic trap noun “Islamophobia,” which equates criticism of Islam with bigotry against Muslims as people and which plays off the nonwhite skin color of a majority of its adherents.  Moreover, we all know that danger menaces those who speak out against Islam, leave the faith, or even draw cartoons about it.  For on-air interviews, then, best to avoid inviting guests who might talk too frankly about Islam and suggest that possibly, just possibly, the problem stems from the texts revered by 1.6 billion Muslims the world over.  A general reluctance to criticize religion of all sorts doesn’t aid dialogue either.

Aslan’s media appearances have been many, and he has been convincingly rebutted.  His latest book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, has drawn fire as a work of pop culture, not scholarship — no surprise given that he “does not hold either a doctorate or a teaching position in the academic study of religion.”  (It hardly helps that there’s little reason to think Jesus even existed).

Yet his interview on Oprah’s show cries out for critique, if only because his words on Islam help further the prevalent misconception that it is harmless, and maybe even laudable, to accept the veracity of, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, propositions about reality and definitions of proper human behavior laid out in ancient and medieval texts.  Or, put another way, to profess one of the three Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity, or Islam.

Back to Super Soul Sunday.  When Aslan then informs Oprah that “symbols and metaphors . . . define the relationship between human beings and God” he is begging the question, assuming that we already accept the existence of a supernatural being (as he can expect the famously pious Oprah to do), but which has been a matter at least thought worthy of argument, even among theologians of yore.  Lest we forget, the validity of the entire Abrahamic enterprise rests on God’s factual existence, if for no other reason than He had to exist to issue the “revelations” providing the sole basis for regarding the Tanakh, the Bible, and the Quran as anything more than oversize compendia of lurid, often cruel fairy tales, and not the inerrant, irrevocable Word of God.  Absent divine authorship, these tomes would merit no more respect than The Epic of Gilgamesh (from which the Flood legend surely derives) and certainly less esteem than, say, Homer’s magnificent, far more imaginative oeuvre. 

Note: if there can be no relationship between humans and an imaginary celestial despot, there can, however, exist delusion.  One who believes without evidence may well believe anything, even ludicrous absurdities — say, human parthenogenesis, flying horses, blabbering donkeys, and demonic pigs — that, were they not sheltering under the ennobling rubric of religion, would otherwise incite peals of laughter and howls of derision from sane inhabitants of the modern world.

This is a problem.  The right to practice (and speak freely about) the faith of one’s preference is, of course, a fundamental achievement of the Enlightenment. But in the United States, well-funded Evangelicals vote as a bloc and have influenced education and legislation concerning abortion, same-sex marriage, and the right to die with dignity.  The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia found nothing untoward in musing about possessed pigs to New York Magazine, which should have set us wondering about just how clear-headed his legal reasoning was as he adjudicated so many landmark cases.

Europe is affected, too, of course.  In the United Kingdom, for instance, Sharia courts now imperil the rights of Muslim women and children residents.  None of this would be possible were secularists not according religion a deference it manifestly does not deserve.

And what of Islam in particular?  What of those who cite divine sanction for slicing off their daughters’ clitorises? (Even in the United States, more than a half-million women and girls are now at risk of genital mutilation).  For beating their wives?  For stoning or hurling gays from rooftops?  Untoward respect for Islam de facto abets mutilators, abusive misogynists, and the murderers of LGBT people.  Faith is often much more than a mere matter of conscience: it has victims. Aslan and Oprah may practice their religions without harming others, but the same cannot be said for all, as any glance at the headlines these days will attest.

A shrewd operator, Aslan demonstrates that nonbelievers and skeptics have left their mark on him.  He next tells Oprah that:

[W]hat I always say to people is that there is no proof for the existence or the non-existence of God.  Faith is a choice.  But it’s not an irrational choice.  That it’s actually quite rational and reasonable when confronted with reality and the world and life itself.

The rapidly expanding sector of wised-up Americans would beg to differ, as would citizens of nine of the most peaceable, developed countries, where religion is destined to become extinct.  Easy access to information (via the Internet) combined with science’s growing ability to explain away once-unfathomable mysteries are, day by day, shoring up the case for a worldview based on evidence, not superstitious dogma.  Reverence for ancient texts, composed before people knew what germs were or that the Earth revolves around the sun — now that’s irrational.

We have religion in our DNA, Aslan goes on  to tell Oprah, with primates as far back as Neanderthals having intuited that there is something beyond the material to our existence, and it’s up to us to find it:

[T]he how is a personal choice that is really up to each individual . . . .It’s not about needing proof.  There is no proof in the sense of what we would refer to as scientific proof.  It’s just a decision. . . . It’s in our DNA.  We are homo religioso.

Translation: the existence of evidence for the most contentious assertions imaginable about our world and how we are to live does not matter.  Cave men believed in the supernatural, therefore our species deserves a binomial nomenclature in ungrammatical Latin.  (Religiosus would be correct).

“So many wars,” says Oprah, adopting Aslan’s terminology, “have been fought over this very subject, because people believe their language is the only language.  You’re saying, actually, that it’s more about our identity.” 

Aslan dispenses with Oprah’s allusion to Islamist violence with a staple from his rhetorical repertoire: “When you say ‘I am Christian, I am a Jew, I am Muslim, I am a Hindu, you’re making an identity statement much more than a statement about beliefs.  That’s true around the world.” 

An identity deriving from Christianity, Judaism, or Islam stands either on the respective foundational beliefs involved, or on the culture that has developed under their aegis.  These two possibilities do not cancel each another out.  Most of us in the West, God-besotted or not, are culturally Christian, Jewish, or Muslim (or a blend of the aforementioned). One can enjoy Gregorian chants without believing a word of the lyrics; the haunting recitations of the Quran’s qaris can delight even those who don’t profess Islam. Certainly, the theologically themed masterpieces of world literature, including Dante’s Divine Comedy and Milton’s Paradise Lost, require no metaphysical delusions to appreciate.

But this is beside the point. Oprah was asking Aslan about religiously motivated wars. An honest reply (concerning Islam, at least) would have focused on jihad and the Islamic tradition of dividing the world into Dar al-Islam (the Abode of Islam, where the True Faith has triumphed) and Dar al-Harb (the Abode of War, where Muslims must fight to spread Islam among infidels).  It would also have noted the exalted position the religion accords martyrdom and paradise — a factor that impels jihadists to murder.

After a chat about his past, Oprah then allows Aslan to introduce the more topical subject of “Where is the voice of moderate Islam?” and prefaces the segment with a snippet from a 2014 CNN interview entitled “Does Islam Promote Violence?” in which Aslan declared that:

Islam doesn’t promote violence or peace. Islam is just a religion, and like every religion in the world, it depends on what you bring to it: If you’re a violent person, your Islam, your Judaism, your Christianity, your Hinduism is going to be violent.

Translation: belief in, and the willingness to act on, the content of religious texts — for argument’s sake, take those ordaining jihad and glorifying martyrdom — have nothing to do with, say, ISIS’ beheading infidels or conducting waves of suicide bombings.  In other words, ignore the motives stated by the perpetrators and concoct others attributing the atrocities to . . . to what, exactly?  Assemble contingent factors at your leisure, taking care to exclude Islam.

Since I’ve done so elsewhere, I won’t dwell more on this CNN interview, except to note three of Aslan’s most flagrantly erroneous assertions:

Aslan: FMG “is not an Islamic problem, it’s an African problem . . . [it’s] a Central-African problem . . . nowhere else in the Muslim, Muslim-majority states is female genital mutilation an issue.”

Wrong: The savage practice antedated Islam, yes, but the Prophet Muhammad sanctioned it, and it occurs, says a UNICEF report, “in 30 countries across three continents” in much of the Muslim world.

Aslan: mistreatment of women is a problem in Iran and Saudi Arabia, but not (inter alia) in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Wrong: both the latter two are, in fact, plagued by a widespread, persistent problem with FGM.

Aslan: “How many women do we [in the United States] have as head of states?” 

None, at least as of now.  But the issue Aslan’s interviewer wanted him to address was the mistreatment of women in the Muslim world.  The 2014 World Economic Forum report names Muslim-majority countries as nineteen of the twenty worst on Earth for women.

Oprah opens the segment by proffering a commonplace canard — that Islam means “peace.”  It does not.  It means submission — to the will of God.  Aslan does not correct her.  Doing so would have involved evoking the highly illiberal, totalitarian mission of the faith, which purports to apply to all humanity.  She then asks, “Isn’t it fascinating that . . . people” nowadays, especially in the United States, “think the exact opposite when they hear Islam?”

“It’s heartbreaking to me, but I also think that in many ways, it’s our own fault,” Aslan replies, adding that Islam lacks a central clerical authority to rule on what is truly Islamic — possibly the first intrusion of fact into the duo’s illusory chitchat.  People seeking the condemnation of violence from moderate Muslims assume, he says, that “the voice of violence, the voice of radicalism is the mainstream voice,” but if they would “do a Google search,” they “would see the overwhelming voice of condemnation.”

Indeed, a quick Google search would likely turn up the Pew Research Center poll, conducted just after the ISIS massacre last fall in Paris, that shows widespread negative views of ISIS in much of the Islamic world.  Yet in five countries, support for the terrorist organization runs at 8 to 14 percent — the latter in Nigeria, with a Muslim population of approximately 90 million out of about 182 million.  In Pakistan, 9 percent of 199 million support ISIS.  Together, in just these two countries, this means ISIS has roughly 35 million supporters.  If only, say, one percent of them are inclined to act on their jihadi convictions, we face 350,000 potential terrorists (again, from just Pakistan and Nigeria).  Pew did not even cover the Gulf states and other hotbeds of Islamism.

Those desiring further cause for alarm might also Google a more extensive Pew survey (still omitting the Gulf states) that highlights widespread reactionary beliefs and double-digit support in eleven countries for those who say suicide bombing is “often/sometimes justified.”

Aslan and Oprah then banter about Muslims as “the New Other,” as the latest minority group Americans are inclined to fear and demonize.  His conclusion: “this isn’t about Islam.  I think it’s about, um, fear.”  (Fear of what he does not say).  Oprah concurs, adding that African-American males in the United States are also perceived as violent.  She is thus subtly dealing her viewers the Islamophobia card, and conflating race with religion.  But Islam is not a race.

Aslan (to his credit) won’t allow Oprah to pursue this inept comparison.  “There is a problem,” he says, “in the Islamic world right now, that the violence in the name of Islam is very real.”  Muslims are “devoutly” committing acts of terrorism, and when they claim to be doing so for their faith, they should be believed.  “If a Muslim says he’s a Muslim, he’s a Muslim.  If a Muslim says I’m doing these actions in the name of Islam, let’s take that seriously, and let’s confront it.” Hear, hear!

Yet this is not what Aslan has done, either on the air with Oprah or elsewhere.  In any case, his solution? “The answer to the problems of religion isn’t let’s get rid of religion.  It’s about making sure that the voices of moderation, the voices of compassion are as loud as the voices of violence, as the voices of bigotry.”

Is this all really just a problem of Islamist “bigotry” — that is, fanaticism?  Where do you draw the line between “radical” Islam and “regular,” presumably non-bigoted, Islam?  The Quran remains the same, with all its violent suras, for “radicals” and moderates and nominal believers alike.  (Those willing to take scissors to Islam’s holiest book — regarded in its entirety as God’s literal word, and thus to be handled with utmost respect — and excise offending passages may step forward and announce themselves now).  The problem is not divergent “voices” but the canon itself.  One can slip from “moderate” Islam to a radical interpretation of the faith just by more assiduously acting on the contents of the scripture.

And therein lies the problem: as the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne (and author of Faith Versus Fact) has pointed out, “the density of violent and cruel passages is over 5 times greater in the Qur’an than in the Bible.”

“Getting rid of religion” wouldn’t be a good idea?  Just imagine what would happen to all the conflicts raging in the Middle East and North Africa if atheism suddenly prevailed among their combatants.  At the root of religious wars is, of course, religion.  Declarations of compassion and moderation from believers would be fine, but what will, ultimately, cure the malady of faith is none other than free speech — critical speech — about religion and in favor of reason.  In any case, those willing to murder in Islam’s name are the ones determining our discourse about the faith.  We are discussing Islam now not because of any insidious “bigotry” but because a number of Islam’s votaries prove, over and over, their willingness to kill for their beliefs.

There is more to the interview, but I have addressed the key moments above. Remember, no religion is true.  All creeds are, as the late Christopher Hitchens said, “equal and equivalent glimpses of the untrue.”  If we do not believe, we have a duty to object to religion, denounce it, and even ridicule it, anytime it impinges on politics and our freedoms, as it is ever wont to do.  We need to expose it for what it is: nonsense, or, more charitably, as an artifact from earlier, more brutish times when we simply didn’t know any better.

Critical talk matters especially where Islam is concerned: behind those who decry “Islamophobes” stand assassins, as free-thinking bloggers, women, apostates, sexual minorities, and non-Muslim inhabitants of the Islamic world know only too well. Silence from progressives about their plight equals complicity. Too bad Oprah and her guest never gave the victims a thought. We certainly should.


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.




  1. People are frightened by what is happening in the name of Islam, in particular in their societies. Sharia courts, jihadist terrorist violence, hateful doctrines of Salafi Islam being preached, stories of apostates being persecuted, in our towns and cities. Aslan is a comfort blanket. He reassures people. He explains things in frameworks that seem to make sense, that it is our fault for being Islamophobicracisthorrible etc etc. And that is comforting. It suggests we can deal with this by self-hating, and that we are not facing something that requires a contemplation of darkness.

  2. It might interest Mr. Tayler to know that the text of the Qur’an is not immune from errors in linguistic interpretation nor devoid of context.

    In fact, the methodology employed by himself and his “New Atheist” colleagues to justify their unmistakable hatred of Islam is identical to that used by lslamic radicals to justify their own hatred.

    Each group cherry-picks and adopts as irrefutable truths those interpretations and alleged “facts” that best support their own self-serving notion of what the religion must be.

    At least the latter lay no claim to “critical thinking” and are often the products of deprivation, manipulation, and/or coercion.

    What is his excuse?

    • Sohan says

      Oh, really? What would be the “context” of 24:2 (“The unmarried woman or unmarried man found guilty of sexual intercourse – lash each one of them with a hundred lashes, and do not be taken by pity for them in the religion of Allah , if you should believe in Allah and the Last Day. And let a group of the believers witness their punishment.”).

      Is a god who would mandate such a punishment for a non-crime like this to be let off because of a claim of special context? Keep in mind that the Quran declares itself to be final, perfect, and infallible, dictated in first-person divine perspective. Given that, would a god waste precious scriptural space figuratively rambling on about what a specific group of people were to do in whatever moment, with random time-leaps to modified excerpts from Biblical stories, and could not instead simply come up with a clear, firm set of eternal rules for what he demands be considered the final and perfect revelation?

      Or maybe we all can just admit that all of this shit was made up as he went along by a medieval opportunist charlatan cult warlord, based off existing Jewish and Christian scriptures, and that this kind of barbarism is — as is obviously the case to anyone who hasn’t been chugging the Kool-Aid — just a product of its time? THAT would be a reasonable justification for asking us to consider “context”.

      Furthermore, if you need reams of scholarly exegesis to explain verses like these so they don’t come off as barbaric as they actually appear, how come you don’t need reams of scholarly exegesis to explain verses that mandate, say, alms-giving?

      And that’s not even getting into the backwardness and barbarism in the Sunnah, which the Quran also commands us to follow.

      • Friq says

        Like if you eat or drink with your left hand, you will go to hell. If you wear your pants (male) below your ankles, you go to hell. If you wear silk, you will go to hell. I mean what the hell kind of crap are these rules?
        The guy married a six year old for God’s sake!! He married his own son’s (adopted) wife! Yeah and we should follow his path. Great!!!

    • ASBroad says

      Whether translated or in its original Arabic staple, the meaning of the (many) Quranic verses remains the same. Yes, some translations have actually attempted to soften things up – they never ever overstate the meaning but on occasion have made it more – one can only presume – palatable. There is little difference in that respect, as far as the meaning is concerned, between the Quran and the Bible, for example. The difference may be claimed with respect to the freedom of interpretation of respective content and yet, even then the general trend if not the specific detail remains the same, e.g. that homosexual relations are wrong and indeed punishable. It hardly serves your argument to suggest the ‘New Atheists’ employ a ‘methodology’ of picking and choosing in pursuing and expounding on their ‘umistakeable hatred of Islam’. First, picking and choosing verses makes no difference given they are regarded, by the believers, as actual words of god (or, in some of the Bible at least, as record of the words of god) that are hence to be read and understood literally. Second, what’s not to hate about Islam and dogma? Finally, there’s enormous difference between how Islamic radicals justify their hatred – which they base on the religious dogma they subscribe to – and the presumed hatred of atheists of Islam – the dogma in question. The former is based entirely in revelation and is by default irrational, the latter is based on critical consideration of the dogma spawned by the revelation and for all intents and pursposes is entirely rational. To simplify it for you, a believer in Islam who accepts the Quran is the word of God and hence unfallible, immutable, by all means true and hence to be abid by, should and would consider a gay person wrong, condemnable and indeed deserving of punishment as prescribed by (the word of) God. The gay person in question who reads the relevant part of the Quran can only ‘hate’ it for what it says, means and calls its subcribers to do, because it sets out expectations and in fact certainties of what that gay person would be subject to. These are the facts, Gregory A. The facts are written as clearly as it comes in the Quran. They do not permit ‘deprivation, manipulation and/or coercion’, and are not ‘alleged’, they simply are.

      • That’s absolutist drivel, really.

        Nothing you’ve said counters my basic premise. Even divine revelation comes down to the written word, which by definition is subject to interpretation and context. To suggest otherwise is simply ignorant.

        One assumes your beliefs are based solely upon secondary research. Historical linguistics would certainly not be your forte.

        The fact is, virtually everything you assert under the guise of “fact” is either not true, a patently biased opinion, or simply a personal value judgment. And that includes just about every line of your comment.

        I love, for example, how you generalize about how a gay person would react when they encounter a verse they may, at face value, find offensive. This may be a revelation to you, but there are actually un-closeted, actively practicing gay Muslims in the world.

        How can this be? Well, maybe because they don’t focus only upon one surah or verse of the Qur’an to the exclusion of all others to find acceptance. Nor do they automatically accept as absolute fact the worst interpretation of that which is otherwise ambiguous to anyone but the the most simple-minded.

        Once again, there’s not even the remotest attempt at objectivity, let alone critical thinking, in evidence…

        • Beau Quilter says

          … or maybe there are un-closeted, actively practicing gay Muslims in the world because they don’t happen to live in one of many Islamic states that execute gay citizens for the shariah crime of homosexuality.

    • Gus says

      There is no such thing as “laying claim” to critical thinking, you either are employing critical thinking or you are not.

  3. While I am quite sympathetic to this commentary (being very much a non-believer – can’t say athiest or agnostic – as for some reason argument rages over what these actually mean) – a major point is missed – that is, that your professed religion (whatever that may be) is NOT something that 99% of believers have any choice in – it comes to a child as part of the “Welcome Package” when they are born. Included in the package – your race, social status, tribal identity, geographic location, etc,, In many societies trying to reject the tenents of that package can lead to expulsion from the group – or your death as an apostate (and the Christians were as bad as other cultures in this).
    So how do we acknowledge this overarching fact in our discussion?

  4. Carolanne says

    Math not the only slip, Webster.
    Yes, there are dreadful ppl and acts in Christianity (the Nazis’ symbol was the Iron Cross) and Judaism (denial of human rights, ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, etc), not to mention by Buddhists (persecution of the Rohingya Muslims), let alone Hinduism (have a caste of “Untouchables”).

    Hugh Spencer makes a good point.
    Have worked in or visited over 100 countries and concluded that most ppl’s religion is a result of the accident of geography. The family, the cmnty, school, largely form a person’s sense of identity and belief. Difficult to divorce oneself from one’s origins with everyone thinking the same — Man is gregarious, after all.
    We’re fortunate today to have the Internet and world-wide communication so it is possible to see what other ppl think and how they conduct their lives; it has an effect on places with narrow views.
    Let us encourage dialogue, collaboration, even cooperation with mutual respect.
    This piece did focus on condemning Islam, however.
    No surprise sent to me via Sam Harris.

    There are outlandish parts of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, wch have been ignored.
    Holy Books, or their interpretation and adherence to them, have evolved along with our societies.
    Let’s concentrate on where we can all work together and improvements rather than bringing up flaws to demonize whatever religion. Stress the positives.
    This piece falls into the category of making Islam as a whole look worse by omitting any reference to others’ similar flaws. Islam is about 1400 years younger than Christianity so maybe is roughly in the Inquisition phase.
    With moderates such as Aslan asserting themselves atrocities shd lessen. We have Ismailis in our cmnty and they’re even pluralists, respecting other religions — Foundation in Ottawa, Prince Aga Khan is an honorary Canadian.
    Look at the plainness of some Protestant churches compared with the decor and dogma in a Roman Catholic church (not just prohibiting birth control but having to believe the miracle of the mass: that the host and the wine actually become Jesus’s body and blood).

    Criticism can be beneficial, but ought to be evenly applied, not selectively.
    All, not demonize one or some.
    FGM? why not condemn male GM as well (circumcision also dulls the sensitivity)?
    Most religions try to increase their believers (Islam by the sword, but how wd you describe the Spanish in America?) OTOH, the Jews don’t; they are The Chosen Ppl so the rest of us are lesser beings (esp the Palestinians who are being displaced).

    In my world travels, it did not escape my notice that many who are praying fervently, performing sacred rites, or executing difficult acts are often doing so b/c they’re wanting or wishing for something. If it happens they believe; if it doesn’t, they try again.

    There are many international intellectuals who struggle with trying to justify their beliefs — an emotionally awkward position to be in.
    We can believe, but we don’t know.
    Who knows why we’re here?

    While exposed to more beliefs and ideas some universal values shd emerge. Concentrate on those, then expand. Some sense of equality and freedom of speech to begin with..

    May Peace and Love grow in the Global Village…..

    Go forward together?

    • BillyJoe says

      Firstly…don’t tell the author what to write about. If you want to read about a different topic you can go right ahead but don’t criticise someone else for not bringing your favourite topic into a criticism of Aslan’s view about Islam.

      Secondly…your sentiments are fine about love and the global village but, while you’re spreading the love, women are being mutilated and stoned to death and gays are being tossed off buildings. I think they deserve some consideration.

      Thirdly…there is more than one way to skin a cat. If you like, you can try to change religion from the inside, but please allow Mr Tayler to pursue the problem his own way, which is a legitimate criticism of religion itself. Both methods can help.

  5. Jm says

    Coralanne, it is unrealistic to think that in order to criticize one bad idea we must mention every other bad idea at the same time or give all bad ideas equal weight. The reality is that some bad ideas are worse and more deserving of our attention then other bad ideas.

  6. pv says

    Resa Aslan is about as much a “scholar of religion” as Mo Ansar. I think the comparison between Aslan and Ansar may go considerably further than that too.

    So, with the benefit of the sum of human knowledge about our universe, here we are in the 21st century still talking about beliefs and superstition from a late iron age society, and pretending their fearful fantasies weren’t fantasies at all. And all without a trace of smile in acknowledgement of the ridiculousness of it.

    Oh well, we can’t have everything. At least we’re happy to consign the gods of the ancient Egyptians and ancient Greeks to the dustbin of redundant imaginary friends, although with no good reason.

  7. Pingback: Brother Tayler on Reza Aslan « Why Evolution Is True

  8. Jeffrey (along with “New Atheists”) seems to think that when it comes to religion in general and Islam in particular; he has reached terminus; while the rest of us are still fumbling our way. Oh man…

    The author (again, just like “New Atheists” in general) is quite content with believing that Islam is extreme, fascistic and hazardous to our health (therefore joining forces with both the most fanatical Muslims and the most fanatical anti-Muslim paranoids alike) and just like them; he bizarrely insists that these are the most representative of the religion:

    1) Salafis (those who advocate that Islam’s best centuries are the first three)
    2) Fundamentalists (those who advocate the strictest scriptural literalism)*
    3) Fanatics (those who are ready to kill and die for Islam)

    Now imagine if someone proclaimed: [Where do you draw the line between “radical” and “regular,” presumably non-bigoted, Christianity?] after knowing there are Christians who seek to recreate the 1st century Nazareth or Bethlehem, or to eliminate debate about theology or ready to die or kill for Christianity?

    Where to draw the line? I don’t know, Jeffrey? Between those who support debate, and those who reject it? Bout right there…

    *Despite the Qur’an having 7 readings and a gazillion interpretations, and that both the Qur’an and Hadith were compiled after Muhammad’s death, leaving them quite vulnerable to fraud or ersatz; and therefore debatable. Not to mention the inherently debatable issue of which verse or hadith is worthy of discarding or following)

  9. Gris Harward says

    “It hardly helps that there’s little reason to think Jesus even existed”

    Sorry dude, need to pull you up on that one. There is in fact a LOT of reason to think Jesus existed. One of the most persuasive reasons is that virtually every scholar that has ever studied the historical Jesus, including atheists, agnostics, Jews, Muslims and others, virtually all think that Jesus existed. Bart Ehrman, who was actually quoted at length in Slate you linked actually wrote a book specifically against the proposition that Jesus is a myth called “Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth”. If you know anything about Bart you know that he isn’t exactly one to want to protect the historic claims of Christianity.

    Also c’mon, who would take scholarly opinion from Slate seriously?

    • Friq says

      ‘virtually all think’ – they think but they don’t know.

  10. I’m so glad I found this blog and The Atlantic – a voice of reason and independent thought in a sea of ideology and cognitive bias. Thanks Jeffrey Talyer!

  11. Byorn Hansen says

    So Tayler is saying that the 1.7 billion Muslims who live normal, law-abiding, productive lives are not practicing the “real” Islam. The “real” Islam is the one embraced by the the tiny violent fraction of that 1.7 billion.

    Tayler and his fellow bigots need to learn about the logical error known as “arguing the weaker side.”

    • Mack says

      Byorn and others who argue this line should acquaint themselves once again with the Pew “The World’s Muslims” survey.


      Remember as well that this survey DOES NOT include Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Afghanistan so think about how the results might be different if those states were included.

      The fact is that sizable percentages (read millions of people), to varying degrees, support incredibly illiberal ideas throughout the Islamic world. That a relatively small percentage of that group actually commits violence (> 70% of terrorist murder in 2011 committed by Islamists) isn’t the only relevant fact. The perpetrators of violence are supported by massive numbers of people that support their actions while not personally engaging in violence.

      So if you want to say it’s not a problem when 84% of Pakistanis (155 million) want Sharia to be the law of the land that’s your prerogative. However, think about what that entails… Death for apostasy for example. That’s the ideological underpinning for Takfiris.

      As far as arguing the weaker side goes, it’s people like Byorn that are actually doing that. They tend to ignore the strongest evidence that Islam is the motivating factor for Islamists (Islamist’s own words describing their motivations for example), and that appalling illiberal ideas derived directly from the Koran, Hadith, etc. are incredibly popular throughout the Islamic world.

      Instead, they should acquaint themselves with the No True Scotsman fallacy, since it seems to be the favorite on their side of this discussion.

      • If you rely this much on the accuracy of opinions surveys; then I suggest you go out more often, or at least tone down the rhetoric a notch. How many Muslims do you know or communicate with personally? How familiar are you with their history, politics, economics and so on? Yet you and others speak about them so authoritatively.

        Islamists apparently have convinced you (and others) that their ideology represents an Islamic continuity or authenticity, and not a just a fad created and nurtured by a variety of contemporary developments and policies.

        As for fallacies; New Atheists generally are guilty of so many of them:
        1) Equivocation (between Salafis and the general Muslim population)
        2) Misleading vividness (describing the worst of Muslims, but interestingly not other groups, in such detail until they falsely appear so menacing and overwhelming)
        3) Decontextualization (New Atheists dehumanize Muslims by downplaying or even ignoring the obvious political and economic aspects of their predicaments “They’re religious maniacs. So why bother listening to them?”)

        Not to mention outright paranoia and viciousness: “Muslims don’t assimilate” “Muslims threaten democracy” “Muslims are motivated almost exclusively by religion”. “Refugees could be Islamists”*

        *Russian and Jewish immigrants and refugess in the past were also demonized as potential communists or anarchists

        • Mack says

          F~ I don’t think there’s any “rhetoric” to tone down thank you very much.

          I’m of Algerian descent so I know lots of Muslims.

          Casual believers of any religious tradition provide the ideological underpinning and support for their radical brethren. If you don’t believe this is true, you have a lot to learn about cultural transmission. So I’m not – as you inaccurately suggest – equivocating (actually I’m not sure you know what that even means…) – I’m not suggesting that mainstream Muslims are the same as Salafists. What I am saying is that mainstream Muslims share the foundations of belief with Salafists.

          Also – those opinion surveys, even if somewhat inaccurate (and since they are done anonymously, they actually are fairly representative – but not of what people will say when others can hear, then the results would be more radical, not less – social control is a factor) represent the sentiments of millions of people.

          So “F” – please try to engage with what is actually written and not with your own mischaracterizations. Ideologies and behavior are linked, and it’s simply willfully ignorant to deny it. And sure, the problems of the Islamic world are not independent of blowback – but you don’t have to look far to find equally destructive sectarian conflicts that are COMPLETELY dependent on religious doctrinal differences.

          “F” also ignores the warning about No True Scotsman and helpfully demonstrates it for us again:

          “Islamists apparently have convinced you (and others) that their ideology represents an Islamic continuity or authenticity, and not a just a fad created and nurtured by a variety of contemporary developments and policies.”

          “F” takes it upon themself to be the arbiter of authentic Islam… Their authority to say that Islamists are just a fad is belied by the facts – and contravened by the authority of the Islamists themselves!

          So OK – I’ll concede that Sykes-Picot has screwed things up as has imperialism/capitalism/mercantilism… But go back and read Sayed Qutb again if you don’t think this has anything to do with culture and ideology….

    • BillyJoe says

      Where did he say that? In fact Tayler is all inclusive! If you want to call yourself a Muslim, then you are a Muslim. He even allows that Aslan is a Muslim and look at his watered down view of Islam! It is the media that seems to think the only moderate Muslims deserve the title and that fundamentalist and fanatical Muslims are not “real” Muslims and don’t follow the “true” Islam, even though they follow it to the letter.

  12. Pritesh says

    Spectacular piece, Jeff. Aslan is a pile of manure and the worst person to call on after an attack. An apologist through and through, and not even a good one. He lacks any credential to discuss religion other than being a loudmouth. What else do you expect from the halls of UCB?

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