Full • Reza Aslan Interview on Religion Today for OnFaith

Full • Reza Aslan Interview on Religion Today for OnFaith


Sahil Badruddin: What factors might be overwhelming
or negating the outreach effort to simply get religious studies content and civilizational
pedagogy about world religions in school curriculums (again not theological content) and what solutions
would you suggest? Reza Aslan: Well, first of all, it might come
as somewhat of a shock to learn that it has only been in the last 50, or 60 years, that
public universities have been able to teach religion as an objective academic discipline,
separate from Theology for instance. For the same reasons, we don’t teach religion
in public high schools or elementary schools. Because in the United States, it has become
very difficult to separate religious faith and religious belief from religion as a scientific
discipline. As a discipline that involves historical,
literary, anthropological, sociological trends. Obviously, religion not just in America, but
in most parts of the world, is a very touchy subject. When we talk about religion, what we are talking
about most often is not so much beliefs and practices, but identity. And so, particularly in a country like the
United States, that is 70% Christian, there is a great fear among Conservative Christian
groups, that teaching, for instance, Christianity in an objective manner, is somehow contrary
to the embedded truths of Christianity. That doing so would treat Christianity as
a religion like any other religion. A thing to be studied, instead of a truth
to hold dear. At the same time, there is an enormous amount
of fear that, that kind of teaching can very easily lead to proselytizing. Again, this is primarily a Christian fear. It’s one thing to allow students to learn
about Christianity, even in an objective historical way, and it’s something else entirely to
then have them learn about Buddhism or Islam or Hinduism. Again as though those religions are somehow
equal to Christianity. That has kept conversations about promoting
religious literacy at bay in the United States. That I think is disastrous. The fact of the matter is that people around
the world, are becoming more religious, not less religious. The more globalization begins to deteriorate
our national identities, the more religious identities are beginning to step into the
vacuum, and become a greater force, in how communities around the world are identifying
themselves. And so, regardless of what profession you
want to go into, it is very important to have some basic knowledge about the religions of
the world, if for no other reason, then to be able to navigate the world in which we
live in. A world in which as I say, religious identities
are on the rise. Sahil: So how do we move forward? What solutions would you suggest for this
issue? Reza: It’s a non-starter in our political
environment to try to introduce the study of religion in public schools. It’s a non-starter. As much as I would advocate for that to happen,
I just don’t see how it would. And so, we have to rely on other means of
doing so. Extracurricular classes. I myself am starting something with my wife
next year, meant to provide the materials necessary for parents to educate their kids
in religious literacy, without proselytizing, without necessarily getting mired in theology
and creed…just simply knowing more about the religions of the world. But I just don’t see it happening in a public
school environment, certainly not in the political context that we live in now. Sahil: In the past decade, especially, Muslims,
have engaged in robust outreach initiatives to help correct the perception of Islam in
the West. You often mention, one solution to transform
the negative perception is through popular culture (e.g. stories, movies, TV, fiction,
art, literature, etc.). However, if as a barometer parameter of success
of these outreach efforts, we use the portrayal of Islam in say Hollywood movies, perhaps
even in prevalent television shows, or in the overall popular culture, it would seem
little progress has been made. So once again, what factors might be overwhelming
or negating progress in this area? Could it be political rhetoric, media bias,
violent “radical Islam”, a lack of long-term education about Islam, perhaps a combination,
or even other forces are at play? Reza: Well, I would first disagree that no
progress is being made – I mean progress is slow. But the fact of the matter is that the simple,
comical, demonization of Muslims and Muslim characters that was so prevalent, in Hollywood
films and in television shows, has been dramatically reduced. I know, because I work in Hollywood. I would say now that there is now an enormous
interest, and a desire among filmmakers, among network executives, to integrate the stories
of American Muslims into television shows. You know, DW has a show now featuring a Muslim
superhero. I have sold a number of television shows and
pilot scripts to networks and cable outlets that feature Muslim characters or Muslim storylines. Just recently there was a press release that
Bassem Youssef and Larry Willmore have sold a show to ABC, featuring Muslim characters
and Muslim protagonists. So we are at that moment now in which the
talent is meeting the desire. And I think we’re going to see in the next
few years is an absolute explosion of stories, both in film and in television, that seek
to present Muslims in a normal light. Not as just simple antagonists, but as complex
three-dimensional characters. I would say that even further to that…what
we’re seeing now is an enormous success by filmmakers of Muslim backgrounds. Whether we’re talking about Riz Ahmed winning
an Emmy, or whether it’s Aziz Ansari winning an Emmy, or Kumail Nanjiani hosting S&L, I
mean all these things happened within the last few months. And if you had told me that’s what we were
looking at 18 months ago, I would’ve been hard-pressed to agree with you. There is an enormous progress taking place,
but it’s slow. This is a tricky industry. It’s built on profits and any industry that’s
built on profits takes an enormous amount of effort to get them to change direction,
to change the way that they do work. What I think we have been very successful
in doing is convincing execs and producers that there is a market for this kind of storytelling
that you can be successful telling stories, about Muslims that cast them in…not a positive
light, but just a neutral light, and a three-dimensional light. Reza: To your larger question, by the way,
I still believe that that is the most powerful way to transform perceptions of Muslims in
the United States. Look, if it is true that the key to changing
the way that people think about an other is by giving them the opportunity to know that
other, the fact of the matter is that Muslims are at the profound disadvantage, because
there’s only three million, three and a half million of them. We’re barely 1% of the population of the United
States. It is very likely that you could be born,
raised and die in America without ever coming face to face with a Muslim. And so for the vast majority of Americans,
the only Muslim they will ever come into contact with is the one they see on TV. We need to use that truth to our advantage
to present them with Muslim characters that are real, true, and three dimensional. Sahil: Any other advice you might provide
to Muslims or other relevant organizations/groups to be more effective in doing that? Reza: Yes. I say this to every Muslim student group that
I come across in my lectures across the country. The key to getting Americans to accept you
and as a part of them is to stop being so focused inwardly, and to instead focus your
efforts, your attention on everyone else on all the other marginalized communities in
the United States. Every time I talk to a Muslim group I always
ask them what they’re doing, and most of the efforts are about combating Islamophobia,
which is important. It’s about teaching and educating people about
Islam, that’s important. It’s about helping persecuted groups like
Palestinians, or the Rohingya that’s very important. But, you know what else is important? Poverty in America, environmental concerns,
LGBT rights. The fact that young African American men are
being systematically murdered by policemen in this country. These are not, “Muslim issues”, but they
are American issues. And we have to learn to take on the plight
of every other persecuted and marginalized community in the United States as our own
and to fight for them if we want them to fight for us. Also because it’s what you’re supposed to
do, it’s what your faith demands. Sahil: I’m a bit curious about your worldview. You’ve often said on various occasions that
the foundation of democracy isn’t secularism, but that the foundation of democracy is pluralism. Can you explain what you mean and how do you
define pluralism in this context? Reza: First of all, let’s define secularism
because I think that’s a misunderstood term. Secularism is an ideology that promotes the
removal of religion from the public sphere. We are not a secular country in the United
States, on the contrary, we are a profoundly religious, devoutly religious country. We don’t have a “Separation between Church
and State” in the United States. We have an anti-establishment clause that
forbids us from paying taxes to a church that we don’t belong to. That’s a vastly different thing than saying,
we are a secular nation. Secular nations are those nations that forcibly
remove religious expression from the public realm. For instance, France is a secular nation. My argument is that while secularization,
by which I mean the process whereby political power rests in the hands of nonreligious authorities,
while that is obviously very important, secularism is not to maintain a democracy. What is necessary is a commitment to pluralism,
a commitment to equality of all religious expressions and religious beliefs under the
law. A refusal to allow one particular faith to
supersede others, or to subsume others. That’s what we have in the United States,
that’s why our democracy works so well. And that I think is the model for a successful
democratic formula that does not think to remove religion from public life. Sahil: Would you say there’s also a broader
definition of pluralism, which also means embracing the other and being more accepting? Reza: Yes. I think that’s what pluralism means and that’s
why it’s not about tolerance, it’s about acceptance, it’s about understanding that there are multifaceted
ways of being and believing and recognizing that there is value in all of those different
forms of beliefs and identity. Sahil: So Pluralism often gets confused with
Relativism. And by relativism, I mean a worldview
that suggests, all points of views are equally valid, and none can be judged right or wrong. To clarify, I make the distinction between
judging a position as right or wrong, and there being a right or wrong position itself. Relativism refers to the latter, which denies
it exists. Could you explain where you stand and speak
about this? Reza: Personally, I am a relativist. Personally I do believe that there is an enormous
value in multiple ways of thinking, and being, and existing and that it’s not necessarily
the case that any one particular form of truth is more valuable than other forms of truth. But you don’t have to be a relativist in order
to be a pluralist. You could believe that your personal truth
is the one that is most meaningful, is the one that provides the greatest clarity, while
at the same time valuing other versions of truth, other people’s truths. We’re talking about human emotions, we’re
not talking about facts here, and emotions are, by definition, purely subjective; they
are experiential. And so, I think it would become very difficult
for someone to simply deny someone else’ emotional experience because it conflicts with one’s
own experience. Again we’re not talking about facts here. I’m not a relativist when it comes to facts,
I’m a relativist when it comes to the way that we experience emotional truths. Sahil: The Pew Research Form in 2016 sited
on The Guardian from London reported and I quote, “Six out of every 10 millennials (61%)
get their political news on Facebook … making the 1.7 billion-user social behemoth … the
largest millennial marketplace for news and ideas in the world. But within Facebook’s ecosystem exists a
warren of … intellectual biomes created by users whose interest in interacting with
opposing political views … is nearly non-existent.” Today this phenomenon is even termed as a
Post-Fact Society, where individuals not only feel entitled to their own opinions, but to
their own facts. Therefore, how can and what advice can you
provide for groups to reach individuals who have tucked away their own echo chambers? Reza: By the way, this is why I kept saying
that I’m not talking about relativism in terms of facts, I’m talking about it in terms of
experience and emotional truths. No, this is a terrible phenomenon. We all assumed when the internet and social
media that first came onto the scene that what it would do is expand our horizons. Give us immediate access to new sources of
knowledge and information that it would remove the gatekeepers from giving us access to information,
and that would allow us to be able to see positions from all points of views. And more importantly, often go straight to
the source in order to get that information. The exact opposite has happened. We are now in the situation that, you know,
my friend Eli Pariser refers to it as the Filter Bubble. That we can now live our entire lives online
without ever once coming across opinions or ideas that counteract the ones that we already
hold. That’s a dangerous place to be, but the internet
is also an individualistic and self-policing mechanism. In other words, it’s no one’s fault but yours
and no one can do anything but you yourself in expanding your horizons. There is no mechanism, certainly no technological
mechanism that would force a person to lead various conflicting opinions about a particular
topic and come to their own individual interpretation of it. It’s really about the individual and the responsibility
that individual has to make sure that they are not living in a filter bubble. I don’t see what it is that anyone else can
do in order to force that upon people. Sahil: So if we generally agree other opinions,
views, and perspectives are important. Can they truly be valuable if we don’t simultaneously
expand our understanding of pluralism, that we spoke of earlier, beyond notions of just
embracing differences in race, culture, religion, ethnicity, but to also include intellectual
diversity? That is a sincere respect for other positions
and opinions. Because, without intellectual diversity, all
that’s left is a bland, homogeneous, perhaps even dogmatic, intellectual landscape, devoid
of opinion and variety — in essence, an echo-chamber. We also see a lack of intellectual pluralism
when certain groups are broad-brushed as a monolith. One could even argue that most conflict and
discord are due to a lack of intellectual pluralism or diversity. A lack of respect for other opinions and positions. In other words, the respect for disagreement,
in essence, is an inescapable aspect of pluralism. Would you agree with this perspective and
what can be done so everyone can be more open and respectful to new and other ideas that
oppose their worldview? Reza: I certainly agree that intellectual
pluralism is important. In that we must as thinking…as critical
thinkers be open to a diversity of opinions and ideas even when it comes to some core
fundamental belief that we may have. I will, however, say that to me, the problem
that I see is less, a lack of intellectual diversity and more a notion of, what it sometimes
being referred to colloquially as “both sides-ism”. This is partly to do with the polarized rhetoric
that we are facing in this country. It is partly to do with the way in which our
media, particularly cable news, has become less like news and more like a sportscast
with two teams, both of which have fans, and both of which had an equal right to, you know,
“winning”. That has resulted in these absurd conversations
that we are having as a nation about, whether there is both sides to the argument of say,
whether Nazis should be having an influence in the American government or whether blacks,
and Latinos, and gays should be afforded the same human dignity as other people. There isn’t two sides to every argument. There isn’t intellectual diversity to every
argument. The planet is warming. That is a fact and that human beings have
a role in it. That is a fact. There isn’t another side to that argument. Islam is a religion and it is protected under
the first amendment of the Constitution. There isn’t another side to that argument. Sometimes to me, the problem isn’t so much
that we are not willing to listen to other sides. The problem is that we pretend that other
sides are equally valid and that’s just not the case. Sahil: Now, let me turn and ask about the
future of religion and faith. Do you think the perception of religious people,
of course, it might be worse for some faiths or better for others will generally improve
over time? Reza: I don’t know if would say that the perception
of religious people is going to improve because that perception is often privy to the most
extreme voices. The reason that the perception of Americans
towards Muslims is that they’re violent terrorists, is because that tends to be what they see
in the news. The reason that nonreligious people see right-wing
Christians as theocratic and autocratic and desperate to impose their religious values
on everyone else is because that’s what they see on the news. Those are the voices that we hear most often,
which is why even among religious people, religion has become a kind of a dirty word
if you will. There’s a reason why the fastest growing segment
in American society is the non-affiliated. Those individuals who do not necessarily refer
to themselves as an atheist, but also at the same time refuse to associate with any particular
religion. They’re “spiritual”, but not religious. When you begin to really crunch those numbers,
what you see is that this is primarily a response to the role that religion has played in fostering
violence abroad and at home. The role that religion has played in denying
human rights and human dignities to minority groups in the United States. The way in which religion has been manipulated
by politicians and political parties to advance nonreligious causes. All of that has given religion deservedly
so, a bad name for most people. I don’t see that perception changing. What I do see changing is religion itself. Religion is always in a constant state of
evolution. It is constantly adapting to the changing
realities of the world. And I think people have this impression that
religion is somehow static or monolithic. That I think is just an ignorant worldview. Religions have only managed to simply absorb
new information, new truths, new realities, into itself and keep going. When we discovered that the earth was not
the center of the universe, it didn’t do away with Christianity. Christians accepted that truth. Absorbed it into their religion and moved
on. If tomorrow aliens from Alpha Centauri land
in Central Park, that’s not going to do away with religion. Religions will simply accept that fact, absorb
it, and then move on. So I think what you’re going to see is religiosity
that is continuing to evolve, continuing to adapt to scientific truths and knowledge,
and continuing to address the changing needs of religious people. But I don’t think the perception of religious
people is necessarily going to change anytime soon. Sahil: So, on a shorter timescale, how do
you think we will understand religion, say, perhaps, in 5 to 10 years, or even 10 to 20
years from now? Reza: It’s hard to say, because in times of
tremendous social or scientific progress, and I believe that we are in one of those
times, or in the middle of one of those times. Often what happens is that you see a religious
backlash to that progress. That backlash often takes the form of fundamentalism,
which is not an independent phenomenon, but a reactionary phenomenon. It is a reaction to social scientific progress. There will always be people who feel left
behind, and those people will often react, sometimes in violent ways. And so, I think that in the next 5, 10 years,
you’re going to continue to see a surge of extreme and fundamentalist expressions of
religion as a result of dealing with the tremendous social changes that we have experienced over
the last few decades. I think that if you look 20, 30, 40 years
into the future, and I think what you’re going to see is the kind of accommodation that I
was referring to earlier, accommodating the social and scientific realities. That has been the nature of religion from
its very beginning, it reacts, and then it accommodates. It reacts and then it accommodates. Sahil: And, finally, on your new book titled
God: A Human History, tell us a little bit about it and how it’s different than other
books on the subject. Reza: Well, the book is about the way in which
we have the beginning of the concept of God, from the very moment the idea arose in human
evolution, that we have understand the divine, tried to make sense of the divine by essentially
humanizing the divine. By implanting human emotions, human characteristics,
human personalities, human traits, human weaknesses and strengths, virtues and vices upon God…transform
God into a divine version of ourselves. You can see this process throughout the history
of religions and in all major religious traditions. To this day, whether we are believers or not,
whether we are aware of it or not, what the vast majority of us think about when we think
about God, is a divine version of ourselves, and this is dangerous. What we are essentially doing is foisting
our human compulsions upon God and pretending that they are Gods. It more than anything else explains why religion
has been a force, both for tremendous good and for unspeakable evil throughout humanity. In fact, everything that is good or bad about
all religions is nothing more than a reflection of everything that is good or bad about us. This book is a different way of thinking about
God, a way of dehumanizing God, and casting God not as some kind of divine personality,
with human foibles, but as a sort of a primal creative force sense of the universe, that
is in fact, the universe. And so, the book is, not just a history of
the way that we have thought about God over the last half a million years, but it’s also
an appeal for a broader, more expansive, more pantheistic understanding of God which, I
think, will lead to greater peace and prosperity among religions, and will also lead to a more
mature, more satisfying spirituality for individuals. Sahil: What do you hope the subject will accomplish
in terms of increasing a better understanding of religion and even, perhaps, increasing
the respect of religious people? Reza: I just want people to first just think
about what they mean when they say God. We have so many fights and so many arguments
about God. We have people who say they believe in God. We have people who say they don’t believe
in God. We have people who kill because of God, and
people who die because of their beliefs about God. All assume we’re talking about the same thing
when we say the word God and we are not. And so, the conversation, a global conversation,
what it is that we even mean when we say the word God. I think that if we start the conversation
there, what we will discover is that we have a lot more in common with each other than
we thought that we did.

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