A reader writes:
As a professor of religion, I cannot resist responding to Reza Aslan‘s latest effort to put foolishness in the mouth of “every scholar of religion.” According to him, the “principle fallacy” of “New Atheists” and many other “critics of religion” is that “they believe that people derive their values, their morals, from their religion. That, as every scholar of religion in the world will tell you, is false.” It takes only one scholar of religion to refute that claim, and I am happy to be that scholar.
The first problem with Aslan’s view is that it treats “morals” and “religion” as if they exist in two separate boxes. The second problem is that it assumes that “morals” can impact “religion” but “religion” cannot impact “morals.”
It is of course the case, as Aslan argues, that people “bring their values to their religion.” That fact helps to explain why they can read the same texts (the Bible, the Quran) and find in them such divergent plans of action. But it is not the case (as Aslan also argues) that “people don’t derive their values from their religion.”
Aslan is quite good at telling interviewers on CNN or FOX that they are oversimplifying things. But here his own oversimplifying is epic.
Religion, culture, values, and morality all grow up together, intertwined, and there is no simple way to disentangle them, either in an individual life or in the history of a civilization. The reason we try to disentangle them is to defend one while throwing the other under the bus. Like the New Atheists, we want to indict “religion” for clitoridectomies or suicide bombings or homophobia, so we pretend that “religion” is separate and at fault. Or, like Aslan, we want to protect “religion” from Hitchens’ claim that it “poisons everything,” so we pretend that it is “culture” or “morality” that does the dirty work.
Unfortunately, it’s a lot more complicated than that. Is religion really as inert as Aslan implies? Religious beliefs, institutions, practices, and leaders shape us, both culturally and morally. A nun tells you to take care of the “least of these,” and you listen. A pastor tells you to “hate fags,” and you do. Yes, we hear these sermons in bodies and minds shaped by moral norms and cultural forms, but those are shaped in turn by religion, which is shaped itself by morality and culture. And round and round it goes, as just about every scholar of religion in the world will tell you.
Another notes a “striking juxtaposition” of two Dish posts:
In “The Trouble With Religion“, Reza Aslan tells us, “People don’t derive their values from their religion – they bring their values to their religion.” But in “Hasidic No More” (the immediately preceding post – was that deliberate?), we are told about the Satmar Hasidim, ultra-orthodox Jews who live lives that are strictly regimented: isolated from the secular world, segregated by sex, told what to wear and how not to cut their hair, commanded to say a particular prayer after their morning shits.
Another piles on:
Aslan is generally a pretty thoughtful guy, but this is just silly. First off, he talks as if all adherents of a religion come to it voluntarily as adults, already possessing set ideas about how life works. Children who are raised in a religion most definitely do not. Depending on their parents’ devoutness and how immersive the religion is, they derive their values from that religion.
He also elides the existence of religious authority. While adult adherents do come to a religion with their own values, no religion simply accepts and adopts those values. Religions have doctrines. Insofar as they are text-based, they have canonical lists of religious texts. They have authoritative interpretations of those texts.
Of course, there’s tremendous variation in how strict religions, sects, denominations, etc., are. Some tolerate a good deal more heterodoxy than others. And some build authority from the bottom up, rather than deriving it from the top. But none are completely without authority. To one degree or another, all religious communities are disciplined communities.
Aslan has more of a point in Western societies where ethnic identity has largely been divorced from religion and states no longer dictate religion, so a person can shop for the religion they want, and change at will. That’s very much the American experience nowadays, but it’s hardly universal.
Lastly, he ignores the fact that often what adult converts want – what they come to a religion for – is transformation. Their whole purpose is to lose their values and adopt the religion’s.