Reza Aslan denies that religious belief produces violence, misrepresents Sam Harris again

Reza Aslan is enjoying a spurt of fame (I’d call it notoriety) since the altercation between Sam Harris + Bill Maher vs Ben Affleck on Maher’s show. Always a Muslim apologist, who can’t even admit that Muslims believe that Muhammad deflowered a 9-year-old girl, Aslan has become the Karen Armstrong of Islam.

In an op-ed on CNN, “How strong is the link between faith and terrorism?“, Aslan basically denies that beliefs play a “necessary and distinct” role in actions, although he never defines what he means by “necessary and distinct”:

After all, there’s no question that a person’s religious beliefs can and often do influence his or her behavior. The mistake lies in assuming there is a necessary and distinctcausal connection between belief and behavior — that Bibeau’s [the Canadian Muslim who shot a Candian soldier] actions were exclusively the result of his religious beliefs.

The notion that there is a one-to-one correlation between religious beliefs and behavior may seem obvious and self-evident to those unfamiliar with the study of religion. But it has been repeatedly debunked by social scientists who note that “beliefs do not causally explain behavior” and that behavior is in fact the result of complex interplay among a host of social, political, cultural, ethical, emotional, and yes, religious factors.

Well, I don’t know the studies to which Aslan’s referring, but to say that beliefs do not causally explain behavior seems insane.  What about men who shoot their wives, or their wives’ lovers, because they believe they’re cuckolds? What about gangsters who kill other gangsters who, they think, have muscled in on their territory? What about honor killings? Are those not behaviors that come directly from beliefs? The “complexity” bit is just a canard that Aslan throws in to make us think, “Wow–things are really complicated! Maybe I ought to stop harping on religion.”

In truth, Aslan wants us to think that it’s only religious beliefs that don’t determine (“necessarily and distinctly”) behavior, because his interest is in defending religion, Islam in particular.  But what does “necessarily and distinctly” mean? I’d say that if there is a purported mix of factors that are said to determine a behavior, and that the behavior never occurs without a certain one of the factors (say, religious belief), then, yes, religion necessarily and distinctly influences that behavior. It’s like a multifactoral statistical analysis, in which you partition out the contributors to an outcome and find one has the overriding influence.  Only the willfully blind would say, I think, that the murder of Shiites by Sunnis, the stoning of adulterers, the killing of apostates, and so on, would still occur had religion never inflicted itself on our species (for one thing, we wouldn’t have Sunnis and Shiite sects, which separate people of identical backgrounds and ethnicity).

I don’t think that anyone would claim that many actions that are largely motivated by religious beliefs have no other causes, something that Aslan claims all New Atheists think.  For example, a Muslim growing up in Minnesota probably won’t behead a journalist because of the accidents of geography and history. Yet Aslan claims that, for example, Sam Harris thinks not only that religion is only cause of bad behavior by Muslim extremists, but also that those extremists should be killed before they even do anything—as a sort of preemptive strike. As he says:

But to argue that Breivik’s or Bibeau’s actions were motivated solely by their religious beliefs — or that their religious beliefs necessarily dictated their actions — is simply irrational.

And yet, this trope has become exceedingly common among some critics of religion. Take the following excerpt from the bestselling book “The End of Faith,” by the anti-theist activist Sam Harris (Note: because Harris has repeatedly tried to defuse the significance of his argument and has even gone so far as to accuse those, including me, who quote his words of defamation, I will present the passage in its entirety so that there can be no confusion as to his meaning).

“The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense.”

Harris’ argument is that a person’s religious beliefs do not merely influence his or her behavior. They determine it. In other words, people holding certain beliefs should be killed, not because those beliefs may lead to violent behavior, but because they necessarily will. Therefore, in order to save ourselves (“self-defense” Harris calls it) we may be justified in killing the believer before his or her beliefs turn into action — as they inevitably will.

This goes on, but you get the point. According to Aslan, Harris thinks we should nuke Muslim extremists because we predict they’ll engage in bad behavior. They don’t have to have even done anything; they only have to be threatening.

But of course Aslan, as is his wont, is misrrepresenting Harris. Not only that, but (as we’ll see), Aslan actually agrees with the “preemptive strike” position: he’s more extreme than is Harris!

You can read Harris’s own response to Aslan’s claim, written before Aslan’s article, in a piece at Harris’s site: “On the mechanics of defamation.” Although it’s been a while since I read The End of Faith, that quotation immediately struck me as having been taken out of context. Sure enough, Sam’s post gives the full context, which explains that people deserve being taking out if they have already shown, through their behavior, direct and convincing evidence that they will commit harms in the future (he mentions in an endnote to this passage that Al-Qaeda’s bombing of the World Trade Center is one example). It is when beliefs are translated into malevolent actions that we are justified, or so Harris says, in killing people. One can argue about this, but it’s patently clear that Aslan is leaving out the part about “having beliefs that one is warranted in thinking will produce even more harm in the future.”

I don’t need to defend Harris; as he showed on his discussion with Cenk Uygur, he can do that himself.  What I’m arguing here is that Aslan is intellectually dishonest, and he’s learned that his distortions (which begin with him misrepresenting his own credentials) only bring him more attention.

To top it off, for someone who criticizes Harris for being preemptively hawkish, Aslan has no business saying this in an interview in New York Magazine:

How do you counter the group? [ISIS]
The way you confront an organization like that is twofold. No. 1, you kill their militants. There is no room for discussion or negotiation when it comes to an ISIS or an Al Qaeda militant. They don’t want anything concrete. And if you want nothing that’s measurable or concrete, there is nothing to talk about. You must be destroyed. But that’s not the end of the argument because, as you rightly say, this is an organization that has managed to draw Muslims from around the world to their cause by setting themselves up as a group that is addressing their grievances, whatever those grievances may be.

Aslan also argues that ISIS is not an Islamist organization, but a jihadist organization, and is “transnational” because they don’t want a country (no, they only want the world as a Caliphate). The distinction is lost on me, for their motivations, as nearly everyone but the blinkered admit, are to carry out what they see as the dictates of the Qur’an.

And so Aslan, blinkered himself, cannot see a connection between religious ideology and action. It is as if religion is the sole form of belief that is immune to being translated into action. One more quote from his CNN piece will suffice:

It is true that religious beliefs can often lead to actions that violate basic human rights. It is also true that a great many of those actions are taking place right now among Muslims. But it is ridiculous to claim that the actions of Islamic extremists are either necessarily or exclusively the result of their belief in Islam.

“Ridiculous”? Really? What would it take, Dr. Aslan, to convince you that ISIS wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing if Islam had never existed? And what do you mean by “necessarily or exclusively the result of their belief in Islam”?  Yes, there are many Muslims who don’t engage in the barbarities of ISIS, just as there are many Christians who don’t bomb abortion clinics. But what is really ridiculous is to pretend that an extreme belief in the tenets of Islam is not what’s motivating the perfidies of ISIS.

77 Comments

  1. GBJames
    Posted October 28, 2014 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    sub

    • Filippo
      Posted October 28, 2014 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

      sub

  2. Posted October 28, 2014 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    Yes, Aslan’s hypocrisy is splendidly rich. As Sam notes, at least he allowed the possibility of talking to these people, before deciding to kill them, whereas Aslan just says:

    “The way you confront an organization like that is twofold. No. 1, you kill their militants. There is no room for discussion or negotiation when it comes to an ISIS or an Al Qaeda militant. They don’t want anything concrete. And if you want nothing that’s measurable or concrete, there is nothing to talk about. You must be destroyed.”

    When at the same time he says:

    “In other words, people holding certain beliefs should be killed, not because those beliefs may lead to violent behavior, but because they necessarily will.”

    [Please note that Harris does not isolate his logic to religious belief only.]

    Mr. Aslan, please explain to us which ideas that ISIS leaders hold you have determined deem them worthy of being “destroyed.” And please explain how this differs from what Sam Harris suggests?

    ————-

    “Aslan also argues that ISIS is not an Islamist organization, but a jihadist organization, and is “transnational” because they don’t want a country”

    He is talking gibberish now. What is a “jihadist” outside the context of Islam? They don’t exist without Islam.

    And being transnational somehow absolves them of being driven by Islam. Seriously? Alsan is either lying or not thinking clearly at all: A transnational organization is exactly what one would expect when the driving force is religion instead of national or regional grievances.

    • darrelle
      Posted October 28, 2014 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

      Aslan lies (okay, maybe he is just an idiot) right from the beginning.

      “— that Bibeau’s [the Canadian Muslim who shot a Candian soldier] actions were exclusively the result of his religious beliefs.”

      No one, at least certainly no one Aslan is talking about, thinks that and it is really difficult to believe that Aslan doesn’t know it.

      He used to just make my teeth ache, now he disgusts me. He’s just another carny who doesn’t think twice about lying in service to his own fame and fortune.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted October 28, 2014 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

        He used to just make my teeth ache but now the whole sympathetic nervous system is involved & I feel kind of nauseated.

  3. rickflick
    Posted October 28, 2014 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    Sub.

  4. Posted October 28, 2014 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    What is so interesting is that without religious adhereants violently killing people he would never acheive fame arguing that religions arent violent and murderous.

  5. DrDroid
    Posted October 28, 2014 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    Amen! (Oops, sorry I forgot what website I was on). Reading stuff written by Sam has expanded my limited vocabulary considerably. An example is his use of the word “bloviating” in characterizing Reza. After looking it up I now appreciate its aptness.

  6. Posted October 28, 2014 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    Let me save everyone the trouble on the paper that Aslan links. From the abstract:

    “Second, the paper argues against the view that beliefs are brain states.”

    • Pirate
      Posted October 28, 2014 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

      In addition, that paper doesn’t even support Aslan’s thesis. The author is making a somewhat convoluted point: that the sense in which action is explained by belief is not the traditional sense of causal explanation. However, he is not denying that actions can be explained by beliefs, he is merely arguing about the specific form of that explanation. So nothing in that article refutes the idea that actions of Islamist terrorists can be explained by their Islamic beliefs. For Aslan to cite this article as support for his claim is thoroughly dishonest. He was probably assuming that nobody would actually check his sources.

      • rickflick
        Posted October 29, 2014 at 3:23 am | Permalink

        “He was probably assuming that nobody would actually check his sources.”

        …or more cynically, he figures those who do check will be ignored as he rushes off to his next TV spot. Most consumers of his brand of apologetics don’t want to here objections.

  7. jay
    Posted October 28, 2014 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    So, if religion does not affect actions, we can assume that the claims of religionists that religion helps produce a moral society are also bunk.

    • GBJames
      Posted October 28, 2014 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

      Whenever I hear that trope, that religion doesn’t affect actions, I’m reminded of the classic Hitchslap: “Then what’s it for?”

      • Sastra
        Posted October 28, 2014 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

        Iirc, that Hitchslap was delivered by Stephen Fry.

        • GBJames
          Posted October 28, 2014 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

          You know, as soon as I typed that one I was second-guessing myself. I think you’re right.

          • Sastra
            Posted October 28, 2014 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

            Maybe we can say that Aslan was classically “Fry-ed.”

            • Fry
              Posted October 29, 2014 at 3:21 am | Permalink

              like it….

      • rickflick
        Posted October 28, 2014 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

        “…what’s it for?” – in one quasi-evolutionary sense, would be to get people to behave such that they tolerate the overhead of a priesthood in their midst; to shell out for almighty God; promote evangelism, increase the fold; spread the word by mouth or by sward; perpetuate the “species”.

        • GBJames
          Posted October 28, 2014 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

          But it can do none of that if it doesn’t influence the actions of believers.

    • Curt Nelson
      Posted October 28, 2014 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

      Good one!

      I can’t help but think that if the approach was “religion is a plague and Islam is especially pathogenic,” instead of “Islam is bad,” that people would get this.

      People like Ben Affleck aren’t appalled by Richard Dawkins, whose message is basically “all religion is bad” but they go nuts when Islam is singled out – That’s racist!

      No it isn’t. You don’t understand me. ALL religion is bad, and right now Islam especially is.

    • DrBrydon
      Posted October 28, 2014 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

      Came here to say this.

  8. Roger
    Posted October 28, 2014 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    So if religion isn’t responsible for any bad behavior, then I guess religion isn’t responsible for any good behavior either. Right? Yeah didn’t think so.

    • Roger
      Posted October 28, 2014 at 11:29 am | Permalink

      Oops jay beat me to it. Sorry jay.

      • Diane G.
        Posted October 28, 2014 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

        Great minds… 🙂

        • Roger
          Posted October 28, 2014 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

          That jay is one sharp fella!

          • Diane G.
            Posted October 28, 2014 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

            LOL!

  9. Posted October 28, 2014 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    I think the problem with religion is that it attracts crazies and gives their craziness structure and purpose.

    It also attracts benevolent people and gives their lives structure and purpose.

    One obvious problem with this is that religion is irrational; the fact that it attracts opposite kinds of personalities having opposite kinds of motives, means that it has no moral content or effect. It is an empty container that can be filled with food or with poison. Of course, it’s always labeled food.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted October 28, 2014 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

      Yes, in the case of Bibeau (the soldier was buried today in a town I spent a significant amount of my life in) he already had issues and Islam offered him a place to express himself and his crazy ideas brought on by his mental issues.

      There was another soldier run down a week previous to the Ottawa shooting, Martin Couture-Rouleau who seemed the sort who was easily influenced by bad ideas.

      So, in other words as Steven Weinberg says:

      Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

      and I’d add that if you really want bad ideas to stick, add in religion.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted October 28, 2014 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

        Martin Couture-Rouleau was the killer not the soldier.

      • DiscoveredJoys
        Posted October 29, 2014 at 4:24 am | Permalink

        I’ve cherished that quote from Stephen Weinberg but I’m gradually falling out of love with it.

        I suspect that religion is an adjuvant – it encourages bad people to do bad things and, in fairness, good people to do good things. It also provides cover for bad people do do bad things but think of themselves as good people.

        Now a toxic religion coupled with a toxic culture leads to super toxic behaviour. But what would happen if Islam was replaced (in a toxic culture) by a sweetness and light religion? I suspect the sweetness and light religion would soon be corrupted to endorse what people in that culture really wanted to do.

        Does this validate Aslan’s argument about not assuming there is a necessary and distinct causal connection between belief and behavior? No, he knows he has lost the general point and is trying to rescue his position by redefining the threshold of debate.

  10. John Crisp
    Posted October 28, 2014 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    I agree with most of this. One small cavil is that I think we need to distinguish between “belief that” and “belief in”. When you write, Jerry, “What about men who shoot their wives, or their wives’ lovers, because they believe they’re cuckolds? What about gangsters who kill other gangsters who, they think, have muscled in on their territory? What about honor killings? Are those not behaviors that come directly from beliefs?”, I think you’re conflating two kinds of belief.

    As your language in this sentence suggests, there is a difference between thinking and believing. The cuckolds and gangsters are, I would say, acting in ways that are rational in terms of evolutionary psychology. (Both have something to lose – genetic and parental investment in one case, control of resources in the other – if they are right.) Honor killings, on the other hand, though they no doubt also have their roots in the same evolutionary psychology (ultimately, perhaps, also genetic and parental investment), are more immediately related to religious belief as reflected in cultural practice.

    More broadly – and this may reflect my own biases – I think that there is a good case for arguing that the phenomenon of ISIS is more about the kinds of factors that drove, for example, the rise of fascism in Germany in the 1920s/1930s (humiliation, economic crisis, political manipulation, a sense of impotence), and just as Hitler played opportunistically on very ancient prejudices to stigmatise the Jews and justify both genocide and military expansion, ISIS uses Islam and the Koran (belief and unreason) to pursue a pragmatic agenda through manipulation of belief.

    • Posted October 28, 2014 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

      ISIS uses Islam and the Koran (belief and unreason) to pursue a pragmatic agenda through manipulation of belief.

      Yes, I agree that religion is more of a rationalization than a cause.

      But that brings up the question of what kind of evidence-free belief system can accommodate honor killing and stonings and such.

      And “evidence-free” is the key element here. that is the element that separates empiricism from religion.

      • John Crisp
        Posted October 28, 2014 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

        “But that brings up the question of what kind of evidence-free belief system can accommodate honor killing and stonings and such.”

        Well, an evolutionary psychology argument would be that a powerful deterrent (and this applies to gangsters, cuckolds and Nazis as well), backed by a universalist ideology (religion/Arianism…), is a way to maintain group integrity through a combination of stick (fear) and carrot (belonging). As Dubya put it in his inimitably articulate way, you’re either for us or against us.

        • John Scanlon, FCD
          Posted October 29, 2014 at 4:45 am | Permalink

          And in Oz, Tony Abbott cack-dribbling about ‘Team Australia’.

    • Henry Fitzgerald
      Posted October 28, 2014 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

      The cuckolds and gangsters are, I would say, acting in ways that are rational in terms of evolutionary psychology. Well, yes, that’s one way of looking at it, and it’s probably correct most of the time.

      But the “evolutionary psychology” bit makes more sense as an explanation of their desires than their beliefs. To take the case of the gangster: he’ll start shooting people when he (a) believes they pose a threat to his power, and (b) doesn’t want his power threatened. Evolutionary psychology may be doing most of the real work in explaing why (b) is the case – explaining why the gangster is such a powder keg. But what ignites the powder keg is a belief: a belief that Jimmy the Nose constitutes a threat, or something like that.

      People fighting and working for ISIS wouldn’t behead people if they didn’t believe that (and notice this is a believe-that situation) beheading people is the will of Allah, obeying the will of Allah is a ticket to paradise, infidel deserve to die, etc., or some such. Of coure, all these beliefs are impotent without desires behind them: someone can believe all that stuff and not be motivated to act if they don’t also want to follow the will of Allah, go to paradise, give people what they deserve, etc., or some such. But belief-that is still plays an important part in explaining their behaviour: if they didn’t have these beliefs-that, they’d behave differently.

      • Henry Fitzgerald
        Posted October 28, 2014 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

        Aargh, sorry, meant to put that first paragraph in quotes.

  11. Mike Paps
    Posted October 28, 2014 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    It is when beliefs are translated into malevolent actions that we are justified, or so Harris says, in killing people.

    Harris discusses this near the end of The TYT interview in reference to Osama bin Laden. He essentially argues it was not ethical to kill him for what he did (it doesn’t bring anyone back), and he didn’t personally kill anyone that we are aware of, nor as retribution. We killed him (and Sam thinks it would have been better to capture him if we could have) in order to prevent future terrorist acts he was intent on orchestrating.

  12. Mike Paps
    Posted October 28, 2014 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    And so Aslan, blinkered himself, cannot see a connection between religious ideology and action.

    I don’t believe for a second he can’t see it. I think he sees it, and even recognizes that the religion is virtually unsalvageable, but he’s a Muslim, and he’ll do, and say what ever he must to defend it.

    • rickflick
      Posted October 28, 2014 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

      Well, of course. He’s no fool. And, don’t forget the allure of that “ka-ching!” when the book sales are bumped by a feisty exchange on a talk show.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted October 28, 2014 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

        And the nice feeling he gets when he is on national television being equated with intellectuals like Sam Harris.

  13. Posted October 28, 2014 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    Apparently, Aslan also doesn’t understand the difference between social science and philosophy. Both of those links he provides are to pieces in philosophy. They may be interesting, but they are in no way close to anything that can be construed as science. I can’t help but think he’s just using the caché that comes with the words “social scientists” to lend his claims some air of scientific respectability.

    • rickflick
      Posted October 28, 2014 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

      It’s a good bet he threw out some references as a red herring.
      Oh, philosophy you say? Then, pickled red herring.

  14. Kevin
    Posted October 28, 2014 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    Aslan’s confusion is deeper than Hubble’s field of view.

    He is on a fixed path of redemption for his own beliefs and is willing to imprison reason in the face of empiricism. This behavior is monstrous and wholly the product of his own religious background.

  15. Sastra
    Posted October 28, 2014 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    … and that behavior is in fact the result of complex interplay among a host of social, political, cultural, ethical, emotional, and yes, religious factors.

    And sometimes in that complex interplay one or more of the factors becomes more significant than others. Right?

    Aslan’s defense here would pretty much make it impossible to fix on anything as a problem, because looky-see, it’s always attached to everything else and doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is silly to blame the Nazis for the Holocaust, because you need to look at the history and the culture and the individual psychologies and social factors and geographical factors and no doubt the weather had a role in there somewhere.

    So it seems to me that any criticism he makes of Sam Harris ought to be deflected the same way. When you quote a passage in a book, you don’t just need to put the quotation in context. Why stop there? You need to look at the entire book and the complex interplay among a host of social, political, cultural, ethical, emotional, and yes, Sam Harris factors. Personally, Aslan needs to address the Renaissance before he criticizes Sam Harris. And I would not leave out the cosmological factors either.

    I blame it all on the Big Bang.

    • Posted October 28, 2014 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

      * and no doubt the weather plays a part too *

      Well, maybe that is facetious, but… here’s an interesting take on how time-of-day can affect ethical behaviours.

      See also Kim Stanley Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain.

      /@

  16. Posted October 28, 2014 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    Oh, bother.

    Sam and I often part ways when it comes to questions of the appropriateness of violence, and I’m especially not convinced that American military force now is going to do anything other than fuck up the Middle East even worse than it already has.

    But for Aslan to criticize Sam for calling for military action in cases such as these whilst himself calling for it…damn. I’d ask is the man has no shame, but the answer to that is obvious.

    He’s a liar for Muhammad, no more and no less. As are, in my experience, all other Muslims whose self-identification as Muslim is for anything other than historical cultural reasons. (Maryam Namazie, for example, identifies as a Muslim atheist.) I’m simply not aware of a single Muslim who would, for example, condemn Muhammad for his marriage to Aisha. They’ll hem and haw, and many would plainly like to. But, when the rubber meets the road, despite what their better judgement must desperately tell them otherwise, they still affirm that child rape is a noble and honorable and merciful deed.

    (…and, of course, many Christians are much the same — notably, for example, William Lane Craig’s repeated defense of the massacre of Midian.)

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted October 28, 2014 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

      Of course they wouldn’t condemn Muhammed because there is no room in Islam for those discussions. As Sam put it once, “There is no Reform Judaism of Islam”.

      • Posted October 28, 2014 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

        To their credit, many Jews strive to be better than their gods. Indeed, there are many jokes to that effect, where even a voice from the heavens isn’t good enough. Questioning and even outright rejecting demands of divinity is a point of pride.

        Most Muslims, though, at least claim to strive to be exactly like Muhammad. And that’s a very, very, very bad thing.

        b&

        • Henry Fitzgerald
          Posted October 28, 2014 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

          It’s Jews like this who give me hope for Muslims.

          The fact that Jews can somehow conjure up such values while officially subscribing to the Torah (a really nasty book – I’m reading my way through the Bible, King James version, and let’s just say it’s a long, long, long-term project, the thought of which is now filling me with weariness – and it’s been so long since I last applied myself that I can’t even remember if I’m still stuck in Numbers or Deuteronomy) shows that it’s possible to reach a more enlightened position using pretty much anything as an official starting point.

          • Scientifik
            Posted October 29, 2014 at 4:27 am | Permalink

            And yet stories like this show there’s still much to be done to reform Bronze Age Jewish beliefs and make them compatible with the modern western world.

            http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/186470#.VFDM_5PF_Km

            • Scientifik
              Posted October 29, 2014 at 4:48 am | Permalink

              Please take note that some FOOLS apparently think it’s the other way around, and we should accommodate those beliefs into our society! It’s downright INFURIATING!!

              “As a result that incident, an online petition was launched at the end of September calling on El Al to provide a small section of gender-segregated seats for an extra fee.”

              What’s next? Race-segregated seats?! Apostate-segregated seats?! for an extra fee??!!!

  17. kelskye
    Posted October 28, 2014 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    “The mistake lies in assuming there is a necessary and distinctcausal connection between belief and behavior — that Bibeau’s [the Canadian Muslim who shot a Candian soldier] actions were exclusively the result of his religious beliefs.”
    “that behavior is in fact the result of complex interplay among a host of social, political, cultural, ethical, emotional, and yes, religious factors.”
    The way to argue, it seems, is to create a straw man of what your opponent is saying, then give an account of the truth that actually concords with what your opponent is saying.

    This is really disappointing – how is this in any way acceptable?!

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted October 28, 2014 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

      Indeed, no one is saying “exclusively”.

      • Scientifik
        Posted October 29, 2014 at 2:27 am | Permalink

        I think it’s safe to say that Muslims who want to enforce worldwide sharia law are 100% Islam motivated.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted October 29, 2014 at 6:36 am | Permalink

          Agreed, but that wasn’t what I was talking about. I was talking about the variables that went into the decision for the shooter to kill the soldier in Ottawa.

  18. eric
    Posted October 28, 2014 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    The mistake lies in assuming there is a necessary and distinctcausal connection between belief and behavior

    This is a complete red herring. Let’s consider the possibilities here.

    1. He means we can’t draw any connection between behavior and any belief (religious or not). Which is a very stupid sort of nihilism or postmodernism.

    2. He means we can’t lay the blame for some action 100% at the door of any specific belief; draw an “IFF” connection between islam and militant killing. Which is very stupid, because nobody is trying to do that.

    3. He means that religious beliefs are a special form of belief less impactful than other forms of belief. This one is stupid because he has no evidence for it, and it’s hard to see how neurologically or psychologically such a broad distinction could be true.

    4. He means we can blame religion the same way we may blame other behavioral influences (culture, family upbringing, etc.) – not more or less, but an equal possible influence on behavior. This one would actually be reasonable…too bad it’s not what he argues, because it should be what he argues.

    No matter what he’s arguing, adding the words “necessary and distinct” just serve to throw dust in the air as cover; intended to confuse the conversation rather than clarify it.

  19. nikkilee1
    Posted October 28, 2014 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    Reza Aslan in NY Magazine:

    “People don’t derive their values from their religion — they bring their values to their religion. Which is why religions like Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, [and] Islam, are experienced in such profound, wide diversity. Two individuals can look at the exact same text and come away with radically different interpretations. Those interpretations have nothing to do with the text, which is, after all, just words on a page, and everything to do with the cultural, nationalistic, ethnic, political prejudices and preconceived notions that the individual brings to the text. That is the most basic, logical idea that you could possibly imagine, and yet for some reason, it seems to get lost in the incredibly simplistic rhetoric around religion and the lived experience of religion.”

    http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2014/10/reza-aslan-on-what-the-new-atheists-get-wrong.html

    Based on this statement, we can assume that (A) Aslan doesn’t actually take religion seriously ( I suspect he and many other “sophisticated” theologians don’t), or (B) he would have us believe that scores of Muslim people must have terrible values, or be psychopaths. So it’s the “culture” of Saudi Arabia that causes them to behead people for crimes? The IS is just a rag-tag group of psychopaths? Iranian courts sentenced a woman to hang for killing her rapist because the members of the judiciary just happen to share the same personality disorders? Instead of being held sway by terrible ideas, they’re all just terrible people–is that what he’s saying here? Aslan butters his bread calling Sam Harris a “bigot,” for attacking pernicious doctrines, while Aslan seems to be attacking people.

  20. Michael Michaels
    Posted October 28, 2014 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    This kind of apologist thinking makes me want to scream in frustration. How can you get around such an obvious mental block?

    When an end of the world death cult tries to murder thousands in a subway tunnel with nerve gas, the cause is not the death cult, it’s just that they are evil people.

    When Charles Manson takes a bunch of ordinary average young women and turns them into murdering lunatics who worship Manson as Jesus Christ reborn, the reason is what? That they were bad women? Manson didn’t warp their minds and use the exact same kinds of control methods used by religions for time immemorial to gain control over them?

    In fact Manson deliberately decided to create a cult and use methods to gain control. He was a warped demented creature, and using the same tools religion uses, he warped his followers and turned them into murderers.

    Religion is about spreading ideas, dogmas, certain behaviors and morals and it frequently dictates how people act.
    If we can connect a line from stoning adulterers or killing non believers directly to the religions sacred texts and the same behavior, then we can connect religion with behavior.

    Ideas drive beliefs and beliefs drive behavior. Religion spreads ideas in just the same way communism, socialism and fascism was spread, religion is spread the same way. If other ideas can be the cause of violence, then why can’t religion also cause violence? Is religion somehow special, and every religious adherent is somehow limited to holding hands and thinking pure happy thoughts?

    Poppycock and drivel.

    Now that I’ve read some of Reza Aslan’s work I see that he’s just plain dishonest. It’s not surprising, the more Muslims and Christians I talk to the more I run into people who claim the same sort of nonsense, like having to get a drivers license is tantamount to slavery, or taxes equals slavery, or sharia law isn’t law, or 9/11 was a US government operation. Sometimes it seems the lunatics are running the asylum.

  21. Keith Cook
    Posted October 28, 2014 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    Aslan is proving a law of human nature. we can be our own biggest fools and coupled with evolutionary psychology by way of an explanation for this behaviour, he refuses to marry belief with behaviour because he is desperate to save his investment and the dignity of his beloved religion(s). And to that end, power and status for himself. I sneakily believe he values the latter more.
    Nevertheless, I don’t discount the value Aslan has created by this conversation as it all helps to clarify what seems to be a huge source of conflict.. the ‘Ben Afflects’ certainly need help let alone Aslan.
    Sam Harris deserves no less for Aslan continual miss representations of his writings.

  22. Ken Elliott
    Posted October 28, 2014 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    Azlan:

    “After all, there’s no question that a person’s religious beliefs can and often do influence his or her behavior. The mistake lies in assuming there is a necessary and distinct causal connection between belief and behavior . . .”

    “. . . social scientists who note that “beliefs do not causally explain behavior” and that behavior is in fact the result of complex interplay among a host of social, political, cultural, ethical, emotional, and yes, religious factors.”

    Okay, so, yes, there typically are many factors in anyone’s actions, but religion appears to intensify the more evil of those actions. In my area of the world, the Oklahoma City metro, we recently had a beheading. The perpetrator was a follower of Islam, and he was following the tenets of the Quran or Hadith in which he beheaded the poor middle aged lady in the front office of the warehouse in which he had recently been fired. She was, of course, an apostate in his eyes.

    Perhaps his motivations were due to the last straw of job loss, who knows. He certainly was mentally unstable. It’s quite possible lives would have been endangered, and likely lost, if the influence of Islam had not been in his life, but to use such a barbaric form of ‘justice’ most surely can be blamed on his chosen religion, and I don’t think we can yet discount it as the sole motivating source if the job loss was due to erratic wanna be jihadist behavior.

    He survived his gunshots and remains in custody, so perhaps enlightening details can be found, but this is the frontier . . . Oklahoma . . . where ‘string ’em up!’ is the law of the land.

    • Sean
      Posted October 29, 2014 at 7:35 am | Permalink

      I agree with you.

      It’s hard to imagine that guy choosing to behead someone if he was an atheist, Jain, Buddhist etc…

      Not to say he would not have gone on shooting rampage or some other horrible act, but beheading someone is very peculiar to the religious (post guillotine era)

  23. Posted October 28, 2014 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    Wow, I think a firm of Poe’s Law needs to be invoked on Aslan here. Does he really think by declaring a passage to be in context, that makes it so?

  24. Myron
    Posted October 28, 2014 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    “It is ridiculous to claim that the actions of Islamic extremists are either necessarily or exclusively the result of their belief in Islam.” – Reza Aslan

    What is ridiculous is to deny that their actions are directly and primarily motivated by their religious beliefs.

    “Of course, those who are militant Salafists claim that their action is motivated by the teachings of Islam. They argue that they are living, dying and killing in accordance with religious duty. Siddique Khan, in the video in which he featured, explained:
    ‘I and thousands like me are forsaking everything for what we believe. Our driving motivation doesn’t come from tangible commodities that this world has to offer…Our religion is Islam—obedience to the one true God, Allah, and following the footsteps of the final prophet and messenger Muhammad…This is how our ethical stances are dictated.'”

    (Egerton, Frazer. Jihad in the West: The Rise of Militant Salafism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. p. 17)

    Siddique Khan “was the oldest of the four homegrown suicide bombers and believed to be the leader responsible for the 7 July 2005 London bombings, in which bombs were detonated on three London Underground trains and one bus in central London suicide attacks, killing 52 people including the attackers and injured over 700.”
    Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohammad_Sidique_Khan

    • rickflick
      Posted October 29, 2014 at 3:32 am | Permalink

      “Our driving motivation doesn’t come from tangible commodities that this world has to offer…”

      This is pure fundamentalism. These people clearly believe in an afterlife, the 70-something virgins (do females get virgin men?), and eternal bliss. This is the danger of “surrender” and absolutism. And, of course, these beliefs do have consequences.

      • Posted October 29, 2014 at 6:29 am | Permalink

        They get 1/2 of a virgin man. They have to flip coins to decide who gets which half.

  25. Posted October 28, 2014 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    We’ve heard all this before. The wars of religion weren’t about religion in the same way the Civil War wasn’t about slavery.

  26. Randy Schenck
    Posted October 28, 2014 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    As the true facts and pathetic actions of this ISIS unfolds and everyone but Aslan sees it for what it really is, hardly anyone will remember his name or care what kind of nonsense he speaks. Sam Harris can easily write this goof ball off and so should we. He is not worth the ink.

  27. Posted October 28, 2014 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    I’ve come to the conclusion that Aslan will say anything to take any blame away from Islam. He accepts actions can be caused by any number of factors except religion. I think he knows that isn’t true, but he gets his TV time from being an apologist, and so it’s too late to back down.

    I can see it’s time I finished my latest article about him which I started a week ago after his appearance on CNN International. I’ve been mucking around a bit on other stuff.

  28. dbgb1986
    Posted October 28, 2014 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    Thank You!

  29. Scientifik
    Posted October 29, 2014 at 3:21 am | Permalink

    “Ridiculous”? Really? What would it take, Dr. Aslan, to convince you that ISIS wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing if Islam had never existed?

    Bill Nye lobbed a similar question at Ken Ham during a “debate” on creationism to find out what it would take to convince Mr. Ham that evolution is true. His answer was: nothing.

    I’m afraid that Reza Aslan’s answer to your question would be the same!

  30. Posted October 29, 2014 at 5:52 am | Permalink

    Mentions Harris, in order to get “published”, nothing more.

  31. Sean
    Posted October 29, 2014 at 7:27 am | Permalink

    If ISIS is not an Islamist organization why do they single out atheists, jews, christians, yezidis? Heck, you are not allowed to join ISIS if you are Shia!

    Why are the executions straight out of the old testament: beheadings and stonings etc…

    I always wonder how hard it must be for people like Aslan to constantly live with such massive cognitive dissonance.

  32. chris moffatt
    Posted October 29, 2014 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    Taqqiya; just taqqiya.

  33. Posted October 29, 2014 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    I don’t know if this is a change in his position or not, but now it seems he’s claiming that his critics are claiming that Islam is the *only* factor to blame. When I followed Greenwald, that’s what he would always say too, and what Chomsky says as well. I’ve mentioned it myself – one has to why people turn to such movements, and why they are able to take hold, and *that* is partially independent of the ideology in question.

  34. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted October 29, 2014 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    “Thus, although beliefs are not directly responsible for more than a small part of our actions, the actions for which they are responsible are among the most important, and largely determine the general structure of our lives. In particular, our religious and political actions are associated with beliefs.”
    ~ Bertrand Russell, On the Value of Scepticism
    http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/russell4.htm


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