Aslan was right to criticize Bill Maher, but his knowledge of atheism is equivalent to Maher's knowledge of Islam

Reza AslanReza Aslan recently gave an interview to Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks, in which he both reiterated and expanded upon his positions dealing with Bill Maher’s (and now Sam Harris) positions on Islam. I have to say, Reza completely lost me. I still find some of his core points valid, but Reza made arguments in defense of his position that I vehemently disagree with. In fact, on these points, I agree with Maher and Harris.

Aslan does hold some reasonable opinions,  a huge part of his argument against atheism (as a movement) is much of the same arguments that the religious right has made against secularism. In fact Aslan, like many other religious “experts” tend to hold certain propositions about those who have no faith. These propositions are not entirely accurate.

One, Aslan sums up atheism as a “system of belief” on the level that religion is. I could not disagree more with his assertion. Is atheism a system of belief? Well, yes and no. Is it a belief system on par with religion? No. Atheism at its core is simply a lack of belief in a god or gods. People tend to develop beliefs around their atheism, but atheism in itself is not a belief system. Atheism has no real content to the term.

I agree with Sam Harris’ statements that calling yourself an atheist is futile and has no meaning, aside from a general lack of belief in supernatural deities. No one who doesn’t believe in astrology calls themselves an a-astrologist. No one who doesn’t believe in Bigfoot calls themselves an a-squatchist (although I rather like that term). Harris makes a valid point in that respect. Having a lack of belief does not inherently constitute a belief in something.

One can develop a series of beliefs around atheism. You could also make the same argument in case of religion, with a major exception. There is no singular text devoted solely to atheism that atheists will draw upon to validate their beliefs or lack thereof. Christians tend to get offended if someone burns a bible in front of them. Muslims tend to get offended if someone burns a Koran in front of them. Atheists care little if someone were to burn a copy of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion or Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great.

There is a doctrinal aspect to religion that does not fully exist for what we consider atheism. Atheists can develop doctrines, but more or less these doctrines tend to focus on issues much deeper than a lack of belief in god. There is no central text or ideological doctrine in atheism that commands its adherents to live and behave a certain way. Not like the Bible and Koran.

Another point where Aslan lost me was the age old religious talking-point about atheism in relation to Stalinism. Often the defenders of religion will say that while violence is committed in the name of religion, atheism also commits violence “in the name of atheism and secularism.” This is incorrect. Aslan fails once again to distinguish between doctrinal beliefs.

Stalin and Mao were atheists and were responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people. The difference between them and say the massacres of the Crusades, the Inquisitions, and the endless religious violence committed today is that Stalin and Mao did not execute their victims “in the name of atheism.” Stalin and Mao had an ideological belief system that was built around their atheism, i.e. communism.

They did not murder their victims because atheism demanded they do so. Communism and their authoritarianism compelled them to purge their political opponents (real and perceived) and many of these opponents were religious figures. Yes Mao and Stalin killed priests, but they also killed school teachers, farmers, students, factory workers, and a whole myriad of people for a variety of complex reasons.

Islamic extremists and Christian extremists kill, in the name of their god, and under influence and direction of a central text. Communists killed in the name of communism, not in the name of atheism. Atheism is merely an aspect of communism, not communism’s central proposition. Aslan fails to recognize this, so falsely equates Stalinism’s central ideology as atheism.

Atheism is not a proposition about the world. It is simply declaring one does not believe in a god. From that, a person can develop an ideology, good or bad. Atheism does not compel one to develop a belief system or worldview, in the way a religion does.

Aslan also lost me on the idea of “truth.” Aslan stated to Uygur that “your concept of truth relies on facts and evidence. That concept is only 300 years old.” In a sense, Aslan argues that the ancient religious idea of truth comes from “experiences” rather than fact finding and evidence gathering. Well, Professor Aslan, we don’t live in ancient times.

Today’s world can’t simply base “truth” on personal experience, it requires facts and evidence in order to be effectively proven. We can’t, and should not, rely on methods of storytelling that have proven to be incorrect.

Note that I am not criticizing Aslan from a perspective of defending Maher or Harris. The last article I wrote detailed why I think Harris is wrong on religious violence. Yet, on matters when it comes to religion and non-religion, I tend to agree more with Harris. I realize Aslan is a religious scholar, but I don’t believe I need to have a Doctorate in religious studies in order to comment on these issues.

Even Aslan said that he doesn’t really “believe” what the Koran says and acknowledges that much of its stories are just myths. Aslan speaks of a religion as a language, but Uygur made a great point. If you don’t really believe what’s in the books, why continue to speak that language at all?


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