More handwaving from Reza Aslan

In the very first sentence of this interview on The Young Turks, Reza Aslan claims that he does not read Sam Harris’ writings. He then proceeds to criticize Harris and modern atheism at length, making several deliberate misrepresentations:
  1. Atheism is an intractable and inflexible belief system.
    This is demonstrably false. Harris and most modern atheists adopt a scientific worldview, where all ideas are tentative and subject to reconsideration when new evidence comes to light. The unsupported claim that atheism is based on faith is a tired old trope of religious apologists.
  2. Atheists believe that they are under siege.
    Harris would certainly have reason to. Atheists are among the most widely distrusted groups in America, and all outspoken opponents of fundamentalist ideolgy invariably attract haters. Even so, if he believes he is under siege, Harris does little to reveal it. In his writings and public appearances, he is always respectful and polite, remaining remarkably calm and poised even in the face of hostility. Bad ideas deserve to be criticized, no matter how long and honored a position they hold in society. Some people so dislike having their sacred ideas challenged that they project their fear onto those with the temerity to shine a light into the dark places.
  3. Atheists demonize and dehumanize their ideological opponents.
    To say that atheism automatically treats all religious people as murderous fanatics is a specious straw man argument. There are demons in the world, but they damn themselves by their own actions. Fair-minded people are entirely right to call out injustice in the world, and to condemn both the perpetrators of heinous acts, and the ideas and cultural institutions that perpetuate them. People should be judged good or bad by their ideas, words, and — most importantly — by their actions.
Based on the above mistakes, Aslan leaps to the conclusion that Sam Harris and his readers (to whom Aslan refers as “zealous disciples”) are fundamentalists, no better than religious fundamentalists. Aslan does his best to come across as a moderate voice speaking reason to the uninformed and easily excited. However, his unfounded arguments and deliberate misrepresentations betray an emotional commitment to a more deferential tack toward religion.

Aslan makes this clear in his next remarks, wherein he makes a roundabout admission that Sam Harris’ blunt criticism of religion may be intellectually honest, but that it is nevertheless “dangerous”. Note that Aslan never makes the claim that any of Harris’ arguments is mistaken or unreasonable. He just thinks that they are dangerous. Why? Because religions “aren’t going anywhere,” because “religion is a growing force in the world,” and because an intellectual approach to religion “keeps us from having some very important and necessary conversations about the role of religion in society; about the problem of extremism in religious communities; and about how to reconcile the realities of the modern world with these ... scriptures that so many people nowadays view as ... inerrant.”

He’s basically saying that pointing out the irrationality and inconsistency of religious ideas to devout believers in those ideas is counterproductive precisely because these people think and behave irrationally. The sad thing is that Aslan and those like him appear to have concluded that that the principles of the enlightenment — reasonableness and humanism — are lost causes, too risky even to be attempted.

Watch the rest of the interview. Aslan goes on to claim that all religions are ways of expressing the inexpressible — the mystery of faith. Aslan compares religion to language, suggesting that a person’s religion is as arbitrary as any other aspect of a his culture, depending more on where he was born than anything else. With verbal sleight of hand, Aslan then leaps to claiming that religious ideas are not arbitrary, and that the different regions of the world are merely different ways of accessing the same source: “religion is the well... but faith is the water... the water is the same regardless of what well you are drinking from.” Aslan’s flowery metaphorical rhetoric may distract some listeners from the fact that he is contradicting himself. Religions either differ about important matters, or they do not. We know that moral teachings, strictures, and commandments of the religions of the world are different, and this is evidenced by the actions of so many believers, who regularly murder their fellow humans for drinking from the wrong well.*

That people are willing to kill over these differences is significant! Religious moderates and atheist humanists have one thing in common: they wish to overcome these differences and reduce suffering and strife in the world. Where they differ is in their approach. Religious moderates (among whose ranks Aslan surely counts as an honorary member) espouse interfaith cooperation based on a common ground — always claimed, but never agreed upon — of core religious values. They also demand a diplomatic deference toward all believers. Atheist humanists promote a rational worldview where reason, science, and consensus are the common ground. This difference in approach is significant, and it underlies the disagreement between Aslan and Harris.

Aslan and his fellows tacitly concede that religion is often irascible and irrational, and their tack is essentially one of Realpolitik: accept that people are emotional, unreasonable, and often driven by ridiculous & selfish ideas; accept the limitations of the the world the way it is rather than trying to change it; don’t speak truth to power if doing so might stir up trouble.

Harris and his supporters on the other hand believe that bad ideas should be (politely and honestly) exposed and criticized no matter how sacred they are.

* Aslan would have made a good preacher. I get the impression that he likely would have joined the clergy, but for his apparent and enthusiastic intellectual curiosity. Aslan appears a man torn between emotionally appealing mysticism and intellectually satisfying rationality. He clearly hopes to build a bridge between these two views of the world. His attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable amount to hand-waving, but this is his talent.