Reza Aslan meets ‘experts’ on God

‘Zealot’ author Reza Aslan on MSNBC Nobody has ever mistaken me for a Muslim, but I now feel an affinity … Continued

‘Zealot’ author Reza Aslan on MSNBC

Nobody has ever mistaken me for a Muslim, but I now feel an affinity toward Muslims or, more accurately, toward one Muslim— Reza Aslan. Fox News personality Lauren Green unintentionally helped Aslan’s book reach the top of bestseller lists when she repeatedly asked him why a Muslim would write about the “founder of Christianity.” Aslan responded as a professional, mentioning his scholarly credentials and careful research that had helped him draw conclusions independent of his religious beliefs.

I must confess that I have a fantasy of Fox News interviewing me about my book, during which Lauren Green substitutes “atheist” for “Muslim” to discredit anything I say about Jesus. And here’s my snarky response: “Jesus was born and died a Jew, knowing nothing of Christianity. The Bible refers to him as ‘king of the Jews,’ not ‘king of the Christians.’ My vote for founder of Christianity goes to a Jew named Saul, who later became Paul. Perhaps my Jewish background makes me more qualified to talk about Jesus, a fellow Jew, than does someone like you with a Gentile background. Just as we’re both skeptical when members of the American Nazi Party praise Adolph Hitler, shouldn’t we also be skeptical when Christians make claims about an infallible Jesus while literally worshipping the ground he walked on? Of course I’m not comparing Christians to Nazis. I’m just asking whether we have reason to suspect such biased accounts.”

My Jewish upbringing neither qualifies nor disqualifies me from writing about Jesus, Hitler, or anyone else. It’s fair to ask how any author’s background or beliefs might have influenced his or her writings, but the focus should be on whether the author justifies assertions made.

Students in secular colleges are often surprised to learn that courses on religion are not designed to strengthen their faith, since classes in a weekday school have different orientations than classes in a Sunday school.

Green probably spent a lot more time in Sunday school than in religious studies classes. Her bio from Fox News mentions her degree in piano performance, but nothing about scholarly religious credentials. Fox adds that she was Miss Minnesota in 1984 and third runner-up in the 1985 Miss America contest. Gretchen Carlson, another Fox News personality, seems to have followed in the same high heels as Loren Green. Carlson was Miss Minnesota in 1988 and went on to become Miss America.

Wait a minute. Am I doing to Green what she did to Aslan—focusing on background and beliefs in an attempt to discredit? After all, winning a beauty contest neither qualifies nor disqualifies anyone from pontificating about religion or interviewing religious scholars. Are my comments about Green even relevant to this discussion? As Fox News is fond of saying, “We report, you decide.”

Still, sometimes I’m asked why I, an atheist mathematician, write about religion. Though I’ve participated in a number of debates, I’ve had no formal religious training beyond my teen years. I know absolutely nothing about God, but I think that qualifies me as an expert on God. To paraphrase Socrates: He who believes he knows something when he knows nothing is more foolish than he who knows he knows nothing.

Thousands of books have been written on the history, culture, and myths about a multitude of gods, and countless books describe how scientific findings contradict claims in holy books. However, there is no credible evidence for the existence of any supernatural beings. Even so, many religious believers ignore the contradictions and lack of evidence, and embrace what they view as the “gift of faith.” I don’t mind this, as long as they don’t try to force their gift on the rest of us. But I become alarmed when people describe things as “God’s plan” and sometimes insist that everyone should follow God’s plan, which turns out to be strikingly similar to their own plan. Whenever I hear “God’s plan,” I substitute in my mind “Zeus’s plan.”

And this reminds me of a dinner I shared at a Chinese restaurant with a bunch of secular college students. They became uncharacteristically excited when our fortune cookies arrived. The students gleefully read their “fortunes” aloud, adding “in bed” at the end of each. For example,

“We all have our bad days in bed.” And

“Your ability to accomplish tasks will follow with success in bed “

I prefer “in bed” to “God’s plan” because people can have harmless fun with it, and no one takes seriously either the fortune or the two added words. I wish the same could be said for “God’s plan.”

Herb Silverman is founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America, author of “

Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt,”

and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Charleston.

Herb Silverman
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  • jonesm2

    I certainly do fervently hope that Fox News will interview you about your book, Herb, but I think you’ll need to win a couple of beauty pageants first. Somehow, i just don’t that the latter is part of God’s plan, nor do I think you’ll win any pageants “in bed,” but do let me know when Fox News calls!

  • inreasonitrust

    Jews believe in God’s plan. Christians believe in God’s plan. Muslims believe in God’s plan. So do Hindus and many other religions. Therefore, WWWI, WWWII, Pearl Harbor, The 9/11 Tragedy of Twin Towers, Famine in Africa, Earthquakes, Floods, Epidemics, Cancer and etcetera are God’s plan. SILLY.

  • Chuck Von

    The idea of Herb in a beauty pageant made me chuckle until I realized that they still have swimsuit competition. Please, dear Zeus, NO!!

  • SimonTemplar

    If only Aslan would actually meet with, even debate, some experts on the history of Christianity, rather than booking appearances on the interview circuits so he can ask us to buy his book on the merits of his own credentials (credentials which you strangely seem to suggest are over-rated).

    Mr. Silverman, we all know you are a jewish atheist. You never present one of your articles without reminding us of that (not that it has any bearing on the subject at hand). And yes, we Christians do know that Jesus was a jew as well. Many of us know name was pronounced more like yēšūă’. Many of us know that Christianity was originally called “The Way.” Again, I don’t know what relevance any of this has to Aslan or your claims about the lack of evidence for God’s existence. Though it does all seem to perpetuate the myth about Christians (which is commonly held among atheists) that Christians do not study their own faith. But atheists who perpetuate such silliness are numbered among the subjects of your Socrates quote.

    At least you admit to your own ignorance about God. You said, “I’ve had no formal religious training beyond my teen years. I know absolutely nothing about God, but I think that qualifies me as an expert on God.” I suppose you are trying to be cute. However, the fact is, when you claim to know nothing about God while declaring that there is no evidence of God’s existence you betray the fact that you wouldn’t recognize such evidence if you were staring straight at it, lacking, as you admittedly do, any knowledge about God. In fact your lack of knowledge would make you more likely to misinterpret any such evidence when you encounter it. One would expect that any thinking person would see this as reason to doubt your chosen view of reality. Yet in spite of this you assert your faith in the non-existence of God. It seems that you also have the “gift of faith.”

    Why is it you feel free to share YOUR gift with everyone, yet disparage others for doing the same?

  • h5r2

    Why is it silly. Maybe God’s plan has a lot of violence. In fact, all the holy books seem to indicate that God is violent.

  • Chuck Von

    Tell people you believe in an invisible man in the sky and no one bats an eye.
    Tell people you don’t belive in an invisible man in the sky and everybody loses their minds.

  • SimonTemplar

    The Bible indicates that God has the ability (and the right as our creator) to destroy us all. Yet he has not done so. That actually suggest that he DOES have plans for us (in spite of our infirmities and penchant to war with each other) and He is perhaps not as violent as you think.

  • edwills

    Not believing in God (or gods) is not the same as having faith in the non-existence of God. I assume you are an atheist with respect to Zeus, just as others are atheists with respect to yēšūă’.

  • h5r2

    Killing at least 55 million, according to the Bible, sound pretty violent to me–especially for a “loving” God.

  • Hildy J

    Not to mention the fact (if you believe the bible) that he plans to torture the majority of people, once they are dead, every minute of every day not for a hundred or a thousand or a million or a billion years but for all eternity.

  • Hildy J

    How many christian book writers are willing to debate atheists as to whether or not god exists?

    And I’m curious, Simon, what evidence in the existence of your god would you offer us?

  • Hildy J

    It’s not as if only muslims and jews feel the bible’s view of Jesus may not have been Jesus’ view of Jesus. I would suspect that the vast majority of professors at the major christian theological seminaries do not believe the bible is inerrant.

    For any believers who want to explore our understanding of Jesus but don’t want to hear if from a jew or a muslim, I’d suggest Bart Ehrman’s “Jesus, Interrupted” or “Misquoting Jesus”. For those who are into credentials, Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at UNC, studied at the Moody Bible Institute, and has a PhD and M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary.

    Of course, for those into credentials, it should be pointed out the Paul never met Jesus and had no formal religious training in christianity.

  • Rongoklunk

    Go to Wikipedia, then type in Atheism, and discover that 93 percent of members of The Academy of Sciences do not believe in a god. They are among the best brains on the planet, and they reject the god-hypothesis. If I believed in gods I would have to give some serious thought to this situation. If the really bright guys reject the idea – who am I to believe otherwise? It figures that only the superstitious believe in gods. Brainy types don’t.

  • allinthistogether

    Mr. Silverman,
    Thank you for your enlightened and enjoyable perspective on this issue. Certainty about “God’s plan” is an all too appealing comfort and trap. “Facts” about any God don’t pass the “beyond a reasonable doubt” test.

  • Rongoklunk

    Also, The Independent (UK) has just published an article that quotes a recent survey that once again shows that the smarter a person is, the less likely they believe in a god, or in anything supernatural. It’s still available to those interested. Lots of wonderful comments too.

  • smitisan

    Still ignoring ya.

  • edwills

    Good article. I’ve always wondered why a good God would give a “gift of faith” to some people and not to others.

  • Ljanney

    Jesus wan’t exactly a chip off the old block. That apple fell from the tree and rolled downhill. The All Knowing, All Powerful, Caring God of the OT was one psycho deity. This is the guy who drowned every man woman child dog cat armadillo on the planet except what He told Noah to take. He destroyed cities, killed half of Egypt with plagues and generally wreaked havoc among his subjects. Then along comes the Son who says “no, really, the old man really has changed His ways and He loves you”. And another couple of things he taught about loving thy neighbor but not too much because Dad is still serious about that one. It’s in his top 10. And stuff about helping the weak, the sick and the downtrodden. And don’t talk about others if you’ve got skeletons in the closet. So I guess He got all of that stuff from His Mom, I guess. He sure seemed to have better material than the Old Man.

  • mj01323

    It would be interesting to know what you consider to be ” the major christian theological seminaries”. Judging from the indication that you are a supporter of Bart Ehrman, you are not interested in who does and does not consider the bible to be inerrant.

    It is safe to expect that professors from Southern Baptist and evangelical seminaries would be more likely believe in inerrancy. Likewise you could reasonable expect that secular seminaries like Princeton, Harvard and other northeastern seminaries or divinity schools long ago abandoned any support for the bible being without error.

  • mj01323

    I wondered if the columnist, Mr. Silverman, intentionally misspelled Ms. Green’s first name. Surely, in his wisdom, he knows Loren is usually a man’s name, and Lauren is always a woman’s name.

  • Catken1

    Simon – or else it means that the God of the Bible doesn’t really exist, and has been used as a handy excuse to blame people for the natural disasters that occasionally afflict them.

  • kmurray285

    I am most displeased with the authors contempt for fortune cookies. Unlike the world’s major religions or any religion for that matter, fortune cookies are always prescient. They apply, always , to whomever the reader is. They are as we all know, exactly on the mark, positive in message and can be happily embraced by the reader. We wait with joyful anticipation for our new forthcoming fortune. They require no previous belief, no promise of our fidelity, no commandments to follow, no promise of an afterlife full of virgins or hell complete with unbearable heat and pitchfork prodding devils. You simply finish a meal, ritually wash with a warm damp towel ( this is the only ablution required) and then crack open the little cookie to find out what this amazing universe has in store for you. If there is a savior of the world it should be the “Special Being” who created this gift of grace. Probably a guy named Louie from Chicago who is long gone and never foresaw the founding of Louinism. No doubt the idea was picked up by Murry the press agent, Saul’s 20th century equivalent, and it just took off. Amazing how these things evolve and take on there own life. Just amazing.

  • h5r2

    Unfortunately, one place they don’t have fortune cookies is in China. Perhaps we need a missionary to visit and convert those fortune cookie unbelievers.

  • kmurray285

    Murry is on his way as I write.

  • Csomogenes

    Reza says “Thousands of books have been written on the history, culture, and myths about a multitude of gods, and countless books describe how scientific findings contradict claims in holy books. However, there is no credible evidence for the existence of any supernatural beings.” But in fact there is no credible evidence for the existence of the variously depicted Jesus of the many canonical and other gospels, either.

  • smitisan

    How would one even go about amassing evidence for the existence of supernatural beings? Evidence exists in nature.

  • smitisan

    You mean there isn’t a Tao Claus, the wizened old man with a thin beard who decides what fortunes go in what cookies? My disillusionment came with the cookie that said Your waitress has hots for you. Boy, was that a bad day.

  • MezzoBetsy

    I have a sneaking suspicion that Mr. Silverman is unconsciously thinking of Lorne Greene, the actor who played Ben Cartwright on “Bonanza”.

  • veginpost

    My favorite observation since going down the rabbit hole is the one where Lot argues with God to spare Sodom from destruction. Not a very impressive God that can be fooled by his subject and toyed with. Makes me chuckle every time. Then boom. He nukes em every time! The big mystery to me is why people continue to try to describe god or gods at all. Perhaps Simon would like us all to worship him. After all if Simon truly knows the nature and devices of God then he must be equal to God himself.

  • pelicanwatchcb1

    I have seen this interview on YouTube — along with millions of others who do not watch Fox News on a regular basis. I think Fox set a new intellectual low with this interview. And millions of their regular viewers consider this good journalism. Even Fox’s election night debacle will not disuade Fox fans from believing everything they hear. At least they folks like Herb fodder for a good column.