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Exclusive Interview with Reza Aslan on Religion Today for OnFaith

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Sahil Badruddin: Thank you for sharing your insights with OnFaith and congratulations on the release of your new book, God: A Human History. We’d like to take this opportunity to probe your insights on contemporary issues related to religion for improvement of society generally then we’ll talk about your new book. Reza Aslan: Great. SB: As you’ve mentioned, and it is well known, religious literacy in general and particularly of Islam and Eastern Religions, is essentially absent from western education curriculum. Despite the numerous efforts and some progress, there is, even today, by and large a lack of pedagogical content in Elementary, Middle, and High Schools with regard to enhancing, and promoting a better understanding of religion. This gap in the curriculum, in general, often also includes a lack of civilizational content and contributions to humanity by the world’s major religions, and again specifically a lack of civilizational contributions to humanity by Islam and Eastern Religions. To many, civilizational content in school curriculum should be a complete non-issue. For example, there are no end to university courses covering or teaching Religious Studies in a secular, academic setting. Indeed, they have entire departments. So, what factors might be overwhelming or negating the outreach effort to simply get religious studies content, and civilizational pedagogy about world religions in school curriculums (again not theological content) and what solutions would you suggest? REZA: Well, first of all it might come as somewhat of a shock to learn that it has only been in the last 50, or 60 years that public universities have been able to teach religion as an objective academic discipline, separate from Theology for instance. For the same reasons, we don’t teach religion in public high schools, or elementary schools. Because in the United States, it has become very difficult to separate religious faith and religious belief, from religion as a scientific discipline. As a discipline that involves historical, literary, anthropological, sociological trends. Obviously, religion not just in America, but in most parts of the world, is a very touchy subject. When we talk about religion, what we are talking about most often is not so much beliefs and practices, but identity. And so, particularly in a country like the United States, that is 70% Christian, there is a great fear among Conservative Christian groups, that teaching, for instance, Christianity in an objective manner, is somehow contrary to the embedded truths of Christianity. That doing so would treat Christianity as a religion like any other religion. A thing to be studied, instead of a truth to hold dear. At the same time, there is an enormous amount of fear that, that kind of teaching can very easily lead to proselytizing. Again, this is primarily a Christian fear. It’s one thing to allow students to learn about Christianity, even in an objective historical way, and it’s something else entirely to then have them learn about Buddhism or Islam or Hinduism. Again as though those religions are somehow equal to Christianity. That has kept conversations about promoting religious literacy at bay in the United States. That I think is disastrous. The fact of the matter is that people around the world, are becoming more religious, not less religious. The more globalization begins to deteriorate our national identities, the more religious identities are beginning to step in to the vacuum, and become a greater force, in how communities around the world are identifying themselves. And so, regardless of what profession you want to go into, it is very important to have some basic knowledge about the religions of the world, if for no other reason, then to be able to navigate the world in which we live in. A world in which as I say, religious identities are on the rise. SB: So how do we move forward? What solutions would you suggest for this issue? REZA: It’s a nonstarter in our political environment to try to introduce the study of religion in public schools. It’s a nonstarter. As much as I would advocate for that to happen, I just don’t see how it would. And so, we have to rely on other means of doing so. Extracurricular classes. I myself am starting something with my wife next year, meant to provide the materials necessary for parents to educate their kids in religious literacy, without proselytizing, without necessarily getting mired in theology and creed…just simply knowing more about the religions of the world. But I just don’t see it happening in a public-school environment. Certainly not in the political context that we live in now. SB: Moving along, in the past decade, especially, Muslims, have engaged in robust outreach initiatives to help correct the perception of Islam in the West. You often mention, one solution to transform the negative perception is through popular culture (e.g. stories, movies, TV, fiction, art, literature, etc.). However, if as a barometer parameter of success of these outreach efforts, we use the portrayal of Islam in say Hollywood movies, perhaps even in prevalent television shows, or in the overall popular culture, it would seem little progress has been made. So once again, what factors might be overwhelming or negating progress in this area? Could it be political rhetoric, media bias, violent “radical Islam”, a lack of long term education about Islam, perhaps a combination, or even other forces are at play? REZA: Well, I would first disagree that no progress is being made – I mean progress is slow. But the fact of the matter is that the simple, comical, demonization of Muslims and Muslim characters that was so prevalent, in Hollywood films and in television shows, has been dramatically reduced. I know, because I work in Hollywood. I would say now that there is now an enormous interest, and a desire among film makers, among network executives, to integrate the stories of American Muslims into television shows. You know, DW has a show now featuring a Muslim superhero. I have sold a number of television shows and pilot scripts to networks and cable outlets that feature Muslim characters or Muslim story lines. Just recently there was a press release that Bassem Youssef and Larry Willmore have sold a show to ABC, featuring Muslim characters and Muslim protagonists. So we are at that moment now in which the talent is meeting the desire. And I think we’re going to see in the next few years is an absolute explosion of stories, both in film and in television, that seek to present Muslims in a normal light. Not as just simple antagonists, but as complex three-dimensional characters. I would say that even further to that…what we’re seeing now is an enormous success by film makers of Muslim backgrounds. Whether we're talking about Riz Ahmed winning an Emmy, or whether it’s Aziz Ansari winning an Emmy, or Kumail Nanjiani hosting S&L;, I mean all these things happened within the last few months. And if you had told me that’s what we were looking at 18 months ago, I would’ve been hard pressed to agree with you. There is an enormous progress taking place, but it’s slow. This is a tricky industry. It's built on profits and any industry that's built on profits takes an enormous amount of effort to get them to change direction, to change the way that they do work. What I think we have been very successful in doing is convincing execs, and producers that there is a market for this kind of story telling that you can be successful telling stories, about Muslims that cast them in…not a positive light, but just a neutral light, and a three-dimensional light. SB: That's really good to hear. REZA: To your larger question, by the way, I still believe that that is the most powerful way to transform perceptions of Muslims in the United States. Look, if it is true that the key to changing the way that people think about an other is by giving them the opportunity to know that other, the fact of the matter is that Muslims are at the profound disadvantage, because there's only three million, three and a half million of them. We're barely 1% of the population of the United States. It is very likely that you could be born, raised and die in America without ever coming face to face with a Muslim. And so for the vast majority of Americans, the only Muslim they will ever come into contact with is the one they see on TV. We need to use that truth to our advantage to present them with Muslim characters that are real, true, and three dimensional. SB: Any other advice you might provide to Muslims or other relevant organizations/groups to be more effective in doing that? REZA: Yes. I say this to every Muslim student group that I come across in my lectures across the country. The key to getting Americans to accept you and as a part of them is to stop being so focused inwardly, and to instead focus your efforts, your attentions on everyone else on all the other marginalized communities in the United States. Every time I talk to a Muslim group I always ask them what they’re doing, and most of the efforts are about combating Islamophobia, which is important. It's about teaching and educating people about Islam, that's important. It's about helping persecuted groups like Palestinians, or the Rohingya that's very important. But, you know what else is important? Poverty in America, environmental concerns, LGBT rights. The fact that young African American men are being systematically murdered by policemen in this country. These are not, "Muslim issues”, but they are American issues. And we have to learn to take on the plight of every other persecuted and marginalized community in the United States as our own, and to fight for them if we want them to fight for us. Also because it's what you're supposed to do, it's what your faith demands. SB: Switching gears now, I'm a bit curious about your worldview. You've often said on various occasions that the foundation of democracy isn’t secularism, but that the foundation of democracy is pluralism. REZA: Correct. SB: Can you explain what you mean and how do you define pluralism in this context? REZA: First of all, let's define secularism, because I think that's a misunderstood term. Secularism is an ideology that promotes the removal of religion from the public sphere. We are not a secular country in the United States, on the contrary, we are a profoundly religious, devoutly religious country. We don't have a "Separation between Church and State," in the United States. We have an anti-establishment clause that forbids us from paying taxes to a church that we don't belong to. That's a vastly different thing than saying, we are a secular nation. Secular nations are those nations that forcibly remove religious expression from the public realm. For instance, France is a secular nation. My argument is that while secularization, by which I mean the process where by political power rests in the hands of nonreligious authorities, while that is obviously very important, secularism is not to maintain a democracy. What is necessary is a commitment to pluralism, a commitment to equality of all religious expressions and religious beliefs under the law. A refusal to allow one particular faith to supersede others, or to subsume others. That's what we have in the United States, that's why our democracy works so well. And that I think is the model for a successful democratic formula that does not think to remove religion from public life. SB: Would you say there's also a broader definition of pluralism, which also means embracing the other and being more accepting? REZA: Yes. I think that's what pluralism means and that's why it's not about tolerance, it's about acceptance, it's about understanding that there are multifaceted ways of being and believing and recognizing that there is value in all of those different forms of beliefs and identity. SB: To follow-up, so Pluralism often gets confused with Relativism. REZA: That’s right. SB: And by relativism I mean a worldview that suggests, all points of views are equally valid and none can be judged right or wrong. To clarify make the distinction between judging a position as right or wrong, and there being a right or wrong position itself. Relativism refers to the latter, which denies it exists. Could you explain where you stand and speak about this? REZA: Personally I am a relativist. Personally I do believe that there is an enormous value in multiple ways of thinking, and being, and existing and that it's not necessarily the case that any one particular form of truth is more valuable than other forms of truth. But you don't have to be a relativist in order to be a pluralist. You could believe that your personal truth is the one that is most meaningful, is the one that provides the greatest clarity, while at the same time valuing other versions of truth, other people's truths. We're talking about human emotions, we're not talking about facts here, and emotions are, by definition, purely subjective, they are experiential. And so, I think it would become very difficult for someone to simply deny someone else' emotional experience because it conflicts with one's own experience. Again we're not talking about facts here. I'm not a relativist when it comes to facts, I'm a relativist when it comes to the way that we experience emotional truths. SB: To continue, the Pew Research Form in 2016 sited on The Guardian from London reported and I quote, "Six out of every 10 millennials (61%) get their political news on Facebook … making the 1.7 billion-user social behemoth … the largest millennial marketplace for news and ideas in the world. But within Facebook’s ecosystem exists a warren of…intellectual biomes created by users whose interest in interacting with opposing political views…is nearly non-existent." Today this phenomenon is even termed as a Post-Fact Society, where individuals not only feel entitled to their own opinions, but to their own facts. Therefore, how can and what advice can you provide for groups to reach individuals who have tucked away their own echo chambers, locked away from other views, opinions, and perspectives? REZA: By the way, this is why I kept saying that I'm not talking about relativism in terms of facts, I'm talking about it in terms of experience and emotional truths. No, this is a terrible phenomenon. We all assumed when the internet and social media that first came onto the scene that what it would do is expand our horizons. Give us immediate access to new sources of knowledge and information that it would remove the gatekeepers from giving us access to information, and that would allow us to be able to see positions from all points of views. And more importantly, often go straight to the source in order to get that information. The exact opposite has happened. We are now in the situation that, you know, my friend Eli Pariser refers to it as the Filter Bubble. That we can now live our entire lives online without ever once coming across opinions or ideas that counteract the ones that we already hold. That's a dangerous place to be, but the internet is also an individualistic and self-policing mechanism. In other words, it's no one's fault but yours and no one can do anything but you yourself in expanding your horizons. There is no mechanism, certainly no technological mechanism that would force a person to lead various conflicting opinions about a particular topic and come to their own individual interpretation of it. It's really about the individual and the responsibility that individual has to make sure that they are not living in a filter bubble. I don't see what it is that anyone else can do in order to force that upon people. SB: This next question is a bit long, but an important one. So if we generally agree other opinions, views, and perspectives are important. Can they truly be valuable if we don't simultaneously expand our understanding of pluralism, that we spoke of earlier, beyond notions of just embracing differences in race, culture, religion, ethnicity, but to also include intellectual diversity? That is a sincere respect for other positions and opinions. Because, without intellectual diversity, all that’s left is a bland, homogeneous, perhaps even dogmatic, intellectual landscape, devoid of opinion and variety -- in essence, an echo chamber. We also see a lack of intellectual pluralism when certain groups are broad-brushed as a monolith. One could even argue that most conflict and discord are due to a lack of intellectual pluralism or diversity. A lack of respect for other opinions and positions. In other words, the respect for disagreement, in essence, is an inescapable aspect of pluralism. Would you agree with this perspective and what can be done so everyone can be more open and respectful to new and other ideas that oppose their worldview? REZA: I certainly agree that intellectual pluralism is important. In that we must as thinking…as critical thinkers be open to a diversity of opinions and ideas even when it comes to some core fundamental belief that we may have. I will, however, say that to me, the problem that I see is less, a lack of intellectual diversity and more a notion of, what it sometimes being referred to colloquially as “both sides ism”. This is partly to do with the polarized rhetoric that we are facing in this country. It is partly to do with the way in which our media, particularly cable news has become less like news and more like a sports cast with two teams, both of which have fans, and both of which had an equal right to, you know, "winning". That has resulted in this absurd conversations that we are having as a nation about, whether there is both sides to the argument of say, whether Nazis should be having an influence in the American government. Or whether blacks, and Latinos, and gays should be afforded the same human dignity as other people. There isn't two sides to every argument. There isn't intellectual diversity to every argument. The planet is warming. That is a fact and that human beings have a role in it. That is a fact. There isn't another side to that argument. Islam is a religion and it is protected under the first amendment of the Constitution. There isn't another side to that argument. Sometimes to me, the problem isn't so much that we are not willing to listen to other sides. The problem is that we pretend that other sides are equally valid and that's just not the case. SB: Now, let me turn and ask about the future of religion and faith. Do you think the perception of religious people, of course, it might be worse for some faiths or better for others will generally improve over time? REZA: I don't know if would say that the perception of religious people is going to improve. Because that perception is often trending to the most extreme voices. The reason that the perception of Americans towards Muslims is that they're violent terrorists, is because that tends to be what they see in the news. The reason that nonreligious people see right-wing Christians as theocratic and autocratic, and desperate to impose their religious values on everyone else is, because that's what they see on the news. Those are the voices that we hear most often, which is why even among religious people, religion has become a kind of a dirty word if you will. There's a reason why the fastest growing segment in American society is the non-affiliated. Those individuals who do not necessarily refer to themselves as atheist, but also at the same time refuse to associate with any particular religion. They're "spiritual", but not religious. When you begin to really crunch those numbers, what you see is that this is primarily a response to the role that religion has played in fostering violence abroad and at home. The role that religion has played in denying human rights and human dignities to minority groups in the United States. The way in which religion has been manipulated by politicians and political parties to advance nonreligious causes. All of that has given religion deservedly so, a bad name for most people. I don't see that perception changing. What I do see changing is religion itself. Religion is always in a constant state of evolution. It is constantly adapting to the changing realities of the world. And I think people have this impression that religion is somehow static or monolithic. That I think is just an ignorant worldview. Religions have only managed to simply absorb new information, new truths, new realities, into itself and keep going. When we discovered that the earth was not the center of the universe, it didn't do away with Christianity. Christians accepted that truth. Absorbed it into their religion and moved on. If tomorrow aliens from Alpha Centauri land in Central Park, that's not going to do away with religion. Religions will simply accept that fact, absorb it, and then move on. So I think what you're going to see is religiosity that is continuing to evolve, continuing to adapt to scientific truths and knowledge, and continuing to address the changing needs of religious people. But I don't think the perception of religious people is necessarily going to change anytime soon. SB: So, on a shorter timescale, how do you think we will understand religion, say, perhaps, in 5 to 10 years, or even 10 to 20 years from now? REZA: It's hard to say, because in times of tremendous social or scientific progress, and I believe that we are in one of those times, or in the middle of one of those times. Often what happens is that you see a religious backlash to that progress. That backlash often takes the form of fundamentalism, which is not an independent phenomenon, but a reactionary phenomenon. It is a reaction to social scientific progress. There will always be people who feel left behind, and those people will often react, sometimes in violent ways. And so, I think that in the next 5, 10 years, you're going to continue to see a surge of extreme and fundamentalist expressions of religion as a result of dealing with the tremendous social changes that we have experienced over the last few decades. I think that if you look 20, 30, 40 years into the future, and I think what you're going to see is the kind of accommodation that I was referring to earlier, accommodating the social and scientific realities. God has been the nature of religion from its very beginning, reacts, and then it accommodates. It reacts and then it accommodates. SB: And, finally, on your new book titled God: A Human History, tell us a little bit about it and how it's different than other books on the subject. REZA: Well, the book is about the way in which we have beginning of the concept of God. From the very moment the idea arose in human evolution, that we have understand the divine, tried to make sense of the divine by essentially humanizing the divine. By implanting human emotions, human characteristics, human personalities, human traits, human weaknesses and strengths, virtues and vices upon God…transform God into a divine version of ourselves. You can see this process throughout the history of religions and in all major religious traditions. To this day, whether we are believers or not, whether we are aware of it or not, what the vast majority of us think about when we think about God, is a divine version of ourselves, and this is dangerous. What we are essentially doing is foisting our human compulsions upon God and pretending that they are Gods. It more than anything else, explains why religion has been a force, both for tremendous good and for unspeakable evil throughout humanity. In fact, everything that is good or bad about all religions, is nothing more than a reflection of everything that is good or bad about us. This book is a different way of thinking about God, a way of dehumanizing God, and casting God not as some kind of divine personality, with human foibles, but as a sort of a primal creative force sense of the universe, that is in fact, the universe. And so, the book is, not just a history of the way that we have thought about God over the last half a million years, but it's also an appeal for a broader, more expansive, more pantheistic understanding of God which, I think, will lead to greater peace and prosperity among religions, and will also lead to a more mature, more satisfying spirituality for individuals. SB: What do you hope the subject will accomplish in terms of increasing a better understanding of religion and even, perhaps, increasing the respect of religious people? REZA: I just want people to first just think about what they mean when they say God. We have so many fights and so many arguments about God. We have people who say they believe in God. We have people who say they don't believe in God. We have people who kill because of God, and people who die because of their beliefs about God. All assume we're talking about the same thing when we say the word God and we are not. And so, the conversation, a global conversation, what it is that we even mean when we say the word God. I think that if we start the conversation there, what we will discover is that we have a lot more in common with each other than we thought that we did. SB: And now, to end on a lighter note, turning once again to the future, great thinkers often think about a vision for the future. We normally talk about these in general terms, however, could you name a specific objective, perhaps you see the world can achieve, let’s say, in 25-50 years? And what insights and suggestions can you offer that might help them address and achieve this vision? REZA: I would like to see a future that is borderless, a future in which identity based on nationality, ethnicity, or religion are not so otherizing as they are now. In which, we recognize that while we may be different colors, while we may pray to different Gods, while we may speak different languages, that we share the same aspirations and the same obstacles…that we have the same desires, the same hope and dreams for ourselves and our children. That there isn’t that much that divides us as we think there is. I personally think that the best way to come to that knowledge is through the power of story-telling because story-telling has always had the power…to reach us where we are most human. And that’s why I’ve dedicated my life to doing. But that’s the vision of the world that I would like to see when my children become as old as I am today. SB: Reza, thank you for a wonderful and insightful interview. REZA: Awesome, Sahil, you’re welcome. ABOUT REZA ASLAN Dr. Reza Aslan is a professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. He was previously Wallerstein distinguished visiting professor of religion, conflict, and community at Drew University, where he taught from 2012 to 2013, and assistant visiting professor of religion at the University of Iowa, where he taught from 2000 to 2003. He serves on the board of trustees for the Chicago Theological Seminary and sits on a numerous foreign policy councils. Dr. Aslan holds a bachelor’s degree in religious studies and a minor in biblical Greek from Santa Clara University (1992-1995). He has a master of theological studies at the Divinity School from Harvard University (1997-1999), and a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. (UCSB’s doctoral program is an interdisciplinary one that draws from religion, history, philosophy, and sociology, among other fields. Aslan’s doctorate in sociology encompasses expertise in the history of religion.) He also has a master of fine arts in fiction degree from the University of Iowa, where he was named the Truman capote Fellow in Fiction. Dr. Aslan's first book, No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, was an international bestseller and his book Zealot was a #1 New York Times bestseller. In addition, he authored How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror. Dr. Aslan has also edited two volumes: Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East, and Muslims and Jews in America: Commonalities, Contentions, Complexities. Dr. Aslan is the founder of AslanMedia.com, which is a social media site for news and information on the greater Middle East. He has written for numerous publications and is a frequent guest on major news networks. He is the recipient of the Levantine Cultural Center’s East-West Media Award (2012), the Media Bridge-Builder Award from the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding (2013), and in 2014 he became an Intersections a Honoree for his work promoting justice, reconciliation, and peace. In addition to his role as a Consulting Producer on the acclaimed HBO series The Leftovers, Aslan is also the host and Executive Producer of two other original television programs: Rough Draft with Reza Aslan (premiered on Ovation). He also served as an Executive Producer on the ABC drama, Of Kings and Prophets. Website: www.rezaaslan.com/Twitter: @RezaAslan. ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER Sahil Badruddin is a graduate of The University of Texas at Austin with majors in Chemical Engineering, Religious Studies (focus in Islamic Studies), and History (concentration in History of Religions & History of Science). His RoundUp Video Series assembles the most interesting and credible religion-related content for a general audience in various themes. Sahil's interviews for OnFaith incorporate voices from renowned scholars, faith leaders, educators with the purpose to discuss insights on contemporary issues.