Reza Aslan on the History of God, Religious Interpretation, and ISIS

Religion has served as a vital influence in society for thousands of years, and its interpretation has been cited as the cause for numerous acts of charity and violence alike. While affiliated militants of the Islamic State recently attacked a crowd of worshipers in Egypt in the name of Islam, other Muslims charitably provided aid in support of the victims of the attack. As both claim to be acting in God’s name, what differentiates these two kinds of people? How do these people perceive religion and God, and how have these views changed over time? These questions are at the center of Reza Aslan’s new book “God: A Human History”.

Aslan is a writer, producer, and scholar of religions. He’s the author of “No god but God” and the New York Times best-seller “Zealot”. He also produced and hosted the documentary series “Believer” on CNN, where he interacted with people from diverse religions to understand how religion impacts their lives. Aslan is a faculty member at the University of California, Riverside and lives in Los Angeles.

In your new book, “God: A Human History”, you stated that people should not think that God is a divine version of themselves. What is the reason behind that?

When we project our virtues and vices, happiness and sadness, and strengths and weaknesses upon the divine, we create a superhuman being in our mind that is without human limitations.

As a result, God becomes a projection of the things that we love and hate. This results in a myriad of problems, which become easier to justify. For example, a religiously devout cleric who believes that there is nothing wrong with child molestation will stand to justify his actions, because he has created a projection of God in his mind who he thinks agrees with him on his actions.

In the same book, you mentioned that the cave painting of “The Sorcerer” found in the Cave of the Trois-Frères in France is thought by many people to be the first evidence of the existence of God. Do you think that people who come from different backgrounds and have different notions about the evolution of religions and God can challenge this idea?

“The Sorcerer” – a cave painting of a reindeer with a humanoid torso often thought to be the ‘first depiction of a deity on earth’ (sketch by Henri Breuil)

Yes, religions do make claims to the actual truth, but those claims are often based on mythology. People who believe devoutly in those claims tend to ignore the history of religions. They think about religion as a matter of identity, and therefore any other religion or any belief that contradicts with their religious ideology becomes wrong. It’s a human impulse to adhere to a particular set of views that a tribe accepts.

But we should also be interested in the way in which religions evolve, and in the human understanding of God and civilizations. I personally believe that that kind of knowledge can lead to a deeper, more meaningful, spiritual experience.

At many forums you have talked about how people put their values in their religion instead of deriving values from them. Because of that, different people can have different interpretations of the same religion. If that is the case, then why do some terrorist groups such as ISIS think that their version of Islam is better than others?

These groups do not misunderstand anything. That is a sort of a problem here and it is very difficult to say out loud. Religion, by definition, means interpretation. Religion without interpretation is simply a set of words on a page.

It’s in that interaction with the book or any other religious artifact that meaning arises. A person who has read Quran in a certain way can reject the idea of violence. Another person who has read the same book in a different way can accept the idea of violence.

That said, an important thing to note is that religious scriptures require context. Human societies evolve over time, and it is important to read these scriptures by keeping present cultural norms and history in our minds.

The idea that scriptures require context is contestable by a growing body of people who believe in New Atheism. This group includes people such as Bill Maher and Sam Harris who claim that some scriptures do literally call for violence and that there is no room for context there. What it is that these people get wrong then?

I think that they get everything wrong (laughs). The problem is that there is a long, profound lack of understanding of what religion is from this group’s side.

For instance, one of the arguments from the New Atheists is that those who don’t read scriptures in a literal way are not Muslims or Jews or Christians. It’s a silly, irrational understanding of religions. This is because of two reasons. One, like I said earlier, religion can be interpreted in different ways. And two, nobody reads the Bible in a literal sense. I think Sam Harris reads the Bible more literally than anyone else that I know. The Bible is malleable and not perfect. It is therefore logical to read the Bible in a more figurative and liberal way.

When a country’s political ideology is based on a religion, it can result in several problems. Pakistan, for instance, still suffers from the consequences of Islamic laws imposed by a military dictator in late 1970s. Similarly, Wahhabism, an Islamic sect promoted by the government of Saudi Arabia, is thought to be the founding principle of ISIS. For countries such as these, how can the state become separate from the religion?

It is difficult to find a country that is committed to the freedom of thought and freedom of life without it rallying for the presence of religion in politics. In fact, in many countries religious matters do influence politics.

The problem comes in when people from a certain religious group try to encroach upon the freedom of people who belong to a different religious group. In America, religion influences government, but people are committed to not breach the religious rights of other people. It is more important to maintain adherence to those rights than take away the influence of religion from politics.

You identify yourself as a Sufi. What is that and why does that appeal to you?

I adhere to the Sufi branch of Islam. Sufism is a mystical movement, the core of which is the desire to break free from the problems of all religions. It is a direct experience with the divine.

An important thing to note about mysticism is that, because there is a direct experience with the divine, there is nothing in the middle. This can be a source of hatred against mystics. People who are against mysticism argue that if mysticism rejects the idea of an intermediator, then it also rejects the existence and importance of things such as the holy books, prophet, etc., that can help people make a connection with the divine.

I do not think that such feelings are warranted. Mysticism is, in fact, a powerful force that unites people from all religious movements.

Featured photo: Photo: Bret Hartman/The Washington Post

Faraz Ahmed
Faraz Ahmed is the Executive Editor at the Chicago Policy Review. He is interested in using data journalism and civic tech for social good. When he’s not writing articles or computer programs, he could be seen hanging out at art museums or checking out new coffee shops in Chicago. He graduated from Lahore University of Management Sciences with a BSc in Management Science.

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