by David Sheff
If it’s true that in polite company one should avoid the subjects of politics and religion, don’t invite Reza Aslan to your next dinner party. The Iranian American professor, author and pundit has voiced views on precisely these topics that have placed him at the center of contentious national debates and inspired threats on his life.
As fundamentalist Muslim factions perpetrate beheadings, suicide bombings and mass shootings in the name of their religion, Aslan has emerged as a defender of Islam, though he writes and speaks—in books, on CNN, in The New York Times and elsewhere—about all religions, including Christianity; indeed, his 2013 number one best-seller is Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. He has also written the best-sellers No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam, and How to Win a Cosmic War. The latter is an in-depth study of Al Qaeda, the Taliban and other militant groups and religious violence in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Commentators on both the left and the right sometimes vilify Aslan, but he gives as good as he gets. Of some of his most prominent adversaries, he has called Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, a “buffoon” and dismissed Sam Harris, the neuroscientist and author of Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, as “an atheist fundamentalist.” Writing in The New York Times, Aslan attacked Bill Maher after a segment of Real Time on which Maher and Harris got into a heated exchange with Ben Affleck about Islam, which Harris said is “the mother lode of bad ideas.” (Affleck charged that their characterizations of Islam were “gross” and “racist.”) In the Times, Aslan wrote, “Making a blanket judgment about the world’s second largest religion—is simply bigotry.”
Aslan was born in Iran but came to the U.S. with his family in 1979, when he was seven, during the Iranian revolution. They settled in Oklahoma and then in northern California. In America, Aslan, born Muslim, became an evangelical Christian but returned to his native faith while attending Santa Clara University. He earned a master’s degree in theological studies from Harvard and then a Ph.D. in the sociology of religions from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He also has an MFA from the University of Iowa, where he was named the Truman Capote Fellow in Fiction.
Aslan is currently shooting a documentary series for CNN called Believer (he describes it as “about religion the way Anthony Bourdain’s show is about food”), producing a series for ABC based on the biblical story of King David and working as a consulting producer for the HBO series The Leftovers. In addition, he works as a professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. He’s married to Jessica Jackley, an investor and entrepreneur who co-founded Kiva, the nonprofit micro-lending agency. They have three sons.
At a time when the militant Islamic group ISIS and terrorist attacks in Europe dominate the news, PLAYBOY sent contributing editor David Sheff to meet with Aslan. Sheff, whose last Playboy Interviews were with Chinese artist-dissident Ai Weiwei and sex-advice columnist Dan Savage, reports, “Aslan is a professor, so it was unsurprising that he was articulate and impassioned on the subjects about which he teaches and writes. He spoke loudly and forcefully, as if we were in a lecture hall rather than a chic Hollywood restaurant. Afterward, a woman who’d been sitting at a nearby table told me she’d been eavesdropping. ‘Before dinner I’d have agreed with Bill Maher,’ she said. ‘I believed the Muslim religion to be violent—jihad and the 72 virgins and all that. I see I was wrong.’ She’d learned what many of his adversaries know: ‘When Mr. Aslan starts talking, he’s very convincing.’ ”
How do you feel being described as an apologist for Islam?
The thing is, I get it from both sides. The religious groups think I’m too secular in the way I define religion, and the atheists paint me as a religious apologist because I refuse to denounce religious belief as irrational and illogical.
But in the wake of extreme violence committed in its name, are you surprised the Muslim faith is criticized?
There’s something deeply schizophrenic about this country. We were founded on the very principle of religious freedom, and yet, if you look at our history, we have always transformed religious minorities into scapegoats, into the other. In the 19th century we passed federal laws to curb Catholic immigration to the United States. In the interwar period, anti-Semitism in this country was at absurd levels. You even had a business leader like Henry Ford forcing his dealerships around the country not to sell to Jews. Everything that was said about Catholics and about Jews is now being said about Muslims. “It’s not really a religion, it’s a political ideology.” “How could you be loyal to Islam and loyal to America at the same time?” A generation from now, our children will look back on the rabid, despicable anti-Muslim rhetoric that has become part of the mainstream dialogue in this country and wonder what the hell was wrong with us. Then we’ll find somebody else.
In the meantime, however, unspeakable violence is being carried out by people who claim to be doing so in the name of Islam.
Violence in the name of Islam is absolutely out of control, especially in the Middle East, which is facing profound political, economic and social instability. With all that, religious radicalism, regardless of what religion you’re talking about, surfaces. In the Central African Republic, the problem of religious radicalism in that unstable country is Christian radicalism. You have Christian youth slaughtering women and children with machetes. In Myanmar, an unstable part of the world that’s majority Buddhist, you have acts of extreme Buddhist violence. Marauding Buddhist mobs are killing women and children in the name of Buddhism.
But there’s no denying that many of the most brutal attacks are committed in the name of Islam by fundamentalists—for example, the mass shootings in January atCharlie Hebdo in Paris.
The tragic attacks in Paris are a culmination of a decades-long crisis of identity that has gripped large parts of Europe. For many Europeans, it is becoming increasingly difficult to define what it means to be British, to be French, to be German. The European Union has dissolved the borders and boundaries that separate Europeans into distinct nation-states. In doing so, it has diminished the sense of national identity that has formed a bedrock of the continent. As difficult as this process has been for indigenous Europeans, it is even more difficult for immigrants, particularly those from North Africa and the Middle East. They were never given an opportunity to assimilate into European culture. They were crowded in ethnically segregated neighborhoods. They were not given the opportunity to integrate into European society. In many cases they were not given citizenship. So they felt neither European nor Middle Eastern. It’s no wonder you see the extreme polarization throughout Europe between, on one hand, far-right, ultra-nationalistic, even neo-Nazi groups like UKIP in Britain or Pegida in Germany that blame all their troubles on immigration and multiculturalism and, on the other, identity-less youth who feel they’re under attack by their own populations. This is precisely why jihadism has found a foothold in Europe. Jihadism thrives in these kinds of identity vacuums. The message they preach to Europe’s young Muslims is that the reason they don’t feel British or French or German is because they aren’t. Nor are they Turkish or Algerian or Pakistani. They have no national identity whatsoever. The very concept of nationality is a sin; it’s anathema to Islam. They are Muslims and nothing more. They are part of a global community under siege and it is their duty to come to the aid of any Muslim, anywhere in the world, to defend Islam, particularly from Europe. This is a compelling message for a great many of Europe’s Muslim youth. It must be counteracted with a robust attempt to make these young people a part of Europe, to make them feel as though they have a home there. Otherwise we will be dealing with these kinds of tragic consequences in Europe for many years to come.
With the emergence of ISIS in the Middle East, the tactics being used have been horrifying. In The New York Times you wrote about Bill Maher’s response to President Obama’s assertion that ISIS doesn’t represent Islam and Maher’s statement that Islam has “too much in common with ISIS.” You wrote, “People of faith are far too eager to distance themselves from extremists in their community, often denying that religious violence has any religious motivation whatsoever.” Isn’t it crucial to make a distinction between extremists’ actions and the basic tenets of Islam or any other religion?
I understand the desire among any community of faith to distance themselves from extremists within their community, to label them as “not us.” When you had Anders Breivik, the Norwegian self-described “Christian warrior,” slaughter 77 people in Norway, the vast majority of them children, most Christians in this country said “That’s not Christianity; he’s not a Christian” in the same way that when we see a member of ISIS beheading women and children and selling women into sexual slavery, most Muslims in this country say “That’s not Islam; he’s not really a Muslim.” Well, here’s the thing. Anyone who says he’s a Muslim is a Muslim. Anyone who says he’s a Christian is a Christian. If someone says they’re acting in accordance with their belief system, we should probably take their word for it. I get why we don’t want to, because it’s grotesque and, frankly, hard to justify when compared with what these religions actually preach.
Is it not true that jihad is an essential part of the Muslim faith?
If that were true, it would mean the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world are currently out killing apostates. What we have now is a bunch of armchair experts either scouring the scriptures for bits of savagery or watching the news and using that as some kind of field research and passing themselves off as experts in the lived experience of billions of people around the world. It’s silly and offensive, and for the life of me I cannot understand why anyone takes it seriously.
It’s because perpetrators of violence take it seriously.
We live in a Christian-majority country. Seven out of 10 Americans self-identify as Christian. Christianity oozes from the very fabric of this country. Our laws are based in large part on Christian morality. When they’re confronted with extremism in the Christian community, it’s easy for Americans to see it as an outlier. If your neighbor is a Christian, if your grocer is a Christian, if your teacher is a Christian, if your best friend is a Christian, when you see someone do something appalling in the name of Christianity, you have an easy reference point for defining that as extremist. But one percent of America’s population is Muslim, and about 37 percent of Americans claim to have ever met a Muslim. And so there isn’t that reference point. If the only Muslim you’ve ever heard of is the Muslim you see on Sean Hannity——
Or Osama bin Laden.
Or Osama bin Laden, yes, then that’s your view of Islam. The media report on the plane that crashed, not the plane that took off. If the only thing you knew about planes was what you read in the media, you would assume that every plane crashes. For the vast majority of Americans, the only Muslims they know at all are the Muslims they see on TV, and the only Muslims they see on TV are fanatics and extremists, so it makes perfect sense that they would draw these facile connections between the Muslim they see on Fox News and the Muslim they may confront in their neighborhood. As any social scientist will tell you, perceptions are altered not by information or data but by relationships. If you simply know a single individual in an “out” group, it absolutely transforms your image of that group. My mother-in-law is a perfect example of this. She thought all Muslims were what she saw on Sean Hannity. Then she met me.
So your wife isn’t Muslim?
She is the WASPiest WASP you will ever meet in your life. She’s from Pittsburgh, salt-of-the-earth white evangelical Protestant.
Did your families have trouble with each of you marrying outside your faiths?
It was a little strange. I was the first Muslim her family had ever met. Jessica’s mom would freely admit that the only thing she knew about Muslims was what Sean Hannity told her. It’s a testament not just to that family but to the power of relationships in transforming people’s perceptions, because she went from worrying about how her grandchildren would grow up around what she called “all that violence” to absolutely falling in love with me and with Jessica and my relationship. We have the closest, most wonderful relationship you could imagine. And even better, she stopped watching Sean Hannity.
But it’s not only Hannity and other commentators from the right who fuel the fires about Muslims. Bill Maher is a liberal.
Which is troubling. Now it’s not only the conservative xenophobes who are making this argument. It’s self-styled liberals who are doing it in the name of liberalism. Bill Maher’s entire point is that liberals don’t criticize horrific human rights abuses carried out by Muslims, which is ridiculous. It’s an ignorant statement if I’ve ever heard one. The people at the forefront of the feminist movement in the Muslim world are liberals. The people at the forefront of the democratic movement in the Muslim world are liberals. The NGOs fighting against barbaric practices like stoning or female genital mutilation are liberals! What Bill Maher means is “Liberals don’t hate Muslims like I do,” and therefore they’re not really critical of it. But that is not a liberal value. It’s becoming harder and harder to tell the difference between a conservative and a liberal when it comes to this issue of xenophobia against Muslims.
On Maher’s show, the actor Ben Affleck became the defender of Muslims.
Although Affleck couldn’t properly put into words the emotions that were welling up in him when confronted with such obvious and undeniable bigotry, the emotions themselves are reflective of a liberal viewpoint. A true liberal cannot abide any kind of blanket generalization of anyone—of any race, creed or ethnicity, period. So what you saw in that passionate response was true liberalism.
Maher, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are prominent atheists. You’ve frequently criticized the new atheist movement, but the number of atheists in America is increasing. How do you account for the growing interest in atheism?
Yes. It’s almost seven percent, apparently, though the latest Pew poll puts it at three percent. It’s nominal. We have been talking about the death of God for a long time. At a certain point we have to just come to the realization that religion is not going anywhere. On the contrary, I would argue that religion is a greater force in the world today than it has been in centuries. I think atheists have this fantasy that eventually we’ll rid ourselves of religion, and when we do, we’ll have peace and prosperity and harmony. That was the entire premise of the 20th century, wasn’t it, that if we just simply remove religion as a major factor of identity and instead identify ourselves according to nationalism—secular nationalism—then we’ll have the peace and prosperity we’re always searching for? That led to two world wars and the death of tens of millions of people in the name of nationalism and secularism. I think this fantasy that the way to deal with religious violence is to get rid of religion has to go away.
Do you agree that fundamentalism is most often born of social ills, including poverty?
There’s no question that religious extremism is intimately tied to socio-political and socioeconomic factors. At the same time, it’s overly simplistic to say that if you deal with socioeconomic issues, it will necessarily excise religious fanaticism. It won’t, but they are intimately connected, because religion is not about the things you believe or the things you do; it’s about who you are. It’s your very identity. It encompasses your politics, your economic views, your ethnicity, your culture, your gender, your sexual orientation. It is one of a multiplicity of factors that define who you are as a human being, and so it cannot be extracted from those things.
Do you agree that U.S. policies—for example, in the war on terror, the use of drones and the collateral damage they inflict—encourage religious fanaticism?
We’ve long known that religion provides a powerful language to express grievances, dispossession and marginalization, because religion has the most currency for the masses. Was the war on terror expressed to the American public as a complex pseudo-military police investigation of an international criminal conspiracy? No. It was expressed as a battle between the forces of good and evil. That’s something every American can understand, because that language affects us in a deep and personal way, whether we’re religious or not. When you’re confronted with any experience of marginalization or dispossession, when you have grievances that go unaddressed or aspirations that cannot be met, or when you feel as though your safety, security and very identity are under attack, religion steps in in a beautiful way to provide the language you need to express that frustration and alienation. Of course drones dropping bombs haphazardly on civilian populations is going to result in greater religious extremism. Of course dispossession of land and the removal of opportunity are going to result in religious extremism.
Given that, how should the U.S. address beheadings, suicide bombings and similar terrorist tactics of religious fundamentalists?
First of all, let’s be clear about something. Fundamentalism is a reactionary phenomenon—to social progress, to liberalism, to scientific advancement. If you understand fundamentalism as a reactionary phenomenon, then you recognize that it will always exist as long as social advancement and social progress exist. There will always be those who, perhaps because they feel left behind by that advancement, revert to the most static, basic tenets of their beliefs. That’s a long way of saying there ain’t nothing we can do about fundamentalism. I don’t have a problem with fundamentalists. If you are a Christian who believes that women should be seen and not heard, fine. I think that’s despicable, but so what? If you are a Muslim who believes that all gay people are going to burn in hell, fine! I think that’s disgusting and I disagree, but who cares? I don’t have a problem with your beliefs. I have a problem when your beliefs turn into actions that violate basic human rights. That’s what we should be focusing on: not people’s beliefs but people’s actions.
But every day those beliefs do lead to actions—horrific actions.
But painting all believers with the same brush as the extremists just alienates all believers. It turns them away from us, when in reality they are the most valuable tool in our arsenal against fanaticism and extremism.
How are they a tool?
If you are a fanatic or an extremist who is killing people, enslaving people, violating their most fundamental human rights, you need to be confronted in the strongest terms possible—militarily, ideologically, legally, whatever it takes. However, at the same time, we have to understand that a lot of the succor these fanatics gain comes precisely from the impression that they are fighting for the rights of the aggrieved masses. ISIS draws people to it because it claims to be addressing their grievances. Unless we’re willing to address those very legitimate grievances, we may be able to counteract the militants themselves, but we’ll never counteract the ideology behind that militancy.
Is that also true of the Taliban?
It’s similar in the sense that grievances are important and addressing grievances is important. There is, however, a major difference between groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS and groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. The notion that these groups are the same, as Benjamin Netanyahu never tires of saying for his own propagandist reasons, or as George W. Bush liked to say—not for propagandist reasons but from a position of utter ignorance—is an incredibly dangerous misunderstanding. Al Qaeda and ISIS are jihadist organizations. Hamas and Hezbollah are Islamist organizations. An Islamist is a religious nationalist. His entire agenda stops at the borders of what he considers his nation-state. Hezbollah is utterly uninterested in any non-nationalistic ideology. Hamas wants Palestine and nothing else. When you want something concrete and measurable, there’s room for debate, there’s room for dialogue, there’s room for negotiation. Most important, there’s room for moderation. Indeed, what we have seen over and over again is that when Islamist groups have an opportunity to take part in the political process, one of two things happens: Either they moderate their ideologies, as the Justice and Development Party in Turkey did, and they experience enormous political success, or they don’t moderate their ideologies, as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt did, and they crash and burn spectacularly.
In contrast, jihadists are not just transnationalist; they are antinationalist. ISIS and Al Qaeda not only are uninterested in nation building, they want to get rid of all nation-states. They want to reconstitute the globe as a single world order under their control. That’s what the caliphate means for them—a new world order.
Many fundamentalists also want to erase Israel. What’s your response to Netanyahu’s controversial appearance before Congress in Washington in March?
At this point Netanyahu is the best thing to have ever happened to those seeking not just negotiations between the United States and Iran but rapprochement. His tired, over-the-top rhetoric, his clear desire to scuttle negotiations and his refusal to offer any alternative—not to mention that he has been wrong about Iran for 25 years—only reinforces the argument of those who claim that without a negotiated compromise to Iran’s nuclear program the only alternative is war. The one thing this man has managed to do is unite those forces struggling for peace in a way that even six months ago I would have said was inconceivable.
You support negotiating with Iran, but how should we respond to the nation’s fundamentalist factions?
We must remember that the greatest weapon in the fight against fanaticism is the vast majority of the religious community that shares a set of similar beliefs but rejects the extremist interpretation of those beliefs. When we color the entire community as extremists, we’re doing something that is self-defeating in our fight against extremism.
This goes back to President Obama repeatedly emphasizing that violence by Muslim extremists isn’t a reflection of Islam. Is it important that he does so?
Yes, and he is smart enough to know that the kind of simplistic and bigoted rhetoric we hear so often from the anti-Muslim crowd is a detriment to our national security. However, it is important to understand that, technically speaking, the president is wrong. The members of ISIS are Muslim for the simple fact that they declare themselves to be Muslim. We can say that their Islam is an extreme form of Islam, that it’s anti-Koranic, that it’s in opposition to the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the world, but there is no Muslim pope. There’s no Muslim Vatican that gets to decide who is and who is not a Muslim.
But how is it anti-Koranic? It’s not anti their Koran.
Right. It picks and chooses the verses it likes and ignores the ones it doesn’t, which, by the way, every Muslim does, as every adherent to every religion in the world does. It’s why Christians can be capitalists.
If you look at the beginning of Jesus’s life, you are talking about an extremely poor, uneducated, very likely illiterate, marginal Jewish peasant in the backwoods of Galilee, someone who can be referred to as a country bumpkin, who despite all that, through the power of his charisma, his creativity and his teachings, started a movement specifically on behalf of the poor and the weak and the marginalized—a movement that was seen as a threat to the prevailing powers of the time, and they ultimately arrested, tortured and executed him for sedition.
This is the subject of your book Zealot. In it, you say that in his life, Jesus was a political figure even more than a religious one. Why is that relevant?
This is a man who loathed wealth and power, who was adamant in his condemnation of political and religious authority, a self-styled gatekeeper of salvation, who preached almost exclusively to the poor and the marginalized, whose entire conception of what he called the Kingdom of God was predicated on the reversal of the social order, where the rich would be made poor and the poor would be made rich, where the hungry would be fed and the fed would go hungry, where those who rejoice would mourn and those who mourn would rejoice, where the first would be last and the last would be first.
Marxism talks about everybody being on the same field, but this man is talking about switching places! There is something so radical and revolutionary about that idea that has been completely lost in the marriage of Christianity with power. If you know that, how can you have someone like [televangelist] Joel Osteen making millions and millions of dollars preaching what he calls the “prosperity gospel”—this idea that what Jesus really wants for you is to drive a Bentley? Not only is that now considered a legitimate version of Christianity, it’s currently the fastest-growing Protestant movement in America. In this country we’ve seen a misappropriation of Jesus to promote extreme right-wing views about gays, guns, immigrants and poor people that not only violate everything Jesus taught but would be scandalous to Jesus were he to actually hear what these people constantly claim when they speak in his name.
Is this what inspired you to write about Jesus as a historical figure?
I have so much love and affection and esteem for Jesus the man and what he preached that when I see people bastardizing that teaching for their own grotesque political and economic advantage, it enrages me. In the same way that I can intellectually say Osama bin Laden is as much a Muslim as I am—a Muslim is whoever says he’s a Muslim—and yet I can’t help but have an emotional reaction when I see someone taking part in abhorrent actions in the name of Islam.
Do you accept that as an essential problem with religion—that people interpret it to suit their purposes? It’s a claim of the new atheists with whom you spar.
Absolutely. You can have two people of the same faith look at the exact same verse of scripture and come away with two opposite views. In this country 200 years ago, both slave owners and abolitionists not only used the same Bible to justify their viewpoints, they used the exact same verses to justify their points.
But if religion is endlessly interpretable to suit anyone’s purposes, doesn’t it lose its meaning?
That’s an overly simplistic way of thinking about it. I believe the Koran is divinely inspired. I believe the Bible is divinely inspired. I believe the Bhagavad Gita is divinely inspired. I also believe Abbey Road is divinely inspired.
Do you believe that miracles reported in the Bible are true?
I think the word miracle is problematic, because it has come to mean a break in the natural order of the universe, and that definition requires a miracle to have some kind of divine aspect to it. When I think of the ancient mind, the conception of miracle then was quite different. It wasn’t a break in the natural order of things, because the natural order of things was steeped in magic and miracles. It’s not unusual to think of Jesus as a miracle worker or as an exorcist or healer. We read the gospel and see Jesus healing people and say, “Whoa! That must be what set him apart from everybody else,” except there were hundreds of miracle workers just like Jesus walking around doing the exact same thing Jesus was doing. It was not that weird.
Do you believe Jesus actually made the blind see and the deaf hear?
Was a person [healed by Jesus] who was thought to be possessed actually an epileptic? Was a person who was thought to be dead actually in a coma? They had no conception of a coma or epilepsy. They saw the healing of those illnesses as miracles. That’s one way to put it, I suppose.
What about the parting of the Red Sea?
I know a lot of people love to say things like “Oh well, you see, it appears as though Moses parted the Red Sea because there were these tectonic shifts that gave way” and “There was a tide issue.” That’s an attempt to bring 21st century thinking into ancient times. Stop! Stop! It’s true that plenty of real events have been given mythological explanations. The flood is a great example of this. We have flood narratives that go way back. In fact, the earliest written text ever, Enuma Elish, which predates the Bible, mentions a flood and a man who builds a boat in order to survive it. I say just appreciate it for what it is, which is myth, and understand it for the truth it’s trying to reveal, not the facts it’s discussing.
What about the Resurrection?
What is a historical fact is that very soon after Jesus’s death, his followers were convinced he rose from the dead, and that belief is what founded this religion. It had nothing to do with anything Jesus himself said or did.
How do you explain the Resurrection?
Was it a mystical experience or a psychotic event or mass psychosis? Put it into whatever your particular modern scientific need to explain something is. I don’t know if I’m unique in this way, but I’m not thirsting for some sort of explanation. I revel in mythology because I understand what it is.
Although you were born a Muslim, for part of your life you converted and believed in Jesus as the savior. What prompted your conversion to Christianity?
I grew up in a family of lukewarm Muslims and exuberant atheists. My mother was the lukewarm Muslim, somebody who came from a culture in which Islam infused your very identity, very much in the way that Christianity infuses the identity of many Americans. My father, on the other hand, was militantly atheistic—in fact, deeply antireligious. He was the kind of person who would get along very well with Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris. His distrust of religion ended up saving us.
How did it save you?
My father, who never trusted anyone wearing a turban, had no interest in sitting around to see how the revolution in 1979 was going to work itself out. When Ayatollah Khomeini returned, he made these grand statements about how he had no interest in any kind of political role, that he just wanted to go back to his studies and his family. My father heard that and said, “Bullshit.” He thought it would be a good idea for us to leave Iran until things settled down. It turns out my father was right, which he reminded me of every day until he died.
Why did you become a Christian?
In Iran, Islam was part of my cultural experience, but when we came to the United States in the 1980s, it was an era of tremendous anti-Muslim sentiment. I spent a good part of the 1980s pretending to be Mexican—which, by the way, did not help matters at all. This says something about how deeply in trouble your particular ethnic community is when you assume Americans will treat you better if you say you’re a Mexican. We scrubbed our lives of any hint of Islam. My mother still prayed occasionally, but we never would have described ourselves as Muslims in any serious way.
Did you believe in God?
I believed in God, yes, but I didn’t have any framework for that belief, and I had no real opportunity to explore any kind of meaningful spirituality until I was in high school. I went with some friends to an evangelical youth camp in northern California, and it was there that I heard the gospel story for the first time—this incredible story about the God of heaven and earth coming down in the form of a child and dying for our sins; this promise that anyone who believed in this story would also never die but have eternal life. It was a transformative experience for me.
Why then did you ultimately reject Christianity?
It just so happened that it was an extremely conservative, fundamentalist, evangelical branch of Christianity I’d joined, one that was predicated on an absolute sense of biblical literacy and inerrancy, and that idea was force-fed to me from the very beginning of my spiritual journey as a Christian. Within that belief were the seeds for my downfall as a Christian, because I have never been the kind of person to just simply accept what someone tells me. I would go to church and hear these sermons about what the Bible says. Unlike most everyone else in my community, I would actually check, and I would discover that the Bible actually didn’t say what the pastor told me it said, or if it did say that, it said so in a completely different context than what my pastor was telling me, or if it even had that same context, that it could be interpreted in multiple ways that were in conflict with what my pastor was telling me. So even at 16, 17 years old, I would show up to Bible studies and raise my hand and say, “I’m not sure that’s really what this scripture says.” The response I would get from this community was that they would lay hands on me in order to pray the doubt away. It did not take long for me to realize that while I was being fed spiritually in a way that I deeply desired, there was something inherently off about the particular community I was receiving this spiritual edification from.
In general, are young people the most susceptible to indoctrination into extreme forms of religion?
Yes, they are naturally drawn to fundamentalism, because it provides ready-made, very simple black-and-white answers to questions they are just beginning to ask. It’s why when you look at a lot of these extremist groups around the world, they tend to be inundated with young people.
How much is belief in religion about the promise of being saved versus the threat of punishment if you don’t succumb?
The thing I am most disturbed about when it comes to religiosity is how much of its morality is predicated on some kind of divine reward or punishment. Whatever else one wants to say about atheists, they are not amoral by any means. On the contrary, they are far more moral than most religious people are because their sense of right and wrong is not based on some kind of divine reward and punishment that may or may not arise, whereas so many religious people act almost single-mindedly on this perceived, imagined idea of what will happen to you in the afterlife.
A common refrain about suicide bombers is that they’re motivated by Islam’s promise of a reward in heaven of 72 virgins. Is that accurate?
It is not. I think people would be surprised at how little any religion whatsoever plays in the act of suicide bombing. Nearly half of all suicide bombers in the past 30 to 40 years have been nationalists and have blown themselves up for what can only be described as secular reasons. The other half of that group, the religious ones, are very clearly divided among Christians, Muslims and other minority religious groups. Suicide bombers who failed in their missions and were arrested and interviewed almost to a person never mentioned the 72 virgins or the promise of rewards at the end of times. What you most often hear are justifications that marry religious, political and economic issues. They are just as likely to say they are doing this for the very real financial reward their handlers have promised their families. They will often say that they are using their bodies as a kind of smart bomb in a war they are convinced they are fighting, even though the other side may not be fully aware of that war’s existence.
How devout a Muslim are you now?
When you study the religions of the world for a living it becomes difficult to take any one religion all that seriously. You realize very quickly that religion is nothing more than a language of symbols and metaphors to express something that is universal. To put it another way, religions are just different paths to the same destination. Nevertheless, it’s important to choose a path if you want a deep, meaningful, spiritual life. As the Buddha once said, if you want to draw water you do not dig six one-foot wells. You dig one six-foot well. Islam is nothing more than my six-foot well. But I know what the Buddha knew, which is that no matter what well you draw from, the water is the same.
Do you pray the required five times a day?
I pray whenever I want to commune with God. I am not interested in the external shell of religion. I’m interested in breaking through that shell and experiencing God directly.
In which religion will you and your wife raise your children?
If religion is nothing more than a language to express faith, then we want them to be multilingual. We want them to be familiar with all the religious languages of the world so that when they’re at a place where they want to express their personal faith they can choose whichever language they feel more comfortable with, whether that’s my language, Islam, or my wife’s language, Christianity, or any other language. It makes no difference at all as long as they are on the path, as long as they are searching for meaning.
When you became disenchanted with Christianity, was your anger directed toward the interpreters of the Bible or the Bible itself?
When I went to university and decided to study the Bible for a living, it took approximately five minutes to learn that the Bible is full of the most obvious and blatant mistakes and contradictions. And because my entire spiritual edifice was built on a foundation of inerrancy and literalness, the whole thing collapsed. I was very bitter. I felt as though I’d been sold a forgery. But my anger was toward Christianity in general. It’s embarrassing to admit, but for a while I would feel this sense of satisfaction in disturbing other people’s religious beliefs, because I was an expert on the Bible and I loved taking people who were certain in their belief system and destroying that certainty. I would get a sick sense of pleasure out of it, and it was, in a sense, a kind of revenge for feeling I’d been duped. But a couple of things happened. Number one, I couldn’t help but realize that these fundamentalists whose certainty I was deriving so much pleasure in destroying seemed a lot happier than I was. And I thought to myself, What kind of an asshole am I that I’m going out of my way to disrupt somebody’s happiness out of a sense of vengeance for what I feel was done to me? Secondly, as I started to study comparative religions more and more, I became much more adept at understanding what religion actually is and how it’s differentiated from faith. We think that religion and faith are the same thing, but they’re not the same thing.
Explain the difference.
Faith is individualistic, it’s inexpressible, it’s ineffable. Religion is nothing more than the language we use to express faith. A lot of religious people have seamlessly married their religious identity with their cultural, ethnic and nationalist identities. They feel as though their particular experience of religion is what everybody’s experience is. The irony, of course, is that often critics of religion make the same mistake, but in reverse. They will look at scripture or theological arguments about religion and make grand assumptions about the lived experience of religious people. For me, being somewhat in the middle of the argument between the religiously devout and the atheistic secularist and recognizing that neither understands what the other is experiencing or even saying has become both a career and a gigantic headache.
Is it all a headache, or do you take pleasure in battling with the likes of Maher, Dawkins and Harris?
It’s starting to become no longer fun primarily because, well…I’m just going to be perfectly honest: because of Sam Harris. Harris has a very large, very devoted, very fanatical social media following, and they don’t like it when you’re mean to their master, and they let you know. He has this troll army. I joke that Harris must be the first atheist in history to have accidentally launched his own religion. It’s uncanny. He is the opposite of charismatic. But I can write anything I want about Richard Dawkins. Some people will disagree or agree. They will not hijack my entire Twitter feed for days at a time.
Can’t you simply ignore Harris and the army?
I have to say there is something immature about me in that I still have a sort of devilish desire to be difficult to people like him who seem so easily riled up. Fanaticism comes in a lot of different forms.
Does this divisiveness take away from the conversation about religion or add to it?
In a sense, the atheist fanatics provide a valuable negative pole that only makes my views that much more reasonable. Look, as a public intellectual, my dream has come true. It is to get people to talk about the things I’m interested in. For me, just the fact that we’re having this discussion, that conversations my friends and I have all the time, that my students and I have all the time, are now taking place in The New York Times andThe Washington Post, on TV, in coffee shops. I can’t be more thrilled about that. It’s not about me. I’ve become a catalyst for what I consider to be a much-needed conversation in this country about religion, politics and the role of both in society. But the criticism has gotten worse, more violent, more vitriolic, and it has begun to affect my family, even my wife sometimes, and that bothers me. I would be lying if I said it doesn’t affect me. At least my kids are left out of it for now. But Aristotle said something I can’t forget: If you want to avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing. That’s just never been an option for me.