What do you believe?
Reza Aslan is an internationally renowned writer, commentator, professor, producer, and scholar of religions. His books, including his #1 New York Times Bestseller, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, have been translated into dozens of languages around the world. He is also a recipient of the prestigious James Joyce Award. His newest book God: A Human History (2017) is out now.
Aslan’s first book, International Bestseller No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, has been translated into seventeen languages, and was named one of the 100 most important books of the last decade by Blackwell Publishers. He is also the author of Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in a Globalized Age (originally titled How to Win a Cosmic War), as well as editor of two volumes: Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East, and Muslims and Jews in America: Commonalties, Contentions, and Complexities.
In 2006, Aslan co-founded BoomGen Studios—the premiere entertainment brand for creative content from and about the Middle East—which has provided an array of targeted services ranging from strategic messaging to grassroots marketing to publicity and social media outreach, to producers, studios, and filmmakers—including Jon Stewart’s Rosewater, Netflix’s The Square, Disney’s Aladdin on Broadway and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, The Weinstein Company’s Miral, Discovery and TLC’s All American Muslim, and National Geographic’s Amreeka.
Aslan’s degrees include a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies from Santa Clara University (Major focus: New Testament; Minor: Greek), a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard University (Major focus: History of Religions), a PhD in the Sociology of Religions from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa, where he was named the Truman Capote Fellow in Fiction.
Aslan is a tenured Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside and serves on the board of trustees for the Chicago Theological Seminary and The Yale Humanist Community, which supports atheists, agnostics, and humanists at home and abroad.
Question: What is your worldview beyond religion?
Reza Aslan: I think that, you know, you could look at this issue and what role does religion play in the world in many ways. The way that I look at it is that religion is part of the world. That in fact from the very first moment in which human beings were able to formulate such thoughts, and to express those thoughts to each other, that religion came to being. Religion is certainly something that is made. There’s no question about that; but it is also indelibly a part of human civilization. There has never been a moment of the evolution of humanity that wasn’t in one way or another tinged with something that can be properly defined as religiosity. Perhaps not necessarily in the institutionalized form of religion that we so often think about when we talk about these issues; but nevertheless the phenomenon of religion; the phenomenon of immaterialism.
By which I mean the belief that there is – that there exists – something beyond the material realm, that beyond my impirical experience of reality, there exists another level of reality that I can experience, that I can commune with in some way or another. I think that is essentially the fundamental thrust of human beings, and even those who fall into the category of the new atheists who want to essentially replace religion with science. Nevertheless, when you hear them talk about science, they sound very much like, well they sound like ________.
You know, they speak of science, and they speak of this unifying principle of the universe in the same way that the great mystics of all religions talk about the divine unity, and the fact that all beings are interconnected, whether it be through atoms and molecules or whether it be through their experience of the divine in one way. So to me the language you use, whether it’s an expressly religious language or whether it’s a scientific language is nevertheless answering the same kinds of questions. They are separate modes of knowing in other words.
And to me they’re equally valid modes of knowing. Certainly religion is not interested in taking the role of science, nor should science be interested in taking over the role of religion. I think that’s a real mistake. So in many ways I think that the connection that we share, you know, on that level, on that material level, is something that goes beyond ethnicities, it goes beyond national boundaries, it goes any kind of kinship. And it is the thing that I think could unite people. But again, only if we have a better understanding of the difference between religion and faith. And as long as we focus on faith as a binding characteristic, we’d be in a better position than trying to make religion that binding characteristic.
Question: Do religion and faith inform your worldview?
Reza Aslan: I am a deeply spiritual person. I have a very rational, intellectual faith in the divine and what can be called God. And so the things that I do – whether it’s as an individual, or as a public intellectual – are all in one way or another defined by my faith in the presence of an other.
And so I think regardless of the language that I use to talk about that. And most often the language that I use is the language of Islam. I do feel much more comfortable with the symbols and metaphors of the Muslim faith and the way that Islam speaks about God than I am with, you know, other religions and the way they speak about God, though I’m perfectly comfortable in doing so in that same way.
There’s a wonderful saying by a . . . one of the great theologians of world religion. The great . . . Jesus Christ. Oh my god. Why am I forgetting his name? I hope that can be cut out. There is a great saying that says if you want to reach water you don’t dig six, one-foot wells. You dig one, six foot well. Islam is my six foot well. But that doesn’t mean that I am unfamiliar or even uncomfortable with drinking from the wells that surround me.
I’m perfectly comfortable, and I recognize the same sentiments, and idea, and beliefs, and values in all the great religious traditions. And I recognize that my well is nothing more than the avenue through which I can draw water; but the water is exactly the same as everybody else’s water. And that sort of a fundamental conception of religion and religiosity is what defines me as a scholar. It defines me as a writer, and it defines me as a person.
July 23, 2007
"The way that Reza Aslan looks at it is that religion is part of the world."
A new method promises to capture an elusive dark world particle.
- Scientists working on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) devised a method for trapping dark matter particles.
- Dark matter is estimated to take up 26.8% of all matter in the Universe.
- The researchers will be able to try their approach in 2021, when the LHC goes back online.
Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?
But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.
What's dead may never die, it seems
The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.
BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.
The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.
As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.
The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.
"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.
An ethical gray matter
Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.
The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.
Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.
Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?
"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."
One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.
The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.
"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.
It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.
Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?
The dilemma is unprecedented.
Setting new boundaries
Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."
She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.
Upvote/downvote each of the videos below!
As you vote, keep in mind that we are looking for a winner with the most engaging social venture pitch - an idea you would want to invest in.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.