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."
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