Who are we?

Question: What forces have shaped religion most?

 

Reza Aslan: The most powerful force that defines religion is society. It’s very important to understand that religion is an ever-malleable thing. There is no such thing as Christianity. It doesn’t exist. There are Christianities and the way that one defines the gospel. The way that one understands Jesus as either the Son of God, or the Messiah, or as, you know, a great teacher to emulate. The way that one places sort of the Christology, or even the creedal formula of Catholicism, has everything to do with where one lives. If you are a Catholic living in suburban Denver with your two and a half kids, and your car, and your house, your Jesus is probably a white, blond haired, blue-eyed, peacenik who turns the other cheek. If you’re a Catholic living in the hills of Guatemala, your Jesus, besides being Mexican, is a fighter. A liberator. One who stands up to the oppressor and indeed who takes up arms against oppression. It’s the same Jesus.

It’s the same Catholicism, but the understanding is radically different depending upon where you live. The same of course is true of Islam. If you’re a Muslim living in Detroit, then your idea of Islam is a religion of peace and submission and pluralism. If you’re a Muslim living in a garbage heap on Gaza, then you’re version of Islam is as a religion of social justice. So everywhere that you go you will see different expressions. Different manifestations of what can be called the same religion, the same faith. And I think that we need to understand that; because in a way, too often, we look at the differences between religious communities as being defined as differences in religion. And frankly its more often differences of community than it is of religion.

Religion is an ever-evolving process. If a religion stops evolving it dies. And there are thousands and thousands of examples of dead religions in the world that we can talk about that simply went away because they were not able to adapt to the constant changes of human civilization and human societies. The reason we talk about the great religions – Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism – these five massive world religions that have been around for thousands of years and that have billions of worldwide followers . . . what makes them great is because they are constantly adapting. They are constantly evolving. That’s why they continue to exist. The moment you stop adapting, the moment you stop evolving to whatever social, political, economic or cultural landscape that the religion finds itself in, that’s the moment in which it goes away.

 

Question: What forces have shaped Islam?

 

Reza Aslan: Well talking about Islam, particularly as it’s experienced in the Middle East, I think you can’t talk about the rise of the Islam state, or the rise of Jihadism, or any of the various political, or economical, or religious conflicts that are taking place in that region without first starting with colonialism – the colonialistic experience – which, you know, came to an end only about half a century ago . . . we tend to forget that . . . was a profound experience for the world Muslims. You’re talking about an era in which 90% of the world’s Muslim population lived under direct colonial control. It had an enormous influence on the development of the modern Muslim consciousness, and the way that it sort of allowed Muslims to define themselves as opposed to an other. In this case, a rabidly, westernizing, an aggressively, Christianizing and total dominating force.

A force that dominated the social, economic, political and religious landscape of the Middle East had, I think, an enormous influence on the way the Muslims began to see themselves, vis-a-vis, the rest of the world. And with the end of the colonialistic experience, with the decolonization period that began around the Second World War and accelerated immediately after that and this geopolitical fragmentation that was left behind in which Muslim populations who had hitherto thought of themselves as members of a worldwide community of faith were now suddenly forced to think of themselves as citizens of nation states. Nation states, that in most cases, were created through arbitrary borders and totally fabricated nationalities with the sole purpose of making these parcels of land more easily divisible, and passed along amongst the colonialist whether they be French, or Dutch, or English, or Portuguese, or Spanish.

The idea that now you had to sort of define yourself in this incredibly unfamiliar way I think really rattled a lot of Muslim civilizations. Some of them were able to do so without much trouble; but many Muslims states, particularly in the Arab world, I think really . . . or to this day are having a very difficult time trying to define what exactly it even means to be a Muslim state. Does it mean that you have to have Muslim governance? Does it mean that you have to be ruled by Islamic law? Does it just simply mean that you are a majority Muslim state?

What is it . . . what is it . . . how does one define oneself? And I think that particularly in the language we use, when we talk about the countries in the region as Muslim states, it doesn’t help; because frankly I can’t image what Morocco has in common with Saudi Arabia. Or what Saudi Arabia has in common with Turkey. Or what Turkey has in common with Indonesia. Absolutely nothing. Not language, not culture, not ethnicity, not customs, not religion. And yet we refer to all of them as Islamic states. So I think it’s not just Muslims themselves that are having a hard time defining post-colonial, Middle East and what that means. I think the rest of the world is having just as difficult a time figuring it out.

 

July 23, 2007

"It is very important to understand that religion is an ever-malleable thing."

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This article was originally published by our sister site, Freethink.

For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.

—JENNIFER DOUDNA

"This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.

—FYODOR URNOV

If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."

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