Who are we?
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 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."
A large new study uses an online game to inoculate people against fake news.
- Researchers from the University of Cambridge use an online game to inoculate people against fake news.
- The study sample included 15,000 players.
- The scientists hope to use such tactics to protect whole societies against disinformation.
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.
Many governments do not report, or misreport, the numbers of refugees who enter their country.
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