Reza Aslan, Religion, and Moral Influence

Reza Aslan on CNN (screengrab via CNN)

Religion scholar Reza Aslan is quite a big deal these days. When he’s not getting into heated arguments with CNN hosts over Islam or writing bestselling books about the life of Jesus, he’s ripping into leading New Atheist figures on Twitter and writing opinion pieces encouraging greater cordiality between Muslims and atheists.

It is good to be a polarizing figure. It’s also good to be right with what you say, and, unfortunately, Aslan makes a number of claims about religion that are highly unlikely.

One such claim came up in a recent interview with New York Magazine. Asked to comment on the anti-religious views of Sam Harris and Bill Maher, Aslan said,

I think the principle [sic] fallacy of not just to the so-called New Atheists, but I think of a lot of critics of religion, is that they believe that people derive their values, their morals, from their religion. That, as every scholar of religion in the world will tell you, is false. People don’t derive their values from their religion—they bring their values to their religion.

So far as Aslan would have us believe, religion plays no role in shaping people’s moral views. Instead, people interpret religion to be consistent with whatever moral beliefs they already hold when encountering it. Like a mirror hanging on the wall, religion only ever reflects back what is already within a person.

Aslan presents a single reason in the interview to support his claim that religion is morally inert. He notes—using the example of eighteenth-century slave owners and abolitionists—that it’s possible for two people to read the same passages of scripture and rally them in support of diametrically opposed moral beliefs.

In the United States, just two centuries ago, both slave owners and abolitionists not only used the same Bible to justify their conflicting viewpoints, they used the exact same verses. That’s the power of scripture, it’s the power of religion: It’s infinitely malleable.

What explains their ability to do that? The reasoning goes that it must be differences in the values they use to interpret religious content. Ergo, religion does not cause people to believe one thing over another—it gets interpreted to complement whatever moral views people already hold.

This is clearly a fantastic idea for anyone who wishes to see religion immunized from moral criticism. After all, if religion does nothing to alter how people morally see the world, it can hardly be faulted for what they morally believe and do.

Allow me to disagree. In fact, allow me to call this perspective ridiculous.

First, if you look very carefully, you will notice that evidence of people’s interpretations of scripture being influenced by their existing moral beliefs is not what Aslan needs to show. What he needs to show is that people don’t obtain any of their moral beliefs or values from religion. Logically these are separate points and they should be treated as such.

Second, the best explanation of so much of what human beings religiously do does appear to routinely involve facts relating to religions. If we want to know why evangelist preachers go on TV and “talk in tongues,” why tens of thousands of Hindus make pilgrimages to religiously significant sites, why millions of Muslims avoid eating pork, or why Catholic priests live celibate adult lives, it’s hard to find convincing answers without making reference to well-understood facts about major world religions.

If Aslan is right, though, all of this influencing stops short of moral beliefs and values.

And that brings me to the irony of what Aslan is criticizing Harris and Maher for. He faults them for holding “almost comically” simplistic beliefs to the effect that religion shapes people’s moral values in a direct-from-revelation kind of way. The irony is that his opposing view is no less simplistic than the one he attributes to Harris and Maher—it just happens to sit on the other side of the pendulum’s swing of simple answers.

Let me suggest a more accurate and complex view of religion’s powers of causality. Religion causally affects people’s moral values via a process of reflective equilibrium. That is, people balance and adjust their moral beliefs in light of religious content in an effort to find a point of best fit between what they already morally believe and what religion tells them to morally believe.

Sometimes this process will involve letting go of existing values in order to accommodate religiously prescribed ones (such as that you must dress modestly if you are female). Other times it will involve failing to adopt moral values presented in revelation (such as that adulterers should be executed) in order to preserve existing moral values (like not killing people for bad reasons). This process is no doubt subject to many different considerations. However, causally speaking the process is also a two-way street where the content of revelation directly and indirectly affects how a person’s moral values end up.

And frankly, it would be incredible if religion did not have this power. Why? Because research in social psychology shows us that we’re affected in one way or another by a vast array of different things. For example, we know that the intensity of people’s negative moral judgments is influenced by smelling bad smells, that people’s memories are influenced by the strength of the words used in posing questions about them, that how hungry and tired a judge is feeling strongly influences their judicial decisions, and that pressure to social conformity can influence something as mundane as whether people report seeing one line as being the same length as another.

All of this goes to show just how much of a special case Aslan needs to make for religion in order to carve out space for its moral inertness.

  • RevElMundodeGuevara

    Aslan is little more than an opportunistic, apologetic, fraud. Like the Deepakity, I expect to see him starting his own Cafe’ Press store and selling magic potions – all imported from Saudi Arabia and hand-crafted by 10 year-old madrass victims.

    This man is laughable.

  • Irreverent Brian

    Some needed clarification. Ultimately, individuals are responsible for their own beliefs and actions and, unfortunately, often don’t take that responsibility seriously enough and simply follow like sheep. And yes, if people choose to be sheep and you choose to lead a flock of them you are at least partly responsible for the outcome of what happens as a result of your leadership. There is shared responsibility as well as individual responsibility. I wish more people would find personal responsibility as their guide and stop being sheep, but I can wish the sun would rise in the west instead of the east and see how far it gets me.

    • Haler44

      From the practical standpoint of what is best for society, I agree that people (particularly, adults) must be held accountable for their own actions.

      But I also believe in what I call “scientific predetermination,” meaning that I think that everything that happens is predetermined — not by any “omnipotent being” — but by the physical forces that govern the performance of matter and other physical phenomena, of which we human beings are perhaps the most highly evolved component.

      I regard humans (as well as all other forms of life) as being “programmed” by their genetic heritage as well as their physical environment. Most of us like to think that we have “free will,” but I think that the way that we choose to exercise that is pre-determined by our genetic and environmental “programming.”

      It’s a purely theoretical view of reality that is the result of my “programming” that has included a lot of real-world experience as well as education at several highly respected U.S. universities (but not any churches since I was about 10 years old and concluded that Sunday school was a hell of a way to spend a Sunday morning when I could be outdoors enjoying nature).

  • Bob

    Read a Horoscope, it is vague enough to believe it is true or to see it for the nonsense it is. This, I think explains slave holders and abolitionists reading the same scripture and etc., etc. If Aslan is right, and people bring their values to religion, and religion speaks more of the values of its followers, than its own values values speaks of them, then we should all be very scared of Islam, Christianity and just about every other supernatural religion.

  • Will Davidson

    I think that the problem is that religious fundamentalists and religious moderates both use the bible (or other religious texts) as an authoritative source to justify their moral beliefs. But any text with the history of revisions etc and that self-contradicts as much as the bible does can in no way be considered authoritative.
    Moderate religionists fin it difficult to criticize fundamentalists because to do so implicitly undermines scripture as authoritative.

  • Frans

    In all fairness, Aslan has a point in that although many people do derive (some of) their values from religion, all religions are invented by people as part of their creation myth (see E.O. Wilson) and therefore what one derives has been added (brought to..) to a religion by people in the first place.

    • UWIR

      How is that a point? Does it contradict anything that Harris or Maher said?

  • Brad

    Aslan slanders Sam Harris unapologetically. He retweeted a tweet calling Sam Harris a homicidal genocidal maniac, despite knowing based on previous conversations with Harris indicating Aslan knew it was wrong to characterize Harris this way.

    Aslan is a joke and intellectually dishonest.

    • Kasey

      Reza comment on Sam Harris is more of a “self-image”.

  • Kasey

    Raza is into taqiyya again as that’s the only way he can divert religion from values. and with Islam it has few and most have been abrogated by the medina verses of lethal brutality.

  • Jack_M_eoph

    For religious people god is the trump card they play when they do not understand why. What they believe of whatever religion they purport to belong to is what they’ve cherry picked out of its book to rationalize their own view of how they want the world to work.
    If this reminds you of a psychotic on acid then you’re sober & of sound mind.

  • Ted Schober

    If people bring their own moral values to religion, then in what way can internal moral values differ from those of the religion in which a child is “brought up”? People “brought up” Shiite, Catholic, Hindu, Wicca, LDS, etc. are instilled with a set of values by their parents and local society. They have the choice to accept them, reject them or modify them as they reach the age of reason. Religious social pressure and threats of damnation (and violence) make the latter choices difficult.
    It has been shown that certain moral values are more or less “hard coded” into human DNA, such as reciprocity, sympathy, and kindness. (Although not universally).
    It is when the moral code of religiously derived values differ those of minority or subservient people in a society that real havoc (wars, stonings, beheadings, bombings, inquisitions, intifada, burning at stake, holocausts, etc) takes place.
    What purpose do religions serve in morality when people would generally act morally toward one another, excepting when their religion tells them to do evil to others?
    Most religions effect the moral decisions of their members, usually to the detriment of non-believers of that religion.

  • Jason Gregory

    I’ve always been surprised how sophomoric Aslan’s arguments are and how much respect and air time he gets. He essentially debated and refuted himself. If religion is man made and no values are derived from it then why have or subscribe to a religion at all? Especially with the immoral/untrue baggage of said religions cited to justify the immoral or unlawful acts of some people. He’s made a case for Deism that I wish he and others would follow over the Abrahamic religions.

  • Marc Cenit

    Sound to me Mr. Philosopher that you need to learn to read carefully and
    be consistent. You make a distinction between moral views and values.
    But criticize Azlan for doing the same thing.
    Azlan did not say that
    religion may not affect ones moral views. He simply said that you bring
    your values to religion. Essentially people are not blank slate when
    they become religious or practice religion. They come with
    predisposition, preferences, biases, etc…. And these have influences
    on your interpretation of religion. Same for atheists or humanists and every one else.

    • UWIR

      “But criticize Azlan for doing the same thing. ”


      “Azlan did not say thatreligion may not affect ones moral views.”

      Yes, he did.

  • Dennis Trisker

    Reza Aslan is NOT a religion scholar. He supports the Iranian regime and the evil they do which is influenced by Shia interpretations of Islam. He defends Iran’s persecution of the Baha’is and gets vehemently angry at those who oppose his views. I would be wary of such a one!

  • UWIR

    “I think the principle [sic] fallacy of not just to the so-called New Atheists, but I think of a lot of critics of religion, is that they believe… ”

    So apparently in Aslan’s world, disagreeing with him is a “fallacy”.

  • Foster

    Aslan did not say that religion is not to blame. He said it is not the only factor. The fact that fundamentalists and progressive Muslims interpret the same text differently (both nitpick) shows what he means when he says that people bring their own morality to the scripture. Saying they look into a mirror that produces identical morals is exaggeration and a misunderstanding of what he meant. It is a far more subtle observation than what you have oversimplified it to. Moreover, this does not in anyway nullify any criticism of the Quran or Hadith. Reza Aslan encourages criticism of interpretations of Islam and Islamic texts. The fact is though, that there are different interpretations of the Quran and you can still criticize the homophobic, sexist, xenophobic version that you think it is. The only criticism his statements actually deflect is for the Muslim who is not homophobic/sexist/anti-Semitic. And that Muslim is okay in my book. I find it incredibly funny how Reza Aslan has condemned everything that critics of Islam criticize Islam for and yet he is portrayed as an apologist by some atheists. How exactly does that work? Just by correcting generalizations? And getting offended by Bill Maher’s reference to Muslims ‘bringing that desert stuff’? As critics of Islam, when we are accused of being racist, we simply respond that ‘Islam is not a race’. But when some reduce Muslims to Arabs, the latter statement turns into a joke. We all could do well to remember that.

  • IslamicScholar

    I think it is easy to demonstrate that individuals do receive at least some of their morals from religion. For instance, a Latter-day Saint does not drink alcohol because his religion commands it. Maintaining this standard is a perceived moral value that may not exist without being enforced by the individuals religious institution.

  • bgarens

    Reza is an Islamic (and perhaps all religions) apologist. Once on Facebook I pointed up that a point he was making was factually wrong, he deleted my comment. The man has no credibility and should not be given the attention he gets.

  • Fussy Beaver

    Aslan doesn’t seem to realize that the logical conclusion of his reasoning is far worse and less politically correct than any criticism Harris has ever made: if all the tremendous moral faults of Islam (misoginy, homophobia, intolerance of differing views, ecc…) can’t be blamed on the religion, then it means that almost all Muslims on Earth are horrible and immoral people themselves. Such a view makes Harris sound like a peace-and-love hippy in comparison!