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.