Since Reza Aslan’s recent appearance/ultra-conservative, reactionary, right-wing hatchet job on Fox News discussing his new book on the historical Jesus, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth has gone viral in the last week, I thought now would be a good time to re-examine Aslan’s debate with Sam Harris on religion and reason in the modern world in 2007.
The debate was held at the Los Angeles Public Library on 25 January 2007 and was moderated by American-Jewish lawyer, author and public commentator, Jonathan Kirsch, (who in reality turned out to be a second debating opponent for Harris!).
The outcome of the encounter is probably best described as a “draw” since I don’t believe a neutral observer would be persuaded by one commentator’s view over the other. Obviously, I agree with Harris’ position and therefore would award the debate to him, but I don’t believe that he exposed the fatuity of Aslan’s views as he has done with other opponents.
Aslan is clearly an intelligent and well-read man; at times too intelligent for his own good. He makes grandiose ad hominems against Harris’ method by accusing him of taking his view of Islam from “Fox News”, when in fact Harris has based his views on peer-reviewed sociological studies and opinion polls that prove “extremist” religious views are far more widely held than Aslan is prepared to admit.
Although Aslan holds himself out as a Muslim, deep down, I suspect that he is really an atheist who fits Daniel Dennett’s idea of someone who “believes in belief in God”. Yet his thoughtful, allegorical approach to the scriptures is exactly the kind of religious moderation that Harris exposes as providing cover for the extremists and on a proper reading of the texts is intellectually and theologically bankrupt.
If Aslan’s subtle, scholarly, nuanced brand of religion was truly the mainstream; Harris would not have felt the need to write his books attacking religion and indeed the horrific acts which Harris decries such as 9/11 would not have happened.
Alas, not all religious people display such a profooowwwnd sophistication and experteese.