Reza Aslan, Bruce Lincoln, violence and transcendence

Frank Zappa was on Larry King once, and he suggested to a young caller looking for advice on how to write lyrics that he should just watch CNN for a couple of hours. According to this comment from a Zappa.com regular, Zappa would indeed dedicate a certain amount of time to watching news programming. While I do not usually care for Zappa’s lyrics (but I think “Food Gathering in Post-Industrial America” works well), nevertheless I just watched a bit of CNN. I did not come up with any lyrics, but I did come up with some thoughts about religion.

What I watched was this CNN talk with Reza Aslan from September 29, 2014. What I found most suspicious from Aslan was his claim that religion can neither promote violence nor peace, but politics can. The premise which Aslan is depending on is that religion is sufficiently separate from politics.

Why would I be suspicious of this claim? Well, the context of the discussion is the actions of the newly-formed Islamic State under this Ibrahim (or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, or some other pseudonym). Does Ibrahim separate politics from religion? I would wager not. For him, his “religion” (or Arabic دين din, meaning more generally, “way of life”) includes his politics.

If it is the politics of Ibrahim (and other members of the Islamic State) which promote their violence (which everyone seems to agree), and their politics are encapsulated by their “religion” (as they themselves claim), then Aslan cannot rightly say that their religion does not promote this violence.

That’s the doubt anyway. But, maybe Aslan can give some account which separates their religion (properly conceived) from their politics. That is, even though they identify their religion as political, there is a (putatively) adequate, more proper, definition of religion which excludes the political aspects.

Aslan goes some way to such a definition in a 2010 article for Faithstreet, “Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett: Evangelical atheists?”. There he says, “Religion, however it is defined, is occupied with transcendence–by which I mean that which lies beyond the manifest world and towards which consciousness is oriented”.

I would also be suspicious of this claim, however. I can think of two ways of understanding to what “that which lies beyond the manifest world” refers: an epistemological way, and an ontological way.

On the epistemological meaning, “that which lies beyond the manifest world” refers to matters which are not made manifest by our normal mechanisms for obtaining knowledge.  The problem with this:  We cannot know that religion is occupied with such things, if we don’t know anything about such things. And we cannot know anything about such things unless we have some extra-normal mechanism for obtaining knowledge about them.  If we do have knowledge of such things, then there needs to be some extra-normal mechanism for obtaining such knowledge.  But there’s no reason to think we have any such extra-normal mechanism unless there is some adequate, special account for such a mechanism that goes above and beyond the standard accounts of knowledge.  Aslan does not supply nor reference any such account. We don’t appear to have one. Aslan cannot rightly just assume that such a mechanism exists; he would need sufficient evidence for it if he’d use this epistemological meaning.

The second option is that it is an ontological distinction:  “manifest world” refers to a substance of one sort, and “that which lies beyond the manifest world” refers to a different sort of substance.  On this meaning then Aslan would be saying that religion is occupied with a substance or substances “beyond” the “manifest” substance or substances. The problem here is this implies that physicalists could not have a religion, when they do in fact often have a religion. Physicalists hold, of course, that there is just one sort of substance, making up the physical world. A physicalist’s religion therefore would not be occupied with a substance beyond the physical world, because the terms of her religion would never refer to such a substance, because she would always deny that such exists.

While J.P. Moreland in a 2012 post hermeneuticallytheologically argues that a Christian cannot rightly be a physicalist, he of course recognizes the existence of, and tries to refute, those who do identify as both.  Two examples he documents are Nancey Murphy and Joel B. Green.  If Aslan is left to argue that Murphy’s or Green’s Christian identities are not examples of identities that are really religious, but merely appear so, then I think Aslan is left to argue a No True Scotsman fallacy.

What’s the alternative?  I would cite Bruce Lincoln’s Holy Terrors (2nd edition; 2006, University of Chicago Press) as giving a plausible alternative framework.  First let’s look at one of Lincoln’s conclusions. Speaking about the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he says, “It was their religion that persuaded Mohamed Atta and 18 others that the carnage they perpetuated was not just an ethical act, but a sacred duty” (p. 16).  Is Lincoln making some sort of bigoted remark that the religion of so many Muslims throughout the world is violent? No.  He’s saying that the hijackers had their own religious identity (whether you want to call it a version of Islam or not), and this identity was very much functional in their actions.

This conclusion is barred on Aslan’s view.  Lincoln however can get there, because he accepts more “maximalist” religious identities as a part of religion as a topic, just as much as the more “minimalist” identities which Aslan’s sort of view accepts.  Minimalist religious identities, Lincoln says, see their own religion “as limited to an important set of (chiefly metaphysical) concerns, protects its privileges against state intrusion, but restricts its activity and influence to this specialized sphere” (p. 5).  Maximalist identities instead see their own religion as something which “ought to permeate all aspects of social, indeed of human existence” (ibid.).  And there can be identities which fill the spectrum between these two extremes.  Lincoln argues that a minimalist position is very much a product of European Enlightenment thinking rather than being a universal trait of religions.  A proper account of religion that is anywhere near thorough, then, must be well ready to accept more maximalist religious identities as part of its subject matter. If this is the case though, then political actions can in many cases be religious actions, just as long as the actor has a religious identity maximal enough to ground some of his politics in religious concerns.  I don’t see any good reason to doubt this.

I cannot go so far as to say that Lincoln is certainly right, although he may well be.  But I can say that Aslan’s theory has a lot to answer before I could take it as seriously as Lincoln’s.

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