Sunday, October 26, 2014

How New Atheists Can Make Even Someone Like Reza Aslan Look Bright By Comparison

You heard me, pardner: there's a feud a goin' on between Reza Aslan and the New Atheists, and I must take Aslan's side.

A lot of people, probably most of them Christians, heard about that awful woman who reads the diatribes posing as news on Fox News ask Aslan how he as a non-Christian could dare to write a book about Jesus, and naturally took Aslan's side. Maybe some of them first actually read something by Aslan after that interview and said, Hm, this guy isn't much of a writer, but still, between him and that lady on Fox, I'm totally on his side.

In a not dissimilar way, I and some other atheists have seen the Harris-vs-Aslan shitstorm gathering force, and been terribly unimpressed by Aslan, but still side with him immediately and unconditionally on topics of religion if it's a choice between him and Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins.

Aslan has become famous with a supposedly nonfictional book about Jesus which is just as fictional as most supposedly nonfictional books about Jesus are. Like the authors of most of these books, Aslan has created a Jesus in his own image, or in the image of what he flatters himself to be. There's so little we actually know about Jesus that whoever writes an entire book about him, or even a book which long sections about him, has to make stuff up. Some of us, like me and Kazantzakis and Gore Vidal, have been honest enough with ourselves and the world to call these books what they are: novels. (And Kazantzakis' novel about Jesus, for one, is effin brilliant. Basically, he told the story of the Gospel of Judas decades before the Gospel of Judas was discovered.)

Aslan is no Kazantzakis and no Ehrman, but he's making a decent effort. Sam Harris is making a spectacle of himself. Aslan said that there is no relationship between religious texts and the lives of religious believers, and that was very silly, of course, but instead of acknowledging that of course he couldn't literally have meant that, the New Atheists have seized upon it and gone on an on and on about how ridiculous Aslan's statement is.

As opposed to making the slightest effort to understand what Aslan meant, which is that there are a wide variety of interpretations of the Koran, and a wide variety of beliefs and political positions among Muslims. Exactly the same way that they obsess on the few verses from the Koran or the Bible which cast Islam or Judaism or Christianity in the worst possible light, and ignore the rest of those books. (Let me take the opportunity to once again call BULLSHIT on the vast majority of New Atheists who claim to've read the Koran and Bible cover-to-cover.) Or the way that some of them reacted to Bart Ehrman's book Did Jesus Exist? by going on and on about some drawing of a bird in the Vatican and how that drawing supposedly exposed Ehrman as a fraud. That was bizarre, the way they went on about that drawing. I wish I could say it was atypical.

Aslan is attempting to point out the diversity in the actual lives of the actual more than one billion Muslims in the world, over the din of the New Atheists saying Oh there's some horrible stuff here in the Koran, Oh we've got to watch out for these Muslims, Oh, be very, very afraid -- a din which of course fits in very nicely with the islamophobic rhetoric of people like the aforementioned Fox News correspondent who asked Aslan how he got the nerve to write about Jesus without even being a Christian.

Of course Aslan pointed it out in a very unfortunate and clumsy way when he said that there is NO connection between the lives of believers and the texts of the holy books of those believers. Still, his point was against prejudice -- against assigning characteristic to Muslims because they are Muslims instead of looking closer and regarding them as the individual human beings they are. And that is a point which urgently needs to be made in our society which still suffers from so much prejudice against and fear of Muslims. Between Aslan's attempt to counter this prejudice and fear, and the New Atheists stirring it up, there's no question that any and every intelligent atheist must side with Aslan. In spite of the frequent facepalms over the clumsy way Aslan expresses himself, the message he expresses is far the wiser one. Stemming the tide of violence is far more urgent than whether or not someone believes in God. Identifying with and supporting Muslims fighting against extremism and Christians countering prejudice and fear is far more important than critiquing ancient texts.

And once again, New Atheists, if you're going to critique those texts, read the whole texts first. That's a bare minimum to have a chance not to look like fanatical fools. Don't keep telling me you already have -- like I keep telling you: I don't believe you. Show me you have, by saying something intelligent about the entire Koran or the entire Bible.

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