Islamic Apologist Reza Aslan Promotes Himself, Demonizes atheists, and Exaggerates his Credentials

Posted: November 26, 2014 in Reza Aslan
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Reza Aslan promotes himself, demonizes atheists, and exaggerates his credentials

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Once again Heather Hastie, at her website Heather’s Homilies, has saved me from the wearisome task of writing about Reza Aslan.  Her latest post takes apart Aslan’s recent article in Salon, “Reza Aslan: Sam Harris and ‘New Atheists’ aren’t new, aren’t even atheists.” Read Aslan’s post if you can stand it, and then Heather’s, as Heather went to a lot of trouble dismantling Aslans’s claim that new atheists, unlike old ones, are “anti-theists,” bent on ridding society of religion (tell that to Ingersoll and Mencken!), and his argument that people like Harris and Dawkins want to remove religion from society, using violence if necessary.

Aslan’s article differed from his usual screeds in that he tried to summarize the history of atheism in a semi-scholarly way, even though it’s tendentious and, argues Heather, misleading. I suspect Aslan’s new “scholarly” tone comes from his being caught out trying to claim that he’s a religious scholar with a Ph.D. in religious studies.  He has in fact repeatedly distorted his credentials, obscuring the fact that he’s an associate professor in creative writing at the University of California Riverside, and that his doctorate is in sociology (granted, it’s on the idea of jihad). He even appears to have lied, claiming that he’s affiliated with a department of religion at Riverside.

One critique of his credentials, “The lies and misrepresentations of Reza Aslan,” written by by Majid Rafizadeh, was published in August of last year in the right-wing magazine Front Page. A quote or two:

First of all, Reza Aslan has continuously presented himself as a professor of religion. This is done in an attempt to sell his few books, which lack academic and credible references. In one of his recent interviews, Aslan claims, “I am a scholar of religions with four degrees including one in the New Testament . . . I am an expert with a Ph.D. in the history of religions . . . I am a professor of religions, including the New Testament – that’s what I do for a living, actually . . . To be clear, I want to emphasize one more time, I am a historian, I am a Ph.D. in the history of religions.” Aslan also recently said on Twitter, “I have a BA, MA and PhD in the history of Western Religions so yes, again, I am an ACTUAL expert in Judaism.”

. . . although Reza Aslan calls himself a “historian,” he has never attainted a degree or had professional training in history, and has never even taken an elementary course in historiography for that matter. His dissertation focuses on the events and movements of the twentieth century and does not apply any historical methods or archival research. In addition, his dissertation is also an abnormally short one – approximately 130 pages double-spaced – which seems to have been written for publicity purposes for his book, Beyond Fundamentalism. Reza Aslan has been exploiting the situation in the United States after 9/11 to self-promote and make profits through these exaggerations and fabrications.

Well, you can dismiss that if you want because it’s a passionate piece in a right-leaning journal. (I don’t think it’s kosher, though, to ignore arguments simply because they’re published in such places.) But you can’t so easily dismiss a piece by Manuel Roig-Franzia in The Washington Post, also published in August of 2013 (this was right after Aslan’s book on Jesus, Zealot, was published). An excerpt from that:

Aslan, who has an undergraduate degree in religious studies and a master’s in theological studies, is not currently a professor of religion or history. He is an associate professor in the creative writing department of the University of California at Riverside. He has asserted a present-day toehold in the field of religion by saying he is “a cooperative faculty member” in Riverside’s Department of Religious Studies.

Yet this is not so, according to Vivian-Lee Nyitray, the just-retired chair of the department. Nyitray says she discussed the possibility last year with Aslan but that he has not been invited to become a cooperative faculty member, a status that would allow him to chair dissertations in her former department.

The Post piece lauds Aslan’s absorbing narrative (with neither Aslan nor Roig-Ranzia ever questioning whether Jesus really existed), but does question his scholarship:

Dale Martin, a Yale University religious studies professor who reviewed Aslan’s “Zealot” for the New York Times, sees Aslan’s characterization of his credentials in a different light. “I think he overplayed his hand,” Martin says of Aslan in an interview. “He’s just overselling.” Martin, who has praise for Aslan’s writing skills, was critical of his seeming reliance on the work of previous scholars to formulate one of the central theories of his book: that Jesus was a revolutionary executed because he posed a political threat to the Roman Empire.

“The record needs to be corrected,” Martin says. “Both about his credentials and his thesis.”

Of course what Aslan claims about Jesus or Islam should be judged independently of his credentials, and I’m not a big fan of assessing someone’s competence in academia from simply looking at their degrees. But Aslan’s repeated distortions of his credentials is worrisome, and should make us wonder about his motivations. Yet even leaving that aside, I am aware of the distortions about Islam in Aslan’s first book, and I’m not convinced of the historicity of Jesus in his second.

Aslan is an apologist for faith, and in his own way is just as dangerous as Karen Armstrong. If he had his way, we’d write off the misdeeds of jihadists as “distorted faith,” and simply accept religion in general, and Islam in particular, as a good thing.  That would be a mistake.

And who needs ipecac if you can listen to Krista Tippett interviewing Aslan at her National Public Radio (NPR, also know as “Numinous Public Relations”) show “On Being.” (Hit “play episode” at the upper right.) Here we have the most unctuous promoter of faith on public radio osculating the most unctuous promoter of faith in popular books. They really need to get a room, as Tippett just lobs hearts and softball questions at Aslan.  Truly, I wonder why she has a gig on NPR. (Don’t answer that; I know they’re soft on faith.)

Note that Aslan claims that the “Islamic Reformation” is already under way, something that seems to contradict his first book on Islam, which implicitly argued that it was reformed at the beginning (and hence some sects have degenerated). In Aslan’s view, the violence of Muslims is simply an inevitable byproduct of its reformation, and we should be “excited” about it all.

At 29:20, they both discuss New Atheism, with Tippett complaining that although atheism has moved on, the New Atheists still get all the attention. Tippett and Aslan then agree that New Atheists give atheism a bad name (something she’d never say about faith), and Aslan longs for the “good old atheists” like Schopenhauer, people who, Tippett says, were “constructive,” as opposed to the New Atheists, who “tear things down.” (What?) Aslan also argues that New Atheists say that believers are “stupid” and that religion must be “forcibly removed from society.” That’s just wrong. In this segment, more than I’ve ever heard before, we see how deeply Tippett believes in belief, and it’s not pretty.

When I hear this kind of stuff, and get disheartened about it, I remind myself that the whole religious enterprise is based on fiction, and, in the end, will largely disappear from our world. We just won’t be around when that happens.

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