Reza Aslan’s Confusing Comments on Religion and Belief

June 9, 2010

Reza Aslan is a well-respected scholar of religion and related cultural issues. Indeed, his educational background is sparkling: he has a B.A. in Religion from Santa Clara University, a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, and a Ph.d in Sociology of Religions from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has also published two best-selling books, No God but God , and Beyond Fundamentalism . Yet Aslan's recent comments on religion and belief in an interview with the Social Science Research Council show that even well-respected scholars are imperfect.

In a lengthy exchange, Aslan was asked how he looks at religion from his sociological perspective. His response:

“We have to understand that all religions, in all parts of the world, are always more a matter of identity than they are a matter of belief. ... When one says 'I am a Muslim,' 'I am a Jew,' or 'I am a Christian' that person is making an identity statement. Religion is about who you are in an indeterminate world. It’s about your worldview. It encompasses every aspect of your identity, from where you live to how you vote.”

It is worth noting that Aslan isn't making an either-or case here. Instead, he argues that religion is more "a matter of identity" than "a matter of belief." This seems to be Aslan's counter to the approach of thinkers like Sam Harris, who focuses on what people believe (the two debated in 2007 ). But Aslan's comment is somewhat odd considering that he later states religion is “about your worldview." One's worldview is the larger cognitive framework that includes all of one's beliefs, and shapes how one forms beliefs, and how one approaches the world. What Aslan seems to be ignoring or forgetting is that religion can only work as a label for one's worldview if he or she actually holds most of the core beliefs of that religion. 

For example, I know a number of Roman Catholics who seem to find their religion important mainly because of the community and belonging they gain from their religious affiliation. Yet to consider themselves Roman Catholic in the first place, these people must hold at least some of the beliefs underwriting Roman Catholicism. They can only find comfort in being Roman Catholic if they largely hold the beliefs of fellow Roman Catholics (though, to be sure, a person need not be fundamentally dedicated to the claims of his or her religion, nor believe in all the claims of his or her religion). This is why you do not find many atheists acting out their lives as Roman Catholics. Just as one would not register as a Democrat if he or she believed in absolute minimal government and thought abortion was murder, one would not consider him or herself a Roman Catholic if he or she rejected the existence of the Biblical God and Jesus’ divinity.

Even if, in practice, a religion and its followers focus more on identity than beliefs, there must be shared beliefs about the validity and importance of the religious identity. Identity does not exist in a vacuum. One's identity is largely dependent on one's beliefs. And because beliefs are so foundationally powerful, Harris and other thinkers are correct to focus their energies on them.