Aslan vs Harris
You sometimes hear people complain that liberal scholarly people do not call in to the ACA. I think this debate is a good approximation of what would happen if one did. Reza Aslan recently came out with the book Zealot, a modern historical analysis of a very political Jesus. In this debate, he argues for the idea that all ancient scriptures are “encounters with the divine” and should be understood in their historical context with a different meaning of “sacred” than we have today. He does a poor job of it. His protests of Sam Harris get repetitive. To me, he does that because that is all he has. He can complain that Harris is presenting a narrow version of religion, but if he could have broadened it, why didn’t he?
When Aslan does try to explain himself it occasionally bordered on the absurd. He said several times that Harris was completely ignoring cultural context. Then when they were arguing about the Israel situation he said, “before 1948 there were thousands of Jews living alongside their neighbors without any problem at all.” This is worse than a Junior High School level of understanding of Zionism. Unfortunately the moderator cut this off before Sam could say much.
At about 40 minutes in Harris finally gets his say. He says it is not easy to convince a modern person to perform a suicidal act of terrorism. He says Aslan’s conception of religion is “infinitely elastic” allowing any definition that suits the moment. If we can’t ever “call a spade a spade” and call religion on its transgressions then this just gives shelter to literalism. The issue, says Harris, is dogmatism. Religion should not be given immunity to the normal tests of reasonableness.
He says, ”Only in religion do we put a veneer of sanctity over dogmatism… once something is called ‘faith’ it becomes an apparently necessary part of the human experience.”
At an hour and 17, Sam Harris’ strength really shows. He has practiced meditation and is willing grant that experiences that are called spiritual are real to the person experiencing them. We should discuss these, but not use them as proof for a particular god. As he says, the alternative to dogmatism is a truly open ended unconstrained discourse about the human experience. This should have been a chance for Aslan to give some ground, show a little agreement, but he goes off on a rant saying “science proved spiritual experiences are chemical, so what”. This tells me he is more committed to the dogma than to better understanding the” human language of the divine”, as he puts it.
Anyway, there’s more, give a listen, tell me if I missed anything.