May 19, 2014

Auckland Writers Festival 2014: "The Politics of Prophets" with Reza Aslan

Guest post by Hamish, Readers Services, Central City Library.

Reza Aslan is a religion scholar who writes for a mainstream audience without speaking down to them. He comes from “a long line of lukewarm religious people and zealous atheists”. He moved from Iran to California as a 7 year-old and spent the Iran hostage crisis pretending to be Mexican.

Aslan spoke at the Auckland Writers Festival with Waikato Religious Studies professor, Douglas Pratt. Some of the points he raised were:

-   Worldwide, religion is more a matter of identity and community than belief.

-   The power of scripture is infinitely malleable. He pointed out that slave-owners and abolitionists use the same bible and the same verses to argue their cases. In the USA there is a shift in thinking on environmentalism amongst conservative evangelical Christians. Previously they have believed nature is here for our use so we should use it as much as possible, but now younger conservative Christians are pushing scriptures about humans being stewards of the environment. He says religions can adapt to the environmental crisis in the same way religion adapted to the knowledge of the earth not being flat.

-   Religion is a language made up of symbols and metaphors of faith. As an experiment he said the phrase “I am washed by the blood of the lamb” and asked audience members to put their hands up if they understood the phrase. Many of the people who put their hands up felt connected as a community with others who had their hands up, while many who didn't understand the phrase felt as if it was in a foreign language.

-   All of Jesus of Nazareth’s statements were inherently political.

-   There is a chasm between the Christ of faith and the Christ of history. He writes about this in depth in his recent book Zealot: the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth

-   Iran and Saudi Arabia are fostering religious violence between Shia and Sunni across the world. The fighting is about group identity, rather than about who succeeded the prophet in the 7th century.

-   He is not convinced of the effectiveness of interfaith councils. He believes organisations such as the Interfaith Youth Core which get people of different faiths to perform charitable actions together build more interfaith connectivity than formal dialog does. He mentioned that USA is the most religious country in the developed world and also the most religiously diverse, so it has an important role to play in building interfaith connectivity.

Reza opened the floor to a generous 45 minutes of questions, which were sometimes interesting and sometimes long rants disguised as questions. He tore apart one questioner’s idea that Islam was inherently vengeful and Christianity inherently forgiving. In answer to a question about religions causing violence, he pointed out that the most bestial acts of violence in human history have been carried out by secular regimes of the 20th Century. While religious violence is bad, he said that humans will kill each other for any reason.

As an atheist, I’ve found Reza Aslan’s books give a fascinating insight into the way the world works, and are much more illuminating than the books from the overrated “new atheism” movement.

Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 17:27
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