CNN's Reza Aslan slams Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher on roots of fundamentalist terrorism

Reza Aslan, star of upcoming CNN series on religious rituals, takes on Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher on Islamic fundamentalist terrorism.

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But it’s important to understand that Bill Maher has a very simple purpose. He is on a subscription cable news channel and any subscription cable news show succeeds or fails not by the numbers of people who watch it because that number is irrelevant in subscription cable but by the noise and the attention that the show gets.

If people are not talking about The Sopranos or Game of Thrones or Bill Maher or John Oliver, then they (the shows) have failed.

NN: But there are a lot of people watching these shows. In fact a lot of people get their news from these particular talk shows. 

Aslan: Bill Maher’s, yeah.

NN: Do you think that gives them an insubstantial understanding of these very crucial issues that are being debated on Bill Maher’s show? Does that do more damage than good?

Aslan: I don’t know how to answer that question. Media is so dispersed nowadays; you really have the option of hearing every voice possible on every topic possible.

So, if you’re a liberal, you watch Bill Maher, if you’re a conservative, you watch Bill O’Reilly and you loathe the other. The real problem is that the media is increasingly becoming an echo chamber where you are just getting the opinion that you already have.     

NN: Religion has factored into your personal life as well. You converted to Christianity before you finally found sustenance in Sufism which is something that a lot of Western poets and writers — you think of Whitman and Emerson — have done as well. What is it about Sufism that moors your faith to it? 

Aslan: Well, because these monks are interested in religion, they think that religion is a signpost to God. They think that it’s a path to the destination and for someone who studies the religions of the world and understands that all religions are merely man-made expressions of transcendental experience, Sufism that uses the metaphors and symbols of Islam, but interprets them in a far more mystical and direct way, is much more conducive that the traditional mainstream or institutionalized religions.

"The civil rights movement in the United States was a religiously-based movement that was radical and transformative, revolutionary and called for activism."

NN: I’ve tried to be resolutely nuanced so far but I’m going to break form and ask you this question: Is there a God?

Aslan: (Laughs) It depends on what you mean by God. I mean you either believe that there is something beyond the material realm or you do not. There is no proof or disproof for it. It’s simply a choice.

If you do believe that there is something beyond the material realm, then the second question you need to ask yourself is are you interested in communing with that thing, knowing it and experiencing that thing.

If the answer to that question is yes, then the next question is how do you want to do so, do you need help in doing so, do you want to rely on symbols and rituals that have existed for centuries to help people do so, or do you want do so on your own terms with your own symbols.

Those are the questions the individual needs to ask him or herself.

NN: What do you say to the charge that religion is the opiate of the masses?

Aslan: Well, I think that it can be the opiate of the masses.

It can also transform an entire world, it can transform an entire society. The civil rights movement in the United States was a religiously-based movement that was radical and transformative, revolutionary and called for activism.

The same is true for the anti-war movement in the United States.

So, these kinds of statements normally come from people hanging out in coffee shops who think that they can say intelligent things to each other because they watched something on TV but they tend to be fairly divorced from the lived experience of religion.     

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