Religiosity Isn’t Done Changing Our World

Reza Aslan

Reza Aslan, one of the foremost scholars of religion in America, talks to Jacobin about Jesus the revolutionary, Palestine, and the continued growth of religion in the world.

(Bret Hartman / Washington Post / Getty Images)

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In Zealot, you offer up a reading of Jesus as a first-century revolutionary. What do we gain from such an interpretation?

Reza Aslan

Well, I suppose the most important thing that we gain is accuracy. Over the last two thousand years, through a very deliberate attempt early on by the second generation of Christians, and then certainly by the Roman Empire as it began to adopt Christianity as the imperial religion, there was a necessary desire to depoliticize Jesus — to strip him of the very clear and obvious political connotations of his spiritual message.

What is interesting two thousand years later is that, as we try very hard to separate religion and politics, we have a very difficult time going back and looking at Jesus’s words and actions and understanding them as a product of his time and place.

This, of course, has a lot to do with the fact that modern Christianity tends to think of Jesus as God incarnate; and if Jesus is God incarnate, then historical context plays no role in how to understand his message. His actions are eternal. His words are eternal. It doesn’t matter who he was literally speaking to when he said the things that he said because, as God, there is no context to his words or actions. But whatever else Jesus was, he was also a man — he lived at a very particular time and place, he was speaking to a very specific audience, and he was addressing very specific needs and concerns. You cannot separate those things from his words if your goal is to truly understand who he was and what he was trying to say.

Secondarily, I would say that, nowadays, when Christianity has been so clearly co-opted by the right wing in order to promote what are profoundly anti-Jesus ideas and programs — you know, taking free health care from individuals, promoting unchecked capitalism and the free market, denying the dignity of LGBTQ people, closing borders to refugees fleeing violence and war — it is important that we historians unearth the actual message of Jesus, which was so radical at the time that, were he to preach any of the things that he preached in his day and time today, not only would he be utterly rejected by most Christians but he might be arrested and killed just like he was two thousand years ago.


Like Jesus’s contemporaries, we’re living in a pretty eschatological period right now — especially for Christians who think the war between Israel and Palestine represents something from the Book of Ezekiel. Does modern millenarianism differ from Christian and Jewish rhetoric about the end-times historically?

Reza Aslan

Here’s a little secret for you: we are always in the end-times. Christians have been talking about the end of the world pretty much every century for the last two thousand years. The nature of what that end looks like and the reasons for it are always going to change, but the truth of the matter is that when you believe that time has a beginning, then, by definition, time must also have an end. And we are inexorably moving toward that end. So this kind of eschatological fervor that we are seeing, especially in light of the war in the Middle East, is nothing new; it’s baked into the nature of Western religion.


In Beyond Fundamentalism, you argue that we must strip political conflicts of their increasingly religious connotations in order to understand the material underpinnings of those conflicts. Can you give us some examples of conflicts that are mistakenly considered religious in nature?

Reza Aslan

We’re embroiled in one right now: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is fundamentally a conflict over land and a conflict about human dignity. Yet it has attached itself to the religious identity of not just local Christians, Jews, and Muslims but also evangelical Christians — for whom this conflict is not about politics but about whether the word of God is true or not. For them, it’s about the fulfillment of a prophecy that would then usher in the end of the world, which many Christians desire.

The conflict seemingly has no solution, because the real solutions have been etched away by this insistence on viewing the conflict through not just a religious lens but the lens of cosmic warfare, the belief that what’s really taking place in Israel and Palestine is a war in the heavens between the cosmic forces of good and the cosmic forces of evil.


Do you think the conflict in Northern Ireland represents a conflict that, like Israel-Palestine, became a secular conflict with a religious veneer? If so, has that veneer been stripped away?

Reza Aslan

Let’s begin at the beginning, because I think the nature of the question represents a well-meaning but fundamentally flawed understanding of what religion is and is not, and this is something that you see a lot on the Left: a sense that religion is first and foremost about spiritual matters, that it is individualistic (or at least should be individualistic), that it is in many ways divorced from the material world, from politics and economics.

Again, that is a fundamentally flawed understanding of what religion actually is: religion isn’t just about beliefs and practices; religion is fundamentally a matter of identity. When someone says, “I am a Jew,” “I am a Christian,” “I am a Muslim,” “I am a Buddhist,” “I am an atheist,” they’re not necessarily making a faith statement.

More often than not, they’re making an identity statement. And as an identity statement, that statement, “I am Jewish,” “I am Muslim,” “I am Christian,” encompasses the totality of what makes up our identity, including our politics and our socioeconomic position, but also our ethnicity, our nationality, our race, our gender, our sexual orientation — all of the markers that make us who we are. Religion fundamentally affects all of those other things that you are, but it doesn’t supersede them, and it’s not separate from them.

If you understand that about religion, you understand why two-thirds of American Catholics believe that abortion is not just not a sin but a perfectly reasonable option for faithful Catholic women to have, or why 11 percent of American atheists believe in a higher power.

So when it comes to a conflict like the one in Northern Ireland, were we wrong to think of the Catholic-Protestant conflict in religious terms? Well, to say you are Catholic in Northern Ireland isn’t a faith statement. It’s a statement of your nationality, it’s a statement of your politics, and it’s a statement of who you are and how you understand your place in the universe.


How does this understanding of religion as identity help us understand the Israel-Palestine conflict differently?

Reza Aslan

One thing that the current conflict between Israel and Hamas has done is radicalize a lot of what we would have previously called secular Jewish people. I have a lot of Jewish friends who have no faith experience of Judaism whatsoever. They have no particular connection or fealty to Israel as a Jewish state; they are people whose Judaism is an ethnic and cultural experience, and maybe they celebrate some Jewish holidays. Now, post–October 7, they have not just embraced a version of Judaism that had never been appealing to them before, but they have themselves been radicalized by it.

Why is that? Is it because suddenly they’re bigger believers? Do they believe in God more now than they did before October 7? No. Are they more Jewish in terms of their beliefs and practices? No. Do they suddenly start only eating kosher? No. Are they planning on making aliyah, giving up their American citizenship, and moving to Israel? No.

It’s that their sense of identity — which always included this one marker, “I am Jewish” — was in some way inflamed or attacked. As a result, it expanded and began to overwhelm all their other markers of identity, including their political identities as secular progressives.


Is there a parallel explanation for why people turn toward religious fundamentalism under the kind of dire material conditions that we saw, for example, in Lebanon, or is that a very different process of religious radicalization?

Reza Aslan

It’s not just in Lebanon. We’re seeing it in India. We’re seeing it in Israel. We saw it four decades ago in Iran, though now we’re seeing the pendulum swing radically the other way. We’re even seeing it in Japan, which is a profoundly irreligious country, and yet this muscular form of Shinto is starting to really take hold, particularly among the younger generation of Japanese.

Why is that? Well, let’s go back to the identity issue again. Religion is an identity, and it’s one marker of identity living alongside (and hopefully in harmony with) all the other markers of your identity. If that religious identity suddenly feels threatened, it is going to expand and react. But what happens when some of the other markers of your identity begin to be assaulted or questioned? For instance, what happens when your sense of nationality begins to diminish as a result of globalization? What happens when your racial identity starts to be attacked or diminished in one way or another? Well, we know what happens: other parts of your identity react.

Why is religious nationalism on the rise in America, where one-third of Americans now proudly refer to themselves as Christian nationalists? Why is religious nationalism on the rise in a country like India? Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party are trying to create this muscular form of Hinduism, the goal of which is a fully Hindu nation. We’ve already seen what’s been going on with the rise of Jewish nationalism in Israel, but why is that happening? Well, because in all three of those countries, it’s becoming harder and harder to say in secular terms what it means to be American, what it means to be Israeli, what it means to be Indian.

Those national identifications are being eroded by racial and religious changes that are taking place in the populations of these countries. It’s becoming extraordinarily difficult to say with any firm sense what it means to be American anymore. And so people have begun to say, “Well, it means to be Christian.” Or that it means to be white. What does it mean to be Israeli? It means being Jewish. And what kind of Jewish? Not culturally Jewish — not the secular Judaism of Israel’s European founders, but this new kind of muscular, ultra-Orthodox form of Judaism.

When you understand religion as an identity, then the role that religion plays in political conflicts starts to make sense. You can understand how someone can make a religious argument against universal health care, right? Because they’re not making a religious argument; they’re reverting to their sense of identity, and they’re using the religious aspect of that identity to make excuses for all the other aspects of their identity.

The fastest-growing religious movement in America is the prosperity gospel: the belief that your salvation is dependent on your material wealth. And, I mean, seriously, it’s impossible to think of anything that is more anathema to everything that Jesus preached. But if you think of religion not as beliefs and practices but as identity, it makes sense that you might go for prosperity gospel, because you’re trying to reconcile Christianity with another factor of your identity: unchecked capitalism.


People in the United States and Western Europe seem to have a false sense of religion being on the decline globally.

Reza Aslan

It’s a perception error, but it’s one that makes a lot of sense. We are seeing this very interesting trend in which Christianity, as a global movement, is moving steadily southward and eastward, while Islam, as a global religion, is moving steadily northward and westward. These changes in the global space of religion understandably lead observers to say, “Well, where I’m living, religion is on the decline.”

We often hear that religion is in decline in Europe. Well, Christianity is in decline in Europe, because it’s moving southward and eastward. But Islam is not in decline in Europe, because it’s moving westward and northward. Some of this misconception has to do with these global trends that will probably require another century or so for us to really start to see.

Some of it also has to do with these persistent false beliefs that we have about religion, for instance that as societies become wealthier, as people become more educated, as science continues to advance our understanding of the nature of the universe, people will necessarily become less religious. Yet all you have to do is look at these global trends to understand that that’s not actually happening. It is true that atheism is growing, though it’s still a very small movement. Secularization continues to be on the rise — by secularization, we don’t mean secularism; by secularization, we mean the process whereby power and authority is removed from religious poles of influence and more deeply entrenched in nonreligious poles of influence, like politics or academia.

The truth of the matter is that we are not seeing the decline that everyone keeps referring to. We are not seeing an inverse relationship between education and religiosity, or scientific knowledge and religiosity, or wealth and religiosity.

What we have seen, though — and this is hugely important — is that all of those trends affect how religions function. What we call Christianity today bears very little resemblance to what we called Christianity a hundred years ago, let alone two hundred years ago. All of those trends — scientific advancements, technological advancements, secularization, education, and even wealth — affect religion. They change religion. They allow religion to evolve and shift to better meet the needs of modern human beings. As far as we can tell, they don’t just make religion go away.

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Reza Aslan is a sociologist of religion whose works include Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth and No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam.

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