Reza Aslan's Vacuous Criticisms of Sam Harris: Educational Credentials, Sophistication, & More

Photo: Security & Defence Agenda/Flickr

Photo: Security & Defence Agenda/Flickr


So I was torturing myself the other day by masochistically watching an interview on The Young Turks with Reza Aslan, and during that interview, Reza offered some criticisms of Sam Harris that were just completely vapid. These are criticisms that he's echoed in other forums on several different occasions. Let me start by reading you a quote from that interview, in which Reza said the following:


"The problem—with not just Sam but the New Atheists in general—is that they give atheism a bad name. My greatest intellectual heroes are all atheists—whether I'm talking about Schopenhauer, or Freud, or Marx, or Feuerbach. These were the people who gave birth to the modern world. They were the people who gave birth to The Enlightenment, but they were experts in religion. They understood religion, and then criticized it from a place of expertise . . . But what is happening now is that a guy sitting in his room watching television with a blog has now become a self-described expert on religion, and espouses the most basic, uninformed, and unsophisticated views about religion from a position of intellectualism."


I'm going to read just one more brief quote before I jump into my analysis, this one taken from the C-SPAN debate between Reza Aslan and Sam Harris


"There's a reason why I don't write books about neuroscience: because I don't have an expertise in neuroscience. I write books about what's going on in the Muslim world because I have an expertise in what's going on in the Muslim world. I actually travel through the Muslim world. I study the Muslim world. I understand the conversations that are taking place. So I feel like, in a sense, I'm in a better position to make judgments about what sort of socio- or religious or political developments are taking place within this people of 1 and a half billion . . ."


First and foremost, when it comes to the merits of ideas and arguments, expertise and credentials are largely irrelevant. Reza Aslan constantly brags, in an incredibly arrogant manner, about his qualifications which he apparently believes makes his opinion especially worth listening to. Reza stresses how vital it is for a person to be a religious scholar, or to have "religious expertise", before they open their mouth and express their opinion about religious matters. He seems to have a very condescending attitude towards anybody that talks about religion who hasn't dedicated several years of their life to traveling around the Middle East and studying, in great detail, trivial, time-wasting theological topics and disputes. 

Reza is trotting out an empty criticism when he harps on credentials and expertise. A person doesn't need to be a scholar in a certain field to make a correct statement or to put forth a sound argument about something related to that field. If the exact same argument was presented by a Nobel Prize-winning scientist or an alcoholic garbageman, the argument would be the exact same regardless of its source. An argument doesn't become more or less sound depending upon the educational qualifications or background of the person presenting the argument. There is only one exception I can think of to this principle—and it's an overscrupulous one—and that's when the argument itself is about the educational qualifications of the person presenting the argument; only then do their educational qualifications impact the soundness of their argument. 

So if you're debating a given topic with somebody, time spent engaging in a pissing contest over your respective credentials or expertise is time wasted. Obviously we expect people who are well-educated on a topic to more reliably speak accurately about that topic when compared to somebody who's a complete ignoramus in that field. But an expert's arguments aren't necessarily sound, nor are an ignoramus's arguments necessarily unsound. Arguments ultimately stand on their own, separate from the person making them.

Another thing worth addressing is Reza's characterization of Sam Harris as a person in that Young Turks interview. He describes him as "a guy sitting in his room watching television with a blog". Now obviously I've made clear that I'm not terribly impressed by a person's credentials; I care about the arguments that they're presenting. That said, this is an incredibly unfair and ridiculous summary of Sam Harris's background. Sam Harris has earned a Bachelor's degree in Philosophy and a PhD in neuroscience, so he clearly does more than just watch television. But based upon Reza's description, you couldn't rule out the possibility that Sam Harris is just some high school drop-out drinking beers in his underwear and puking out the occasional crappy blog post.

By describing Sam in this way, Reza appears to be trying to minimize Sam Harris's educational achievements, attempting to make him sound like a nobody whose opinion is worthless. I find this particularly amusing because Reza Aslan flaunts his own educational credentials at practically every available opportunity; I don't know if he's made a single public appearance in which he avoided giving himself a series of self-congratulatory pats-on-the-back for his self-proclaimed expertise. But when it comes to Sam, apparently Reza saw fit to mention just two details about him in that interview: that he has a television and that he has a blog.

Reza Alsan also describes Sam's arguments and views towards religion as "basic, uninformed, and unsophisticated." Describing a person's arguments as "basic, uninformed, and unsophisticated" isn't actually a refutation of those arguments; it's just a derogatory description. This is a completely vapid criticism that Reza constantly trots out against Sam, and when he does this, he's not engaging with Sam's views or arguments in any meaningful way. When you boil this criticism down, it's ultimately a cheap smear. It should really go without saying that this does absolutely nothing to move the debate forward.

Whether a person's arguments are "complex" and "sophisticated" has no bearing on the soundness of those arguments. One could construct an incredibly simplistic, yet sound, argument. One could also construct an incredibly complex argument that is complete rubbish. Sophistication is not the hallmark of truth. Verbosity or attention-to-detail doesn't necessarily improve an argument; in fact, there are situations where these things just distract us from the thing being discussed. 

In the future, Reza Aslan should focus on actually addressing his opponent's arguments and presenting substantive counter-arguments of his own. The temptation to boast about yourself and denigrate your opponent is always present when you're engaged in a battle of ideas. But if the goal is to move the debate forward and make progress in that field, these tactics do nothing to facilitate that goal.