Stop calling Reza Aslan a fraud and learn how academia works

I’ve seen several atheists argue that Reza Aslan lied about his credentials and is a fraud. I understand that some atheists really do not like Aslan, but that is no excuse to quickly spread misinformation about him. Let’s look at the facts.

Reza Aslan has a B.A. in religion from Santa Clara University, an M.T.S in Theological Studies from Harvard; an M.F.A. in Fiction from the University of Iowa; and received his Ph.D in sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Now a few atheists (and even Glenn Beck) have pointed out that his PhD is in sociology and not in religion. Therefore, he must be lying and is a fraud! Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. Academia is weird and sometimes the name on your degree does not match up with your expertise. What really matters is what area your research is in (i.e. your dissertation).

For example, when I was working on my PhD in psychology, my focus was actually in quantitative neuroscience. If I would have finished that PhD, my degree would say psychology, but my dissertation (and my expertise) would be quantitative neuroscience. So it would be wrong if people assumed I was a psychotherapist because my degree technically said psychology (which happened quite often when I told people what my degree was in). Likewise, it’s wrong to say Aslan didn’t study religion just because his degree says sociology. But don’t just take my word for it, here is a quote from his PhD advisor Mark Juergensmayer:

Since I was Reza’s thesis adviser at the Univ. of California-Santa Barbara, I can testify that he is a religious studies scholar. (I am a sociologist of religion with a position in sociology and an affiliation with religious studies). Though Reza’s PhD is in sociology most of his graduate course work at UCSB was in the history of religion in the dept of religious studies. Though none of his 4 degrees are in history as such, he is a “historian of religion” in the way that that term is used at the Univ of Chicago to cover the field of comparative religion; and his theology degree at Harvard covered Bible and Church history, and required him to master New Testament Greek. So in short, he is who he says he is.

It’s fine if you disagree with Aslan about religion, but to simply make things up about him because you don’t like him is wrong. Yes, Aslan focuses more on writing books for the general public rather than academic articles, but he certainly isn’t a “fraud” and does have academic training in the history of religions. And yes he does teach creative writing now, but he previously has taught courses on religion. It’s quite hypocritical for atheists to call out ignorance from religious people and then turn around and spout off their own misinformation. This is just another example of why atheism does not always equal skepticism.

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  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rivers/ Galen Broaddus

    I understand that some atheists really do not like Aslan, but that is no excuse to quickly spread misinformation about him.

    In fact, it’s even more reason to be diligent about what we claim because it is easier for us to accept negative things about those we already dislike. Good on you for being thoroughly skeptical about these claims.

    • ElRay

      This article is NOT skepticism, it is white-washing Aslan’s:

      1) Facts-exaggerated-to-the-point-that-they-are-lies and outright lies

      2) Intentionally mis-using words so that folks not familiar with the realities of academia will ascribe more relevance to Aslan than warranted,

      3) Using the his exaggerated-to-the-point-that-they-are-lies credentials as an extended “argument from authority”, don’t you dare question me, cudgel/bludgeon to pass-off more lies and unsupported opinions as facts

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rivers/ Galen Broaddus

        Matthew did not exaggerate any facts or misuse any words, nor did he say that Aslan’s credentials entail that his positions are all correct (hence why he said “It’s fine if you disagree with Aslan about religion” in the last paragraph). Those are entirely unfounded accusations.

        • ElRay

          Didn’t say Mathew exaggerated or mis-used words. I said he white-washed/excused Aslan’s lies and exaggerations.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rivers/ Galen Broaddus

            Pardon, I mistook your list for claims against Matthew rather than Aslan.

            In that case, I would note that disagreeing with a very specific criticism does not entail “whitewashing” his record or refuting all other criticisms. That’s ludicrous.

          • ElRay

            Writing an article of this length to be pedantic about one minor aspect that is so subtle that less than 10% of the U.S. will understand, and, that in actuality, doesn’t change anything about the reality of Aslan as a whole, is white-washing/apologetics.*

            If somebody has been ignorantly ranting on the evils of and spreading lies regarding left-handed people for years, there’s no need to write ~500 words on how they’re not 100% incorrect because left-handed people do experience a small, yet statistically significant, increase in the incidence rate of occupational injuries.

            EDIT: *OK. Apologies. I just thought of one other possibility: A need to be pedantic and/or mince words and push it out to the world, even in cases when the difference is irrelevant. I can be pedantic, but I don’t bother when it really doesn’t matter. There’s differences between clubs, bats, cudgels, bludgeons, etc., but when you’re talking about the injuries acquired when hit by one, it really doesn’t matter.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rivers/ Galen Broaddus

            All I’m hearing is “You’re not shouting down Aslan, so you’re a whitewashing apologist.” This is not a compelling argument.

          • Cake

            You must be reading different replies than I am.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rivers/ Galen Broaddus

            Try reading the subtext. “How dare you rebut a criticism of someone I dislike! That makes you an apologist and whitewasher!”

          • Cake

            Sorry I can’t read subtext that only exists in your head.

  • VladChituc

    This is a great post, and this trend has been annoying me a lot. A lot of people are really unfamiliar with how academia works (I also straddle disciplinary boundaries, doing work in psychology and philosophy in a behavioral economics lab), and departments / degrees far more often than not have to do with administration and organization than it does subject matter.

    Welcome to the channel, by the way!

    • Martin Hughes

      Agreed.

    • http://www.matthewfacciani.com/ Matthew Facciani

      Thank you Vlad! And well said. Often times the titles of degrees are somewhat arbitrary. Another example of how silly it can be is when masters degrees in the sciences are awarded a masters of arts degree.

    • ASA73

      interdisciplinary research is all fine and well yet to claim academic expertise one needs to have produced an output, preferably in a peer-reviewed fashion. That’s how academia works. There’s hardly anything confusing or purely administrative or organisational in how subjects are clustered. Theology is part of the Humanities, together with History, while Sociology is part of the Social Sciences. The reason for the division lies in the variation in research methodology.

      • ElRay

        But it doesn’t change the FACTS. Aslan has exaggerated-to-the-point-that-they-are-lies and flat-out lied about his credentials, multiple times. He has lied about his teaching experience, multiple times. He has lied about facts, research, history, etc. and then uses his exaggerated-to-the-point-that-they-are-lies credentials as a continual running “argument from authority” logical fallacy.

  • Martin Hughes

    Nice job on this, Matt. Welcome to the channel! I’m a self-proclaimed anti-theist, so we’ll probably butt heads on something eventually, but I think this post is dead on.

    • http://www.matthewfacciani.com/ Matthew Facciani

      Thank you Peter! I always welcome civil disagreement as hopefully all parties can at least learn something about the other side :)

  • Brendan Reid

    Well, I’ll grant that you make some good points about credentials vs specialty.

    Doesn’t change that fact that Reza Assman is a dangerous, narcissistic, anti-democratic intellectually dishonest lying sack of crap apologist for a deluded medieval religion of hatred and war.

  • Jon Hendry

    Amusingly, some have cited a Washington Post article about him that raised questions about his background, but I notice that the bio of the author of the article makes a claim that doesn’t quite match the reality.

    It says “[Manuel Roig-Franzia” is an adjunct professor at the Corcoran College of Art and Design, where he teaches reporting and writing. And he has served as a writer-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin.”

    But the link to Corcoran is now bad, and while he says he teaches “reporting and writing” Corcoran says he teaches “New Media & Photojournalism”. Oooh, BUSTED.

    Obviously, the differences here are inconsequential, as Roig-Franzia ought to have understood about Aslan’s qualifications.

  • satanaugustine

    He does not have most of the degrees he claims he has. He’s a liar and has made money from it.

    These:
    “Reza Aslan has a B.A. in religion from Santa Clara University, an M.T.S in Theological Studies from Harvard; an M.F.A. in Fiction from the University of Iowa; and received his Ph.D in sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara.”

    …are not the limits of his claims. Watch the FOX interview to hear Aslan’s lies from the man himself.

    His PhD supervisor sounds like a bit of an apologist for Aslan’s lies.

    If anyone is claiming that he has no background in religion, that’s news to me. But that is not extent of Aslan’s claims (lies).

    • Dale Husband

      What FOX interview? Link it or it does not exist!

      • Jonathan Conaty
        • satanaugustine

          Thanks, Jonathon!

      • satanaugustine

        Did you watch the video? Did you catch all the lies, Dale?

      • Cake

        It takes a special kind of special to not just highlight the text in question and right click and Search Google for: “are not the limits of his claims. Watch the FOX interview to hear Aslan’s lies from the man himself”

        http://bfy.tw/1Mk4

  • David Marshall

    Aslan’s as phony as a 3-dollar bill, as the Washington Post article cited elsewhere in this thread reveals. His PhD was in modern Islamic movements, which is a thousand miles and two thousand years from NT studies. He hints that he spent 20 years studying early Christianity, and one hears this from his fans, but no one who knows the subject is likely to buy that, reading his book. Heck, he didn’t even know the Sea of Galilee is composed of fresh, as opposed to salt, water:

    http://christthetao.blogspot.com/2013/08/aslan-vs-lion-of-judah-ii.html

  • http://www.yearwithoutgod.com/ Ryan Bell

    Nicely done, Matthew!

    • Brett Ellis

      Not really, the author of this article is way off base, as is Azlan.

      • ElRay

        I’m not too impressed, so far. First we have an Azlan Apologetic article, then we have a “Folks that believe mythology is real don’t meet the current definition of clinically delusional, so in kindness to folks with actual mental illnesses, please don’t call modern mythological (aka religious) beliefs delusions, or the adherents of modern mythologies deluded.”

        I had to double-check to see if I was still on the Atheist Channel.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rivers/ Galen Broaddus

          Yeah, because atheists never say those things.

          • ElRay

            Didn’t say they didn’t. Many atheists see that there truly aren’t any differences between an adult that believes modern mythologies are real, despite all the evidence to the contrary, and an adult that believes the Greek Pantheon is real and Zeus has given them a quest, Santa is real, aliens traveling on comets will take our souls if we kill ourselves, etc. delusions. Yet, by definition, CLINICALLY DELUSIONAL excludes delusions that are “widely held beliefs”.

            Many atheist realize that the reality is that mythological beliefs are delusions, even if they don’t fit the definition of CLINICALLY DELUSIONAL and that adults that refuse to believe reality and stick to their mythological beliefs, despite being educated, are deluded, just as they would be if they refused to believe that their spouse was cheating on them despite the evidence.

            Many atheists realize that the exmption from the definition of CLINICALLY DELUSIONAL is nothing more than an “Appeal to Popularity” fallacy and if fewer christians and more Heaven’s Gate adherents existed, then christianity would be CLINICALLY DELUSIONAL and “aliens traveling on comets will take our souls if we kill ourselves” would not meet the definition of CLINICALLY DELUSIONAL.

            The problem comes in when apologists, overly pedantic fans of psychology, etc. want to mince words and say that mythological beliefs are not delusions and their adherents are not delusional, because they don’t fit the definition of CLINICALLY DELUSIONAL. There’s two problems with this, (1) the folks that don’t know the difference between deluded and CLINICALLY DELUSIONAL take the word-mincing to mean that their delusions are actually reality, and (2) they only reason mythological beliefs are not CLINICALLY DELUSIONAL is because CLINICALLY DELUSIONAL is defined to exclude mythological beliefs.

            The last point is like saying Emu eggs aren’t eggs because eggs are defined to have a white or brown shell. Adherents of mythology are deluded: They believe things that are contradicted by reality, and refuse to accept that when educated. Their mythological beliefs are delusions; however, they are not CLINICALLY DELUSIONAL, because the definition excludes “religious” (but not all mythological) beliefs.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rivers/ Galen Broaddus

            Didn’t say they didn’t.

            Then why the incredulity about this being on the Atheism Channel? You commented extensively on the article where I said the same thing. And there’s Matthew’s guest post on JT’s blog on the same subject (which Matthew linked to in his article and I linked to in my own ).

            And frankly, “many atheists” are wrong about a lot of things.

            The problem comes in when apologists, overly pedantic fans of psychology, etc. want to mince words and say that mythological beliefs are not delusions and their adherents are not delusional, because they don’t fit the definition of CLINICALLY DELUSIONAL. There’s two problems with this, (1) the folks that don’t know the difference between deluded and CLINICALLY DELUSIONAL take the word-mincing to mean that their delusions are actually reality, and (2) they only reason mythological beliefs are not CLINICALLY DELUSIONAL is because CLINICALLY DELUSIONAL is defined to exclude mythological beliefs.

            That is nonsense. First, your insistence on crying “apologism!” to anyone who disagrees with you is incredibly juvenile. Second, it’s not pedantry to denote what the term “delusion” means in psychology because the word in common usage has a clinical connotation, if not always a clinical denotation (i.e. calling some “delusional” is like calling them “crazy,” “unhinged,” etc.). Third, practically no one’s mind is going to be changed one way or the other by saying that their belief is delusional or not. That’s simply not how people acquire and sustain beliefs; telling a Christian that they are delusional for thinking that a first-century Jew was raised from the dead is more likely to make them dismiss you than to make them seriously reconsider their belief. So even the pragmatic argument here fails.

            And no, religious beliefs are not excluded wholesale.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rivers/ Galen Broaddus

          Also, “Azlan Apologetic article” is an absolutely absurd characterization of this article. If you can’t see the difference between “This specific criticism of Aslan is unfounded” and “All of Aslan’s work on religion is spotless,” then you’re part of the problem Matthew details in his last paragraph.

  • satanaugustine

    Matthew – Please see the video of Aslan below (a few comments below) telling his lies. JT’s post quoted the most egregious of his lies about his credentials:
    ““I am a scholar of religions with four degrees including one in the New Testament . . . I am an expert with a Ph.D. in the history of religions . . . I am a professor of religions, including the New Testament – that’s what I do for a living, actually . . . To be clear, I want to emphasize one more time, I am a historian, I am a Ph.D. in the history of religions.” Aslan also recently said on Twitter, “I have a BA, MA and PhD in the history of Western Religions so yes, again, I am an ACTUAL expert in Judaism.”

    His choice of words in his first sentence strongly imply that all all four of his degrees are in religion. In his next line he claims to have a PhD in the history of religions. Despite his PhD supervisor’s apologetics (his excuses for Aslan’s lies), he absolutely does not have a PhD in the history of religions. He has a PhD in the sociology of religion. Those are two different degrees and he does not hold the one he is claiming he does, no matter how much history he studied. He should have said “I have a PhD in the sociology of religion,” but perhaps that doesn’t sound as impressive or he assumed people wouldn’t know what ‘sociology of religion’means. Whatever his reason, he openly, blatantly lied.

    He claims to be a professor of religion and that that’s what he does for a living. That’s another lie. At the time of the interview, he was teaching creative writing for a living. There is no evidence for his claim that he makes his living as “a professor of religions, including the New Testament”. The link you provide suggesting he did so in the past is actually an advertisement for a lecture he was giving. Nowhere on that page does it say that he did anything other than give lectures to broad audiences. Nothing even implies that he gave lectures on religion – including about the New Testament, which he in particular points out – to students as a professor. He in all likelihood got paid for giving these lectures, but that’s not what he’s claiming when he says “I make my living as a professor of religion.”

    He goes on to repeat the claim that he is a historian and has a PhD in the history of religion again. As I stated above, this is not a true statement. He also claimed, not in the interview, but on Twitter in 2013: ““I have a BA, MA and PhD in the history of Western Religions so yes, again, I am an ACTUAL expert in Judaism.” Here he unambiguously states that all four of his degrees, graduate and post graduate, all in the history of Western Religions. This is again another blatant lie. He has no “history degree” in religion at any level and has expanded his claims to “expertise” to cover (all?) “Western Religions.” He seems to think he acquires expertise simply by stating it. One could claim that he’s not lying, but simply, ALWAYS words things poorly. I don’t think any reasonable person would accept that explanation.

    The fact is he lies, exaggerates, and claims to be multiple things he clearly is not. That’s probably why many people consider him a fraud. He could simply be specifically honest about all of his degrees, but he’s done the opposite and, to my knowledge, has continued to dig this hole of lies, exaggerations, etc. If you, or anyone else reading, knows of him clarifying what his degrees are really in, has stopped this “I’m an expert in everything I claim I am” stuff, and come clean about the true extent of his knowledge I’d be interested to read that. Until then, fraud is not an inaccurate word with which to describe him.

    That doesn’t mean he’s had no educational background in religion, it means that he’s distorting the actual facts so egregiously that they have become lies. And the lies are what make him a fraud.

  • ASA73

    Reza Aslan’s bio lists 3 degrees, not four. He may have done under- and postgrad studies related to Theology, but he has not published based on those studies. His PhD is in Sociology, or ‘Sociology or Religions’ as he conveniently terms it (despite the fact his PhD thesis refers to one religion only, and then to a specific to that religion only social phenomenon). He doesn’t appear to have a single peer-reviewed paper to his name. The article you link to, Matthew, to evidence Mr Aslan’s teaching credentials in religious studies does no actually provide such evidence. Indeed, it is an announcement of a public lecture by Mr Aslan at the University of Iowa – this is by no means ‘teaching’ in the strict academic sense. I can only assume that you yourself have never taught at university or else I’d have expected you to know the difference. Besides, the article in question is factually incorrect in the following statements: 1) Mr Aslan is hardly ‘one of the world’s most respected experts on Islam and the Middle East’ – certainly not on the basis of his academic output he ain’t; and 2) he ain’t a ‘scholar of religions’ either, in the strict sense. An ‘visiting faculty member’, for your information, means the person is not on the payroll and does not teach or do research at the institution. Often the ‘visiting’ is attached to the name before they give a public lecture – a way of honouring the individual and advertising the lecture. Alternatively, the ‘visiting’ refers to the individual merely advising, usually without recognition, on existing research of a member of faculty. Neither has anything to do with the curriculum and teaching. The only teaching Mr Aslan has ever done at university is his creative writing classes, on the basis of his first degree. So in conclusion, there are some recorded inconsistencies between how Mr Aslan presents himself and what his actual academic background suggests. It’s hardly surprising or unwarranted thus that ‘some atheists’ may question these inconsistencies given Mr Aslan’s insistence he’s better placed to comment on religion and its social effects because of his academic pedigree. So yes, I suggest people should learn about how Academia works in order to make comment in an informed way on what level of expertise someone is entitled to claim on a subject based on their academic record.

    • http://www.matthewfacciani.com/ Matthew Facciani

      Reza Aslan has taught college courses on religion, but it was a long time ago. I admit the link I used could have been more clear and I have replaced it with the one below.

      “In August of 2000, Aslan was named the visiting professor of Islamic studies at the University of Iowa. In that capacity, he has taught courses in Introduction to Islam, Gender and Human Rights, and Religion and Politics in the Middle East.”

      http://www.news-releases.uiowa.edu/2002/february/0228campusnotes.htm

  • http://www.jasonbrianmerrill.com Jason Brian Merrill

    Well, to be fair – just because credentials don’t make sense, it doesn’t mean people are “making things up.”

  • Brett Ellis

    This article covers the argument about the academic history of the man which seems convoluted seeing how several sources are giving contradictory information, one of which being Azlan himself, but I take issue to the deliberately ignorant comments the man makes despite his education.

    He claims that Indonesia is a moderate Muslim state that treats women fairly, an obvious lie that does not require difficulty to disprove. Something that someone studied in the religion should have no problem realizing, if they were the intellectual they claim. The problem with Azlan is not only his penchant for fictionalizing the past (both his and that of Islam) but the blatant lies he tells about the present.

    We cannot have an intelligent and nuanced conversation about the benefits and failings of Islam in the modern world when the people who claim professorial knowledge about the topic are so blatantly wrong, deliberately ignorant, and obviously tainted with bias in their positions.

    Azlan’s pathology of misrepresentation and deception on behalf of the darker and more brutal aspects of the Muslim faith and culture do far more to hurt the people trapped by it, if he wanted to be a friend to Moderate Islam he would be honest, both about himself and the faith he proclaims to understand.

  • WAKE UP!

    Reza Aslan is indeed a FRAUD: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SvrK1r02JJQ

  • WallofSleep

    1. Earns PhD in Sociology
    2. ????
    3. Gets to lie about having a PhD “in the history of religions”.

    Apparently academia works a lot like the underpants gnomes.

  • ronmurp

    “I understand that some atheists really do not like Aslan, but that is no excuse to quickly spread misinformation about him.”

    But Aslan will take any excuse, including using the weight of his bogus claims about credentials, to spread misinformation about Sam Harris. There’s good reason not to like Aslan. Laughing at his ego is a bonus.

  • ronmurp

    “What really matters is what area your research is in (i.e. your dissertation).”

    Even so, he’s wrong about the political nature of his own religion – or is lying about it. All that nonsense about the equal opportunities for women in Islam dominated (politically or culturally) nations.

  • Ryan Donovan

    He is a fraud; he hasn’t simply claimed that he is a ‘religious scholar’ but also that he is an expert on the religious texts themselves, of which he has no formal qualifications, therefore a fraud.