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Right Goes Giddy Wild Over (Not) Catching Reza Aslan in a Lie

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AP Photo

I first saw it here at First Things. But it seems to go back to this post by Joe Carter at Get Religion. The gist of the attack is that Aslan lied about his academic credentials, specifically his academic degrees which give him some basis to write authoritatively about religion.

But when you read into it, it's based on a kind of embarrassing lack of understanding of the intersection of various fields of study, particularly when it comes to the study of religion.

The big 'lie' is that Aslan says he's "a PhD in the history of religions". But, but ... he got his PhD in a sociology department!!!!! Liar!

I'm sorry. This is silly. Plenty of 'historians' - as in working academic historians - have degrees in sociology. How common that is generally depends on methodological framework you work in. This is especially so in the academic study of 'religion' since people study the topic sometimes in History Departments, other times in separate Religion Departments and sometimes in Sociology or Anthropology Departments. And this doesn't even get to programs of religious instruction where you're possibly studying theology but might also be studying from a history-based disciplinary focus. I have some sense of these things because I have a history PhD. This is not a 'lie' unless you're really clueless or just hunting for gotchas.

Next he goes after Aslan for claiming that one of his four degrees was "one in the New Testament."

Here's Carter ...

Aslan also claims that he has a degree in the New Testament. But is this true? Santa Clara doesn't offer a degree in the New Testament so he can't be talking about his Bachelors. Perhaps he is referring to the Master's of Theological Studies degree he earned from Harvard Divinity School in 1999. That school does offer an "area of focus" in "New Testament and Early Christianity." Is Aslan claiming this was his degree's area of focus at Harvard? (If so, this would make his claim about having a "degree in New Testament" misleading, at best.)

Now, it so happens that a former longtime girlfriend of mine did an MTS at Harvard Divinity School. In fact I think she graduated in 1998 or 1999. So she may even have been there at the same time. We were living together at the time and both had a deep interest in religion, both as a personal matter and as a field of study. So I have a decent sense of what gets studied there. And it is entirely plausible that an MTS at the Divinity School would be 'on the New Testament'. In fact, by a broad definition most would be since, it's a Christian divinity school which tends to revolve around .. THE NEW TESTAMENT!

In any case, I haven't read Aslan's book and I know anything about his academic background. He seems to be a serial degree getter -- BA, MTS, MFA, PhD. But these attacks are silly.

Late Update: Another fascinating detail. TPM Reader MW apparently did some googling and came up with this additional context. It appears that Aslan started out as doctoral candidate in the History of Religions but academic politics tied to the publication of another one of his books while he was in the program led him to switch departments. Apparently to the Department of Sociology.

Here's an interview MW dug up at Science and Religion Today ...

I wasn't finished with my Ph.D. when No god but God came out. The book was very successful, but life became miserable for me in my department. Professors who had been working with me suddenly turned their backs to me. Unnecessary obstacles were put in my way. There was an attitude--not just amongst the professors, but amongst my fellow students as well--of Who the hell do you think you are? How dare you take this discussion that we're having in a room with four people and make it palatable to a large and popular audience? Things got so bad that I actually had to switch departments, and I ended up getting my degree from a different department altogether.

As a one-time or lapsed academic, I can tell you that this story is quite plausible and one of the really unfortunate things about the academy. For our present purposes it simply drives home the derpitude of this line of attack on Aslan.