A religious historian told a San Quentin audience that not understanding the difference between religion and faith makes it easy for bigotry and fear of other cultures to exist.
Reza Aslan spoke in the prison’s Protestant Chapel on Dec. 1. About 50 inmates and a dozen men and women from the Bay Area attended.
A person who has faith believes that there is “something beyond the material realm,” Aslan wrote in his book, God: A Human History.
“According to a RAND analysis, every $1 invested in such [inmate] education generates at least $4 in economic return,” reports Fast Company.
“The state typically spends $71,000 a year to house an inmate. It costs about $5,000 total to help put one [incarcerated] student through community college”, reports Fast Company.
“Religion is more about an identity, not beliefs,” Aslan said. “When a person tells you, ‘I am Jew, Christian, or Muslim,’ they are not telling what they believe, and they are telling you who they are as a human being.”
The “compulsion to humanize the divine is hardwired in our brains,” Aslan writes. “We fashion our religions and cultures, our societies and governments, according to our human urges, all the while convincing ourselves that those urges are God’s.”
He said that two people could go to the same exact scripture, read it, and go away with entirely different meanings; as an example, he pointed to how slave-holders and abolitionists justified their positions from a theological perspective.
Aslan said that his scholarly endeavors come from “a deep spiritual hunger.”
He explained that if a person studies different religions to get an understanding of God, they’d learn that most religions are saying the same thing. “They use different expressions and ways to get to the same place.”
Aslan was born in Iran. When the 1979 revolution began, his family left the country and moved to San Jose.
Aslan’s religious journey consisted of being a Muslim, converting to Christianity, and then back to Muslim. He then married a Christian woman. However, during their courtship her mother’s misconceptions about Islam affected how she saw him. To break down those misconceptions, Aslan began to socialize more with his mother-in-law. Afterward, she began to see him as the person that he is.
He encourages everyone to interact with people who practice different religions from theirs. “Learn about them, talk to them; you’ll quickly realize that we believe the same thing,” he said.
He pointed out that many people think that bigotry comes from a lack of education or ignorance.
“But there are some really educated bigots. Bigotry is the result of fear. Education and information cannot change fear,” he said, referring to religious fear. “Fear resides in the heart.”
“The best way to get around bigotry is to get to know each other as a human being. Put the religion aside, and discuss your values.”
Looking into the future of religion and faith, Aslan said he believes that religion and science are converging into a common understanding of the universe because neither practice can fully figure out the answers humanity seeks.
“I think we’ll see a slow melding of the two,” Aslan said. “In 3,000 years, they will be the same thing. Religion is not going anywhere. Religion is not anti-science.”