Editor’s note: Reza Aslan is the author of “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” and a professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
(CNN) — The tragic murder of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo by Michael Zehaf-Bibeau — “a recent convert to Islam” as every media outlet in the United States would like to remind you — has added fuel to the already fiery debate in this country over the inherently violent nature of religion in general, and Islam in particular.
It seems that, in the minds of many, the only possible reason a Muslim convert would go on a shooting spree in the Canadian Parliament is because his religious beliefs commanded him to do so.
Of course, it could very well be the case that Zehaf-Bibeau was motivated by his Islamic beliefs. It could be that he read a particular passage in the Quran, understood it to mean he should kill as many Canadian government officials as possible, and then went out and did just that.
After all, there’s no question that a person’s religious beliefs can and often do influence his or her behavior. The mistake lies in assuming there is a necessary and distinct causal connection between belief and behavior — that Bibeau’s actions were exclusively the result of his religious beliefs.
The notion that there is a one-to-one correlation between religious beliefs and behavior may seem obvious and self-evident to those unfamiliar with the study of religion. But it has been repeatedly debunked by social scientists who note that “beliefs do not causally explain behavior” and that behavior is in fact the result of complex interplay among a host of social, political, cultural, ethical, emotional, and yes, religious factors.