CNN's Reza Aslan immerses himself in religion on 'Believer' (March 5)

This was posted on Friday, March 3, 2017 by Rodney Ho on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

Reza Aslan chose not to be a bystander in his new series "Believer" on CNN as he explored different religions such as the Aghori in India, Scientologists or a doomsday cult in Hawaii.

In the opening episode about an Indian religion that is against the caste system Sunday night at 10 p.m., an agitated Aghori guru began urinating, drinking it and thrusting the liquid at Aslan. Understandably freaked, Aslan and his camera crew ran away.

In the next episode, he was supposed to stay in a dark, dank, bug-infested cave by himself overnight as part of a cult ritual but as it filled with water, he got out.

In both cases, he eventually found some level of understanding about each religion, some commonality to his own experiences. On the show, he is knowledgeable but not pedantic. An Iranian-American Muslim, he has written books about Jesus, Judaism and Islam.

In the case of the urine-tossing guru, Aslan in an interview admitted to being "freaked out." But he said he tries to "go into all experiences with a completely open mind. I'm not going to judge. I'm there to experience it. I'm not there to make fun of it. I think people understand that and open up." As for the cave, "I’m willing to join you but I'm not willing to die doing it."

"Reza fits our look and talent," said Lizzie Kerner, vice president of current programming for CNN, who also oversees Emmy-winning "Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown" and shows hosted by W. Kamau Bell, Lisa Ling and John Walsh. "He's credible. He's authentic. He's entertaining. He's curious."

Aslan said he sees religion through a particular lens: "As a matter of identity than a matter of belief." That's why he thinks people who critique particular religions using their most extreme tenets are misguided.

"The living experience of religion and the theoretical concepts of religion are different," he said. "You can open up the Bible and find some particularly egregious passages, then pronounce general criticism toward anyone who believes in the Bible. Or they'll look at some corruption or abuse by the church or religious leaders and then they'll draw a straight connection to the faith experience of any individual who happens to also be a believer. That is such unsophisticated thinking! It's such a simplistic way of understanding religion."

He noted how most people who proclaim themselves Christians rarely read the Bible. Many may only go to church on Easter and Christmas. What they know about Jesus doesn't go beyond him being born in a manger and dying on a cross. That's not what matters. "They're talking about how they see the world and how they understand their place in it," Aslan said. "That's true of all religions and every part of the world."

That's why he is deeply offended by how the Trump administration perceives Islam only based on terrorists who use the religion as a cover: "This is an administration that used fear of Muslim bigotry and xenophobia to come to power. The entire administration has been on built on fears of others whether it's Jews or blacks or transgender or Muslims or Mexicans. It's how this administration functions. It's how they make policy. But in general, that fear is a real thing. Sure, they cynically tapped into it for political gain. A large swath of people only see Muslims on cable news or 'Homeland.' That's their entire impression of Islam."

As shown in the first two of six episodes, he enters each subject with a little trepidation. On the surface, Scientologists or ultra Orthodox Jews "have nothing in common with me. But hopefully my experience immerses myself in these communities, you start to realize beyond the individual metaphors and myths is a commonality, is a sense of similarities you have with these people. If you can do that in a 44-minute television show, maybe you can do it in your life, maybe you can do it in your neighborhood or state."

Aslan wanted his show on CNN given the examples of Bourdain, Ling and Morgan Spurlock. "It was always CNN or nothing," he said. "I wanted to do something that was entertaining and informative, something that mattered and make commentary about the world. I didn't think I could to that on other networks."

With so much publicity about Scientology recently courtesy of HBO and Leah Remini's A&E show, CNN was concerned he wouldn't be able to find a new angle. He was not able to get the Scientology leadership to cooperate but he found believers who no longer followed the church itself but maintained its core beliefs. "This show isn't about institutions," he said. "It's about believers. In this case, I found what I call Scientology reformation. It's going to blow people's minds. People will understand the religion behind the controversy."


"Believer With Reza Aslan," 10 p.m. starting Sunday, March 5, 2017, CNN

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About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.