Beyond Belief: Reza Aslan as Master of Misrepresentation

Santa Muerte: La Segadora Segura
Santa Muerte: La Segadora Segura

Reza Aslan’s Believer series is the evil twin of Anthony Bourdain’s popular show Parts Unknown. Watching the charismatic Bourdain drink and eat his away from one exotic place to another, we’re clear that he’s a chef by training. So when he engages in arm-chair philosophizing on local politics or spouts platitudes we take it with a grain of salt from his table at a hole in the wall that serves the best Fesenjan (Iran’s signature dish) on the planet.

As spectators of Bourdain’s culinary adventures we don’t expect to be enlightened on serious matters of national politics, history, and culture in whatever country the engaging chef happens to be. When Bourdain’s producer cancelled a film shoot with my wife in her Mexican hometown of Morelia because of security concerns, I completely understood the rules of engagement of an American celebrity chef.

In stark contrast to the celebrity chef, Aslan misrepresents himself as the host of Believer. Aslan consistently presents himself as a “religion scholar,” even claiming in a Fox News interview, “I am an expert with a PhD in the history of religions.” While he does hold a Master’s Degree in Theological Studies from Harvard, and a MFA in Fiction from the University of Iowa, his PhD is in sociology, from the University of California, Santa Barbara. UCSB does have a strong graduate program in Religious Studies, but TV personality Aslan didn’t earn his doctorate there.

In accord with both his degree in Fiction and his penchant for fictitious representation, Aslan holds an academic post, not in Religious Studies but in Creative Writing at another branch of the University of California – Riverside. How perfectly ironic that his faculty page at UCR is an example of overly creative writing. Writing before he had even earned his PhD in sociology, Aslan claims to have a degree (presumably a M.A.) in “Religions” from UCSB.

Of course in this age of interdisciplinary studies, there’s nothing wrong per se with Aslan’s academic eclecticism. I myself, along with many colleagues in the discipline, did not earn my doctorate in Religious Studies. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the Pentecostal boom in Brazil at UCLA’s History department thus hold a PhD in Latin American history and was a history professor at the University of Houston for eleven years before accepting my current position in Religious Studies and Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2008.

Unlike Aslan, however, I am forthright about my academic credentials and am an active scholar in Religious Studies, authoring three academic books and actively participating in academic conferences, such as those organized by the American Academy of Religion and Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, as well as the university lecture circuit. In academia, tenure-track and tenured professors are evaluated on the basis of three categories – research, teaching, and service.

By all three measures, but especially research, Aslan doesn’t qualify as a scholar of religion. As my colleague, Professor Robin Faith Walsh points out, his books have been published by trade presses where commercial interests outweigh scholarly considerations, unlike academic publishing houses where book proposals and manuscripts are peer reviewed. The scholarly consensus on his published work, including Zealot, is that the prose is sharp and engaging, but it doesn’t contribute to advancing scholarship in the field in any significant way.

If the misrepresentation of his credentials weren’t enough to make you a nonbeliever in his CNN series, Aslan’s appropriation of academic research without attribution should confirm your disbelief. I am one of the leading experts on the mushrooming new religious movement of the Mexican folk saint, Santa Muerte (Saint Death). My book, Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte the Skeleton Saint, is the first and sole academic book on the subject in English, published by Oxford University Press in 2012.

Last year I was contacted by the associate producer of Believer who wanted to record an hour-long interview for possible participation in the Santa Muerte episode. As an enticement, she made it seem as if there were a strong possibility of me appearing on camera as the leading expert on the topic. Despite misgivings about being used as a free reference desk, I agreed to the interview with the promise that I’d be notified shortly regarding my participation in the episode.

Despite glowing comments about my interview, the associate producer went missing. I finally heard from Executive Producer Liz Bronstein who e-mailed “I really enjoyed watching the Skype you did with Stephanie. Your knowledge and expertise is impressive but the current format of our show doesn’t include outside experts/scholars on our Mexico episode.” A colleague who has previewed the episode says it includes a young Mexican scholar. Indignant about their cavalier disregard for my time and feeling like I had indeed been used as a free reference desk, I complained directly to Aslan who testily responded, “I can guarantee you there is nothing unique or proprietary about your knowledge of the religion.”

You can imagine my shock and disbelief when I discovered that the Believer trailer for the upcoming Santa Muerte episode is almost entirely based on my research, as expressed both in the recorded interview with Aslan’s producer and my book and media interviews. So if you decide to tune in and join Aslan as he “immerses himself in the world’s most fascinating faith-based groups,” keep in mind that your host is a master of misrepresentation.

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