Reza Aslan is a scholar and writer whose best-selling books include “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” and “No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam.” His personal journey took him from being a refugee from Iran as a child, a conversion to Evangelical Christianity as a teenager and now his embrace of the Sufi mystical tradition within Islam. His new show, Believer with Reza Aslan, will debut on CNN Original Series on Sunday, March 5, at 10 PM ET. He spoke with Voices Editor Paul Brandeis Raushenbush about his new series, how he understands religion, and the fact that someone is going to really love each episode, and someone else… won’t.
Paul Brandeis Raushenbush: Given your own spiritual journey I’m thinking that there was something about you that was ready to go out and make this series.
Reza Aslan: No question. My spiritual journey has essentially paralleled my intellectual journey and the meeting of those two has led me to a foundational belief that religions are just different ways of saying a similar thing. They’re different languages, different symbols, different metaphors for expressing what is oftentimes an identical sentiment or an identical quest or search for transcendence, for meaning, for an experience that’s beyond just a material world. My entire goal here is to get the viewer to recognize that these different traditions, they may look weird, they may look foreign, they may look scary, but once you break through them, once you see me experience them, then they’re going to come across as a lot more familiar.
PBR: One of the tensions of the series is that you put yourself in some of the most extreme manifestations of religion, the mountaintop experiences. But these people also have jobs and they’re caring for their elderly parents or their young kids, so I think that it’s really interesting to also have a sense of how these experiences translate into normal life.
RA: So many times our conversations about religion are on such a weird theoretical level. You have critics of religion essentially using the words of a religious leader — or even the text — in order to make broad generalizations about religious people when, in reality, there is a world of difference between the top-down religiosity and the actual lived experience of religious people.
PBR: A lot of the traditions covered in the series are formed out of intensely political realities that they’re reacting to and interacting with. I’m just curious to what extent politics was overtly present in the conversation or is that always subtext?
RA: I define religion as an identity, not a set of beliefs and practices. That’s probably postulate number one for me. People tend to think that, “Oh religion is just something you believe in, right?” Well, not for most people, actually. The vast majority of people who raise their hand and say, “I’m Jewish,” “I’m Christian,” or “I’m Muslim” are making identity statements much more so than belief statements.
So, if religion is a matter of identity, then it encompasses every aspect of your life. It can’t be divorced from your politics or your social views or your economic views. It’s all wrapped up together as one. Even when you’re talking about religions that are on the margins like the Aghori in India or Voodou in Haiti or Santa Muerte in Mexico, these are religions that have no choice but to be engaged with the world in which they live. Sometimes (it’s) because that world is attacking them; sometimes because that world is the enemy; but sometimes because what they are trying to accomplish in the spiritual realm is reflected in the world.
PBR: Much of this series must have been created prior to the election. Does the show have a different kind of edge to it now?
RA: I’m going to be honest with you about something, Paul. If you are Black or Latino or gay or Muslim in this country, Trump’s election should not have surprised you in the slightest. The show is certainly much more important now. The themes are much more vital because more people are aware of this undercurrent in American society than I think they were a year ago. As someone who has always been aware of it, my goal with this show was — from the beginning — to make the exotic less exotic, make the fearful less fearful, make people realize that they have a lot more in common with each other than they would possibly imagine. Yes, I think that that’s a more important message today than it was a year ago but the message hasn’t changed.
PBR: What was the moment when filming for the series when you were like, “Get me the hell out of here?”
RA: [Laughter] You actually see it happening. There is a moment in the premiere episode, the episode about the Hindu sect the Aghori, when I’m at the mercy of this Aghori Sadhu (Holy Man) who take part in ostentatious displays of self-pollution in order to shock the system. So, I knew it intellectually, but being on the sand with a group of them, I did not feel safe and I literally say to my director at one point, “Get me out of here.” Only later on I realized that he thought I was joking. I was not joking. If I do this show again, I’m definitely going to make sure that the director knows what my safe word is because I would’ve used it then.
PBR I love that, a “safe” word. The flip of that question is, what was the moment when you were tempted to just join and said “bye-bye” to your crazy life and join up.
RA: Well, I will say, I spent a week among this doomsday community in Hawaii under the leadership of a self-styled messiah named Jesus. The first few days I said to myself, “Oh my goodness these people!” And in my first conversation with Jesus I thought, “Huh! This guy is unhinged” and it took maybe two or three more days before I was able to sit down with him again. But I was hanging out with all of his followers and they were all like, “Yes, don’t worry. Jesus always does that. He’s always like that with people. It takes a while to get to know him.” I just kept thinking to myself, “Okay. These people are on another wavelength.”
Then I had a second conversation with Jesus that we show and I just flat out told him, “Stop being messiah and just be a human being and talk to me,” and we had like a two-hour conversation. At the end of which I thought to myself, just for a second, “Hah! I kind of get why people are drawn to this guy.” There is something really honest and authentic about him and he has created this paradise on the Big Island where everything is shared and common and it’s self-sustaining.
His doomsday message is very much geared on the reality of climate change, so you can make fun of him all you want, but the truth of the matter is that he is right. It is a catastrophe just waiting to happen.
PBR: “Spiritual curiosity” is almost a tagline for your show. Curiosity is an undervalued religious virtue, but curiosity is perhaps the best trait to have in life — and certainly if you’re investigating other people’s spirituality… or your own for that matter.
So, what is the secret thing you have been dying to tell me that you have told nobody else that is going to be my headline?
RA: Well, I think each one of these episodes is going to piss somebody off.
PBR: That’s a good headline.
RA: That may be, in many ways, like the story of my career, basically. I swear to you, it’s not something I aim for. It’s just something that I don’t consider when I make my decisions about what I’m going to write or what I’m going to say. I’m not courting controversy. I’m just interested in these issues and I’m not going to be constrained by what I think may or may not get me in trouble. There is something in every one of these episodes that’s going to get me in trouble. I know…
PBR: Is it going to get you in trouble with the people who practice that religion or other people or both?
RA: Yes, sometimes both. I think that there will probably be some very conservative religious people within each one of these traditions that will be unhappy with the way they feel their religion is being portrayed. I just think of the Scientology episode. What’s great about (that) episode is that there’s something there for everyone to be angry about. And something for everybody to love. At one point or another everyone’s going to find something to be angry about.
A version of this interview first appeared on Voices at Auburn.