The Key To Respecting Religious Groups We Don't Agree With, According To Reza Aslan

The religion scholar pushes even his own boundaries in new CNN show, "Believer."

It’s easy to write off belief systems that may seem strange or foreign. But perhaps there’s something even the most devout among us can learn from exploring the unknown.

That’s the premise of author and scholar Reza Aslan’s new CNN show, “Believer,” which explores some of the world’s most misunderstood religious sects.

"Believer" premieres on CNN on Sunday, March 5.
"Believer" premieres on CNN on Sunday, March 5.

“My intention with everything I’ve ever done in my career has been to find ways to break through the walls that separate us, whether that’s religion, nationality or what have you,” Aslan said in a recent interview with The Huffington Post.

And that’s the primary aim of “Believer,” Aslan said, which premieres on Sunday, March 5. “Our hope is to introduce people to world views and faith communities that may seem a little strange and foreign and even frightening, but after watching me go through the experience of becoming part of these communities they may seem more relatable.”

Shot in 2015, the series is broken into six, hour-long segments that show Aslan’s immersive journey into a different faith community. He spent seven to 10 days with each group, exploring Ultra-Orthodox Judaism in Israel, Scientology in the U.S., Hindu asceticism in India, Vodou in Haiti, Santa Muerte in Mexico, and an apocalyptic doomsday cult in Hawaii.

Aslan has made a career of challenging stereotypes and misconceptions people hold toward different religions, but he admitted there were times he was forced to confront his own bias while filming the show.

“A lot of times I was thrown into a situation and told to follow everyone else. And I was often confused, often scared, anxious, occasionally disgusted. Those are just real emotions,” he said. “But in accepting that, I was able to have a real, authentic spiritual experience in almost every episode.”

Reza Aslan participates in a ceremony with the Aghori, a Hindu sect in India.
Reza Aslan participates in a ceremony with the Aghori, a Hindu sect in India.

In one scene with the Aghori, a Hindu sect in India that rejects common notions of purity and pollution, Aslan found himself sitting on a beach, covered in cremated ashes, and listening to a guru threaten to kill him if he asked any more questions.

Aslan gently called the director over and said, “I feel like this may have been a mistake.” It would have been a moment of comic relief, except that the sentiment was entirely sincere.

“When I called the director over I think he thought I wasn’t being serious,” Aslan told HuffPost. “But I was like, ‘No really, let’s distract him and I’ll make a run for it.’”

That desire to literally run away from something foreign and even frightening may be relatable for viewers, Aslan said. It’s what drives people to reject beliefs and traditions they don’t understand. But it can also obscure whatever commonalities we may share with the very group we’re rejecting.

“The Aghori have a foundational notion that there’s no purity and pollution. Nothing you do, eat or wear can separate you from God. And I actually one hundred percent agree with that ― intellectually, spiritually and emotionally,” Aslan said.

Viewers may find themselves similarly relating to faith groups that previously seemed foreign or bizarre, he said. And in times of heightened polarization such as these, that’s an important realization to have.

“My hope is a show like this could go a long way toward giving people a close look at other communities and other ways of being and maybe even addressing some of the fear and xenophobia that has gripped large parts of this country in the wake of the election,” Aslan said.

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