The reaction to the premiere of religious scholar Reza Aslan’s new CNN series Believer was, to put it mildly, zealous. In one particularly intense scene, Aslan eats human brain matter as part of his attempt to understand the Aghori, a sect of Hindus who use such shock tactics as a way to disrespect the caste system. The sequence drew ire from Hindu groups, including representatives of India’s ruling nationalist party and American Representative Tulsi Gabbard.
Aslan assiduously maintains, however, that this was merely a representation of what certain people believe – he had, after all, been asked to consume the material. “We let the people involved do the talking,” he tells Rolling Stone.
Still, it’s not surprising that Believer would provoke this kind of response; the series is practically designed to draw criticism. Each episode of the six-part series focuses on Aslan investigating a particular religion by adopting its traditions and rituals. The faith in question is depicted via one rather extreme, high-profile sect, and subsequently other milder, more humane adherents. By moving from the fundamentalists to the more recognizable, secular practitioners, Believer makes its central argument: that, ultimately, conflicting religions are not so different.
But this seemingly mild thesis has proven, ironically, to be the most controversial thing Aslan could have said. Though the host dismisses much of the controversy over the Aghori episode as the result of both “knee jerk critics” and the series’ sensationalist ad campaign, even he was somewhat taken aback by the response. In particular, he’s received a surprising number of death threats – a form of correspondence he has to keep cataloged in a file. Aslan says he used to be able to “shrug it off,” but with a family and children, having a thick skin – and approaching this kind of work with a sense of fearlessness – has become harder.
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It’s true that in the episode itself, Aslan repeatedly says that the incident is a misrepresentation of Hinduism, and isn’t in line with what he’s trying to do in the series – but the segment still aired. The ads are cut to highlight the most insane, lurid part of the episode in an attempt to draw largely non-religious eyeballs, but does that really alleviate all responsibility? Doesn’t all television come with a mandate to seek out the most gripping images possible, even, perhaps especially, when presenting sensitive topics? Certainly, grappling with that ethical territory should – though often is not – part of the territory of airing something on a network like CNN.
Part of the problem is that, while Aslan’s focus is almost entirely on the nature of belief and how it connects people, it’s difficult to extricate faith from its consequences. (Other roughly anthropological shows like, another of CNN’s shows, Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, tackle similar material without drawing the same criticism – almost certainly because religion is far more central to individual conceptions of identity.) Some of Believer’s subjects are members of small communities, like a doomsday cult based out of Hawaii, run by a self-proclaimed prophet named Jezus with a “Z.” But others, like Haitian vodou practitioners battling with Evangelical Christians, encompass far larger political conflicts.
The Aghori episode might not even be the most controversial hour of Believer. That depends on the reception to the episode that focuses on the haredi, the extreme wing of Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox community. Aslan describes this as “the least hopeful” episode of Believer, which seems like an understatement.
During the episode, Aslan talks to Yakov Litzman, a member of the knesset (Israel’s parliament) and the government’s minister of health who is originally from Brooklyn, and who once compared LGBT Israelis to the “sinners” who danced around the golden calf. During an uncomfortable conversation with Aslan, Litzman flat-out refuses to even pretend he cares about secular Jews, let alone non-Jews. He can afford to, thanks to Israel’s rapidly changing demographics and the haredi’s place in the ruling coalition of the knesset.
One of the secular Israeli Jews Aslan interviews recall being shouted at, blockaded from her, and attacked with bags of urine. Aslan talks to her from her car, because they would both be attacked by Ultra-Orthodox children upon getting out. One of Believer’s own producers refused to believe the full extent of the Ultra-Orthodox community’s political power in Israel, and CNN’s Jerusalem bureau chief was brought in to fact-check the episode.
One such child – the son of a couple who has invited Aslan into their home – excuses himself from the dinner table at 9 PM to return to studying, after a ten-hour day at yeshiva. Aslan admits that, as a father, the encounter made him uncomfortable – and it doesn’t help that the boy’s father, when asked point-blank about the possibility that his son might not grow up to sit around doing nothing but studying Torah, refuses to even consider it – but Aslan hears him out nonetheless.
What are we to do when confronted with this kind of community? Aslan’s commitment to humanizing people is noble, to the point of discomfort. (In the episode, he describes the haredi’s commitment to following the Torah as “beautiful.”) But it also smacks of forced naivete. Asked whether he thinks there’s a line beyond which the faithful are no longer deserving of his empathy – if their commitment to zealotry, oppression, and murder in the name of God ever make his quest to paint religions with the same brush dangerous – he sidesteps the question, trying to instead highlight what makes expressions of faith appealing even when they lead followers to monstrous actions.
It’s an approach that works shockingly well in the series’ Scientology episode, which was something of a pet project for Aslan, who sees Scientology not as a dangerous cult but as, simply, a religion. (Are the things Scientologists believe any more ridiculous than the things other religious people believe? Aslan compares Scientology to Mormonism’s early reception as the “punchline to American Christianity.”) Intriguingly, Aslan focuses on independent practitioners of Scientology, whose existence he compares to the Christian Reformation.
The fissures within Scientology appear to have happened surprisingly quickly – the Reformation happened after over a millennium of Christianity, while Scientology has been around for just over 60 years – but Aslan sees them as the natural result of modern communication: “The greatest threat to a church’s control over its orthodoxy is the availability of information.” In this respect, the schism reflects Aslan’s approach to these religions: increase the availability of information so the uninformed can understand their doctrines.
If there’s a second season for the show, Aslan plans to investigate several newer religions. There’s caodai, a monotheistic religion in Vietnam that dates back to the 1920s and that Aslan describes as a “distinctly Vietnamese spirituality that is syncretistic with all other elements of Vietnamese spiritually.” There’s the neo-druid movement in the United Kingdom, which Aslan describes as of a piece with the “nationalistic fervor” that produced Brexit. And there’s the John Frum cargo cult, worshipping a soldier from the Second World War who may or may not have existed, and a sort of messianic figure foretold to bring wealth to an island.
The John Frum cult is the sort of religion that, with a different host, could be easy to exoticize. But understanding Aslan’s approach, it’s not hard to see how Believer will approach it. If we’re supposed to come away thinking Scientology’s beliefs aren’t as strange as we may think, is it really that odd for believers to have their own Christ figure be an American G.I.? And like Scientology, the John Frum cult appears on the verge of splintering, consumed with its own sectarian conflict. “No matter how small a religion is,” Aslan says, “there will always be people within it who find some reason to break away and make it even smaller,” a process that, of necessity, ultimately means conflict.