Reza Aslan on His New CNN Show About Religious Rituals

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Reza Aslan, an Iranian-American writer and scholar of religions poses for a photo shoot during the Jaipur Literature Festival, at Diggi Palace on January 18, 2013 in Jaipur, India.
Photo: Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Yesterday Deadline reported that Reza Aslan, a popular commentator on comparative religion and the author of books like Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth and No God But God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, will be hosting a new CNN show called Believer (a working title) in which he will travel around the world participating in various faith’s religious rituals.

The show, Aslan told Science of Us, will orient itself mostly toward rituals that might be less familiar to an American audience — for example, he cited plans to shoot scenes taking viewers inside Muharram, a Shiite period of mourning involving rituals of self-flagellation, and Na Nachs, a sect that combines orthodox Judaism with a love of rave culture.

In an interview, Aslan expanded on his goals for the show and explained how he both is and isn’t hoping to be a religion-themed version of Anthony Bourdain.

So it sounds like one of your goals here is to draw out certain commonalities between religious rituals from very different places and cultures.
By the time the show is done, I think people will think to themselves, Okay, so, you know, the actions are a little bit different, the metaphors are different, the context is different, but the sentiments behind these rituals are familiar. They’re sentiments that I have. And I think that’s what is really going to be eye-opening, is people are going to realize that there’s not that much that separates us — that we may use different myths and metaphors, we may use different languages, but when expressing the issues of ultimate concern, oftentimes we all come up with the same answers, the same ideas, the same hopes and aspirations, the same struggles.

It’s actually not that hard to imagine very religious people realizing they have something with common with very religious people from other faiths. But what about nonbelievers? How do you expect them — or hope for them — to respond to this show?
That’s a very good question, and this is not a show that’s geared toward believers. First of all, it’s going to be wildly entertaining and we’re going to these exotic locales and it’s going to be beautifully shot, and you’re going to get to watch someone that you trust take you on a journey into another world, into another culture. And that’s really what this is about, it’s about getting a window into another culture through the lens of their religious experience.

I often say Anthony Bourdain’s show is not about food. It’s about cultures, it’s about other worlds — it’s just that he uses food as a vehicle to open up these other worlds. You don’t have to be a foodie to watch the show, to like the show. And it’s the same thing here. It’s that we’re using religion, and particularly rituals and lives and practices, as a way of peeling back the curtains behind these other communities, these other societies, these other cultures. And that’s something that I think anyone who’s interested in the world would be interested in, regardless of what their view is about religion.

Specifically with regard to people who are atheists or who have no religious beliefs, I think over and beyond all the other things that I’ve said, that the show will be very useful in that for a lot of people — religious and nonreligious — when they think about religion, they have this notion of it as something codified and monolithic. They think about religion, and they think about religious institutions, they think about scripture. And that’s how they understand and that’s how they experience religion.

So when they think about Christianity, they may think about the church or the Pope or the New Testament. But rarely do they have any knowledge of the lived experience of people around the world who call themselves Christian, and whose experience of scripture, whose acknowledgement of institutions and authorities, is quite radically different than what outsiders think it is. That variety is exciting, it’s interesting, but I do think it’s also important. Because our conversations about religion are so simplistic – they’re so black and white. They’re absolutely devoid of nuance, and they seem to be completely devoid of any knowledge of the actual lived experience of people of faith. What do people of faith actually do? How do they think? How do they feel these emotions? All we ever talk about is what a text says or what an authority figure says, and those things don’t play the kind of central role in the lives of people and communities of faith that ritual does, that experience does.

It sounds like the main distinction you’re hoping to draw out is between the monolithic outsider’s view and lived religious life?
Absolutely. And we are not going to go to the Vatican, you know what I mean? Like, who cares? If we do a show on Catholicism, we would probably do these minority Catholic groups who have married a traditional Catholic theology with, let’s say, Caribbean spirituality, and have created something new and unique that an American middle-class Roman Catholic might look at and think, Wait a minute — that’s weird! That doesn’t look like the Catholicism that I know! And then, by the end of the hour, he thinks to himself, Okay, I get it. That’s as legitimate as my expression of Catholicism.

Anything else you’d like to add?
Just that the best way to put this is that it’s going to be experiential. You’re going to experience the journey with me. As much as I love Anthony Bourdain’s show, in the end, I can’t taste what he tastes, so when he eats a sheep testicle and tells me it tastes like chicken, I’m just going to take his word for it, whereas you can actually experience these rituals — you’ll see me undergo these rituals, and I think that will allow for a more intimate connection.