Reza Aslan: “I Want To Be The Interpreter Of Religion For People”

In his new CNN series, Aslan embarks on a spiritual walkabout, seeking to understand lesser-known religions from around the world.

Reza Aslan: “I Want To Be The Interpreter Of Religion For People”
Reza Aslan, host of the CNN series Believer. Photo: James Adolphus, courtesy of CNN, Turner Media

Reza Aslan has spent a lot of time talking and writing about religion. You’ve likely heard from the religious scholar and author in appearances on CNN, perhaps in a contentious segment from 2014 during which Aslan fielded questions about whether Islam promotes violence. You may have read (or read about) his book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, which fueled a misguided Fox News interview during which Aslan was forced to explain why, despite being a Muslim, he was equipped to write about Christianity.

More recently, you might have seen his appeal to Paul Ryan after the executive order on immigration was issued. In the video, Aslan reminded the House Speaker of Ryan’s own immigrant roots—that his great-great grandparents came to the U.S. to escape the Irish famine, at a time when anti-Irish sentiment was alive and well.

Aslan’s latest project builds on this discourse and is, albeit indirectly, a broader appeal to Americans who have celebrated the rhetoric on which Donald Trump built his campaign and his administration’s subsequent policy decisions about immigrants and religious minorities. Aslan’s new CNN series, Believer, premiered March 5 and is a would-be salve for otherness. Over six episodes, Aslan immerses himself in the rituals and practices of various religious groups—the Aghori sect of Hinduism, an apocalyptic cult in Hawaii, Haitian voodoo, Santa Muerte in Mexico City, Haredi Judaism, and even Scientology—that, on the surface, are wildly different.

This is no easy feat, particularly in the current political climate: The first episode of Believer featured Aslan sampling what was allegedly fried human brain tissue, courtesy of the Aghori. The episode has drawn criticism from Indian-Americans who believe it mischaracterizes Hinduism, and does so at a time when men with brown skin are under attack in the U.S.

Aslan talked to Fast Company recently about what he hopes viewers will take away from Believer, and how he thinks it might help heal the fractures in American identity.

We’re almost two months into Donald Trump’s presidency. How are you feeling about this moment?

Reza AslanPhoto: Kyle Christy, courtesy of CNN, Turner Media

Look, I’ve gone through the same roller coaster of emotions that a lot of people have gone through, starting with profound depression and then through all the stages of grief. And I feel like I’m at a place where I truly feel enthusiastic and optimistic because I think that we are in a moment of profound clarity as a nation, in a way that we haven’t experienced in generations—perhaps all the way back to World War II. What we have in this administration is a direct assault on the very definition of what it means to be American. It’s an attempt to redefine what American means . . . regardless of our political views or what side of the ideological aisle we’re on, every one of us needs to take part in this conversation, because this is about defining the country for the next century.

And what I have discovered over the last month, in response to this administration, is a way in which a great many Americans have suddenly been activated: They’ve been encouraged to participate in this public dialogue in a way that they hadn’t before. To me, that is something to be excited about. It’s something to be optimistic about, because the truth of the matter is that the vast majority of Americans actually adhere to the values of freedom and diversity and pluralism that have made this country exceptional. It’s just that for the most part, they haven’t really had a stake in the argument. They haven’t had a horse in the race, if you will. And now, because of the administration’s actions, no one can afford to remain on the sidelines any longer, and I think that we are going to be better off as a nation as a result.

Could you tell me a little bit about Believer and how you conceived of it?

For me, I’ve always wanted to be the person who helps people understand those who may not share their views, or their ideas, or their skin color, or their religion. I want to be the interpreter of religion for people—the one who helps you break through the external shell of a particular religion to show you how familiar and similar it is to your own beliefs, whether or not you yourself are religious. I try to do this with my books; I try to do this with my media commentary. And this TV show is basically another version of that. What I’m trying to do by introducing you to the religious group that may seem different and scary is to show you that underneath it all, there is a connection that you have with these people, even if you don’t believe it. So that’s been my goal.

How do you think that might help viewers better understand what’s going on right now in the U.S.?

That is fundamentally the biggest issue of the day right now. We’re talking about an administration that came to power by riding this wave of fear and xenophobia and otherization. It was the cynical manipulation of people’s fear that allowed Trump to become president. To be perfectly frank, I see this show as the antidote to that—a way of getting people to retrain their brain in the way that they think about other people. If you can find out that you have something in common with the Aghori, of course you have something in common with your immigrant neighbor.

One thing you’ve talked about before is that while people often think of religion as an identifier, they really define their religion for themselves by drawing on their own values, culture, ethnicity, and nationality. Would you say part of the problem today is that some Americans struggle to see how different religions can coexist with whatever their notion is of American culture or identity?

As a matter of fact, the Pew Research Center just proved exactly what you said: Nearly 60% of evangelical Christians in this country believe that being Christian is integral to being American—that they are one and the same. Nearly 30% of mainline Christians—just your everyday Protestant—believe the same thing. So that’s a large group of people who define “Americanism” in religious terms.

No wonder, then, that when you are confronted with someone who prays differently than you do, who reads a different scripture than you do, who calls God by a different name than you do, your reaction to them is not just that they are a different religion, but that they are not American. You begin to define what it means to be American in opposition to these people because of their religious beliefs, despite the fact that they are, nationally speaking, as American as anybody else. That’s understandable, but it’s a destructive way of thinking. The whole point of Believer is precisely to get people to think differently about others—to recognize how much they have in common with people who look and act and pray differently than they do.

When people are on diametrically opposite sides of the spectrum—say, people who are religious and those who are nonbelievers—is it possible to get them to understand each other? An issue like abortion, which is so tied to faith, is a prime example of how difficult it can be for people to meet in the middle, especially when religion is in the mix. How do you try and bridge that gap when you’re talking to people who hold views very different from your own?

My method for how to deal with people of different political or ideological views is to always meet them where they’re at. The first rule of debate is to debate on your opponent’s terms. So if I’m confronted with a super-patriotic American who has this firm belief in American exceptionalism, and I want to convince them of my point of view, I do so by appealing precisely to their patriotism and their sense of American exceptionalism. If I’m confronted with somebody who has profound religious beliefs—but religious belief that also carries with it certain ways of looking at individuals outside of their faith and devaluing them—I’m going to appeal to them based on their own religion.

One of the reasons why I constantly talk about bigotry being a result of fear, instead of ignorance, is because fear, even irrational fear, is legitimate. It can’t just be ignored. You can’t just simply say, “Oh that’s stupid, there’s nothing to be afraid of. Get over it.” Yes, fear is stupid. Fear is irrational by definition. And so we have to confront it. The very fact that I take that fear seriously, that I don’t just immediately delegitimize it, gives me the opportunity to dialogue and confront people who have this kind of fear, in a way that makes them much more open to listening to my point of view.

Do you think viewers will glean that from Believer, by seeing you experience some of that fear yourself?

I hope so. One of the reasons why I wanted Believer to be an experiential show and not an informational show—the reason that I’m not walking around pointing at religious communities and saying, “Hey, look at this thing” and instead just absolutely immersing myself into these communities—is that I feel like you can empathize with me, and therefore with these other groups, in a way that I wouldn’t be able to if I was just talking about them. When you see me plunge into the Ganges, when you see me trying desperately to understand what it means to be Aghori, and to fail and to succeed again—I think hopefully that journey is one that you take with me.

So the values and lessons that are embedded in each of these episodes are sort of internalized in a way that they wouldn’t be if I was just giving you information and data. I really believe that empathy is a human being’s greatest strength. The ability to empathize with each other is like our superpower. Empathy can change everything. It can change the way that your brain functions. It can change the way in which your society functions. It can change the world, just simply recognizing yourself in other people’s experiences. That’s not going to happen unless you can, to put it in cliché terms, walk in someone else’s shoes. Hopefully watching me do it will have some kind of profound impact.

What do you think the media’s responsibility is, going forward, when it comes to telling stories about religious differences and the many faces of American identity? How do we produce more nuanced narratives about something as nebulous as religion when people can’t even agree on facts and non-facts?

It’s such a good question because my answer is, “Stop worrying about the facts.” We can argue all day long about facts, especially in a post-fact world, where the term itself is starting to lose meaning. I get it, but I don’t want to get involved in that conversation because I’m not sure how useful it is. But it’s very hard to argue about experience because it’s internal. It’s individualistic.

I have seen repeatedly the way in which facts and experience counteract each other. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the phrase “I don’t like any Muslims but you. You’re the good Muslim.” In other words: I’m not going to change my prejudice and my bigotry against Islam. But I am confounded by the experience of getting to know you as a Muslim because it doesn’t fit my knowledge. And rather than recognize that my knowledge is incorrect, I’m just going to have to deal with the cognitive dissonance of this and say, “Well, I like one Muslim and that’s you, but not anybody else.” As silly as that sounds, I think that gives you an idea of the power that experience has to disrupt what people assume is knowledge.

What do you see as the future of religious identity?

I think that although we [as humans] are tribal people, although we are people who tend to be as concerned with out-group as we are with in-group, what I have found is that the more knowledge of the world that we have, the more experience of the world that we have, the more the world gets smaller, the more difficult it is to ignore the things that we have in common with each other. I do feel like what we are seeing is the progress of progressivism, if you will, not just in society but in religion itself. There will always be people who, perhaps because they feel left behind by that progress, are going to react against it, sometimes in violent ways—people who are going to revert to the fundamentals of their religion. We should always remember that fundamentalism is a reactionary phenomenon, not an independent one. We should have confidence in the fact that what it’s reacting to is the progress of society. So let’s focus on the real thing, which is that progress.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

About the author

Pavithra Mohan is an assistant editor for Fast Company Digital. Her writing has previously been featured in Gizmodo and Popular Science magazine.

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