Mar 14, 2017

Reza Aslan and the Risks of Making Religion Relatable

 Reza Aslan in the premiere of Believer, which focuses on a Hindu sect in India
 Reza Aslan in the premiere of Believer,
which focuses on a Hindu sect in India
The scholar says his new TV show is just what minorities need. Critics say the opposite. What if both are right?

March 12, 2017

Reza Aslan’s new show has come at the best possible time and the worst possible time. Believer, a six-part television series airing Sunday nights on CNN, premiered March 5 to mixed reviews. Some say the show makes various religions seem less foreign, a corrective that Americans desperately need under Donald Trump. Others say the show exoticizes religious minorities, a danger we can ill afford under, well, Donald Trump.

Both views are right, to some degree. Oddly, the two contradictory effects spring from Aslan’s single stated goal: to show that all religions are, at their core, expressions of the same faith and the same existential questions. That makes Believer an interesting object lesson in the risks of trying to make religion relatable.

In each episode of his program, Aslan, the bestselling author who often appears in the media to share his perspective as a Muslim, a scholar of religions, or both, embeds with a different faith community. Last week it was a Hindu sect in India; this week it’s a Doomsday cult in Hawaii. Most of the episodes follow the same format: Aslan introduces us to an extreme manifestation of a certain faith, which he rejects. Then he encounters a more moderate manifestation of that same faith, which he embraces.

In the premiere episode, Aslan meets an Aghori guru on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi, India. The Aghori are a Hindu sect that abhors the caste system and engages in extreme theatrics to prove that nothing, and no one, is untouchable. The guru forces Aslan to bathe in the filthy river, allow his face to be smeared with human ashes, and eat human brain matter. Aslan grows increasingly squeamish, but he plays along—until the guru starts drinking his own urine.

Later, Aslan meets more moderate, modernized Aghori. To show that no one is untouchable, they run a clinic for lepers. Aslan approves, saying: “You want to know what putting your faith into practice looks like? This is what it looks like.”

Aslan’s use of this template—moving from the extreme to the moderate—is an intentional pedagogical strategy inspired by his experience as a high school teacher. “As every high school teacher will tell you, 90 percent of that is dancing around like a monkey in order to get the students’ attention—and then, when they least expect it, teaching them something so they’re able to absorb it,” he told me.

“We began the journey into Aghorism with that feral cannibal because I want the audience to look at him and say, ‘That guy has nothing to do with me at all. He is completely other,’” Aslan continued. “And then, when you see other ways in which that exact same faith is being preached by other Aghoris, you start to recognize that the foundation of that faith, many people would agree with. So, it’s to move you from a place of discomfort and exoticism to a place where you’re familiar.”

Unfortunately, many people can’t move past the exoticism. Although Aslan said critics were responding to ads for the Aghori episode (which he admits were “deliberately sensational, because that’s what ads are”), many lambasted the premiere itself. The show is “shock religion porn,” said Suhag Shukla, the leader of the Hindu American Foundation. It privileges “sensationalism over scholarship,” said Ro Khanna, a Hindu Democratic congressman from California. It will “have a wider Hinduphobic societal impact,” said Ajay Shah, convener of American Hindus Against Defamation. It “can create a perception about Indian Americans which could make them more vulnerable to further attacks,” said Sanjay Puri, the chairman of the U.S. India Political Action Committee.

These critics know these are tense times for Indian-Americans, who are already fearful following three violent attacks, including the apparently hate-fueled shooting in Kansas City that left one Indian immigrant dead and another wounded. This is why Believer may have come at the worst possible time.

Aslan takes the opposite view. His show is meant to highlight the “connectivity” between people of all faiths, he told me. “I honestly can’t think of a more important lesson, especially today in Trump’s America when so much of our political rhetoric coming from the very highest offices in this country is about division and fear and ‘otherization,’” he added.

A viewer who watches an episode of Believer all the way to the end may very well come away with a greater sense of “connectivity”; the problem is not that the show fails to establish sameness. It’s that it establishes that sameness at the price of first establishing exoticness—which, right now, risks courting danger.

Aslan said that the state of American politics “absolutely has helped the cause of this show,” because xenophobia against religious minorities is now “the story of the day.” What’s not clear is whether the show has helped the cause of Americans.

Positing that all religions are essentially the same, as Aslan does, carries another risk: It makes one overly inclined to interpret faith in the light of this thesis. In an upcoming episode, Aslan explores the tension between Israel’s ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews. Adhering to his formula, by the end of the episode, he has discovered an ostensible middle path: the Na Nachs, a group of Hasids who follow the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. Drawing on one of the late rabbi’s main teachings that everyone should strive for constant happiness, the Na Nachs can often be found dancing in the streets to techno-mystical music, whipping themselves up into an ecstatic frenzy, along with any passersby they attract.

Noting that the Na Nachs adhere strictly, if quirkily, to ultra-Orthodoxy, and that many of them originally hail from secular families, Aslan eagerly asks, “Do you guys feel like you can be a bridge between these two groups? Do you feel as though you are changing Israel from the ground up?” One young man replies, “We are trying.” A viewer who isn’t steeped in Israeli culture may walk away thinking that he actually has a shot.

Having lived among both ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews in Israel, I know that the Na Nachs are a tiny minority who aren’t taken seriously by either camp. At best, they’re amusing; at worst, embarrassing. They’re tolerated because they’re viewed as harmless hippies, not as real agents of change—unlike the mainstream ultra-Orthodox, who are a powerful political force. Onscreen, Aslan’s apparent desire to fit the Na Nach into a preconceived template invests them with false importance, obscuring the truth.

Believer’s best moments come when the template cracks. In the same episode, Aslan takes a drive through the heavily ultra-Orthodox city of Beit Shemesh with one of its few moderate religious inhabitants. When she describes the abuse she’s suffered at the hands of her ultra-Orthodox neighbors (she’s had stones, saliva, and shouts of “Whore!” hurled at her), Aslan exclaims, “I have to say, it sort of sounds like you’re describing Iran!” The woman views this as a facile comparison and rebuts it, saying, “No, it’s not Iran. I’m not afraid that someone’s going to arrest me in the middle of the night. The law is on my side, the courts are on my side.” To the show’s credit, it doesn’t edit this out: It lets the differences breathe. What results is nuance.

Faith-based audiences don’t have a lukewarm reaction to the show because they’re too invested. They simply find it less interesting.

Focusing on similarities between various faiths may have liberalizing effects for people who would be unlikely to take in a scholarly book or lecture on religion—people who, to be fair, are exactly the ones Aslan is targeting. It’s even possible that the benefits (information leading to decreased bigotry) might end up outweighing the costs (sensationalism leading to increased bigotry) of his high-school pedagogy. It’s hard to predict.

But dissimilarities are what make religion tick, for better and for worse. As the drivers of dispute and, often, of conflict, they’re arguably the more urgent aspect to tackle.

I watched part of Believer with a friend who comes from an evangelical background. We had roughly the same reaction. It’s all well and good to meet a few moderate evangelicals and moderate Jews, but focusing on them papers over something far more pressing: How should we deal with the 81 percent of white evangelicals who voted for Trump despite his attacks on vulnerable minorities like Muslims and immigrants? What’s the most effective response to the ultra-Orthodox Jews who want to turn Israel into a theocracy?

This may shed light on an observation Aslan made: Atheists tend to react better to the show than those coming from a religious background.

“To be honest with you, my atheist audience seems to be the most enthusiastic audience of all,” he said, clarifying that he meant average nonbelievers, not aggressively anti-theist thinkers like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris. “I have a theory about it. The theory is that faith-based audiences, while they may enjoy the show, often feel as though they have a stake in it. So it becomes difficult for them to approach the show from a purely objective point of view. Whereas my atheist audience, they’ve got no stake, they’re there simply to enjoy and then be informed.”

I have another theory: Faith-based audiences don’t have a lukewarm reaction to the show because they’re too invested. They simply find it less interesting. They know that eliding difference comes at the expense of confronting real, concrete tensions. They don’t want to be treated like a bunch of high schoolers.

On balance, Believer might be valuable for those who are not steeped in a religious tradition. For those who are, it’s a bit like having someone point out the colorful tulips growing on a lawn, while the house attached to the lawn happens to be engulfed in fire. The flowers are very nice, but what are we going to do about that house that’s going up in flames?

Sigal Samuel is an associate editor at The Atlantic, covering religion and global affairs.

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