Mar 12, 2017

Reza Aslan's Religion Series Debuts March 5 on CNN

“Believer” examines rituals and practices in global and U.S. religious communities on the fringes of mainstream religions

Bettye Miller
The University of California, Riverside
MARCH 1, 2017

RIVERSIDE, California – Best-selling author and scholar Reza Aslan is a familiar figure at the crossroads of religion and politics, a researcher with a passion for illuminating matters of faith and spirituality through storytelling.

The professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside continues his explorations of religion in “Believer with Reza Aslan,” a six-episode series that debuts on CNN on Sunday, March 5, at 10 p.m. CNN describes the program as a “spiritual adventure series,” in which Aslan “immerses himself in the world’s most fascinating faith-based groups to experience life as a true believer.”

The hourlong series explores two domestic and four international religious groups: Ultra-Orthodox Judaism in Israel, Hindu asceticism in India, Vodou in Haiti, Santa Muerte in Mexico, Scientology in the United States, and an apocalyptic doomsday cult in Hawaii. The series is produced by Whalerock Industries.

Aslan, who joined the UC Riverside faculty in 2007, said he hopes that viewers will share in his experiences and appreciate similarities in beliefs, values, and aspirations of believers in faiths regarded as on the fringes of mainstream religions. “I wanted to give people an opportunity to experience through my experience another faith tradition, another world view, and hopefully break down some of the walls that separate us,” he said.

Some of the religious practices Aslan experienced have rarely been seen by non-practitioners, such as the auditing practice of Scientology that aims to help individuals rid themselves of spiritual disabilities and find happiness.

“Scientology is a very secretive religion, a religion that, in their view, has not had a fair shake from the media, so it took a long time to get individual scientologists to allow me to be audited,” he said. “Being audited was an extraordinary experience. I went through four or five hours, of which you get to see four or five minutes. … People know about Scientology, but they don’t really know what Scientologists actually believe or do. What I wanted to do was shed light on that aspect of it, including auditing. … I had the opportunity to visit Scientology groups around the world and to really focus on what makes this a successful, and perhaps the most successful, new American religion of the 20th century.”

In India, Aslan stepped well out of his comfort zone as he experienced life among the Aghori sect of Hinduism.

“I’m a bit of a germaphobe, and I knew that this was a community that deliberately defies a lot of the conventions, not just in Indian society, but that most human beings have about what you can eat and what you can’t eat, how you conduct yourself and not conduct yourself,” he said. “I knew that I was going to be put into situations where I was going to have to do things that were extraordinarily uncomfortable for me. And I have to say that there was something liberating about doing so. It allowed me to, in a way, put into practice what I have always believed. At the heart of the Aghori philosophy is that there’s no such thing as purity and pollution, there’s nothing you do, nothing you consume that can separate you from god.”

Aslan said his reputation as someone who values faith enabled him to gain the trust of practitioners of religions on the fringes.

“These are communities that have often been cloistered and who feel somewhat under siege and untrusting, especially of media, so when you show up and say, ‘Hi, I’m from CNN, can I join you for a week or 10 days,’ you can understand why they would be wary of that,” he said.

Some communities took longer to persuade than others. For example, members of an Ultra-Orthodox community in Israel “don’t even trust other Jews, let alone a Muslim from Iran. And yet we had Ultra-Orthodox families bring me in. I shared meals with them. I was able to go in the synagogue with them and really become part of their communities.”

“When you belong to a religious community you want the world to know what you believe. You really do. These communities, even the most secretive ones, are not embarrassed or ashamed of their beliefs. They want people to know. They just want to make sure that they feel protected, and I think it took a while to convince them of that. But once I did they just absolutely opened up to me and really allowed me to become part of their communities.”

In addition to “Believer,” Aslan is wrapping up a new book, “god,” which is due to publish Nov. 7. The book is a fascinating account of humanity’s struggle to make sense of the divine, and how the idea of god, from its prehistoric origins to its emergence as a single divine personality, continues to offer new ways of connecting people of different faiths today.

Among his previous books are “No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam,” “Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in a Globalized Age” (originally titled “How to Win a Cosmic War”), and “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.”

Here are brief descriptions of each episode of “Believer”:
“Doomsday Cult in Hawaii” – Aslan travels to the big island of Hawaii to immerse himself in an apocalyptic cult run by a self-proclaimed prophet named JeZus in order to explore the anatomy of a doomsday cult.
“Santa Muerte in Mexico City” – A death cult for murderers and narco traffickers? Satanic worship? Aslan travels to Mexico City to learn more about a new and rapidly growing religion, Santa Muerte.
“The Scientology Reformation” – Aslan explores the growing community of independent Scientologists who have left the Church but still faithfully practice the religion created by L. Ron Hubbard.
“Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel” – Aslan heads to Jerusalem to immerse himself in the world of the Haredim and explore the tensions between this isolated group and secular Jews in Israel.
“Vodou in Haiti” – Aslan is in Haiti to explore the world of Vodou and the Evangelical Christian missionaries who believe that it’s the work of Satan.
“Aghori Sadhus in India” – Aslan journeys to the holy city of Varanasi, India to immerse himself in a Hindu sect known as the Aghori.

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