Billed as an adventure for the “spiritually curious,” Reza Aslan’s new CNN miniseries “Believer” instead opens with a bumpy hour of sensationalism that crash lands into new age waters.
In fact, if you’re looking for a single image capturing just how strange public discussion about religion has become, here it is: a religious scholar sitting down with a guru who smothers him in human ashes, threatens to cut his head off, offers him a piece of human brain to eat, and then chases him across a beach throwing his urine at him – all to make a roundabout point about all religions being “different ways of saying a similar thing.”
So what does Aslan believe about belief? And why did he choose “religious rebels” like the Aghori gurus, who believe that all of creation is equally perfect (and surround themselves with human remains to prove it), to tell the story?
Aslan recently penned a recent article at CNN titled “Why I Am a Muslim” that provides some background:
“Faith is mysterious and ineffable. It is an emotional, not necessarily a rational, experience…in the end, faith is nothing more or less than a choice…No one can prove or disprove these things, not any more than anyone can prove or disprove love or fear or any other human emotion.
Religion, on the other hand, is the language we use to express faith. It is a language made up of symbols and metaphors that allows people to express to each other (and to themselves) what is, almost by definition, inexpressible…I am Muslim not because I think Islam is ‘truer’ than other religions (it isn’t), but because Islam provides me with the ‘language’ I feel most comfortable with in expressing my faith.”
In an interview with the Huffington Post, he goes a step further and explains that religion is not only not about the truth – it’s really not about belief at all:
“I define religion as an identity, not a set of beliefs and practices. That’s probably postulate number one for me. People tend to think that, ‘Oh religion is just something you believe in, right?’ Well, not for most people, actually. The vast majority of people who raise their hand and say, ‘I’m Jewish,’ ‘I’m Christian,’ or ‘I’m Muslim’ are making identity statements much more so than belief statements.”
There are serious problems with Aslan’s account, not least of which is this: If religion isn’t about belief, why embark on an adventure called “Believer” about different religious beliefs?
But the deeper issue is what appears to be his true first postulate: the separation of faith and reason. Aslan uses words like emotion, experience, and choice to describe faith, and extrapolates that understanding to religion, which he describes using words like symbol, language, and identity. In both cases, he’s careful to keep reason on the sidelines – an echo of 17th century rationalists like Descartes and Spinoza who were anxious to do the same to faith.
In his encyclical Fides et Ratio (“Faith and Reason”), Saint John Paul II warned about the ugly consequences of such a separation. Faith unmoored from reason, he argued, wanders into fideism and superstition. Reason emptied of faith, on the other hand, collapses into skepticism and relativism.
“Believer” is a case study of these consequences. The Aghoris of India are just Aslan’s first stop; still to come is voodoo in Haiti, Santa Muerte in Mexico, and even a doomsday cult in Hawaii led by a man named “JeZus.” In his survey of faith, Aslan will take us on a tour of closed off and volatile systems of belief that resist the checks and balances of science and philosophy.
Aslan’s stated goal “is to get the viewer to recognize that these different traditions, they may look weird, they may look foreign, they may look scary, but once you break through them, once you see me experience them, then they’re going to come across as a lot more familiar.” To that end, he eventually meets with a more moderate community of Aghoris who have the same beliefs as the gurus, but live them out through acts of love and kindness.
It’s a beautiful discovery – but just as we’re launched into various fideisms that have been stripped of the boundaries of reason, Aslan’s analysis springs from a relativism that has drifted away from the anchor of faith. So what could have been a valuable encounter with religious belief becomes a forced entry into a “spiritual but not religious” no-man’s-land where beliefs don’t matter – and his conclusion is sure to cause eyerolls so big they’ll knock viewers out of their chairs. “I came to India to discover what it means to be Aghori,” Aslan declares. “What I discovered is what it means to be human.”
“Believer” hoped to be a religious “Parts Unknown,” surveying the distinct faiths of different regions instead of their foods. But as GK Chesterton said, “the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”
And it looks like something solid is precisely what Aslan’s open mind isn’t going to deliver.