CNN is looking to a higher power in its quest to get new viewers.
The cable news network’s original series lineup for 2016 includes the six-episode Believer, featuring religious studies scholar Reza Aslan, who will delve into different religious practices around the world. Think of it as Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown with faith instead of food as a window to explore cultures.
“It’s an opportunity to show religious traditions, practices, rites and rituals that may at first seem weird and foreign and exotic and unfamiliar — because you’re unfamiliar with the metaphors underlying those ideas,” Mr. Aslan said in a telephone interview from his Hollywood office.
On Wednesday at 7 p.m., Mr. Aslan will be at the University of Toledo speaking on “Youth Revolt: The Future of the New Middle East.” He is scheduled to deliver the 2015 Imam Khattab Lecture in Islamic Studies at Nitschke Auditorium, 1600 N. Westwood Ave. Admission is free.
In recent weeks, CNN has been topping its cable news competition with Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, Forgery, in which scientific and archaeological methods are used to examine physical evidence of Jesus’ existence. The program has averaged 1.2 million viewers a week since its premiere.
It also aired Atheists: Inside the World of Non-Believers on Tuesday.
Mr. Aslan, who wrote the controversial bestseller Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (now being made into a movie), is undoubtedly influenced by his own personal experience. A creative writing professor at the University of California Riverside who holds a PhD in sociology with a focus on religions, Mr. Aslan became a born-again Christian after coming to the U.S. from Iran. He later converted to Islam.
On Believer, Mr. Aslan could take viewers to Pakistan for the annual Shia mourning ceremony and flagellation exercises. Or he could go to Israel to observe members of Na Nach, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish movement that combines rave culture and all that that involves (yes, alcohol and drugs) with spirituality to create, as he describes it, “something brand new.”
Religion experts are intrigued by the idea of Mr. Aslan’s upcoming program, which comes at a time when politics and faith have become intertwined in the national discussion about terrorism.
“Often, religious or ethnic identities are quickly conflated to ideological positions — whether it’s right-wing Christianity or militant Islam, which is just a small part of the complex ways in which religion interacts with society and with politics,” said Mark Juergensmeyer, director of the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies at the University of California Santa Barbara. “To present the complexity of faith and the way in which people believe — which is what the CNN title implies — is perfect.”
Mr. Aslan often says he never wanted to be an academic “who spent his time in a dusty university basement poring over the vowel markings on some ancient Acadian text.”
An interview with Fox News religion correspondent Lauren Green in 2013 ruled out that possibility forever. Green repeatedly asked the 42-year-old Aslan how, as a practicing Muslim, he could be objective in writing Zealot, which portrays Jesus as a political rebel in 1st-century Palestine rather than a celestial being — a concept that irked some conservative critics.
Mr. Aslan calmly responded by explaining his academic background. But Green did not relent, questioning his legitimacy and accusing him of not disclosing his Muslim background in previous interviews. The video went viral, and viewers from all over the globe marveled at the way he kept his cool throughout the interrogation.
“I talk about religion and faith for a living,” he said. “And I am myself a person of faith. I’ve never been that kind of scholar, or thinker, who is interested in attacking or deflating other people’s faith.”
Though Mr. Aslan is a believer, he will never try to tell you that there is a God. “There is no proof for the existence, or the nonexistence, of God,” he said. “And anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to convert you. Faith is a choice. But it’s not any rational choice. It is the result of one’s empirical experience of the world, and of reality, and one’s place in the world. You either believe that there is something beyond the material realm or you don’t. And you can’t be convinced, one way or the other.”
Mr. Aslan’s wife, Jessica Jackley, is a Christian. But the couple are teaching their two sons to be well-versed in all religions. “If religion is nothing more than a language, we want them to be multilingual,” he said. “When they are old enough and they want to pick a language to express their personal faith, they can pick whichever language they want to.”
Does that mean there could one day be a bar mitzvah in the Aslan household?
“I would be delighted if one of them wanted to have a bar mitzvah,” Mr. Aslan said. “How they choose to express their faith is completely up to them. My job is to familiarize them with their options, with the multiple ways in which they can, should they choose to, live a deep, spiritually committed life.”