Reza Aslan and the Risks of Making Religion Relatable

Source: The Atlantic

By SIGAL SAMUEL

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.

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