Reza Aslan talks about religion in America and his CNN show, “Believer”

Courtesy of CNN

When most people speak about UCR, there are normally three talking points they focus on. The first is normally about our acclaimed campus diversity. The second is that we have concerts on campus every year, with consistently praised lineups. And the last is that one of our professors has his own show on CNN. That professor is Reza Aslan, who teaches in the creative writing department on campus and is the host of CNN’s newest spiritual adventure series, “Believer.”

Aslan, who gained popularity in the political realm by being a commentator on CNN, Fox News and other news outlets, travels the world in search of the ultimate religious experience and a deeper understanding of what makes someone a believer. In the process, he attempts to teach the viewer something about themselves and the beliefs they ascribe to. During his time on the show thus far he has eaten human brains and has had urine thrown at him while meeting a man from the Aghori sect of Hinduism in India, with the former creating controversy and the latter inducing laughs.

With season one finished and plenty of talk circulating about the show, the Highlander spoke with Aslan about the show, eating human brains and what he hoped the audience learned from his adventures:

Cydney Contreras: How was your experience with the show?

Reza Aslan: It was pretty incredible. We had an amazing crew, the director Ben Selkow and the two cinematographers James Adolphus and Ian McGlocklin, they were great professionals which was important because I myself didn’t really know what I was doing, it was all really new to me. I really had to put my trust in my team, especially our showrunner Liz Bronstein, who was kind of like the brains behind the entire production. So it was a new experience for me, but it was also really magical and satisfying. I think we are all as happy as we could be with the end product.

CC: And how much creative authority did you have in the series itself?

RA: Well, I mean, I picked the episodes, I picked the religions, I crafted the narrative. What would happen is that I would say let’s do a show with this as the major theme, then the producers would chart it out, put it on the board as it were and then once I could see it in that form I would be able to create a master narrative of it more easily. And then the producer would go back and try to recraft the episode based on that narrative that I had. Usually by the time we went out to shoot it we were fairly confident in the overarching story that we wanted to tell for that episode, but we also knew that once we started filming that the thing would take on a life of its own. We would have to make pretty profound changes on the fly or have to make a U-turn all of a sudden because things didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to. And then there was a whole other step, which was that once you come back with all the shot material and began the editing process, sometimes we realized that what we thought we had was not what we had and we had to kind of rethink the order of the episode or the order of the narrative. So, you know, we would have a general idea of the story we wanted to tell but we were also open to the idea that the story was going to change pretty profoundly right up until the point when we turned it into CNN.

CC: So an example of that would be, with the Aghori in India correct?

RA: So that’s a good idea of that, a good example of something changing on the fly. Another really good example is with the Scientology story. Our plan was to end that story in Israel, but when we came home and looked at the footage we realized that the story looked better beginning in Israel.

CC: I think with the first episode, for me personally who doesn’t identify as religious, watching it kind of took me aback. I almost didn’t want to watch the show, because it was kind of scary in a sense. Was that when you first started filming? Did you ever think, “Maybe this isn’t a good idea and this will have the opposite effect from what we intended?”

RA: No, never. In fact, that was the last episode we shot and I couldn’t be happier with the effect that it had. It had the exact effect that I wanted. I wanted people to be shocked so that they could have a transformation, so that they could see that underneath the external theatrics was a very important point and if that point could be expressed in a different way it could be pretty profound and emotional, and that is exactly what we did.

CC: I could understand that, because it made me reevaluate why the scenes offended me so much despite saying that I am not religious. As someone who has said I am an atheist, why would this offend me?

RA: Well atheism is a belief system, like any other so you have certain things that you have a stake in. You have a stake in the issue, like anyone would, so when that identity is challenged in any way shape or form, or when it confronts something that it views as foreign or exotic, the response is going to be discomfort and even fear. That is exactly what we were going for. But as a way to sort of take you to the other side of that emotion. Every one of the episodes have a very similar arc, it begins with something that they see as foreign and exotic and weird and uncomfortable, and then it forces you to reexamine that faith and recognize how familiar it actually is and how much you actually have in common with it despite what you may have thought to begin with.

CC: With the response that you had to show, it did create a lot of controversy, I guess what I am wondering is do you think people take their own faith too seriously?

RA: Well, I mean, religion is something that people take very seriously. It is a part of their identity and if they feel as though their identity or their very sense of self is under attack in some way they are going to respond. I have been writing and talking about religion for most of my adult life so it is not something that I am unused to. I recognize that it is a part of what is going to happen in my public career and it doesn’t dissuade me in any way, shape or form. Part of the reason why I think I do what I do is precisely to get people to maybe think a little bit differently about the things that they believe. To challenge themselves a little bit more and to find those commonalities that I was talking about and to perhaps have a more expansive idea of religion and faith and the intersection of those two things. That is the whole point of the show.

CC: Did you prepare in any way for meeting the people on the show? How did you do that?

RA: I familiarized myself with the culture, the history, the religion; those things I understood very well and was prepared for in those factors. But I deliberately did not familiarize myself with the people that I met. In fact, in almost every situation the first time I meet those people, I meet them on camera because I waned to maintain the authenticity of that experience. I wanted to learn from them instead of going in there feeling like I was an interviewing a subject. I understood the concepts and the background but I wanted the experience to be as natural as possible.

CC: In the end, what did you learn about yourself?

RA: You know, that I have the same fears, prejudices and preconceptions as anyone else. I am not in any way different from other people, you know, I am scared of these situations like anyone else. I try very much to keep my emotions as real and honest on camera as I possibly could, I mean that’s what people were really drawn to; that they didn’t feel like I was acting or pretending that that was actually me going through those experiences. So when you see me hesitate, or when you see me hesitate or afraid or disgusted or uncomfortable, that is me and that is who I am. In many ways, it parallels the journey that the audience was going through. Honestly, that is partly why the show was a huge success, because it didn’t feel like it was manipulating emotions, it was just real and honest.

CC: Millennials and students are increasingly claiming to be non-religious. What do you think the source of this is?

RA: Well actually, it traces pretty clearly to the early 2000s and the corruption of particularly evangelical Christianity by the Republican party and it turned off a lot of people. So did 9/11 and so did the kind of religious culture wars of the late 1990s and early 2000s. I think that when you look at the lives of the non-affiliated, you can really trace it to that era, but I think it is still important to understand that non-affiliated means that more and more people are refusing to identify with a particular religious tradition, it doesn’t mean that more and more people are identifying as atheist. Atheist numbers in the United States are shockingly low, these numbers are, according to Pew, about 2.75 and if you add agnostics to it, you get to about 7 percent. But when you talk about non-affiliated you are talking about nearly 24 percent. That is a pretty big number, that is a large number of people who refuse to acknowledge or associate with a particular religion, but who also refuse to say they are atheist or agnostic or non-religious. They are what would be referred to in sort of colloquial parlem as spiritual, but not religious. And I think that that is a trend that is probably going to continue in the immediate future, particularly among millennials. About two-thirds identify as non-affiliated.

CC: And for students struggling with finding their own religion or “language” as you would put it, what would you recommend to them?

RA: I would say, be true to yourself. Don’t look to others for guidance, if you do want to have some kind of connection with God or with an ultimate reality, or whatever you want to call it, that is fundamentally a personal thing and that is about you. It should be intimate and personal and hard to define. Now, if you want a particular language in order to express those emotions, well there are a lot of languages to choose from, but do you need one? No, you don’t need one. Is it helpful to have one if you want to communicate these experiences to other people? Sure, but I think that ultimately the spiritual life is about the individual and that is what is most important.

CC: Especially in terms of American politics right now, it is increasingly difficult for Americans to identify as one religion and not be identified as a Republican or a liberal. What do you think this says about America?

RA: Well, it says that America is enormously diverse and deeply individualistic and personal, but it is ultimately about a matter of identity. It is about how you define yourself, so it is going to be wrapped up in all the aspects of your identity, including politics. You can be a liberal Christian or a conservative one, so how you define your religion is going to be inextricably linked to how you think about yourself and your place in the world. And that is how it should be.

CC: On a lighter note, what was your favorite experience?

RA: It would have the be the tie between the vodou ceremony in Haiti and the Santa Muerte ceremony in Mexico. They were pretty extraordinary experiences that left me transformed. They are experiences that have not left me, you know? I still think about them all the time.

CC: So what is the future of the show? Will there be a second season?

RA: Yeah, we have got plenty more episodes that we are gearing to do. We are just waiting for the go-ahead from CNN.

CC: Any hints as to where you might be going in the next episodes?

RA: Yeah, we are interested in doing an episode on Shinzo in Japan, the Cao Dai a very fascinating and secretive religion in Vietnam and a show on the Neo Druids in the U.K. We have a lot of really fun ideas.

CC: So you are probably pretty excited to film the next episodes?

RA: I definitely am, yeah. Really, really excited about it.

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