The tone of Reza Aslan’s new television series Believer is a curious mixture of snobbishness and inclusivity. In it, the author and religious scholar immerses himself in some of the more markedly idiosyncratic religious faiths of the world today. He undergoes auditing sessions with “independent scientologists” who have left the organized Church of Scientology but retain their devotion to the psychotherapeutic practices of its founder L. Ron Hubbard. He participates in a voodoo ceremony where a possessed priest—speaking in tongues while wielding a machete in one hand and a bottle of liquor in the other—prepares a goat for sacrifice. He also visits a family of Haredi Jews in Israel in which the mother works and raises the children while her husband spends every day studying the Torah.
All these religious experiences are undergone by Aslan with a good deal of curiosity but almost no suspicion. He is easily swooned by the glittering eyes of a Hawaiian doomsayer named “Jezus,” who is described by one of his followers as “intense,” which is the frightened person’s word for unhinged. But as viewers are shown Jezus frantically throwing things around his Vedic-inspired studio, yelling at his apostles for improperly assembling one of his “arcs” (makeshift platforms with plastic barrels tied to their bottoms) and stopping just short of busting a coconut over his head (a sure sign that some of Jezus’s schizophrenic manifestations are more theatrical than clinical), Aslan would like to remind us that he gives “purpose” and “meaning” to a lot people’s lives.
This is one of the “deeper meanings” Aslan would like to convey about religious belief—that more often than not, a religion’s appeal isn’t doctrinal or intellectual, but rather social and psychological. Voodooism, in this view, retains its popularity in Haiti because of its perceived role in the island’s 1804 anti-colonial rebellion against French oppressors; the Haredim’s extreme orthodoxy is really just a tribal reaction to modernity and secularism being imposed on them at gunpoint; and the Santa Muerte movement in Mexico speaks to the dispossessed classes (poor, criminal, sexually exploited) in a manner that the country’s mainstream religion, Catholicism, cannot, because of the Church’s unsympathetic attitude toward prostitution and drug use. Spirituality, then, is just a code word for community—or, more precisely, it’s a fill-in for whatever needs and hopes the believer has that his or her real-life community isn’t providing. Thus God is a father for the fatherless, a purpose for the uninspired, and a spiritual guardian for the vulnerable.
Aslan is a Muslim but takes a universalist approach to other religions. He believes there is a transcendental unity that interweaves the various faith traditions together and sees the divinely inspired life as akin to a mountain climb, with different paths representing the different world religions, but all striving to reach God at the summit. As he put it in his 2005 book, No god but God, “There are, of course, many paths to the summit—some better than others. But because every path eventually leads to the same destination, which path one takes is irrelevant.” In the show’s first episode, Aslan couples his universalism with a so-called culturalist interpretation of religion. “Religions are embedded in culture. In fact, they’re inextricable from it…In many ways religion and culture are one in the same.” The aim of this sort of ecumenicalism is clearly to mellow and discipline the religious spirit away from fanaticism. Under its guise, the world isn’t divided into Protestants and Catholics, Muslims and Hindus, Jews and Buddhists, but between the judicious and the dogmatic, the tolerant and the bigoted, the mystical and the orthodox. In practice, it’s a cordial and wholesome way of dealing with a tendentious subject; as a theory, it’s puerile and dull.
Yet, in truth, Aslan is probably correct when he suggests this is how most people believe. They see their religion in terms of social and human relationships. It gives the otherwise hopelessly provincial a sense of connection with history, tradition, and ancestry, and provides the untheological with a set of moral codes ambiguous and ambitious enough that they can be applied to practically any situation. Every episode of Believer ends the same way, with a sequence of talking heads telling the camera what they believe. And every time the answer is psychologically the same…a cozy thought.
Orthodox co-religionists might mock this indifference to dogma, but they themselves have their own cozy thoughts disguised as covenantal truths. The fire-and-brimstone sermon that propagates fear and terror has just as much psychological appeal to the churchgoer more civilized in manner than in sentiment as the sermon about the god of love has for churchgoer who is compassionate or accursed. A trans-female prostitute Aslan speaks with in Mexico City finds in Santa Muerte a fiery heart of apathy; another woman, the mother of a murdered narcotics dealer, finds in the Christian-Aztec figure a cold and redeeming vengeance. No one discovers in their gods anything they don’t wish was already there.
Is it true to say, as Aslan does, that religion and culture are the same? There is certainly a porous border between the two—the blend of old and new religious iconography in the Santa Muerte movement or the “ecological apocalypse” prophesized by Jezus or the anticlerical element in independent scientology are all fine examples of that. Placing too strong an emphasis on the linkage between the two, however, is a dangerous intellectual path to tread down. On the one side of it are the bleeding hearts who’d like to reduce religion, culture, language, and race into themselves so as to more easily detect alleged instances of bigotry and offense. On the other side are those who’d like nothing more than that same reduction, except in their case because it lightens the moral and intellectual requirements of their prejudices.
Believer explores the spiritual beauty found in the most intensified forms of religious nonsense. It also gets a hold of the complex bond between experience, belief, and action; but offers only simplistic platitudes about community and belonging once it does. Aslan talks with his subjects as if he’s hearing everything they’re saying for the first time—mouth slightly open, brow slightly furrowed—but he’s been saying the same sort of things for a while now, thus making his search for enlightenment come across as disingenuous and pedantic.