Aleteia logoAleteia logo
Tuesday 03 August |
Saint of the Day: St. Martin
home iconVoices & Views
line break icon

With ‘Believer,’ Reza Aslan divides faith and reason (and suffers the consequences)


Matthew Becklo - published on 03/10/17

CNN's new miniseries reduces the practice of faith -- human brains, anyone? --- to irrational superstition.

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.

Support Aleteia!

If you’re reading this article, it’s thanks to the generosity of people like you, who have made Aleteia possible.

Here are some numbers:

  • 20 million users around the world read every month
  • Aleteia is published every day in seven languages: English, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, and Slovenian
  • Each month, readers view more than 50 million pages
  • Nearly 4 million people follow Aleteia on social media
  • Each month, we publish 2,450 articles and around 40 videos
  • We have 60 full time staff and approximately 400 collaborators (writers, translators, photographers, etc.)

As you can imagine, these numbers represent a lot of work. We need you.

Support Aleteia with as little as $1. It only takes a minute. Thank you!

Daily prayer
And today we celebrate...

Top 10
Saint Mary of the Angels
Bret Thoman, OFS
All your sins will be forgiven if you go to a Franciscan church o...
Ignacio María Doñoro
Francisco Veneto
The military chaplain who pretended to be a criminal to rescue a ...
Theresa Civantos Barber
The one thing we all should do before this summer ends
Violeta Tejera
Carlo Acutis’ first stained glass window in jeans and sneak...
Cerith Gardiner
Gold-winning Filipina Olympian shares her Miraculous Medal for th...
Ary Waldir Ramos Diaz
1st Feast of Our Lady of Silence is August 1
Cerith Gardiner
Simone Biles leaves the Olympics with an important lesson for her...
See More
Get Aleteia delivered to your inbox. Subscribe here.