A Review of CNN’s “Believer” with Reza Aslan

When I saw a commercial for “Believer,” I was extremely excited. The show promised an in-depth look at religions around the world, and I was eager for a more visceral chance to experience these religions than through the literature I had studied.

I watched the Scientology episode first, as it was the first I could record with my cable app. This initial glimpse at “Believer” impressed me. I knew almost nothing of Scientology aside from what I had seen in the documentary, Going Clear, so I had a distinctly negative view of Scientology. Aslan acknowledged this public perception in his episode but sought to give the religion the benefit of the doubt. In his interviews with Scientologists who had separated from the church, he noted a trend similar to that of the Protestant Reformation. Scientologists were gradually separating from the church after seeing its greediness and the ways in which they believed that it had diverged from the original teachings of L. Ron Hubbard.  That having been said, Aslan focused on auditing practices rather than the theology, and I would have liked to gain a better understanding of the belief systems. Additionally, it would have been nice if Aslan engaged more with church abuses.

After this initial glimpse, I looked up reviews of “Believer” and was surprised to see mostly negative responses. Now, having watched every episode aside from the one about Orthodox Jews, I see the sensationalism that critics have railed against. The very first episode of “Believer” focuses on India’s Aghori, a small Hindu sect that denies religious purity and the caste system. Here, Aslan completely forgoes an exploration of conventional Hinduism and straight into the injustices of the caste system. He then looks to the Aghori as the cure for these issues, but the nomadic Aghori are quite radical. They eat from skulls, drink water from the polluted Ganges, cannibalize human flesh, and consume their own urine. Aslan jumps from these radicals to a moderate sect which hosts a school where inter-caste interaction is encouraged as well as a clinic for the most untouchable of all, lepers. This is where other reviewers have railed against the show (i.e. Samuel and Juluri). In the time of Trump, people are afraid of xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment, and they think that Aslan’s pedagogical strategy (contrasting a radical group with a moderate one) will only contribute to hatred. Yet, it is unlikely that racists, xenophobes, and religious supremacists will approach “Believer” at all, and Aslan makes it clear that conventional Hindus are disgusted by radical Aghori practices. That having been said, Aslan failed to show the beauty of the Hindu religion or to weigh its flaws with those of Christianity, a tactic that really served him in the Scientology episode.

As for the rest of the show, Aslan did well with his depiction of Vodou and the religious cultus1 surrounding Santa Muerte. However, I feel that he gave too much air time to the Evangelicals calling Vodou demonic, especially since the Evangelical message was fairly simple and redundant. A mambo who watched this episode noted that there were some inaccuracies, but I think the general purpose, to shed light on a deeply misunderstood religion, was served.

The doomsday cult in Hawaii episode was least productive. The commune built around one doomsday prophecy could hardly be described as a religion, since it had no overarching theology or spiritual practices, and their prophet, Jezus, (yes, Jesus with a z) was more than a bit ridiculous. So, I felt somewhat cheated of a legitimate religious portrayal by this episode.

Overall, “Believer” was enjoyable, but the educational value of the show varies greatly from episode to episode. Elements of the sensationalism that others have accused CNN of are there, but Aslan seems to be genuinely interested in exploring belief systems other than his own. That having been said, the series is worth watching, if with a grain or two of salt.


Endnotes

  1. specialized religious devotion
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