Reza Aslan’s ‘Believer’ Was Everything Wrong with Religion Reporting


Despite what some might assume based on a previous article of mine, I spent my childhood enjoying movies about anthropomorphized dogs and cats (especially before they started using dime-store CGI to articulate the animals’ mouths). One of my favorites was “Milo and Otis,” which, if you ignore the small army of furry stunt doubles that likely perished during filming, is actually entertaining and wholesome fare for a five year old.

In one memorable scene, the young ginger cat, Milo, has a philosophical crisis on first encountering his future best friend, Otis the pug.

“You’re a strange-looking cat,” says Milo.

“I’m not a cat, I’m a dog,” replies Otis.

“Okay,” says Milo, grappling with the implications of this. “You’re a dog. But deep down inside, we’re all cats, right?”

“No,” clarifies Otis. “Deep down inside, I’m a dog.”

I feel like Otis every time a sentimental secularist tries to tell me that deep down inside, all religions are really the same. The most egregious offender of late has been “public intellectual and religious scholar” Reza Aslan, host of CNN’s now-canned miniseries “Believer.”

During the first season, which premiered back in May, Aslan—a loosely committed Sufi Muslim—tried to make the case that at heart, all of the world’s religious creeds are mere metaphors that help us express the same, universal search for the divine. This Bill Nye of spirituality insists that “religion isn’t about scripture or temples or priests or rules or regulations. It’s about the individual, and the quest for meaning, the idea that there is something more to life than just what we see with our eyes, what we feel with our hands.”

It’s an approach Elias Muhanna at The New Yorker insightfully describes as “a canny sort of evangelism—not for one religion in particular, but for Aslan’s own brand of universal spirituality. . . .”

The journey on which Aslan leads viewers, though sensationalized for ratings, amounts to a protracted pilgrimage toward postmodernism. Each episode of the show is a tiresome altar call for syncretic spirituality, belittling real religious belief and favoring a progressive meta-faith whose tenets, unsurprisingly, align well with the politics of CNN.

As Aslan worships at assorted shrines, participates in sundry rituals, pours milk over a Shiva-Linga phallus-vagina, and eats human brains with cannibals, he delivers an unmistakable theological message: All religions are true, if what we mean by that is that all religions are false. It’s no coincidence that, as Muhanna points out, religions that make exclusive truth-claims (Orthodox Judaism and Christianity, in particular), earn this scholar’s barely disguised contempt.

And contempt is a gift Aslan bestows liberally. His volatile temper and sharp tongue were the cause of his recent parting-of-ways with CNN, which has of late shown an unprecedented amount of backbone. When Aslan topped off a years-long spree of unhinged tweets by calling President Trump a “piece of sh**,” it was a bridge too far.

Aslan apologized, saying, “I lost my cool and responded to [Trump] in a derogatory fashion. That’s not like me.” But in reality, it was exactly like him, mirroring previous profane Twitter tirades against Mitt Romney, Todd Akin, and Trump’s family. There are certain things Aslan won’t tolerate, chief among them a president with immigration policy goals less magnanimous than his. But he also has little patience for those who don’t share his cosmopolitan view of religion.

In his elevator pitch for the series, Aslan actually opens by apologizing for religion, which he says causes no end of “conflicts abroad” and “bigotry at home.” It’s not always easy to defend the value of religion in society, he admits, especially “in a world in which reason and religion seem to be moving further apart.” He even confesses that he understands why so many view religious faith as the “hallmark of an irrational mind,” although, since 84 percent of the world is religious, we’re left wondering who, precisely these enlightened “so many” are.

Aslan salvages this bleak view of religion by recasting it as an outlet for something more primal and universal, which he calls “faith.” Religion is merely the “language we use to express” the “emotional,” “ineffable,” “not necessarily rational” experience of faith, he explains. This makes each religion a “signpost to God,” a set of “metaphors” we use to grasp the transcendent, or a cluster of wells from which all the believers of the world draw the same spiritual water.

“While we may speak in different religions,” he concludes, “we are . . . often expressing the same faith.”

Aslan uses this trite syncretism as a mandate not to take the truth-claims of any one religion (including his own) “too seriously.” And watching him cheerily entertain the prognostications of Hawaiian doomsday cults and the nostrums of Hindu cannibal-sects, then pivot in the space of an episode to browbeating Ultra-Orthodox Jews and Catholics for “not wanting to change, modernize, or evolve,” it’s clear he expects everyone to take their religion as casually as he does. Aslan is boundlessly open-minded, as long as you don’t believe your religion’s truth-claims are accurate descriptions of reality, or that your God can make demands to exclusive worship and obedience. Then he has little patience for your religion or your faith.

C. S. Lewis (known for writing about a more leonine Aslan) criticized this approach to religion in his most popular book, “Mere Christianity.” In his day, as now, many were prepared to accept Jesus of Nazareth as a “great human teacher,” but not as the Son of God who is “the way, the truth, and the life.” But Jesus’ claims to divinity, exclusivity, and sole authority, argues Lewis, preclude this kind of “patronizing nonsense.”

“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher,” he writes. “He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. . . . Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.”

Timothy Keller refines this point, arguing in “The Reason for God” that, although Alsan’s kind of spiritual omnivorism may appear fair and open-minded, it’s actually a fiercely exclusive religious system in its own right. The scholar who claims that he can see the common truth behind all religions is really claiming to have a privileged and complete knowledge of reality that none of those religions has. He has the true religion. He sees the whole elephant, as the old parable would have it, and everyone else is blindly groping at the trunk, tail, and legs.

Far from humble and tolerant, this approach to religion is profoundly conceited and elitist. It dismisses all the hard-edged, exclusive truth-claims of real faith in favor of patronizing progressive bromides, and in so doing fails to comprehend or appreciate the uniqueness or power of any religion.

This is what Reza Aslan doesn’t understand about those of us who take our faith seriously, and what CNN and the rest of the mainstream media so perennially fail to grasp about true believers, whatever their creed. Religion is not a metaphor we use to access some nebulous cosmic experience. It is a set of historical, moral, and eternal doctrines that we actually believe, that we intend to spread, and for which many of us are prepared to die. Deep down inside, we are not all syncretists or spiritual secularists, like Aslan. Deep down inside, we are believers.

Image copyright Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 3.0, courtesy of WikipediaIllustration designed by Heidi Allums.

G. Shane Morris is assistant editor of BreakPoint Radio.

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