In a world where very little seems to shock people anymore, devouring what is described as part of a human brain, albeit charred to a crisp, is enough to shock many folks, even if the alleged brain-eating is described as part of a religious exercise. Perhaps, especially so.
Such is the lot of Reza Aslan, who has parlayed making outrageous utterances about religion into a career of "explaining" faith to the rest of us. Aslan – not to be confused with The Chronicles of Narnia hero – is (surprise, surprise) fronting a new series on CNN, "Believer." In this series, viewers must understand that Aslan "immerses himself in the world's most fascinating faith-based groups to experience life as a true believer."
Eric Hoffer this ain't. Which is where the alleged brain-munching comes in: Aslan devours what he described as barbecued gray matter on the first episode. He says he did this on a visit to the Aghori, a Hindu sect in India regarded as, well, rather iconoclastic. Aghoris reject the caste system, among other things, it's reported.
This caused no little excitement for more mainstream Hindus around the globe, which brought it to the attention of a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post:
Religion scholar Reza Aslan ate cooked human brain tissue with a group of cannibals in India during Sunday's premiere of the new CNN show "Believer," a documentary series about spirituality around the globe.
The outcry was immediate. Aslan, a Muslim who teaches creative writing at the University of California at Riverside, was accused of "Hinduphobia" and of mischaracterizing Hindus.
"With multiple reports of hate-fueled attacks against people of Indian origin from across the U.S., the show characterizes Hinduism as cannibalistic, which is a bizarre way of looking at the third largest religion in the world," lobbyist group U.S. India Political Action Committees said in a statement, according to the Times of India.
A story on The Atlantic magazine's website brings in other dissenting voices:
Although Aslan said critics were responding to ads for the Aghori episode (which he admits were "deliberately sensational, because that's what ads are"), many lambasted the premiere itself. The show is "shock religion porn," said Suhag Shukla, the leader of the Hindu American Foundation. It privileges "sensationalism over scholarship," said Ro Khanna, a Hindu Democratic congressman from California. It will "have a wider Hinduphobic societal impact," said Ajay Shah, convener of American Hindus Against Defamation.
That same Atlantic article, which examined other episodes, noted that Aslan tends to contrast extremists within a particular religion with more rational actors: there are Aghoris who aren't cannibals, but who are charitable. Along with ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel who seek near-constant ecstasy, there are more traditional ones, and so on. Yin and yang, so to speak.
As the magazine notes:
On balance, Believer might be valuable for those who are not steeped in a religious tradition. For those who are, it's a bit like having someone point out the colorful tulips growing on a lawn, while the house attached to the lawn happens to be engulfed in fire. The flowers are very nice, but what are we going to do about that house that's going up in flames?
The "going up in flames" reference is to the many global problems posed by sincere religious belief, the Atlantic writer posits, including – wait for it! – "the 81 percent of white evangelicals who voted for Trump despite his attacks on vulnerable minorities like Muslims and immigrants?"
Can there be nothing in the present mass-media age that isn't tinged by Trumpism? #AskingForAFriend
A more dispassionate observer might ask whether or not Aslan has anything to do with the alleged flame-throwing. After all, he begins a series on "true believers" with possibly the most incendiary example of extreme religious devotion he found, however obscure. There are millions and millions of devout believers who wouldn't identify with the Aghori, but there they are, front and center, courtesy of Aslan and his producers.
Being a provocateur is nothing new for Aslan, however, and that is the journalistic angle most media outlets miss. Even the Washington Post only hints at it by linking from the brain-eating story to a years-earlier takedown of Aslan's alleged scholarship in religion, beginning with an anecdote about a young Reza posing as Mexican during a time when Iranian-Americans were not in vogue. It's a story worth returning to:
The boy who posed as something that he was not has become the man who boasts of academic laurels he does not have. Aslan, 41, has variously claimed to hold a doctorate in "the history of religions" or a doctorate in "the sociology of religions," though no such degrees exist at the university he attended. His doctorate is in sociology, according to the registrar's office at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Aslan, who has an undergraduate degree in religious studies and a master's in theological studies, is not currently a professor of religion or history. He is an associate professor in the creative writing department of the University of California at Riverside. He has asserted a present-day toehold in the field of religion by saying he is "a cooperative faculty member" in Riverside's Department of Religious Studies.
Yet this is not so, according to Vivian-Lee Nyitray, the just-retired chair of the department. Nyitray says she discussed the possibility last year with Aslan but that he has not been invited to become a cooperative faculty member, a status that would allow him to chair dissertations in her former department.
Nor is "Believer" Aslan's first attempt at pouring journalism gasoline on a subject and lighting a match. Is this the story here?
Having claimed a Christian experience as a teenager while attending an evangelical youth retreat, Aslan later returned to Islam. He later wrote a book, "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth," the contents of which many sincere Christian readers might have difficulty relating to the Jesus of Scripture. Disclosure: I was very much one of those doubters, and remain one now.
Let's sum it up: There is plenty of information online about Aslan's background, his work and his worldview. Where are the journalists, then, asking Aslan about his claimed background of religious scholarship, his earlier polemic against traditional Christian faith and whether or not he's doing anything more than sensationalizing religion for ratings in his new series?
Such reporting would give readers more to, ahem, chew on.