The ancient Roman writer Seneca asserted that "religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful." Watching the new CNN show "Believer," it might be more accurate to say that CNN and show host Reza Aslan regard religion as useful to generate ratings. However, the poorly conceived program, part of the network's "Belief" series, demonstrates once again how little regard mainstream media has for faith.
The advertisement for the show, which premiered in early March, declares: "In this new spiritual adventure series, renowned author and religious scholar Reza Aslan immerses himself in the world's most fascinating faith-based groups to experience life as a true believer." It would be more accurate to call these "groups" the most marginal and absurd spiritual entities on the planet.
In the first episode, Aslan mingles with a group of religious cannibals in India identified with the Aghori sect, which appears to be loosely affiliated with Hinduism. Aslan at one point shares some cooked human brain tissue with them, and on another occasion is the object of an Aghori guru's scorn, who throws his own feces at Aslan and the CNN film crew. Condemnations from many Hindus were quick and fierce, arguing that Aslan had terribly misportrayed the world's third-largest religion.
This Is Not How to 'Get' Religion
For a soon-to-air future episode, CNN's website shows Aslan interviewing a "cult leader" who calls himself Jezus. What are Americans to make of a program that claims to showcase "fascinating faith-based groups" and instead offers cannibals and delusional charlatans? The program effectively makes religion into a circus or freak show, something for viewers to gawk at and ridicule. It represents the lows to which mainstream media will descend in their patronizing attempt to feature programming with some "faith-based" dimension.
"Believer" also projects a ridiculous portrayal of religious belief in its claim that host Aslan will "experience life as a true believer" by visiting religious groups around the world and participating in their various rites. Can one really enter into another religious and cultural paradigm as a "true believer" in what is almost certainly a few days of on-the-ground filming?
I've lived in Buddhist-majority Thailand for almost three years, visited innumerable Buddhist temples, and even participated in a few Buddhist rites where I saw no doctrinal conflict with my own Catholic beliefs. I would never think that any of this could amount to actually "experiencing" Theravada Buddhism, and certainly not as a "true believer." To make such a claim would be the peak of postmodern, pluralist arrogance and the highest insult to a 2,000-year-old religion.
Religion Isn't Like Cuisine, Dude
From a broader intellectual paradigm, "Believer" evinces how CNN and much of mainstream media simply don't take religious belief seriously. Both the groups portrayed and Aslan's participation in their rites implies that faith at its core is nothing more than subjective personal experiences. Rejecting definitions offered by practically every major religion on the planet, CNN effectively asserts that religious faith is certainly not about systems of thought and practice that make objective truth claims regarding God, metaphysics, morality, or life after death.
This disdain for serious coverage of religion is only compounded by CNN's choice of host, the controversial and ridiculous Aslan, who previously garnered headlines for writing a supposedly scholarly biography of Jesus despite having no formal training in New Testament studies. His 2013 text was a weak re-hashing of a particularly skeptical line of New Testament scholarship, filled with egregious errors and bland, unevidenced assertions, as well as being seemingly dependent on a particular variety of notoriously biased scholars.
In the controversy the book elicited, Aslan very publicly misrepresented his own academic credentials, claiming he had a "Ph.D in the history of religions," and, quite amusingly for its bravado, that he was a "prominent Muslim thinker in the United States." Neither of these is accurate, and especially the first: none of his four degrees are in history.
Here's How to Take Religion Seriously
I have a suggestion for a future episode. They can come to Bangkok, where I live, and I'll introduce them to a truly "fascinating faith-based group," the thousands of Pakistani Christians who have fled religious persecution in their home country. There's the 16-member Pakistani Catholic asylum seeker family who fled violent persecution at the hands of Muslim extremists in their home city of Karachi. Two younger female members of the family, who were captured and set on fire by a group of such extremists, have burn marks on their bodies.
Or Aslan could interview the five-member family, also persecuted Pakistani Catholics, who after the United Nations rejected their refugee application were forced into a Thai detention center, where they wait, suffer, and pray that God will intervene on their behalf. Such stories are far more deserving of CNN's attention than the circus acts the network appears to have lined up.
Ultimately what "Believer" demonstrates is how little CNN has learned from America's recent populist, conservative upheaval, a socio-cultural force that, unlike most of mainstream media, takes religion seriously. The network offers its viewers a portrayal of religion so condescending and comical, one wonders if any of CNN's staff attend a church or synagogue. Doing so would be a good place to start if they want to have any hope of reconnecting with middle America.Casey Chalk is a writer living in Thailand and a graduate student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College.