On the Usefulness of Reza Aslan

by Matt Sheedy

The launch of Reza Aslan’s Believer on CNN has, not surprisingly, garnered a fair bit of attention since its release earlier this month, from both popular websites as well as from scholars of religion. For example, The Huffington Post, The Atlantic, Variety, and Vanity Fair have all featured articles on Believer, ranging from fawning praise to cautious skepticism, as evident in the title of The Atlantic piece, “Reza Aslan and the Risks of Making Religion Relatable.”

As many readers of the Bulletin will know, this is not Aslan’s first foray into popular media, as he has been a frequent guest on Real Time with Bill Maher, and gained a fair bit of publicity for his book Zealot, including two interviews on Fox News and CNN that went viral, where he denounced simplistic depictions of Islam and asserted his bone fides as a scholar of religion (and likely attracted CNN to his market potential in the process). Several contributors to the Bulletin wrote about these interviews (see Brown on the Fox interview, and Stoneham, LoRusso, Sheedy, and Crook for the CNN feature) offering a decidedly mixed reception, where they asked–if only implicitly–what the implications might be of having Aslan as the popular face of the study of religion? With his show Believer, this question is more relevant than ever before as Aslan has now become one of the most recognizable figures associated with the field.

Commenting in a Twitter thread on the first episodes of Believer with the hastag Dis-#Believer-s, religion scholars Megan Goodwin and Michael J. Altman offer a mixed review, commending, for example, Aslan’s critique of the Trump administration’s “rhetoric about religious difference in the US” while critiquing his dated use of the term “cult.”

Likewise, in a recent blog post on the Bulletin, Andrew Henry reflects on the sensational content of the show’s opening trailer, which he notes butts-up against Aslan’s professed intention to create empathy and understanding by immersing himself within a variety of (lesser known) religious communities in order to create a product that, in Aslan’s words, is “experiential, not just informative.” As Alsan puts in an interview with Religion Dispatches:

My entire career has been built around trying to give people a better sense of what religion is—not just more knowledge about the world’s religions, but more knowledge about even how to understand religion, how to put it in its historical context. Also, how to understand the difference between what is sometimes referred to as “high” religion and low religion—the religion of scripture and temples and priesthood versus the actual lived religion that people experience in their day to day lives.

While Henry fears that Believer “may do more to exoticize than empathize,” citing Aslan’s discussion of the Hindu caste system in the show’s premiere as lacking in historical context as one example, he applauds him for bringing elements of religious studies to cable TV and encourages scholars to engage with the series, while ending with a cautionary note: “We should not ignore such a high-profile opportunity.”

This point is echoed in Ian Brown’s piece (cited above), where he argues that while Aslan’s portrayal of Christian origins in Zealot is perhaps “a little simple,” noting that his sources are “all rather conservative and/or theological historical Jesus scholars,” he points out that millions of people saw this interview and were thereby exposed to at least some scholarly ideas that they may not have otherwise encountered. This, Brown concludes, is “useful,” since it helps to garner interest in the academic study of religion despite the shortcomings of Aslan’s approach.

While this point may sound obvious to some, I’ve personally noticed a fair bit of hand wringing among scholars of religion over the very existence of Aslan’s show. To be sure, I share many of their concerns and what it could mean for popular perceptions of the field. Take, for example, one tagline CNN has used to promote the show:

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.

Right here, in one short sentence, we find a normative discourse on spirituality, a displacement of the object “religion” (as in scholar of religion) with the adjective “religious” (thus implying a theology), and heavily loaded assumptions suggested by the terms faith, experience, and “true believer.” But despite these problems with CNN’s promo, I share Brown and Henry’s enthusiasm for Alsan’s public presentations of “religious studies,” if only because it provides an opportunity for us to engage a larger audience on what it is that we do, and to perhaps make ourselves more relevant in an age of austerity.

By way of comparison I am reminded here of debates that took place in my own backyard in Winnipeg, Manitoba, when the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) opened its doors in September of 2014. Many academics and activists alike lamented its very existence given the (predictable) privileging of certain narratives over others, the role of the state and special donors in governing the framework of “human rights,” and the irony of the museum being built on unceeded Indigenous land, among other things. But with all its problems–from a critical/descriptive/analytic/historical as well as a political-ethical point of view–the CMHR has created space for conversations that did not exist before it arrived and has been used to garner increased attention to both historical scholarship and political issues since its inception.

With this example in mind, I suggest that we view Aslan’s show in a similar light—as an opportunity that we can draw upon to show others outside of the disciple (so, like, 99.9999 …% of the population) an imperfect example of some of the things we do as scholars of religion. For many of us without permanent positions who don’t know if we’ll ever land a job in academia in this still downward spiralling market, or even if we’ll be able to continue teaching as adjuncts amidst cutbacks in courses and paltry wages, a chance to expand public interest in the study of religion is an opportunity that should not be thrown to the wolves, who are still howling at the door despite the size of their bloated bellies.

Matt Sheedy holds a Ph.D in religious studies from the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and is associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, as well as representations of Christianity, Islam, and Native traditions in popular and political culture. His dissertation offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere.

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