Reza Aslan gets it in the neck again

March 9, 2017 • 2:00 pm

Poor Reza Aslan—he can’t catch a break. Although he’s gotten what he wanted: lots of favorable press and, presumably, wealth—and a new 6-part series on CNN, “Believer“—he’s still getting criticized. First he gets it from the likes of me for whitewashing religion in general and Islam in particular, and then he decides to host a TV series whose theme is the underlying similarity (a good similarity) of all religions. When he tries to do that, he then gets accused of exactly what he’s accused others of vis-à-vis Islam: using extremist sects to represent the whole faith. In Aslan’s case it was, in the first episode of “Believer,” the Hindus, whom he represented using the Aghori sect in Varanasi (the new name for “Benares”). (See my post on this from Tuesday.)

I haven’t watched the first episode of “Believer,” but two reviews I mentioned in my last post criticized the show for being over the top and sensationalistic. The following 6-minute clip I watched on CNN’s website was pretty lame, for Aslan imparts a minimum of information while showing off his “empathy”. It’s like Krista Tippett on video. What makes it worse is that Aslan’s concentration on the Aghori sect, yet calling the piece “What Hindus really believe” has riled up many Hindus, who have criticized him for being “Hinduphobic”!

Click on the screenshot below to watch at the site.

Another episode features a doomsday cult in Hawaii headed by a man called “Jezus”, who beefs that “It’s hard being a prophet.” You can watch that by clicking on the screenshot below:

I’m not sure why he chose a group of fringe cults to characterize religion, but it’s not doing his reputation any good. I’m actually a bit sympathetic to the oleaginous Aslan, because he simply didn’t understand what he was getting into: the Offense Culture. He’s out of his depth, and it’s sort of sad.

It would have been interesting to hear about these fringe sects, but Aslan doesn’t realize what most of us atheists do: examined from the outside, nearly all faiths look similar—but similar in their lunacy, not in their wisdom. By choosing things like a brain-eating, urine-drinking Hindu sect, and the Jezus-worshiping death cult, Aslan is simply showing that all religions, at bottom, are delusional. And on top of that, advocates of the “mainstream” version of these faiths are taking out after him. Want to see the shit really hit the fan? Wait until his segment on Scientology! Nobody likes Scientology, and if Aslan tries to say it’s just like other faiths, every believer in the Universe will get pissed off.

A new article in Areo Magazine by V. R. Kahn gives Aslan more grief. It’s called “Reza Aslan’s cynical careerism and CNN’s ‘Believer’“, and analyzes just the first episode on the Aghori Hindus. Here’s one excerpt which gives you pretty much of the tone:

Encapsulated in this episode is the central conceit of Believer: it appears to be nothing more than a sensationalist vehicle for Aslan’s careerism. The fringe groups used in the series come across as Aslan’s version of a circus sideshow with platitudes added in for when he is accused of misrepresenting other religious groups — a criticism he has often used himself against anyone even trying to critically discuss Islam. But of course he has been roundly criticized by Hindu groups for, what they argue, is a misrepresentation of their faith. American Hindus were encouraged to live tweet the Hindu American Foundation of their concerns while watching the episode and if their retweets are any indication, their final assessment of the show was far from positive.

But creating controversy seems to be all part of the plan too; during the premiere of Believer Aslan tweeted a link to an interview on the Huffington Post entitled “Every Episode of Reza Aslan’s ‘Believer’ Will Piss Somebody Off (And It’s Awesome).” It is essentially click-bait for TV. It’s what makes his opportunistic cornering of the market on religious scholarship so blatant. When Islam has been criticized using examples from Saudi Arabia or Iran, he has argued that contextualization is key and it is misleading to characterize Islam based on two countries. Regardless of Aslan’s obvious obfuscation, it is a fair criticism of Believer to say that it sensationalizes a view of Hinduism that if done to Islam, would have Aslan on the next CNN panel stating it was nothing more than bigotry. His positions with regard to religion appear to change with how much screen time he can garner from them.

I have to say that I dislike Aslan’s attitude toward religion so much that I can’t feel that sorry for him, for his careerism has outstripped his judgment.  So be it.

In the last episode, Aslan ate some cooked human brains with a member of the Aghoris (who subsequently flung feces at the fleeing Aslan). That led to a pair of funny tweets, the first from Maajid Nawaz and then a response from Dave Rubin:


45 thoughts on “Reza Aslan gets it in the neck again

      1. I’ve heard, “oleaginous” before; what I liked was, “careerism”, a PERFECT description! What’s always been amusing to me is that he doesn’t seem to realize that if he were to go into a fundamentalist Muslim community and start speaking about his “touchy-feely” version of “moderate” Islam, it would be about five minutes (or less) before they’d be stoning him as a blasphemer.

        1. I reasonably anticipate a NY Times reporter/columnist holding forth on Aslan’s “careering” (apparently the equivalent of “careening”) down the path of religious controversy.

    1. That’s me. Ten seconds out of the pool and my body produces its own oil of oley. The cosmetic industry has no benefit for me.

  1. ‘I’m not sure why he chose a group of fringe cults to characterize religion”

    Because all religions started out that way?

    1. A backhanded compliment, but I expect he chose them more for their ratings potential than because he thinks they are analogs to the origins of major religions.

      I would agree with JAC’s original sentiment; sadly, the focus on fringe cults really detracts from the point he’s trying to make rather than helping it.

      His show seems to be an attempt to take the Bizarre Foods TV show concept and apply it to religion…but not done as well.

      1. Exactly my thought.

        Almost literally in the case of the brain-eating Hindu sect.

        I can just imagine Andrew Zimmern drooling over it right now.

        Except that I’m going to forcibly stop myself because I want to be able to eat dinner tonight.


    2. I partly really agree – Looking at shorts of the “Believer” on the website so far – they all concentrate on fringe, strictly unorthodox practise – like the Aghoras a type of sadhu obsessed with post mortem rituals – their practise is rejected by orthodox Hindus because they are contrary to orthodox hinduism. or the Jeezus character. Religions tend to serve some community and family function (or did in the past in different circumstances) – these don’t. On the other hand very devout religious belief and willingness to follow wacky cult leaders has a lot in common .. all that faith

  2. “By choosing things like a brain-eating, urine-drinking Hindu sect, and the Jezus-worshiping death cult, Aslan is simply showing that all religions, at bottom, are delusional”

    Love this quote.. Totally agree.. but who, other than skeptics realize this?

    On another note.. Is Aslan’s show supposed to be an educational documentary on Hinduism in particular? Or just an eduo-entertainment show to expose us to other ways of believing. If it is the latter.. brain eating crazies exist among other hindi religious sects.. sooooo..

    And if it’s not a philosophical exploration and critical exegesis of religion.. then so what if he’s doing it for ratings..

    He’s more entertainer.. I think the problem is the public does not accurately define what it is they are watching.. do not seek accurate balanced information and the media is not inclined to educate them because it takes away $$$…


    1. I’m sure that the final product was also produced and edited to include the most over-the-top footage collected during Aslan’s travels. Reality shows always highlight the hair-pulling and back-stabbing. Any run-of-the-mill religious “stuff” was likely left on the cutting-room floor (or the digital equivalent).

    1. I may have told this here before: a friend of mine had an art teacher in High School with whom he became pretty good friends: before he had become a teacher, the guy had gone to mortician’s school for a while where each student was given an actual human head upon which to practice makeup, etc. When he dropped out, he took the head with him rather than turning it in like he was supposed to. He asked my friend, who is a pretty strange guy, if he wanted it and he said, “Sure!”. My friend buried it in his backyard for a year and then dug it up and boiled it to remove the last bits of flesh. He noticed a fairly-good-sized piece of tissue being roiled around in the water and thought, “This is my ONLY chance to do something almost no one has ever done…” He pulled out the piece and ate it.
      Aslan is a fool, of course- prions are NOT always destroyed by even high heat, and there’s many other diseases, parasites, etc. that can be gotten from human flesh, especially INDIAN human flesh!

  3. Wait for the grand finale where Aslan visits ISIS and begrudgingly partakes in beheadings and rapings (and is of course threatened with beheading for talking too much yet again) and sums his experiences up as enlightening experiments of the material nature of body and proof that the only thing that matters is the absolute worship of God alone. It’s a doozy.

  4. Aslan is going the way of Geraldo Rivera. Their intelligence/cunning is not pronounced enough to save them from the foibles of their strutting narcissism (if one is going to strut, one better have something to strut like Christopher Hitchens had, that is, the quality of his journalism), so once the shark is jumped, they become champs at securing negative publicity which is fine with them because it is the publicity that ignites their smouldering narcissism. Chopra is heading towards or perhaps already has arrived at this destination.

    Fairly comprehensive article on Geraldo Rivera and his skill in procuring negative attention:

    We lived in the East Village the same time he did, decades ago. The neighbours regarded him as as a joke with his attempting to embrace slumming. He either was oblivious to our opprobrium or thrived on it.

    1. And then there’s the “epitome” of this type: Depak Chopra (whom I refer to as, “Deepcrap’ll Chokeya”)- I received this link from my brother the other day (I sent it to PCC but don’t know if he got it)- Depak was the main inspiration for it:

  5. Actually, there’s a funnier possibility: Aslan was duped by the Aghoris. Remember the context: these are people living in densely populated Varanasi, which is a city where the new and the old co-exist like in Venice or Istanbul. The people of Varanasi are mostly like people in any medium-sized Indian city- working, studying, etc. Aghoris live in the midst of such a society. They don’t live in a culturally-isolated jungle out in Papua-New Guinea. It’s all an exaggerated act to fool the likes of Aslan. Like religion itself. Yet, Aslan, consciously or naively, portrays them as earnest heirs to an ancient and shocking culture.

    1. I was duped in Venice a few times. It was the Chianti that did it to me.

      I always wanted to know what brain food was, not brains as food.

    2. Ah. That would be another parallel with the Bizarre Foods guy (which Eric flagged above).

      Or as I put it a couple of days ago, I wonder if the locals saw Zimmern coming and said “Let’s think of the most disgusting nauseating crap we possibly can and see if the fool will swallow it”


  6. The interesting thing is that the critiques of Islam that Reza hates are based on things that are quite explicitly sanctioned in the holy texts of the religion. His argument seems to be identical to that of other Sophisticated Theologians who say, “yes, it may say that, but nobody really believes that.” By contrast, the groups he’s highlighting don’t seem to be following the dictates of holy writ (or maybe there are Hindu holy texts that call for urine drinking and poo flinging?). So the charge that he is misrepresenting is more apt, I would say.

    One thing is for sure though, my visits to CNN have decreased substantially now that I have to look at that dumb image of him levitating every time I go there.

  7. I haven’t watched the clips, so I’m going only on description, but I’m wondering if Aslan might be doing something here which I’ve had some experience with. I have a few very ‘spiritual’ friends whose ecumenical, vague, almost aggressively non-judgmental spirituality sometimes makes them go off the chart on ‘tolerance.’ Nobody is wrong about God. Nobody. Every spiritual path is exactly what that person needs to help them on their spiritual journey. It’s all good. It’s all true. It’s all God.

    I used to try to challenge them by coming up with religious beliefs I thought they, as modern liberals, would consider anathema. No go. Once they’re in full-display mood, they’re unshakable.

    Fundamentalism? Good. Aztec human sacrifice? Good. Thuggees? Good. Beating your wife to death for violating her sacred purity ritual? Good. Praying over a child with appendicitis? Good. Atheism? Good. All true. Contradictions? Good. It’s a kind of sacred indulgence in epistemic debauchery.

    If Aslan has been hanging around folks who play that game, presenting extreme weirdness in religion on tv might not just be due to a thirst for ratings. It could also be a hunger for the kind of spiritual enlightenment which accepts everything. Or, perhaps, virtue signaling for the Open-Minded Sweepstakes. “Now, watch what *I* can tolerate.”

      1. I think I stole it from Richard Dawkins’ description of creationism as “educational debauchery.”

      2. Lots of nice phrases in there:

        “aggressively non-judgmental”

        “sacred indulgence”

        “Open-minded Sweepstakes”

        I work with these people and those descriptions are at once poetic and accurate.

    1. It seems to me you can also see this mindset at work in many areas besides religion. Very many musicians stumble over themselves rushing to praise everything they hear because saying “I don’t like it” only means you have a small and closed mind. In reality, it is they who cannot discriminate between the good and the poor.

      1. Or, they can discriminate, but they don’t want to stick their neck out and seem narrow-minded or call out crap for what it is in case someone does the same to them.


        1. Yep, that’s a possibility, too. Another thing that happens is that they spend a lot of time inventing rationales for liking a given piece of garbage, in an effort to convince themselves that it’s good and they do like it, á la theologians. They are pretty much always successful. One colleague of mine said this about one particular bit of “sound and fury”: It was hard for me to like it, but the more time I spent with it the more it wedged itself into that space where I liked it”. Now, “developing a taste” is a thing, but I think he was confusing familiarity with affinity.

          1. I agree familiarity does help sometimes, though not, I think, to the extent of making something which we thoroughly dislike, acceptable.

            But sometimes, with complicated music, familiarity can lead to anticipating what’s coming and appreciating it more. I’m thinking for example of ‘Someone Else’s Story’ from the musical ‘Chess’, which has big pauses in the lines. The first several times I listened to it, I was mentally splitting the lines in the wrong places and I couldn’t make musical sense of it at all, it was just noises. Then it ‘clicked’ and it all fell into place. I could name many other pieces of music that I appreciate far more when I’ve ‘learned’ them.

            Which shows I think that listening is a mental process, not just letting the sounds hit our eardrums.


  8. Did anyone throw shit at him in this episode? I was kind of hoping that was a central theme of the series. Around the world in 80 bowel movements.

  9. After watching Reza Aslan eating human brain in Varanasi, I really have to areee with Prof Coyne that he’s a real careerist.

  10. Given his background I think Aslan believes his pap and in the wake of this stupid program that exposes all his contradictions I hope he has no ill effects from the offerings of the stinky Aghora.

  11. Speaking of Dave Rubin, I see that he is now promoting Alex Jones’s Infowars as a reasonable place to go for information. He also appears to be getting quite friendly with Glenn Beck. At what point can everyone stop pretending that he hasn’t moved all the way to the Alt-Right? Even if he doesn’t believe all that stuff, he is certainly pandering to the that audience. And his number of subscribers continues to grow…

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