In The Mix

On Wing, With a Prayer

Faith in its many forms is at the heart of CNN’s Believer.

Kathleen O’Steen
  • James Adolphus/CNN

In his quest to open minds to religions around the world, Reza Aslan has drunk chicken blood, smeared his body with the ashes of human remains and eaten decomposing human brain matter.

As the host of the new CNN series Believer with Reza Aslan, the religion scholar and author — who was born Muslim in Iran, converted to Christianity in high school, then converted back to Islam — is hoping that his experiences within religious strongholds will resound with viewers.

“Why people believe the things they believe has been a lifelong interest for me,” Aslan says. And whether they adhere to a faith or not, Aslan says his life’s work — encompassing speeches, teaching, books (he’s written four) and now this series — is intended to enlarge the discussion.

“When I pitched this show,” he says, “I described it as something like Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, but with faith instead of food. My success, so far, has come from my ability to narrow the distance between believers and non-believers. Create connections that make the foreign seem a little more familiar.”

Take Scientology. In one episode Aslan spends time, in the U.S. and abroad, with members of a reformation movement. “These people believe that the Church of Scientology is now corrupt and that they are the true faith,” he says. “While you may start the hour thinking, ‘This  is the craziest shit I’ve ever seen in my life,’ I’m hoping that, by the end of the hour, the beliefs you see kind of make sense.”

In India, rather than meeting with Hindu leaders, Aslan delves into a subset of gurus known as Aghori. These devotees embrace cultural taboos: they  engage, for example, in rituals involving human skulls and animal sacrifice  (one Aghori is seen drinking his urine), but they shun India’s caste system, considering all people equal.

While India was a dangerous assignment — one Aghori threatened  Aslan’s life — the host admits that the most difficult challenge was immersing himself in a form of ultra-orthodox Judaism practiced in Israel. “Navigating all the tricky things involved, the fasting and such, especially as a non-Jew and an Iranian Muslim — it took a lot of endurance.”

With the six episodes of season one complete, he remains eager to continue his religious education. That zeal — and his candor on camera — make even his more unusual experiences relatable. “When I’m in hour 12 of a voodoo ceremony surrounded by cacophony, blood and dirt, you can feel what I’m feeling.”

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 2, 2017