Tensions in the U.S. have reached a boiling point in the 40-plus days since President Donald Trump took office, with a divide continuously widening along religious lines.
There has been a sharp escalation of hate crimes, harassment and intimidation in the first three months following Trump’s election, with nearly 1,400 incidents recorded by the Southern Poverty Law Center, including at least 54 bomb threats at Jewish Community Centers in 27 states and about 100 toppled headstones at a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia.
“What we have is an administration steeped in bigotry and xenophobia that is feeding the worst elements of American society and so we have to combat that – we have to fight back against it,” CNN’s Reza Aslan tells realscreen ahead of the debut of six-part CNN Original Series Believer with Reza Aslan. “The only way that I know to do so is by showing people that we’re not that different from each other.”
First announced as part of CNN’s Upfronts presentation in 2015, the spiritual adventure series will chronicle Aslan, a religion scholar and best-selling author, as he submerges himself in global customs and faith rituals to understand the many ways in which individuals personally experience faith.
Produced by Whalerock Industries, Believer (6 x 60 minutes) will thrust Aslan, author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, into a variety of new religious experiences, including Ultra-Orthodox Judaism in Israel, Scientology in the U.S., Hindu asceticism in India, Vodou in Haiti, Santa Muerte in Mexico, and an apocalyptic doomsday cult in Hawaii.
Believer with Reza Aslan premieres March 5 at 10 p.m. ET/PT across the Turner Broadcasting System-owned CNN. It will also air on CNN International.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
What can you tell me about the series? What topics you will be touching on?
For me, religion is all about identity. When I go around and immerse myself in different religious communities, I’m basically using religion as a lens to explore other worlds, cultures and ways of thinking. But, of course, because religion is an intimate thing, it allows for a much deeper exploration of these other cultures than I think food or other ways of exploring these communities could. Religion itself is just a vehicle, it’s a way of opening up a window into other world views or perspectives.
In Believer, you hone in on lesser-known religions. What steps did you take to ensure your work wasn’t being categorized as just religious voyeurism?
That was a big deal for me. I didn’t want to just go around the world and observe other religions; I wanted to immerse myself into these communities as much as possible. Although I don’t get to spend anymore than seven to 10 days with each of these communities, it’s not the length of time that really matters, but how deeply I can really dive in.
For the most part, many of these communities are insular and sometimes secretive, so they do take a while for them to open up to me, but I made sure to always approach them without any value judgment and with an openness to whatever experiences they had for me and the result was they were very open and accommodating.
Believers want to share their beliefs, it’s embedded in the way they think, it was just making sure that I could be someone who was trusted not to mock or devalue that belief.
You have previously said that bigotry is not the result of ignorance, but the result of fear. Is that the goal of this series — to unmask esoteric religions and remove that fear?
The way that you stop fearing another person is to get to know them. With a show like this that encourages the viewer to come on this journey of experience with me to empathize with me is a way to get you to stop thinking about groups that look or seem or act different than you as different. It’s about getting you to recognize the shared humanity that we all have in common, the similarities in our belief systems.
Believer is part CNN’s efforts to expand the network into original non-fiction and documentaries despite them costing more than talking heads on a 24/7 news cycle. What is this shift bringing to CNN?
CNN is in the business of information. Whether it’s in news or a panel, what they want to do is bring a sense of clarity to the conversations that are relevant to Americans and to the world.
Whether it’s me, Morgan Spurlock or Anthony Bourdain, we are also in that same business. What we want to do is give you a different perspective on the world. And we’re doing it differently, obviously, we’re doing it through narratives, rather than just simply through punditry or the exchange of information, but the goal is still the same.
A lot of people say this is new territory for CNN, but not really. It’s just a different narrative tool to inform the public about issues that are a concern to them and affect them in their day-to-day lives.
There has been a recent uptick in religious and racialized crimes in the U.S., so how do you think telling a story like this at a highly contentious time in history will play out with American audiences?
We are deeply divided along religious lines. Part of that has to do with the fact that we have an administration that deliberately stoked fear of Jews and Muslims in order to cynically manipulate people into voting for them and has since being in office continued to use fear mongering as a tool of governance.
We may have different skin color, we may worship different gods and read different kinds of scriptures, but underneath all of that there’s this shared humanity that binds us together far more so than our skin color, religion, ethnicity or nationality divides us. Hopefully if that’s something that you can get in this show, then it’s something you can take into your life – it’ll change the way that you look at people that don’t seem like they’re like you.