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Reza Aslan explores fringe religions with 'Believer'

Reza Aslan, CNN's
Reza Aslan, CNN's "Believer"
Photo credit: JAMES ADOLPHUS

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Reza Aslan loves to talk about religion. After all, he's a religious scholar who wrote a popular book about Jesus called "ZEALOT: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth." As an Iranian-American Muslim, he can be often found on TV talk shows explaining Islam to audiences who have little exposure to the religion. With his new CNN series, "Believer," Aslan explores more fringe religions.

“Believer” is modeled on those anthropological docu-series where a host goes to a distant land to live in an unexplored place, eat unfamiliar food or, in this case, participate in little-known religious rituals. In the premiere, Aslan went to India to meet the Aghori, a particular sect of Hinduism.

At one point in the episode a guru has him bathe in the polluted Ganges river, chew meat off a carcass and, as the scene progresses, Aslan calls over his producer and essentially asks if he can bail on the scene.  Aslan tells The Frame's John Horn that the guru had said in his native tongue, "If you keep talking I will cut off your head." Aslan says, "So that's when I thought this might have been a mistake." Despite his discomfort with where that scene went, he explained to why he was so fascinated with the Aghori.

"It's a Hindu sect that rejects the very concepts of purity and pollution around which so much of what Hindu spirituality is based ... one way in which they prove that lack of belief in purity and pollution is by self-polluting. They will take part in theatrical displays of self-pollution as a way of shocking the system and convincing people that it does't matter what you eat [or] what you touch, these things can't separate you from God."

As an executive producer on the short-lived TV drama, "Of Gods & Prophets," Aslan has tried to bring religious stories to scripted TV. That only lasted two episodes. He tells The Frame that the HBO show "The Leftovers," for which he serves as a consulting producer, has had more success: "I think that dealing with religious themes is the way of dealing with religion."  

With "Believer" Aslan finds that, while people of faith have gravitated to the show, it may be atheists who can get the most out of it: "I have to say that atheists probably have a better experience of the show because they don't have a horse in the race."

"Believer" airs Sunday nights at 10pm on CNN.

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