“I tried to uncover the mystery of faith”
Scholar and Believer host Reza Aslan explains how traveling taught him about the world’s religions
Illustration: Fabio Consoli
i have always been fascinated by religious belief. As a child growing up in Tehran during the Iranian Revolution, I witnessed firsthand the power faith has to transform people and societies for good and for bad. Although I didn’t belong to a very religious family, those childhood images of revolutionary Iran seared themselves into my consciousness and left me with a lifelong interest in trying to understand what and why people believe.
From an early age, I knew I wanted to spend my life studying the religions of the world. But I never wanted to be the kind of scholar who sits in a dusty library somewhere poring over ancient manuscripts. I wanted to experience religion as it is lived throughout the world, so when the opportunity arose to do a kind of Anthony Bourdain-style show for CNN—but with faith instead of food—I jumped at the opportunity.
I’ve worked as a producer on series such as The Leftovers and Of Kings and Prophets, but this was a very different experience.
Flash-forward to a small, impoverished village in Haiti, where, after hours on my feet, swaying to the rhythm of drums, chanting until my tongue dried out, I was confronted by a spirit-possessed priest passionately demanding I drink an ominous substance to make me worthy of the message he brought down for me from the heavens.
There were many more such experiences in the course of my adventures. In Hawaii, I spent much of the night in a flooded underground cave as part of my initiation into a doomsday cult run by a self-described (and possibly mad) messiah named JeZus.
In Varanasi, India, I slurped grain alcohol from a menacing bowl while under the guidance of a feral holy man who, at one point, threatened to drown me in the Ganges River if I asked him any more questions.
In Israel, I rode in a minivan with a group of young ultra-Orthodox ravers as we drove through Jerusalem, blasting techno music, stopping traffic and dancing in the streets in a fit of spiritual ecstasy.
As I have tried to uncover the mystery of faith by immersing myself in it, the main conclusion I have drawn is that although we may pray differently, although we may call God by different names, we are all—believers and unbelievers alike—bound together by a desire to connect with something more: something beyond this material world. The Buddha once said that if you want to strike water, you do not dig six one-foot wells; you dig one six-foot well. For him, the water was spirituality and the well was religion.
I have drunk the water—and more exotic liquids—from many sources in my capacity as host of Believer, and I can say without a shadow of doubt that, no matter the well, the water always tastes just as sweet.
Reza Aslan is the author of such books as Zealot, Beyond Fundamentalism and No god but God. His adventure series, Believer with Reza Aslan, debuts March 5 on CNN. rezaaslan.com