Reza Aslan and the ‘pettiness of academia’

Reza Aslan with Lali Baba in Varanasi, India, for the CNN show “Believer.” Photo courtesy of CNN

(RNS) After a six-week run, Reza Aslan’s “spiritual adventure” series “Believer” completed its first season. Although we don’t yet know if CNN will approve a second season, one thing is certain: Scholars of religion didn’t really care for it.

Some have criticized it for sensationalizing religion for the sake of ratings (including myself over at my YouTube channel). Others have accused Aslan of conducting sloppy research and failing to cite leading experts of the religions he chose to showcase.

Still others argued he transgressed basic religious studies methodology, trading in his role as a neutral scholar of religion for the role of a “spiritual guide” or “retailer of import goods.”

But what did everyone else think about this series?

If the Believer hashtag on Twitter tells us anything, many people loved the show.

During every episode, I would scroll through hundreds of tweets to watch people’s reactions in real time. Many lauded the show as the highlight of their week. Others admired what they saw as Aslan’s respect and curiosity for other religions. Of course, the acclaim wasn’t universal, but the most negative comments, almost without fail, came from scholars.

One night, hoping to spark a self-reflective discussion with some of my colleagues, I tweeted: “Scrolling thru #believer hashtag. Scholars of religion hating the show. Everyone else loving it. What are we missing?”

Within moments, Reza retweeted me with his own answer to my question: “The pettiness of academia, that’s what.”

Aslan has leveled this same complaint against academia over the years. During a conversation at Harvard Divinity School in 2013, he blamed scholars of religion for failing to communicate “our skills, our scholarship, our research (and) our theories to a popular audience.”

READ: Reza Aslan tries to make a ‘Believer’ out of everyone

And he is not necessarily wrong. Scholars of religion are not known for reaching audiences outside of their academic circles. In my own subfield of early Christian studies, we even struggle reaching across fellow academic disciplines (as it turns out, archaeologists and historians don’t always see eye to eye). Translating our research to a popular audience demands a skill set above and beyond the training we receive in doctoral programs, and Aslan undoubtedly excels at engaging the public.

But is it fair to dismiss scholarly criticisms of his show as “pettiness”?

Many of these critiques may indeed seem petty to those outside the discipline. My colleague Sarah “Moxy” Moczygemba, a doctoral candidate at the University of Florida, likened the academic backlash to how fans of pop-culture franchises complain the loudest after a company reboots their beloved franchise.

Many old-school Star Trek fans despised the recently rebooted films, lambasting an outsider — the non-Trek fan J.J. Abrams — for failing to incorporate the measured intellectualism that we came to expect from earlier installations of Star Trek into his films. But for those who don’t have 50 years of Trek episodes memorized and dozens of convention receipts in their pockets, these complaints strike the casual moviegoer as petty.

Reza Aslan particpates in a Vodou ceremony in his show “Believer.” Photo courtesy of CNN

In much the same way, scholars of religion are the superfans of this subject. We have dedicated years of our lives in pursuit of understanding religion and trying to share what we learn with students and scholars alike. We notice uncomplicated uses of tricky terms (cult, religion, spirituality) or problematic pedagogical strategies (“trying on” religions for a day). We have a vested interest in calling these issues out and trying to steer the public conversation when the topic of religious studies suddenly steals the media spotlight for a few weeks.

Without this emotional investment and specialized training, it is very easy to enjoy a visually arresting show with an engaging host. And to be sure, parts of “Believer” worked well. The cinematography was excellent, a credit to the skill of the people behind its production company: BoomGen Studios. Aslan’s interviews were pretty good too. In the series, he sits down with an evangelical pastor, a Catholic priest, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi and rogue Scientologists who left the main organization, allowing them to share their experiences without him editorializing.

In this respect, Aslan succeeded at creating an experiential journey, laying bare the daily lives of these people for his audience. And his audience wasn’t scholars.

But labeling scholars’ disapproval as mere academic pettiness brushes aside many convincing and substantive critiques that I hope Aslan will heed in future seasons (if CNN deems its ratings worthy).

It is not impossible to produce a TV series that pleases scholars and a popular audience alike because capturing nuance doesn’t automatically mean “boring.” Capturing an audience’s attention doesn’t automatically require sensationalism. With that in mind, I hope that “Believer” doesn’t mark the last attempt to bring religious studies to a mainstream audience, but rather, challenges scholars to enter the fray with their own attempts at popular engagement.

(Andrew Henry is a Ph.D. candidate in religious studies at Boston University and host of the educational YouTube channel Religion for Breakfast)

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  • “Scholars of religion are not known for reaching audiences outside of their academic circles. In my own subfield of early Christian studies, we even struggle reaching across fellow academic disciplines (as it turns out, archaeologists and historians don’t always see eye to eye).
    Translating our research to a popular audience demands a skill set above and beyond the training we receive in doctoral programs, and Aslan undoubtedly excels at engaging the public.”

    The author understates the extent to which his colleagues from other disciplines are ill equipped to integrate their knowledge and research into something interesting for a popular audience! The narrow topics that professors and doctoral students study, are meant primarily for other scholars and not for those outside academia. Few undergraduate students find themselves attracted to obscure topics, and even fewer are inspired to pursue graduate studies in them, unless they’re hoping to one day become professors who will teach in a broader discipline.

    A HUGE need here is for someone to act as the intermediary who integrates the narrow pieces of research related to obscure topics into something that a broader audience can understand and find useful. Since he has done such a good job of broaching the topic, perhaps Andrew Henry will become a real innovator after he finishes his doctorate, and go on to create a program like his “Religion for Breakfast,” and take it to a broader audience via a popular cable channel or one of the commercial networks!

  • The author goes over these critiques in his YouTube series titled Religion For Breakfast.

  • Journalist Tony Ortega was very clear about how he thought Reza Aslan’s depiction of “indie Scientologists” in “Believer” was simply unbelievable in several articles:




    Basically, Ortega, who has decades of experience reporting on Scientology, points out that Aslan is not at all honest about Scientology, doesn’t discuss the (many) bad parts of Scientology, and then obfuscates that the “indie Scientologists” are actually a small handful of those who used to be in Scientology. Many former Scientologists may be part of an indie group when they leave, but they don’t stick with it. And Ortega explains why they don’t. But you’d get none of that from Reza Aslan.

    And this is the deal–Ortega is a journalist, who writes for his own blog and has a large group of former Scientologists and never-ins who comment on his articles. He is not a religious scholar. And he’s critical of Aslan. So it’s not just religious scholars who think Aslan is up in the night; it’s also people who communicate fairly complex issues about a controversial religious group, like Tony Ortega.

  • I’ve met and heard Aslan speak in the past (roughly 8 or so years ago at the start of his “fame”) and at the time I remember how I thought he was too simplistic. As a scholar, I thought he was “betraying” his roots in academia and that he lacked rigour.

    But now that I’m outside the university circle, I understand the important role he plays in a world that doesn’t know much about religion. I’d rather have someone who has a background in religious studies speak about religions and spirituality than some actor or non expert.

    I think his response to you Andrew may seem a little curt and over simplistic but let’s also remember that it was a response on Twitter which by its nature doesn’t allow for a lot of elaboration. I think fundamentally he’s right. Academia isn’t called the “ivory tower” for nothing. I think we’re too often times trying to impress one another, score big awards, publish or perish, that when we see someone succeeding at sharing their knowledge and passion outside the confines of academia we do tend to get petty and I would say a little jealous.

    As someone who transitioned from academia to education, I can see first hand how little students know about religions or how to engage with religions in a manner that is respectful and inquisitive without the knee jerk reactions that are now more common in our society. I think as academics we’re the ones FAILING at doing a better job of informing the public on what we do and sharing the knowledge we have which is why people like Aslan or Karen Armstrong or Huston Smith are important.