Reza Aslan knows that pissing people off sort of goes with the territory of being a public figure dedicated to exploring different religions. But it's certainly not why the best-selling author, academic and TV host does what he does.
"I don't enjoy getting death threats," Aslan says via phone from Los Angeles, where he's preparing for a book tour for his latest release, God: A Human History, including a stop in Spokane on Monday. "I don't enjoy having people threaten the lives of my children, which is what happens often when people respond to my work. When you're in the business of writing about religion, you are writing about something that people take very seriously. And when you're trying to write about it in an objective and historical way, you get in the position where not only do you get a lot of criticism from religious people, you start to get a lot of criticism from anti-religious people."
As the 45-year-old Aslan's work has become massively popular — from his first nonfiction work, 2005's No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, to his best-selling last book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth — he's caught flak from all sides. Religious scholars and fellow academics accuse him of not being serious enough in his scholarship. Fellow Muslims label him a blasphemer, while some Christians proclaim him incapable of writing about their religion due to his Iranian ancestry and own faith.
There's an old journalism trope that if both sides of an argument are angry with you, you're doing something right. Aslan finds the same in his approach to researching and writing about the world's religions. While his critics are constantly looking for fissures in his style or research to tear down his work, Aslan is focused on revealing the commonalities of humankind through its wide-ranging relationships to some higher power.
"One of my purposes as a thinker, as a writer, as a public intellectual, is trying to convince other people of what I have come to realize in my decades of studying the religions of the world, which is there's not that much separating these things from each other," Aslan says. "You learn very quickly that they're all pretty much saying the same things, often using the same stories, often using the same metaphors."
When he first started working on his new book, Aslan was planning to focus on the point in human history when the concept of God first arose, and how human spirituality developed from there. But as he researched prehistoric religious practices and contemplated what he knew of modern religions, Aslan recognized what he calls "this almost cognitive tick" among humans from different eras and different religious practices, "this compulsion to humanize the divine, to fashion God not just in human terms, but specifically in our own human terms. We are essentially divinizing ourselves when we think about God, whether we believe in God or not.
"That knowledge suddenly unlocked a new way of thinking about that history," Aslan continues, "where suddenly it occurred to me, you could look at the great religions of the world, the cohesive history of human spirituality, and what it is when you really boil it down is one long, interconnected attempt to make sense of God by increasingly humanizing him until, of course, in the person of Jesus, God literally becomes a human being."
Aslan explores the ramifications of that idea in his new book, his latest in a line of eminently readable works that combine elements of history, theology, archaeology, anthropology and more in ways that make seemingly daunting subjects not just understandable, but highly entertaining. The ability to delve into a wide array of subjects is the main reason Aslan got into studying religion in the first place — that and the fact his Iranian-immigrant parents "who left everything and came here with nothing in order to give me a future" weren't too interested in his fiction-writing aspirations. "I decided to become a professor because that would allow me to write," Aslan says.
The popularity of his writing has, in turn, allowed him to expand beyond literature and academia into television. He hosted his own series, Believer, earlier this year, traveling the world à la Anthony Bourdain to turn his research, affable personality and CNN's hi-def cameras on various religious sects. Despite the show's ratings success and being deep into production on a second season, the network canceled Believer in June when Aslan ripped President Trump via Twitter for his renewed call for a Muslim travel ban in response to the London terror attacks.
While Aslan regrets losing the outlet he had with Believer, his feelings toward Trump haven't mellowed. Asked how the climate toward Muslims in America in 2017 compares to when his family moved here during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979, Aslan says, "It's worse now than it was in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. It's worse now than it's ever been," and the reason for that is the stoking of fear and animosity by the man he calls the "Racist-In-Chief."
Aslan maintains that the experience with CNN didn't dim his desire to explore "the way people think and the things they believe," and he hopes to continue doing that elsewhere on television, in addition to his writing.
"[The cancellation of Believer] did not sour me from trying to use television as a medium to try and change the way that people think about other people, other races, other religions, other cultures," Aslan says. "To this day, I still think TV is the most powerful medium at our disposal for transforming people's perceptions about the world that they live in."
Until he's back on the air, Aslan's books and live appearances like the one in Spokane will have to suffice. ♦
CANCELED: The Reza Aslan appearance schedule for The Bing Crosby Theater has been canceled.