What Do You Believe?

Oct 17, 2015

On Sunday, a seven-part documentary series titled Belief begins airing on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). For a week, viewers will travel around the world as the series explores the many facets of belief across cultures, from the orthodox to the secular, from the material to the spiritual.

I had the privilege of being one of the featured stories, as I traveled with a crew from Part2 Pictures to visit the giant telescopes atop the Atacama Desert in Chile. We talked about science, belief and our search for meaning under an imaginably inspiring sky. We talked much about our awe. Awe at the vastness of space; awe at our ability to comprehend so much and yet know it's still so little.

I had the chance to interview Belief's creative director, David Shadrack Smith. Here's what he says about the series — and the topic.

Can you describe Belief in its most general terms?

Belief is a 7-part miniseries that takes viewers around the world to experience — on an epic but also intimate scale — a tapestry of practices of all kinds of believers. Filmed on six continents, it follows the personal stories of believers, seekers, doubters and pilgrims as they look for a sense of meaning and purpose, connecting them to some of the oldest traditions on our planet and to universal questions that have been around since the beginning of humankind.

Why do you think this is the right time for a series like this?

The universal themes of Belief, I think, make this series feel both of its time and also beyond any specific moment. We are more connected than ever, yet we are, perhaps, more unsure of our place in the world. We encounter the conflicts that religion can be at the center of but we don't look at what underlies those faiths, the common ground that almost all beliefs have, rooted in some version of the golden rule. We can, for the first time in human history look back at the earth floating in space and see that we are all in this together, yet we don't always look up from our own perspectives and try to look at the whole. I think — and hope — this series connects us to that whole arc of human history and its quest to answer questions about who we are, what our place in the universe is and how to live together in communities and families. And I hope it allows viewers to gain new perspectives and expand their experience of people and places far away from where they may be. All of that feels timely and also timeless.

What is the main goal or goals of the series?

Belief is not a survey of religion or a history of faith. It's about very personal, very powerful ways we practice what we believe. It's about a visual feast of some of the most incredible places on earth. It's about universal experiences. We absolutely dive into some of the world's biggest religions — from Catholicism to Islam to Hindu, Buddhism and Judaism. But we also tell the stories of atheists, scientists like yourself and even an astronaut, each of whom brings their own personal story and perspective to the tapestry of belief. You find, across the whole series, the connection that unites all of our beliefs is a common set of questions: Who am I?; What's my purpose?; and How do I find meaning in my life? The stories in this series had to do many things: connect to audiences emotionally; give a great experience for the viewer; inform about basic ideas and facts across many faiths and belief systems; and, finally, to fit within the intent of the series and the themes we wanted to communicate. We hope that audiences will look across beliefs that they might not share and find the deeper connections that bring us together. Ultimately, we hope that people will ask themselves what they believe and why.

Why do you think Oprah is interested in the theme?

Belief, in the broadest sense, has been a lifelong pursuit for Oprah, as I understand both from her well-known pursuits and also private conversations during the making of this series. I think her intention for us all to reach in and find the best version of ourselves is reflected in this series. It's the best of Belief: The part of belief that ennobles us, gives us a center and a compass, reminds us to think and connect to a sense of purpose and meaning. Throughout the making of Belief, Oprah guided us very actively to these goals and also helped shape the themes and stories that connect the whole arc of the series. I can't imagine anyone better to have been involved in this series than Oprah. It felt very personal for all of us.

In a short clip, Oprah mentions "energy." Can you explain what she means by the use of the term?

I certainly don't want to speak for Oprah, but I think the energy she refers to is the animating force of belief — that sense of questioning, feeling, seeking, opening. It's the thing that makes us look up at the stars and wonder or feel a connection to someone or something. Filming around the world for Belief, I can definitely say you could feel it — whether on the banks of the Ganges surrounded by 30 million people seeking a connection to their faith or in the existential quest of a solo rock climber scaling a peak with no ropes, no gear, and nothing but his own confidence in himself to keep him alive. When you see all these stories put together, you know that there are many different definitions of the divine, but the fact that most all of us have some sense of a grander story of the universe — something we discussed in terms of how we understand our origins — reveals an animating force in our human consciousness. That is a kind of energy.

Tell us about your experience shooting Belief, what you learned from being exposed to so many people and cultures.

The most powerful part about making Belief was being let into the very private, very sacred communities and lives of believers. To be present and immersed in some of inner sanctums of the world — from Mecca to the Hasidic community in New York to events that have rarely been filmed among Native Americans and Aborigine communities — was a privilege and a responsibility. We had to learn to film barefoot in Indian temples, how to behave around a Jain nun, and more. It was humbling and illuminating and really made me understand the power of sacred rituals and rites, how they focus the practitioner and the attention. Beyond that, just witnessing the array of belief, the seeking and yearning, the power of beliefs and the connection that underscores all of us was remarkable. To spend three years musing about the meaning of life was an amazing experience in and of itself!

What was the most meaningful moment for you while shooting the series?

There were so many moments of meaning while shooting this series. I remember vividly sitting with you under a starry sky in the Chilean desert thinking about where we all come from, the vastness of it all and yet the strange position of being a conscious human being in this universe was incredible. The sense of epic and intimate. For me personally, filming with Mendel, a Hungarian boy going through his Bar Mitzvah was very powerful. I had a Bar Mitzvah years earlier and it renewed a sense that we all have some role to play in passing on traditions and sacred knowledge. A role and a choice. You can make it your own, choose to participate or not, but it was a reminder to make your choices with awareness. So, when I came back from filming that story I reestablished some rituals in my life and with my family that have been a great return to having a more balanced life.

Do you think the series will impact the relations between different faiths?

That certainly was an intent of the series from the start and, judging by the people who have screened it so far as part of engaging different communities, the message that we can appreciate other ideas, connect with other believers, comes through powerfully. It's a controversial subject, of course, but with the stories so rooted in the personal and so connected thematically, it's hard not to walk away with a strong sense that we are more united than divided in our human pursuits. I won't say we can create world peace with this series, but it doesn't hurt to hope!

How does the series view spirituality?

This series is all about the human spirit — that sense of being aware of who we are and our place in the human story and beyond. Spirituality is sort of a general term for leaning into that awareness and trying to construct some meaning for oneself, whether rooted in a tradition or not. The series offers more questions than answers, so we leave it to the viewer to make definitions and create their own take-aways. But I don't think you can watch this series and not be moved by the human spirit of wanting to connect to something greater than ourselves.

Why do you include both religious and secular people in the series?

We knew this would not be a survey of religion or a history or a treatise. This is about people who are living lives with a sense of belief and that is not exclusive to religion. We wanted the perspectives of science, of atheists, of doubters and people who had lost their faith and were perhaps trying to find a way back in. One of my favorite stories is with the astronaut, Jeff Hoffman, who talks about looking back at earth from space and having a powerful realization that we are all in this together. We wanted this series to be inclusive in the best sense of the word.

Do you feel transformed in any way after shooting and editing the series?

I think all of us making it and participating in it were transformed. Our sense of connection to the whole world, our thoughts and preconceptions about belief upended and reimagined, our experience of asking ourselves what we believe. All of these things were transformative. We had to go in with a big, wide, open mind. You realize that everyone has a story. You see that there are things beyond your own life. You connect to a grand narrative of human thought and experience. I mean, it doesn't get more powerful than that!


Marcelo Gleiser is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist — and professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is the co-founder of 13.7, a prolific author of papers and essays, and active promoter of science to the general public. His latest book is The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning. You can keep up with Marcelo on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser.

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