God: A Human Historyby Published 07 Nov 2017
|God: A Human History.pdf|
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • The bestselling author of Zealot and host of Believer explores humanity’s quest to make sense of the divine in this concise and fascinating history of our understanding of God.
In Zealot, Reza Aslan replaced the staid, well-worn portrayal of Jesus of Nazareth with a startling new image of the man in all his contradictions. In his new book, Aslan takes on a subject even more immense: God, writ large.
In layered prose and with thoughtful, accessible scholarship, Aslan narrates the history of religion as a remarkably cohesive attempt to understand the divine by giving it human traits and emotions. According to Aslan, this innate desire to humanize God is hardwired in our brains, making it a central feature of nearly every religious tradition. As Aslan writes, “Whether we are aware of it or not, and regardless of whether we’re believers or not, what the vast majority of us think about when we think about God is a divine version of ourselves.”
But this projection is not without consequences. We bestow upon God not just all that is good in human nature—our compassion, our thirst for justice—but all that is bad in it: our greed, our bigotry, our penchant for violence. All these qualities inform our religions, cultures, and governments.
More than just a history of our understanding of God, this book is an attempt to get to the root of this humanizing impulse in order to develop a more universal spirituality. Whether you believe in one God, many gods, or no god at all, God: A Human History will challenge the way you think about the divine and its role in our everyday lives.
Praise for God
“Breathtaking in its scope and controversial in its claims, God: A Human History shows how humans from time immemorial have made God in their own image, and argues that they should now stop. Writing with all the verve and brilliance we have come to expect from his pen, Reza Aslan has once more produced a book that will prompt reflection and shatter assumptions.”—Bart D. Ehrman, author of How Jesus Became God
“Reza Aslan offers so much to relish in his excellent ‘human history’ of God. In tracing the commonalities that unite religions, Aslan makes truly challenging arguments that believers in many traditions will want to mull over, and to explore further. This rewarding book is very ambitious in its scope, and it is thoroughly grounded in an impressive body of reading and research.”—Philip Jenkins, author of Crucible of Faith
"God: A Human History" Reviews
Each of Reza Aslan’s previous books made a lasting impression on me. God: A Human History is no different. It is an empowering study that relies on impeccable scholarship and yet reads with the lyricism and emotion of great literature. All the while, Aslan maintains a page-turning narrative that shows how we have made sense of God throughout history by assigning human attributes to our divine beliefs.
Aslan starts with the first humans of “Adam and Eve.” He explains how they performed burial rituals that sought to embrace an afterworld where the deceased took on spiritual forms. He shows how this idea of a transcendent soul in the afterlife has been part of every culture throughout human evolution. Then, with the birth of agriculture, the humanization of gods intensified as it was fitting to transfer the powers of the gods from heaven to earth so that humans could fulfill the harvest.
With the Sumerians’ invention of writing, humans had the ability to chronicle history, and with the power of writing came the “compulsion to humanize the divine.” This led to the widespread worship of idols. Each idol became a type of adobe where a spirit dwelt, often with a degree of superhuman powers. However, this super humanization of the gods reached a point of folly with the Greeks, casting doubts on the legitimacy of the divine.
The idea of monotheism didn’t emerge until the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten and later on the Iranian priest Zarathustra (founder of Zoroastrianism) experienced singular visions of god as a ubiquitous creator of the cosmos. Even though ancient civilizations believed in a “High God” that governed among their many gods, they had a hard time accepting the concept of an all-encompassing god.
Only by stripping the gods of their human qualities could the idea of a single god be elevated as the “creative substance underlying the universe.” But the evolution of a singular god depended on merging Abraham’s High God named “El” with Moses’s Midian God named “Yahweh.” With the upstart of Christianity, the “god-man” of Jesus only complicated the notion of how to understand the abstract, eternal, and divine essence of God. Such complication required the inception of the Trinity. It wasn’t until Muhammad received God’s final instruction to humankind that he was able to put a seal on Zoroastrian Dualism and Christian Trinitarianism in order to identify God/Allah as the only god.
For Aslan, Islam represents the totality of monotheism through the idea of tawhid, which seeks to understand God’s essence as a divine unity of oneness. The God of Islam resembles no created thing, nor do created things resemble God. This unified belief in God seeks to satisfy a oneness with Him, a starting and returning to God’s divinity, which is the sum of all things. To achieve this divine relationship, believers must dehumanize God and become one with the pure existence of an entity without name, essence, or personality.
Aslan arrives at a brilliant point where he makes clear that whether you believe in science or God, you rely on an understanding of the “animating spirit that underlies the universe.” Both science and God are essentially the same, both offering plausible or impossible platforms from which to carry out one’s belief, depending on your choice.
God: A Human History is provocative, fascinating, and earnest. Aslan steers us towards a more appreciative view of God’s origins and how we can develop a deeper relationship with God. He enables us to construct a picture of God that almost seems to take on the same direct access to the divinity in which Sufism strives to achieve. This is a book that reflects scholarship at its finest, but it’s also a brilliant piece of literature to understand God in a clearer and more inspiring way.
Aslan reminds me a lot of Harari - both are intelligent, extremely accessible and bold and love to paint with a very broad brush. They also cover some similar ground, although Aslan is more narrowly focused on religious themes. For some reason, I also find him less irritating than Harari - even though both could be accused of the same sins of shallowness, oversimplification and jumping into conclusions. When it comes to the spiritual beliefs of the early humans, Aslan is actually worse than Harari, who at least made it clear that we don't really know what people thought tens of thousands of years ago. Sapiens/Homo Deus/God benefit from reading together because while they are similar in attitude, there is a difference in outlook: Harari is an atheist, Aslan a person of faith. I thought Aslan's No God but God (about the history of Islam) was excellent and I really enjoyed God as well, especially the middle (the relationship between religion and the beginning of agriculture, the parallel development of society and the concept of God, the analysis of Bible). Some might not like how the book mirrors Aslan's own religious journey, but I didn't mind that - I'm always interested in how smart religious people think about faith, as I don't have any myself.
I am, in my essential reality, God made manifest. We all are. So then, worship God not through fear and trembling but through awe and wonder at the workings of the universe – for the universe is God. Pray to God not to ask for things but to become one with God. Recognize that the knowledge of good and evil that the God of Genesis so feared humans might attain begins with the knowledge that good and evil are not metaphysical things but moral choices. Root your moral choices neither in fear of eternal punishment nor in hope of eternal reward. Instead, recognize the divinity of the world and every being in it and respond to everyone and everything as though they were God – because they are.
What I found most interesting about Reza Aslan's God was the author's own evolution of belief – when he was a child, he thought of God as a scary authoritarian figure who resembled his own father, he then embraced his family's Muslim faith, later converted to the more anthropomorphic Christian religion, switched back to studying traditional Islam, and eventually adopted its mystical Sufi branch (as detailed in the above quote). It would be impossible to miss that this book – which traces the evolution of humanity's understanding of the divine – completely mirrors Aslan's own journey (he even tells us this is so), and this neat dovetail made me uncomfortable: as though the steps he took from childish to mature faith are the natural and ineluctable steps taken by any person/society as they grow in wisdom and sophistication; as though they who don't embrace his own concept of God (which Aslan reveals in an abrupt conclusion to his book-length history lesson) are immature in their faith. On the other hand, in view of all we have done to each other and the planet because of presumed differences and power imbalances, it would be a different world if we all recognised everyone and everything as a manifestation of the same God that animates our own selves. Imagine all the people, living life in peace... (Note: I read an ARC of this book and quotes may not be in their final forms.)
I often got the sense that Aslan's claims were unsupported (despite the allure of 80 pages of footnotes, I rarely tracked down his sources), and so I just had to take his word for much of this timeline: The emergence of ritualised burial around 100 000 years ago was proof in itself that early humans were aware of their own souls (why bother to bury the body if nothing survives death?): “It is a belief so primal and innate, so deep-rooted and widespread, that it must be considered nothing less than the hallmark of human experience”. Because these early humans had brains that worked in every way like our own, we can infer that they experienced the Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device (we ascribe human agency to inexplicable events) and Theory of Mind (because we can sense our own minds, we assume everyone/everything else has one, too), and it was because of these two cognitive tools that the early humans began to place humanity outside themselves and into the inanimate. Aslan, more than once, insists that practising a religion confers no evolutionary advantage – not even to cohere a community – and indeed, the formal practise of religion predates civilisation and even agriculture (apparently, the vast Göbekli Tepe temple [dated to the 10th millennium BCE] was built by hunter-gatherers; building this permanent complex may have prompted the Agricultural Revolution, which turns the accepted archaeological timeline of human progress on its head). When the Sumerians invented writing, that forced the gods to become “actualised” – the gods didn't require specific attributes until someone began writing about them, and these early writers couldn't help but give the gods human foibles; which led the ancient civilistions we know about (the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Egyptians) to have thought of the gods as big, squabbling families. Eventually, as city-states evolved into empires under the rule of their supreme kings, so, too, did religions begin to give their pantheons a supreme ruler (as in Marduk, Zeus, Amun-Re). The Zoroastrians simplified their pantheon into one Dualistic God, Ahura Mazda, who was made up of good and evil. And then Yahweh appeared to Moses and declared himself the one God – only problem being that before this, “Yahweh” was a lesser deity of the Canaanites, and the God worshipped by Abraham and his line of Israelites was known as “El”. So in composing the books of the Old Testament, its writers combined the two names into “El Yahweh”, meaning, “Lord God”, and recognised that this “one God” had two components (why haven't I heard that before?): it wasn't until Jerusalem was sacked by the Babylonians and the Israelites were sent into exile that Yahweh stepped forward and true monotheism was born. Just five hundred years later, Jesus called himself the Son of God, which eventually led to Christianity and the “one true God” being split into three equal parts. And six hundred years after that, Muhammad received the revelations that led to him declaring that Allah is Yahweh, is the Christian God: one, eternal, and separate from humanity.
And so, at last, we arrive at the inevitable endpoint of the monotheism experiment – the climax of the fairly recent belief in a single, singular, nonhuman, and indivisible creator God as defined by postexilic Judaism, as renounced by Zoroastrian Dualism and Christian Trinitarianism, and as revived in the Sufi interpretation of tawhid; God is not the creator of everything that exists. God is everything that exists.
It's the word “inevitable” there that sticks for me: of course a devotee of Sufism would see his chosen faith – the faith he embraced after years of search and scholarship – as the inevitable endpoint of this history of religion as he recounts it. I had the same kind of uneasy feeling about Yuval Noah Harari's scholarship, and was unsurprised to see Aslan quote his Sapiens (and if I don't completely trust the reliability of the one source I've actually read, I have questions about the rest.) The bottom line is that I did enjoy this as a “speculative history”, and as I respect what the author has shared of his personal philosophy, it feels like no harm done. Not unhappy to have read it.
This review and others can be found on BW Book Reviews.
Thanks to Netgalley and Random House for an advanced copy! All opinions here are my own and are not influenced by them.
Admittedly, I do love Reza Aslan, though. I’ve read two of his books and one of them completely changed my viewpoint on things. My religious studies professors sometimes talk about him to bring up various issues since he’s a well-known guy who studies religions and talks about them. Not only that, but I’ve often wondered how/why we decided to make such inventive religions and their function.
The approach Aslan takes basically covers history from prehistory to, give or take, 1000 CE. He starts with what various possible prehistorical religions, or what we may know of them. Then, polytheism and onto failed attempts of monotheism. Judaism, then Christianity, and finally Islam. Not only that, but Aslan also brings in more than religion. Psychology gets brought up quite often, and actually, a few things that I’ve studied on my own for various papers. Anthropology also is brought in, as is sociology.
I was convinced up until the conclusion that this would get 4.5-5 stars. However, the conclusion got too preachy for me. Aslan, in a way, said how people should believe in God or what to believe. While I was raised in what he described and it’s present in most religions, as he pointed out, I wasn’t a fan of how it was presented. Hopefully, before it gets published, it’s changed to a suggestion for how to approach religion since it’s a very personal thing.
81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump
67% of color evangelicals voted for Hillary
Reza sees race in the numbers. Do you?
"I am not the first person to point this out: There’s been a cultish quality to President Trump’s most ardent supporters. Throughout the campaign, and in personal appearances since then, Trump has harnessed the kind of emotional intensity from his base that is more typical of a religious revival meeting than a political rally, complete with ritualized communal chants (‘Lock her up!’).”
"God came to me in a dream last night and showed me the future. He took me to heaven and I saw Donald Trump seated at the right hand of our Lord"