Reza Aslan’s God: A Human History is of that genre. But it is an unusual specimen. Engagingly written, likely to appeal to “seekers”, it contains an often fascinating potted history of religion, from primitive animism to the multi-faith world of today. While Aslan questions the truth of all monotheistic and polytheistic belief systems, he is not a dismissive atheist in the Richard Dawkins mould. Indeed, he has lambasted Dawkins as “a buffoon, embarrassing himself every day”.
Last year’s Australian census confirmed an inexorable trend: a shrinking proportion of the population identifies with a mainstream religion. Almost one third of citizens categorise themselves as having “no religion”.
Yet many are still involved in a search for meaning. “Spiritual but not religious” is a burgeoning category in other surveys of belief, both here and overseas. And books about the big questions can still sell well in the West, especially if they take a contrary line at odds with orthodox Christianity.
Reza Aslan’s God: A Human History is of that genre. But it is an unusual specimen. Engagingly written, likely to appeal to “seekers”, it contains an often fascinating potted history of religion, from primitive animism to the multi-faith world of today.
While Aslan questions the truth of all monotheistic and polytheistic belief systems, he is not a dismissive atheist in the Richard Dawkins mould. Indeed, he has lambasted Dawkins as “a buffoon, embarrassing himself every day”.
Aslan himself is a pantheist in the Sufi tradition. His own spiritual journey has been Homeric: born in 1972 into a Shia Muslim family in Iran, he moved with his parents to the US and was converted to evangelical Protestantism as a teenager. At college he recommitted to Islam, but later in adulthood his world view evolved again.
His writings are informed by two sound presuppositions. First, that religious belief is so widespread that it must be considered an elemental part of the human experience. As he puts it, “the question of what God is … has led to the building of entire civilisations, and it has also torn them down. It has created peace and prosperity, and it has led to war and violence.” Anthropologists are near unanimous that the oldest belief of Homo sapiens is that the soul exists separate from the body.
So, even putting ultimate theological truth to one side, religion is a massively important subject. To cite one of Aslan’s more remarkable examples: the invention of agriculture in about 10,000BC was probably a consequence of theistic religion, rather than the reverse. The first non-transient civilisations in Mesopotamia were formed in order that people could live close to their temples, including the huge numbers of manual workers required to build them.
Aslan’s second presupposition is that most if not all “scientific” explanations for the origins of the religious impulse, Darwinian or otherwise, are flawed. In his opinion, the search for those origins must be centred on the human brain — but he adds a vital kicker.
“Knowing the neural mechanics of the religious impulse,” he writes, “does not undermine the legitimacy of religious belief any more than knowing the chemical process of romantic attraction makes the feeling any less real or the object of our affection any less worthy.”
Theists of any stripe would concur: God made us that way. To this point, little in God: A Human History should be objectionable in principle to orthodox Christians, Jews, Hindus or Muslims. Aslan is likely to part company with most of them, however, as regards his central thesis. The crux of it is that human beings “have fashioned God in our image, not the other way around”. (Compare Genesis 1:27.)
While acknowledging that imbuing God with human characteristics has proved the most “successful” and “useful” religious idea conceived by our species, Aslan also insists it is false. His whole book is a plea for “a more pantheistic view of God”, of the sort held by our prehistoric ancestors: the notion that God is not a person or being distinct from the universe, but that God and the universe are one and the same. God is all.
Let me briefly outline a few reservations.
One is that, certainly as regards Christianity, and I suspect the other major faiths also, Aslan has a tendency to attack straw men, or to posit theories not held by the vast majority of qualified experts. His 2013 book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth was justly excoriated by scholars of ancient history (including Macquarie University’s John Dickson).
God: A Human History is a considerably better book. Yet troubling errors and oddities creep into Aslan’s discussion of Christianity. The Israelites, he suggests, may never have gone to ancient Egypt; for centuries they worshipped the Canaanite God “El” and were not true monotheists until after the Babylonian Exile in the sixth century BC; only in John’s Gospel is Jesus “unambiguously” recognised as the incarnate God; the Trinity was a thirdcentury invention of Tertullian.
All these assertions are highly questionable, if not downright false. As to the Trinity, for instance, the New Testament is full of it.
More generally, Aslan’s argument assumes as a matter of course that there is nothing special about Homo sapiens. The mistake of countless people down the ages, he contends, has been to “view humanity as somehow distinct from the rest of the natural world”.
But he dismisses the contrary view far too glibly. The author of Psalm 8 (“a little lower than the angels”) and Shakespeare in Hamlet (“what a piece of work is man”) were but two immortal writers to have thought differently. Today the case for mankind’s genuine specialness looks even stronger.
Our unique faculties of cognition and conscience — to say nothing of the feats of modern technology — really do seem to set us apart in a fundamental way.
This would have been a more interesting book if Aslan had grappled seriously with such questions.
As for pantheism, I was left thoroughly unpersuaded. Early in the book, Aslan explains, only to reject, a widely held view of the origin of theistic religion that struck me as compelling.
In Aslan’s eloquent paraphrase: “Adam beholds … oceans without end; he walks through forests that scrape the sky … he watches the sun forever chase the moon across the vault of heaven; and he knows that he had no role in creating these things. And he assumes that someone else — something else — must have created them for him.” (St Paul wrote much the same thing in Romans 1:20.)
For billions of people today, even in the West, that assumption remains irresistible.
Roy Williams’s books include God, Actually.
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