God: A Human History, by Reza Aslan

DeWitt Clinton —

Reza Aslan

Every year—for years, decades, and perhaps centuries—scholars, theologians, and lay leaders have been defining, then redefining, then re-envisioning the constantly evolving paradox of God. Of course, if one is a fundamental believer, there is only one God, The God. Nothing else matters. But if you are interested in the world, and what the world thinks of God, or gods, or out-of-date gods, or Gods believed or disbelieved, then God: A Human History by Reza Aslan, a scholar of religions, might be worth reading as it is one of the most engaging, thoughtful, insightful, challenging, and invigorating books on God in a long time.

This book, published in 2017, is worth our examination because it provides a worldly perspective on the many gods that have shaped and designed nearly all cultures and civilizations, and even those prehistoric cave or savannah-dwellers who wondered why the world is the way it is. What is surprising and illuminating, is Aslan’s spin on the Adam and Eve story.

Azlan’s view of The Garden of Eden is much more than simply another midrash, or commentary, more global, more anthropological than Biblical, and that makes his short treatise much more engaging than simply another interpretation of the Biblical characters. Aslan invites us to re-envision the garden scene, challenging us with our predictable faith-based ideas about the text. He writes, “Adam is a hunter, so when you picture him, picture a javelin at his side, a mammoth’s fur split and draped across his shoulder.” This is not the view so many readers have when they read from the Book of Genesis, or Bereshit in the Hebrew Bible, or even in the Koran. And he surprises us with Eve as well: “Eve, too, is a hunter, though her weapon of choice is not a javelin but a net, which she has spent months, perhaps years, weaving out of delicate fiber plants.” These are adventurous, bold imaginings of the traditional view of Adam and Eve, and this description sets the tone for what Aslan calls a new “human history.”

Depending on one’s orientation toward Biblical/Koranic texts, a traditionalist reader should decide somewhere in the first chapter to abandon the study as it’s not what was expected about the first two humans. But if you are prepared for a radical reinterpretation of ideas about God, and all the other gods of the world, from ancient, prehistoric epochs to today, then the book might be, as it was for me, hard to put down. I like books that are hard to put down for they signal something surprising, unexpected, connecting to the words of the iconoclastic poet Ezra Pound, “make it new.”

Instead of interpreting old religious texts for the meaning of a verse or chapter, Aslan wonders and speculates more about the value and importance of religion, and even why it started in the first place. A reader today might say his or her god governs the world and it’s apparently so because he believes what he says. But without Socratic questioning, one simply reads the same text in similar ways as readers did centuries ago. Aslan helps us to imagine its purpose, not just the message.

Most theologians and even those who express faith within a community will say religion helps to shape a moral life. He counters this well-established belief with that of Paul Bloom, the psychologist and cognitive scientist, who has conducted research on this topic. Aslan agrees with Bloom, who writes, “there is little evidence that ‘the world’s religions have an important effect on our moral lives.” Bloom’s comment raises an important question about the necessity of a God to keep order in the universe. Perhaps it’s possible to consider that humans will have to figure out how to establish and stabilize that order. History has shown that the human residents have a fair to dismal record in keeping such order, but every generation, every culture and civilization hopes to improve the human situation.

One might wonder, from this perspective, of the importance, then, of an unseen god taking charge of the disorder below. But how have humans sensed or created these gods to protect them from so many dangers of living on the planet? Aslan suggests it may have something to do with brain chemistry, or more specifically, Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device, a neurological phenomenon that just may explain why humans need an answer to what they cannot comprehend. Referring to “cognitive scientists who study religion,” Aslan introduces the reader to a non-theological explanation, that “Religion is first and foremost a neurological phenomenon.”

If that is true, and some religious conservatives might challenge this very notion of the source of “god,” then the next question Aslan raises is even more beguiling: aside from a chemical reaction in the brain, what makes a human want to believe that unexplained phenomena have a god-like presence? Here, he begins to examine the need for a soul to be able to comprehend what is incomprehensible. If humans tend to humanize what cannot be explained, it is then fairly easy to take the next leap into faith, and begin to personify what is inanimate into something that is comprehensible, or animate. The next step is rather logical. Human need to find a place for these gods to live, a stone house, perhaps, and as the gods live or visit these homes, it would be comforting to know their histories, their biographies. Somewhere in pre-history, myths and temples began to evolve, and over the next countless millennia, humans became quite sophisticated in creating gods that reflected the culture of the humans who began to worship them.

Soon, however long that might have been, the gods began to “communicate” with the human worshippers and as Aslan suggests, “the word for ‘god’ in Sumerian is ilu, which means something like ‘lofty person,’ and so that became precisely how the gods were envisioned in Sumerian writings: as elevated beings who had human bodies and wore human clothes, who expressed human emotions and exhibited human personalities.” To clarify, Aslan points out that the objects personifying the gods of this or that city were not worshipped as objects, but worshipped for the “spirits” present in the statue or replica of the god, a statue or symbol that “looked like the god.”

Aslan continues to present a case for the hundreds of gods worshipped in ancient history throughout the Mediterranean cultures including comments on the origin of Hindu religion and the pantheon of gods in India. The ancient world was populated by hundreds, thousands of these gods with festivals and sacrifices and temples to help further complete the relationship humans had with gods.  But at some point, philosophers began to wonder that if the natural world appeared to be “singular and immutable,” then perhaps that might also be true in terms of one god which would essentially remove the personification of all the gods into something as the Greeks might call, Ideal, or The Ideal. But a god like that would be hard to identify with as an Idea, an abstraction, a nameless, faceless entity with no family and no narrative, might be too much for anyone to accept in the ancient world.

Although the Pharaoh Akhenaten of Egypt and the Indo-Iranian Zarathustra (1100 B.C.E.) might have been some of the first religiously inspired individuals to establish the idea of one god, the idea of one god did not go over well. All references to Akhenaten were removed from all public monuments, and even though Zarathustra preached this new idea for more than ten years, he was only able to convince one individual to follow his path. Here is how Aslan addresses this issue of proclaiming one god versus all the gods and goddesses of one country/nation/empire: “The difficulty Akhenaten and Zarathustra faced is that people generally have a hard time relating to a god who, having no human features or attributes, also has no human needs. If a god has no human form, attributes, or qualities, then how are human beings supposed to connect and commune with it? The very notion of a dehumanized god contradicts the cognitive process whereby the conception of god arose in the first place.  It would be like trying to imagine the unimaginable, like conjuring up an image of a being that has no image.”

Rabbis will probably acknowledge the God of the Israelites, or the God referred to in Torah as Yud Heh Vuv Heh, or Yahweh, known by a Christian Old Testament scholar as Jehovah. The name of this God was blended, or merged with another god of the region, known as El, so in many instances the name will be recorded as Yahweh-Elohim or as Lord God. But after Nebuchadnezzar II conquered the Israelite nation, and sent most of the political and religious leaders into exile in Babylon many of the Jewish faith began to wonder about the strength of the god they worshipped, as the god of the Babylonians had conquered, essentially, the god of the Israelites. According to Aslan, it is not the armies of one nation that conquer another, but instead, it nearly is always credited to the god of the conquering nation, and Marduk, high god of the Babylonians, appears to be the victor. But in this Babylonian exile a new Israelite god is shaped, one that is now not aligned with other local gods of ancient Israel, one that is “a new kind of God with no human form who nevertheless made humans in his image. An eternal, indivisible God who exhibits the full range of human emotions and qualities, good and bad.” Gods of the prehistoric world, and Gods of the ancient world have nearly always been evolving into something else, or replaced by another more powerful God. The God of the Israelites appears now to Aslan as singularly unique, a God that has been evolving out of the Mediterranean ancient world for thousands of years. Yet in less than 500 years, a new God will evolve out of the Israelite God, and the course of history will be altered once again.

The Christian reader of Aslan’s worldly history of God might want to start with chapter eight, “God is Three.” For a Christian reader to appreciate this chapter, the reader should have some interest in the fascinating and complex history of the debates that continued for half a century or more regarding whether Christ was one god, or two, or three, as in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. The concept of a human, or ruler, or king becoming a god while in office, and after, as with the Egyptians, was not a new concept at all in the ancient middle east. The Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians were fully accepting of rulers becoming gods. The tradition, or practice, or belief of this “god-man” phenomena may have started, according to Aslan, as far back as Sargon the Great, an Akkadian ruler who united nearly all of ancient Mesopotamia in the 23 Century B.C.E.

So many debates, so many early Christian elders argued for so many different concepts of Christ as God as from the God of the Hebrews, or from a different source. Finally, it would take the first Christian Roman emperor Constantine, a convert himself, to put a stop to all the debate, hopefully settling on one idea of who Christ was, theologically. The Nicene conference in 325 gathered together all of the prominent Christian elders in the hope of reconciling all of the different “schools” of early church belief. A lot of schools were banned, or at least discredited, and no longer held any chutzpah with the ruling church leaders, and out of the conference came the Nicene Creed which many today still recite in church services. If, on the other hand, a reader begins with the first chapter of Aslan’s history, then a reader can see more clearly how all of the gods, from the very ancient, pre-historic era to the current Conference at Nicaea, to be an ever-evolving, ever-changing concept of God, or gods, designed to reflect the current cultures and values of a particular civilization, each one similar and slightly different from an earlier era. The story continues in Arabia with Muhammad.

But the chapter toward the end of Aslan’s commentary on God is quite different than expected, for we do not learn about the long struggle of Muhammad, both as visionary and prophet, as well as military commander. So there may be, on the reader’s part, some expectation of the life, challenges, military engagements, or even the dream-like narrative of Muhammad visiting Jerusalem and ascending into heaven for a visit with Allah/Yahweh.

Instead, we look carefully at how Muhammad re-configured, or thought differently about the god most Arabs would have recognized as one of hundreds idolized in the Ka’ba or religious temple in Mecca. Muhammad’s great religious challenge was to preach that Allah was not just one of the gods of the Meccan world, but the only god of the Meccan world. This “reformation” of Arabic polytheism put Muhammad in direct conflict with the political/economic world of Mecca as it thrived on being open to all gods of the known world, each with its own idol in the Ka’ba. Arabs from all parts of the peninsula would make a pilgrimage to Mecca to worship their gods, so this challenge from polytheism to monotheism forced Muhammad to flee to Medina.

But if that was not enough, the new prophet aligned Allah with Yahweh, as in, both are one. For Arabs, this was even harder to imagine, let alone accept as the god of the ancient Hebrews was formless without body, shape, or design, even though metaphors often describe Yahweh having human compassion as well as fiery emotions. While in Medina, Muhammad was deeply influenced by the tribes of Jews living there as well. Much of the early Medina experiences shaped the evolving religion known as Islam, but all that changed after Muhammad marched victoriously back into Mecca and destroyed all of the idols in the Ka’ba. Arab polytheism was pretty much destroyed after that.

Aslan concludes this chapter with a short commentary on Sufism, the more mystical, spiritual movement within Islam which both Sunni and Shi’a schools, or movements, completely reject. But the scholar finds this development quite intriguing as Sufis are more interested in “claiming unity with the divine” versus legal matters that have defined the life and practice of Islam. This raises a stimulating concept for anyone believing in God, in any manner, in any fashion, as Aslan defines the essence of Sufism: “God is not the creator of everything that exists. God is everything that exists.” Of course, that takes the reader to pantheism for his concluding remarks.

While pantheism was seen at least by Baruch Spinoza as the most rational of concepts for explaining the world as it is, or as it is presented to the human eye and heart, it will also be quite a bit to grasp if one continues to think that a God is one who watches over the particular group who needs watching over. In a pantheistic world, there is no god or God to pray to because god is all, or as “the pantheistic philosopher Michael P. Levine puts it: ‘Nothing can be substantially independent of God because there is nothing else but God.’” This may be a bit too much for those who worship a god through an idol, or read of a god’s blessing on a particular group, or assume god has taken some shape or form.

The Jews of seventeenth -century Netherlands certainly had no tolerance when Spinoza began developing this concept of God as the world or nature itself. For this view, the rationalist philosopher was excommunicated from the Sephardic Jewish community as pantheism doesn’t require a holy text or holy place of worship, or anything that might be associated with an institutional belief in a god or God. The danger, of course, is taking the argument one step further with the belief that, if God is all, then humans are not necessarily made in God’s image, but in fact are part of God. That’s where it gets mystical, and where Aslan concludes his study.  It’s not necessarily a happy ending, but one that is somewhat liberated from all of the places and types of worship that envelope nearly everyone on the planet. It’s also where Aslan began his study with pre-historic believers in a magical world where everything, from wind and fire and unexplainable events, was something unspeakable, magical, mysterious. Mysticism requires a leap into a different world, one that might require another in-depth study, such as his God:  A Human History.

5 thoughts on “God: A Human History, by Reza Aslan

  1. I read Aslam’s “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazereth”, which I enjoyed very much. That is one of a handful of books that I have read by authors who have tried to apply historical analysis to the stories of the Bible. As is true of all such authors, Aslam was criticized because he doesn’t accept the Bible on face value, preferring to apply common sense as well as imagination. Some critics of Aslam, who prefer to think of Jesus as a man of peace, didn’t like the fact that Aslam painted Jesus as a rebel who supported violent revolution. Aslam also claimed that after Jesus’s death, his brother John argued that his brother was not the son of God. So, who should we believe? John or Paul?

    I wrote about Baruch Halpern’s “David’s Secret Demons”. Halpern described King David as The Godfather (as in Vito Corleone). Halpern has given serious thought about when different portions of the Bible were written, who wrote them, and why they wrote them. But, there will always be elements of doubt.

    Another interesting author is Igor Lipovsky who wrote “Israel and Judah: How Two Peoples Became One”. Lipovsky theorized about how the tribes of Israel and Judah were descended from Abraham and migrated into Palestine, then Egypt (and the northern tribes became the Hyksos) and back to Palestine before and during the so-called Exodus. Largely using the Bible as his source, Lipovsky described the struggles between monotheism and polytheism that existed for centuries. Polytheism was always stronger in Israel than it was in Judah, but after the Assyrians destroyed Israel in 722 B.C., the monotheists in Jerusalem began to take more complete control of Judah. However, the Assyrians would not allow Judah to take control of Israel. Halpern theorized that much of the stories about the United Kingdom was written when Solomon was king (and commissioned by Solomon to justify his rule over Israel), but it was only after the Judah-ans were exiled to Babylonia that the pre-history (that is, pre-David) was written down. The rabbis in exile were motivated to blur the distinctions between the northern tribes and southern tribes. Sure enough, when the Persians enabled them to return to Palestine, they not only took control of Israel but also adopted its historic name as their own.


  2. Thanks for the review, DeWitt. Have read Aslan’s 2013 “Zealot,” which was also engaging, informative & insightful. Watched his short-lived CNN series exploring some different religions up close & personal, and it was entertaining, but tended toward more shallow curiosity portrayals (with some made-for-tv sensationalism). And a few months ago he spoke at a DC temple gathering at the release of this new book. His repeated message then was that, in his opinion & experience, in general people perceive & define God as basically a reflection of their own values & beliefs. Of course, “groupthink” also factors in.

    Aslan is surely an interesting fellow, and is thorough in his research, both of which make his writing stimulating. After having read probably a couple hundred books on perceptions of God & monotheistic religious history—particularly the transition from Judaism into Jesus-centered reformed Judaism & then into Jesus-centered Christianity—I personally have a “working theory” similar to what you express in your final paragraph. If one really thinks & assesses deeply, our “created” universe & life in it are so profoundly mysterious & mostly beyond human capacity to conceptualize that we must express awe & gratitude/appreciation for being a part of it. God as participatory essence integrated into everything in a mystical sense also makes practical sense. To paraphrase James Robinson, among other roles a specialist on Gnostic writings, “Sooner or later in life, you have to seriously give thought to God & all that that means.” So thanks, DeWitt, for sharing this piece with us.


  3. thanks to both Bob Bates and Jeff Berger for enlightening comments. I believe the book captured my imagination, completely, as I was reading such unexpected insights, but thanks again.


  4. Aslan’s theme of ancient religious threads weaving together evolving religions over millennia is illustrated in an almost timeless, but widely overlooked historical fact. In your paragraph citing that polytheistic religions of ancient times incorporated “festivals and sacrifices and temples to help further complete the relationship humans had with gods,” we find the roots of Judaism. We are now living in the Jewish year 5777. Year One originated in Sumerian culture in their Great Calendar of Nippur (a holy city) in 3760 BC. This calendar of cyclic year-round specific dates served as religious and social “glue” to provide for the masses common practices, festivals, celebratory rites, and special worship—all of which rendered a homogeneous society committed to shared values and beliefs.

    Considering that the first great patriarch of the Hebrews, Abraham, lived around (estimated) the 19th century BC, this is interesting. The importance of religion in the ancient world had to have sustained its connective fabric for around 1800 years (just to arrive at the time of Abraham) for the Jewish religion to incorporate its longevity, to today, to 5777 years.

    This also reflects on the portion of your review, DeWitt, that cites the priestly class’s Biblical revisions during the Babylonian Exile (6th century BC) emphasizing an all-powerful, universal One God, effectively uniting the Jewish peoples for all time.


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