God: A Human History
Author: Reza Aslan (Penguin Random House, 2017)
Review by Ahmad Amirali
Nowadays, it seems like people are deserting their religion to the fundamentalists. However, Religion has always been the part of human existence, and it’s not likely going anywhere soon.
Reza Aslan’s God: A Human History is the newest addition to the genre of God books. Before this piece, Karen Armstrong’s A History of God shared a similar account in this genre. One may ask, whether there is a need for another book on this topic? A valid reason for that, according to me, can be Aslan’s way of writing where he bluntly places and elaborates his argument with proper supporting. That makes the reader find the reading much debatable. For example, the second part of the book, The Humanized God, where he debated “how we have humanised God,” by projecting human attributes onto the divine. As he writes in the introduction, “it is we who have fashioned God in our image, not the other way around.” Moreover, Aslan wraps around the subject, enacting the story with archaeological evidence from our pre-historical religious past, and other modern scientific perspectives on religion as a set of human activities.
To understand how religion developed in the first place, Aslan explores the theories of Edward B. Tylor, Max Muller, Emile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud, and Carl G. Jung. These theorists wondered if the religious desire was evolutionarily beneficial or if it had a unique moral effect on society. Aslan does not agree with their conclusions, as well as, some recent theories, like the idea of a Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device (HADD, named by cognitive scientist Justin Barrett), a strange biological process that makes us assume human intervention behind any unexplained event. In that way, religion can be understood as a neurological phenomenon.
One or more scientists believe that such theories account for the origin of the religious yearning, but Aslan points out they don’t explain why early humans thought they had a soul in the first place. For him, the origin of the religious yearning is “the result of something far more primal and difficult to explain: our ingrained intuitive, and wholly experiential belief that we are, whatever else we are, embodied souls.” And so, he takes us far back into our religious history all the way to the Jannat Adni garden of God, the Eden. Referred to as “the Temple of Eden,” Gobekli Tepe is a temple complex which was built at the end of the last Ice Age, between 14 and 12 thousand years ago (six thousand years before Stonehenge and seven thousand before the first Egyptian pyramid). Wow! Too old to think that it even precedes the development of agriculture and the birth of civilisation. Aslan believes that agriculture does not cause humans to settle into cities. In fact, worshipping sites like Gobekli Tepe indicate that the transition from the Palaeolithic to the Neolithic era was due to the origin of organised religion.
From there Aslan navigates through time to the emergence of monism, the ancestor worship that began around 8000 BCE, and to the birth of polytheism in Mesopotamian Sumer. Demonstrating Aslan’s central idea that humans have always had a “compulsion to humanise the divine” the gods (ilu) the Sumerians described were quite human-like.
The Mesopotamians eventually worshipped a pantheon of more than three thousand deities, with idols for each. Similar developments occurred in Egypt, India, and Greece, where gods were always described in human terms. They fought over petty jealousies, had family problems, displayed excellent and bad moods, and “could be all-knowing or just plain stupid.”
Some of these religious systems can be described as monolater, the worship of one god with the acknowledgement that many other gods exist. The first time such a thing occurred was in Egypt around 1353 BCE, when Akhenaten, a heretic pharaoh, raised the sun god Aten to the status of a sole god. Enforcing his monotheistic religion, Akhenaten released “nothing short of a pogrom against the gods of Egypt,” with armies marching from city to city, smashing the idols of other gods, and even erasing their names from documents. When Akhenaten died, his monotheistic movement died with him. We still have no evidence to suggest where Akhenaten got his notion of monotheism.
Sometime between 1500 and 500 BCE (according to Aslan, on 1100 BCE), an Iranian priest named Zarathustra Spitama became the world’s first prophet when he received revelations from Ahura Mazda, a term that means “the Wise Lord,” but refers to a god with no name, since he was the sole god of the universe. Zarathustra was the first to promote heaven-and-hell theology, and to reduce other divinities to “angels” and “demons.” The monotheism of Zoroastrianism was short lived.
The Bible uses several names to refer to God, the main two being Elohim, which, despite being a plural form, is usually translated as “God,” and YHWH, which is traditionally read as Adonai and translated as “LORD.” Genesis 4:1, Eve says she has “gained a male child with the help of YHWH,”  implying that the name was known from the beginning. But officially, Yahweh first revealed his name to Moses in Exodus 3:15, claiming he was the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to whom he was known as El Shadday.
Two exceptions hardly seem enough basis for a definitive claim. And yet Aslan writes with full confidence that “the fact of the matter is that these biblical patriarchs [Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob] did not worship a Midianite desert deity called Yahweh. They worshipped an altogether different god — a Canaanite deity they knew as El.” That is to say, Yahweh is not Elohim. The God of Genesis is not the God of Exodus. Aslan continues: “Scholars have known for centuries that there were two distinct deities worshipped by the Israelites in the Bible, each with a different name, different origin, and different traits.” And yes, some scholars have indeed argued this, but others find the testimony in the Bible at best oblique. The same text can be read in different ways; rather than refer to two separate gods, the different names can be understood to represent various aspects of the same divinity. We don’t know, but Aslan’s decisiveness does make for a better story. He’s certainly a great storyteller.
In summary, Reza Aslan’s God is the story of how monotheism after centuries of failure and rejection finally created a place in human spirituality begins with the story of how the god of Abraham, El, and the god of Moses, Yahweh, gradually merged to become the sole, singular deity that we now know as God.
In any case, Aslan is right that monotheism as we know it only solidified during the Babylonian Exile. Finally, after thousands of years, we have true monotheism. But about five hundred years later, this extraordinary development in the history of religion was “overturned… by an upstart sect who started to call themselves Christians.” That makes a point. With the idea of Jesus being God made flesh, arouses some persuasive arguments. How can God be both Jesus and God? how can Yahweh the jealous deity who gleefully calls for the slaughter of anyone who fails to worship him be the same God of love and forgiveness who Jesus calls Father? Around 100 CE, Marcion proposed a two-god theory known as ditheism. There must be two gods: the cruel creator God of the Hebrew Bible known as Yahweh, and the loving, merciful God who has always existed but revealed himself to the world for the first time in the form of Jesus the Christ.  However, this idea somehow rejected in the account of Trinitarianism, God is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each of which existed at the beginning of time.
Things are now taking new shape in seventh-century Arabia; a 40-year-old shepherd turned merchant turned prophet named Muhammad received revelations from a God he called Allah, the only ancient Arabian God who seems to have never been represented by an idol. Muhammad recognised this God with Yahweh and Elohim, saying it was Allah all along. He devoted the rest of his life to replacing Zoroastrian dualism and Christian trinitarianism with the “Jewish view of God as One,” thereby making Islam the culmination of monotheism. Here, Reza Aslan concluded the story with the Sufis and their pantheistic conception of God. In the final chapter, Reza Aslan states that we need to “recognise the divinity of the world and every being in it and respond to everyone and everything as though they were God because they are.” Now, this pushes the boundaries a little bit further and raises some concerns like; is Reza negating the existence of divine God by interpreting us as Gods?
Reza Aslan argues throughout his book that we have “humanised the divine.” We have “come up with” and “devised” the pantheon of gods, “giving” them various human attributes, and we have created God in our image. Aslan’s idea refutes the religious beliefs of every traditional culture in the world. Subsequently, by his own account, he’s a believer, and I’m pretty much sure Aslan wants to appreciate the beliefs of others, instead of dismissing them. Ironically, that’s what happened in his Book God. God, as a character, is presented in the Bible and the Qur’an as actuality, not a vague divinity.
Pressing upon my point, Reza Aslan does not refute divinity. However, Reza Aslan is defining his critical belief in present-day spirituality, which is that whether one believes or disbelieves in God or any divine being is less important than acting kindly, compassionately, and otherwise divinely. And one way to do that, he suggests, is to appreciate the divinity in each other.