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God: A Human History by Reza Aslan

God: A Human History

by Reza Aslan

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237877,451 (3.95)3
The #1 New York Times 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. Advance 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.… (more)



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This book tells the story of how religions developed and changed over time to match the lived reality of the people doing the praying. It's a fascinating and very approachable read, and also over surprisingly quickly (half the book is just footnotes and bibliography). I loved the first half, before the religions mainly practiced today were introduced, as it focused on the reasons for why people pray and how religions are created. This half is easily five stars.

For me, the fascination dropped off a bit when it came to the religions you know from today. It was still an interesting read about the history of religion and how significant aspects of these religions came into being (like the holy trinity), but it was no longer as "wait, what?!"-interesting as the first half. Still, I would recommend the book to anyone with an interest in religions, not matter if they are religious or atheists themselves. ( )
  malexmave | Oct 3, 2019 |
Well, THAT was challenging! I expect to read this book many more times in the future. As a life-long Christian with many, many questions, I found this book to be extremely well-researched, enlightening, and thought-provoking. I'm at a loss for words, really. I started to say that the book has set me on a journey, but that's not quite correct - the book has moved me further along the journey that began long ago, in my early adulthood. And what an adventure it is! Thank you, Reza Aslan. ( )
  anitatally | Feb 28, 2019 |
In God: A Human History, author Reza Aslan gives us an interesting and multidisciplinary look at how the belief in gods and eventually God developed from pre-history to the present. The book is divided into three parts:

1-The Embodied Soul - pre-history, the earliest attempts by man (or, as Aslan conjectures, woman) at developing the idea of a divine being within nature.

2- The Humanized God - man created gods in their own image eg early Greek gods with all the characteristics and flaws of man. This reached its culmination even as man moved from the idea of many gods to one with the idea of God become man in the form of Jesus

3- Conclusion: The One - the idea of pantheism, that God is in everything and everything is in God, Aslan’s own belief and what he sees as 'the belief of nearly every religious tradition'. As he says,

This is essentially what our prehistoric ancestors believed. Their primitive animism was predicated on the belief that all things - living or not - share a single essence: a single soul, if you will. The same belief spurred the ancient Mesopotamians to deify the elements of nature, long before they began to transform those elements into individual, personalized gods. It lay at the heart of the early Egyptian belief in the existence of a divine force that manifested itself in both gods and humans. It is what the Greek philosophers meant when they spoke of "one god" as the singular, unified principle steering all of creation. All of these belief systems can be viewed as different expressions of pantheistic conception of God as the sum of all things.

Aslan is a very good writer and he has taken what could easily have become a dry pedagogical tome and made it highly interesting and readable. However, it should be noted that much of what he writes is supposition and conjecture especially as it relates to pre-history - this, in itself is not surprising since early man left no written records and much of what we know is based on pictograms found in caves. But Aslan's conjectures are later used as evidence of the evolution of his own faith in pantheism. Still, as I said, this is a very interesting account of religion - one of the greatest, if not the greatest, influences on humanity. I would suggest, however, that it is a great starting off point for anyone interested in the subject, not an endpoint.

Thanks to Netgalley and Random House Publishing Company for the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review ( )
  lostinalibrary | Sep 15, 2018 |
Reza Aslan is one of my favorite writers on religion, right up there with Karen Armstrong (whom I've interviewed twice). I loved Aslan's Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth and looked forward to this book. I was not disappointed.

Aslan presents a well-documented sociological history of how humans made god(s) in their image and the evolution of religious thinking that see-saws through history: the disinterested god as essence, creative force, divine substance vs. the personal god as super-being with human attributes who can be appealed to through prayer and appeased with offerings and rituals. His writing mirrors his own spiritual journey. We get the benefit of his years of searching and research in this well-written, easy to follow book. I highly recommend it for folks who are interested in religious history or are exploring their own spirituality. ( )
  MarysGirl | Jul 12, 2018 |
Reza Alsan’s God: A Human History is an impressive interdisciplinary examination of our effort to relate to God via religion. Among the questions Aslan addresses are these: What can we learn from the earliest (pre-literate) attempts to depict God? How do we explain and how should we regard our persistent efforts to invest God with human traits? Does the evolution toward monotheism represent progress? How has earth-bound politics influenced our understanding of the divine? Aslan brings to these questions insights from history, anthropology, cognitive science, evolutionary biology, and many of the sub-disciplines that constitute disciplinary theology, including hermeneutics, Christology, soteriology, and eschatology.

The first section of the book (there are three sections, each constituted of three chapters, and a conclusion), titled “The Embodied Soul,” traces the earliest attempts to image God—in the primitive cave paintings in Australia and Indonesia and especially, the Cave of Trois-Freres in southwestern France. The images, which merge human and non-human traits into single figures, imply animism, a belief that all creation shares a common spiritual quality, and does not prioritize the human. This is a belief that Aslan (as is seen throughout the book) cherishes. That the images at Trois-Freres (for example) were, scholars speculate, placed in places of worship and intended as inspirations for prayer, suggests that the religious impulse manifest in the Paleolithic age, at least 40,000 years. Aslan makes the interesting point that these early religious representations are not anthropomorphic. Nor are early gods imagined as moral. They were to be worshipped and respected not imitated. If the reader approaches Aslan’s book with the hope of probing the question of evil and pain in a world under the power of an omnipotent god, these ancient ideas suggest that we think of God as more interested in our attention and worship than our wellbeing.

In the second section of God: A Human History, “The Humanized God,” Aslan probes our human all-too human predilection to create gods in our own likeness. The earliest religious temple—the so-called Temple of Eden at Potbelly Hill (Göbekli Tepe) in Urfa Turkey, depicts abstract humanoid figures. This humanizing predilection, Aslan argues, will have its apogee when Christianity invest Jesus with divinity. It also is manifest as politicomorphism, projecting a political system onto the gods, motivated, he argues, by an interest in investings earth-bound politics with heavenly paradigms—one God, one monarch, one bishop of Rome. At times, Aslan expresses dismay at the humanizing tendency. But he seems conflicted, finding in its ubiquity a consolation for the seeker: that we are in fact evolutionarily directed to project religious beliefs in divine beings, which may be biological counter evidence to the dismissal of belief in God as an illusion.

God: A Human History became more compelling for me when it moved away from anthropology and toward history and comparative religion. I was particularly interested in Persian Zoroastrianism for its probing of the way to understand evil and pain. Zarathustra posited evil was a necessary complement to good—that we cannot know good without the experience of evil. And while he speculated that the monotheistic god Ahura Mazda was the ultimate source of both good and evil, he envisioned a dualistic cosmology that placed the universe under the control of dueling forces—the positive and true spirit Spenta Mainyu and evil and false Angra Mainyu. Thus, a monotheistic system with a dualistic cosmology. This may be similar to the Christian cosmology but is valuable as prior to it and for its greater philosophical sophistication. This section also reviews the documentary theory as the basis for the creation of what we know as the definitive Pentateuch. Aslan brings to our attention modern scholarship that casts doubt on much that is conventionally believe: that Judaism may have been a form of Atenism (Egyptian god of the 14th century BCE), that the Israelites may never have been captive in Egypt, that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob worshipped the Canaanite God Elohim, and the monotheistic history we know is relatively late narrative developed by a priestly sources responding to a political and cultural need for monotheism following their defeat at the hands of the Babylonians.

Aslan’s treatment of the early history of Christianity stresses the evolution of the Church’s understanding of Jesus of Nazareth from a second Moses (in Matthew’s Gospel especially) to a divinity coeternal and coexistent with God (in John’s logos made flesh). This evolution involved Christianity decisively separating from its Jewish origin. He traces the struggle to reconcile theologically a belief in monotheism, while simultaneously embracing both a vengeful Yahweh and a loving Christ. Emperor Constantine would not tolerate such dualism. The doctrine of the Trinity at the Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon was the solution.

Aslan speculates that Islam may have originated as a Jewish sect. He is embraces Islam’s resistance to capturing Allah in any image. He is impatient, however, with orthodox Islam’s emphasis on law over theology. His own religion is Sufism, the more mystical practice of Islam that seeks an unmediated access to God. When the Persian mystic Bāyazīd Bisṭāmī in the late eighth century announced that there is no distinction between God and his creation, for Alsan, he discovered a profound truth, represented in the title to the penultimate chapter of this book: “God is All.”

Reviews of God: A Human History by snarky academicians in the mainstream press have faulted the book as superficial, a result of its breadth and multi-disciplinarity. These charges miss the point of Aslan’s work. The book is not intended for specialists but for intellectuals with an interest in religion. Readability is especially important for these non-specialist readers. Aslan is a very talented writer, with the ability to capture crucial issues in the morass of the scholarship, to summarize views pointedly, and to mediate controversy with a fair-minded authorial voice. Nor have reviewers always noted that Aslan has supplemented the text with 80 pages of notes. Many of these notes are mini-essays on the topic that identify from the mountain of scholarship a very few key sources, making it easy for the inquisitive reader to pursue leads. I highly recommend God: A Human History for the general reader who wants to probe historically our effort to understand God.
  ArtWalzer | Jan 17, 2018 |
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