Reza Aslan - God: A Human History is our phone interview with Reza Aslan on his latest book, God: A Human History put to picture, text and video. Dr. Aslan probes the ancient origins of humanity's spiritual impulse. Why and how did it arise? Why do we create God in our own image? Is there a link between religion and agriculture? Why did Christianity become and remain so popular? Is there a bridge between atheism and believers?
Dr. Aslan is an internationally renowned writer, commentator and scholar of religion, His books, including his #1 New York Times Bestseller, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, have been translated into dozens of languages around the world. He is also a recipient of the prestigious James Joyce Award. Produced by 11th Story.
"All religions of the world have an unconscious impulse to think of God in human terms. What Christianity does is say God is literally a human being. That I think is enormously satisfying." ➳ Reza Aslan
I use the term spirituality in order to differentiate between faith and religion. I think too often we confuse those things for being the same and their not. Faith is individualistic, it’s mysterious, it’s experiential, it’s fundamentally an emotion. Religion is the language that we use to express faith...and so while I am deeply fascinated by religion, by the history of religion, the sociology of religion, this book is less about religion and more about faith. Where faith came from? How it arose in human evolution? How it has expressed itself in this one fundamental way? In this impulse that I talk about to humanize God.
So that’s a great debate in this field. Is what we call spirituality exclusively a homo sapien phenomenon? And I think for many, many years that was the assumption, but we now have ample material evidence to demonstrate the presence of spiritual, ritualistic behavior in Neanderthals. This includes painted caves made by Neanderthals that clearly express a kind of spiritual worldview. It includes graves. We’ve dug up a number of Neanderthal graves that clearly express ritual behavior and therefore a belief that something happens after death. And more astonishingly now, we are finding more and more material evidence for the existence of the same kinds of spiritual ideas among homo erectus, including idols that we have discovered, graves that we have discovered that go back three hundred to four hundred thousand years. That’s Hundreds of thousands of years before our species even existed. So it really does seem that however you want to define this spiritual impulse, that it’s not unique just to our species, but that it can be found in earlier species of human beings.
In fact not only is monotheistic an incredibly new idea in the history of religion, barely three thousand years old. It’s also one that butted up against an enormous amount of resistance and that partly has to do with going back to this humanizing impulse. Human beings are in many ways perfectly comfortable with the existence of contradictory and conflicting traits and emotions within themselves, but we have a much more difficult time accepting those kinds of contradictory traits and emotions in our image of the divine. It’s for that reason that throughout human history whenever the idea of a single, singular God arose it was rejected until it was finally became a part, embedded within Judaism, but very, very late in Jewish history. Really not until the sixth century BC in the Babylonian exile. And really only as the result of an existential crisis. The Jews were facing, where they had to basically make a fundamental decision about whether their god no longer exists, whether their god had been destroyed by the god of the Babylonians or whether this gigantic cognitive leap; right, that their god is the only god in the universe and so therefore a god, that is both the god of good and the god of evil. A god of darkness and a god of light. And that’s the god that you find in the Hebrew scriptures. I don’t think that it’s just a coincidence that Christianity that arose out of Judaism couldn’t really abide by that definition of god as responsible for both good and evil. And so had to rely on this demonic figure of the devil or Satan as somebody who essentially removes from god the responsibility for darkness and for evil and allows god to just simply to be the god of good. You start to see very quickly the ways in which this natural cognitive impulse has a direct effect on the evolution of different religious traditions
I think that part of what makes Christianity the most successful religion in the history of the world is precisely because it fully surrenders to this humanizing impulse. If you think about it what I am basically saying is that all religions of the world basically have this unconscious impulse to think of god in human terms. What Christianity says is that god shouldn’t just be thought about in human terms, god is literally a human being. And that I think is an enormously satisfying expression of spirituality. That’s because essentially what Christianity says is if you want to know what god is like, right, this fundamental question that all human beings have grappled with and have forever. What is god like? What is god? Christianity’s answer to that is,
well, imagine the most perfect human being and that’s god. And that is not just an easy way of thinking about the divine, but it’s an enormously satisfying way to think about the divine. And I think it goes a long way toward explaining precisely why Christianity has been so enormously successful regardless of the culture that it finds itself in. Regardless of the time and the place. Christianity is a religion that has managed to essentially integrate itself into really every part of the world, every corner, every culture. I think partly that has to do, of course Christians would say that’s because it’s true and that’s a perfectly valid answer to that, but just from a more scholarly or sociology perspective, partly I think that success resides in the fact that it perfectly surrenders to this impulse that we all have, this impulse that we are born with to think of god in human terms.
Is a term that evolutionary theorists use to explain sort of this impulse, this compulsion, that we have as human beings, to find agency in inanimate objects. And what I mean by that, is to treat non living objects as though they are living and real. It’s an impulse that were born with... it's just part of our cognitive processes. It has very highly adaptive advantages. The thing that people often say is “that it’s better to confuse a tree for a bear and to assume that your life is in danger than to guess wrong and be eaten.” We have this natural impulse when confronted with inanimate things that express any kind of animism at all...if its bipedal, if it looks like it has a face to immediately give that thing agency and will and a personality, to pretend that it’s alive. The example that I use in the book is when you give a little child a doll or even a car that looks like it has eyes and a mouth. The child will naturally start to play with the thing as though it’s a living thing. Again, its an indication that we are born with this cognitive impulse. The theory among a lot of cognitive theorists is that this is part of the reason why we have the religious impulse, is that we are naturally inclined to give agency, will, even life to inanimate things and that’s how early religion arose is through that natural impulse.
The transition to agriculture has been an evolutionary puzzle for a long, long time. I think that the common assumption was that it was naturally a good thing that we stopped acting as hunter gatherers and instead began to grow our food and domesticate animals; that it necessarily led to larger and more stable food supplies. But now we have plenty of archaeological evidence that indicates that the opposite is true, that the transition to agriculture actually resulted in less stable food supplies, in the consumption of fewer calories and far fewer proteins. That it actually resulted in brand new and novel diseases and problems. That in fact the human body was just not evolutionarily designed for farming and for agriculture.
And so there’s been a lot of recent studies lately to try to figure out, why? Why did we transition to something that was not actually beneficial, at least at first, to humanity? A number of theories have called for looking to religion as the answer. To put it in its simplest way, the common assumption is that we started growing our food and as a result of growing our food we settled down and stopped wandering and then that settling down resulted in the creation of civilization. What we now know from the material evidence is that we settled down first, thousands of years before we started growing our own food.
The question becomes, why, why did we settle down? One of the more popular reasons for it and the reason that I argue in the book is because of the creation of institutionalized religion. The building of temples and the institutionalization of religious expression resulted in the creation of settlements, the creation of civilization and then in order to meet the needs of a settled civilization we began to grow our food and domesticate animals.
Political Morphism is this fascinating phenomenon that exists in all religious traditions and throughout really all of human history. In the same way that we construct our idea of god by implanting in god our human attributes, we also construct our idea of the heavens by creating it as a mirror of our earthly society.
In many ways, we implant upon the heavens, not just our politics, but even our bureaucracies. As the political situation changes on earth that we imagine the political situation changing in heaven as well. This is this really interesting phenomenon, this mirroring of the earth and the heavens, that can be found again in almost all religious traditions.
This is something you can track as well. We have ancient texts from Mesopotamia, for example, that indicate a different kind of heavenly politics early on when Mesopotamian society was much more egalitarian, much more democratic. Then when Mesopotamian society shifted to become more about the accumulation of power in the hands of an emperor and much more autocratic earthly organization, political organization, we have texts that show that same transformation taking place in heaven.
So again, that's the best way to think about it. As the same way we create god as a mirror of ourselves we create the heavens as a mirror of the earth.
Yes, but in that case they used it as a way of criticizing the idea of humanizing the divine. What I think sets apart certain Greek philosophers like Plato, like Xenophon, is precisely this idea that if there is a god, then it’s ludicrous to think of god in these human terms. This of course is a result of the fact that Greek pantheon was so purely humanistic, right? I mean that gods were basically beings but with superhuman powers. They had the same emotions. They had the same desires. They had the same hopes. I think many Greek philosophers rebelled against that idea and were promoting an idea of the divine that was a dehumanized version of the divine. An idea of the divine as an animating principle that underlies all of humanity and all of creation. Obviously that came from their philosophical pursuits, but it really colored their criticism of Greek religion.
It’s incorrect to think of animism as a religion, yes, but it is a spiritual worldview. The consensus among most scholars is that it’s the right way to term prehistoric spirituality. And by animism, just to be clear, what we mean is the belief that all things share an animating spirit. That there is an existence of kind of universal soul, to put it in anachronistic terms, that underlying and unites all created things.
So I do make a full throated argument and defense of pantheism. The idea that god exists in all things. God is not a divine personality, but rather as our ancient ancestors believed, the animating force that underlies the universe, that is in fact the universe. I talk about the fact that pantheism is a new word but the idea is about as old as it gets. It’s an idea by the way that exists not just in every religion in the world, but also in philosophy.
You used the word panpsychism which is a word that most scientists and philosophers use in order to talk about conceptions such as how to explain the preservation of energy and matter in the universe or how to talk about issues such as proto consciousness or the idea that the universe might itself be a sort moving with a kind of will. Your scientific and philosophical issues that have been around for a very, very long time, in religion we refer to it as pantheism.
Fundamentally, what is difficult to argue about is this notion that all is one and one is all. What I’m just simply saying is that my definition of that one is god. If we dehumanize the divine and start thinking about god in more pantheistic ways ... and ways that we thought about god for hundreds of thousands of years before the advent of organized religion. I think that we would not only have a much deeper spiritual experience, but that I think it would a long ways towards resolving some of the many conflicts that we have among and between religions. Also if you get used to idea of thinking of god existing in other people then it keeps you from delegitimizing those people or dehumanizing them. If you think of god existing in nature, it keeps you from exploiting nature...from abusing nature. I think that in many ways pantheism can be a kind of spirituality for the modern age. Even for those who reject religion itself and yet still seek some kind of spiritual experience.
If there’s one thing that I want to do with this book is I want to get us out of this ridiculous debate that we have all the time about whether one believes in god or not. There’s a much more fundamental question that has to be asked before we can ask that question which is: What do you mean by God? Often times when I’m talking to an atheist and they’ll say “I don’t believe in God”, I’ll simply say, “explain to me what do you mean by God?” Often times when they are forced to actually explain what they mean by God, they start to talk about exactly this notion that I’m referring to here. This kind ... one of these divine personalities ... this being that sits up in heaven and looks down upon us and judges our actions. I always have to say, “well then that makes me an atheist too, I guess, cause I don’t believe in that God either.”
Pantheism can break through that simple dichotomy between atheists and believers because I do think that it is less a religious point of view than it is just simply a world view ... and one that cannot just transcend religions but can even go beyond the idea of religiosity as a way of experiencing the universe of understanding your place in the world. I mean ... look...if you are just a strict materialist and you believe that nothing exists beyond the material realm ... fine, that’s perfectly fine, but most atheists don’t feel that way.
Most atheist’s will say, “yes, there is no God, but is there other underlying forms of reality? Is there other ways of experiencing reality? Is the material realm the only realm that possibly exists? I think many atheist would probably question those things ... and again this is were pantheism comes in because it’s not built on religious dogma, it’s built on just a different kind of way of knowing, a way of experiencing the universe.