7 Ques­tions About God for Reza Aslan

Forward Magazine - - Fore­ground - By Talya Zax

“I al­ways thought that I would write a book about the his­tory of God,” Reza As­lan said.

As­lan, an au­thor, pro­fes­sor and former CNN host — his show “Be­liever” was can­celed af­ter he tweeted a pro­fane re­ac­tion to Pres­i­dent Trump’s com­ments on a July 2017 ter­ror­ist at­tack in Lon­don — was dis­cussing his lat­est book, “God: A Hu­man His­tory” (Ran­dom House). The book, a his­tory of the idea of an an­thro­po­mor­phic de­ity, opens with an ex­am­i­na­tion of the cave art of early hu­mans 40 mil­len­nia ago and con­tin­ues through the cre­ation of the three Abra­hamic re­li­gions.

As­lan, whose pre­vi­ous books in­clude “Zealot: The Life and Times of Je­sus of Nazareth,” isn’t an im­par­tial ob­server of the in­stinct to un­der­stand the di­vine as an ide­al­iza­tion of hu­man­ity. He sees in it, he said, “some de­struc­tive con­se­quences to it that should be es­chewed for what I be­lieve to be a more ex­pan­sive, pan­the­is­tic con­cep­tion of God.”

TALYA ZAX: How did this book be­gin for you?

REZA AS­LAN: I wanted to write a book about the way in which peo­ple have thought about God through­out hu­man his­tory, go­ing back to the very mo­ment in which the con­cept arose in our hu­man evo­lu­tion.

What came to the fore­front was this one theme that I no­ticed whether I was talk­ing about pre­his­toric, or Ne­olithic, or Me­sopotamian, or Egyp­tian, or He­brew con­cep­tions of God: In each and every case it has been about the hu­man­iza­tion of God, the at­tempt to make sense of the di­vine by view­ing Him in hu­man terms, by giv­ing God hu­man traits, hu­man per­son­al­ity. That be­came the over­ar­ch­ing theme.

Did ex­plor­ing this par­tic­u­lar his­tory change your per­sonal re­la­tion­ship with your faith?

I al­ways say that when you study the re­li­gions of the world, as a per­son of faith, you learn very quickly that you can’t take any one re­li­gion all that se­ri­ously. My spir­i­tu­al­ity is in large part based on some­thing that the Bud­dha once said: “I want a deep spir­i­tual life, and so I fixed a well.” But the Bud­dha un­der­stood that the wa­ter that I’m draw­ing from is the wa­ter that ev­ery­body’s draw­ing from. I’d call this book the most per­sonal book I’ve ever writ­ten, be­cause even though I am in large part nar­rat­ing a his­tory, that his­tory re­flects my own spir­i­tual jour­ney.

One thing that was re­ally fas­ci­nat­ing for me is that I had to fa­mil­iar­ize my­self with a topic I’m just not an ex­pert in, and that is the cog­ni­tive sci­ence of re­li­gion. The re­li­gious phe­nom­e­non is largely a re­sult of elec­tro-chem­i­cal

re­ac­tions in the brain. It’s of­ten the case that non­be­liev­ers will use that fact, and it is a fact, to den­i­grate the re­li­gious ex­pe­ri­ence. But that’s ridicu­lous; every­thing is in your brain. Any­thing that you think is real is just chem­i­cal re­ac­tions in your brain. There’s no rea­son why faith should be oth­er­wise.

You char­ac­ter­ize Adam and Eve not as the bib­li­cal first man and woman but as avatars for early hu­mans ex­plor­ing the ear­li­est chron­i­cled ex­pe­ri­ences of spir­i­tu­al­ity. How did you ar­rive at that char­ac­ter­i­za­tion?

Pre­his­toric spir­i­tu­al­ity is a very dif­fi­cult is­sue to write about. You could look at cave art — as I and count­less other schol­ars do — as an ex­pres­sion of pre­his­toric spir­i­tu­al­ity. Or you could look at it, as many other schol­ars do, as just pre­his­toric graf­fiti. It’s im­pos­si­ble to prove which one of us is right.

It’s much eas­ier for me to em­bed the schol­ar­ship in nar­ra­tive. That’s where the idea of Adam and Eve as standins for pre­his­toric man and woman came in: If you think that Adam and Eve were the first Homo sapi­ens, let me tell you what they ac­tu­ally would have looked like, how they would have thought about God, what their con­cep­tion of wor­ship would have been.

Have you found any no­table ex­am­ples of re­li­gions or re­li­gious fig­ures that re­jected an an­thro­po­mor­phized con­cept of God?

Prob­a­bly the two most fa­mous ex­am­ples are the Egyp­tian pharaoh Akhen­aten and the Ira­nian prophet Zarathus­tra, both of whom emerged out of re­li­gious tra­di­tions that were firmly planted in the an­thro­po­mor­phiz­ing of [their] gods, both of whom spec­tac­u­larly re­jected that idea, and both of whom spec­tac­u­larly failed in their re­li­gious re­forms. The dif­fer­ence between Zarathus­tra and Akhen­aten is that Zarathus­tra’s move­ment was res­ur­rected long af­ter his death, but by then it had be­come some­thing com­pletely dif­fer­ent than what he orig­i­nally preached. Akhen­aten’s move­ment was so vi­o­lently re­jected that it’s re­ally just an ac­ci­dent of his­tory that we know any­thing about it.

Do you be­lieve we have any con­trol over how we con­ceive of God?

I don’t think that we have any con­trol over it, be­cause it is lit­er­ally a func­tion of our brain. How­ever, we can choose, of­ten through great cog­ni­tive ef­fort and striv­ing, to re­ject that nat­u­ral im­pulse, and to re­place it with a dif­fer­ent way of think­ing about God and the di­vine.

Is there a need for more pub­lic dis­course about what God ac­tu­ally is, or might be?

Yeah. We talk about God as though we all agree on what that means. So peo­ple will say things like, “I don’t be­lieve in God.” And then you say, “What do you mean by God?” And then they’ll say, “I don’t be­lieve there’s a man in the sky con­trol­ling all of our ac­tions.” And I’m like, “Nei­ther do I.”

We just as­sume that how we view God per­son­ally is how most peo­ple view God. I would ven­ture to guess that my un­der­stand­ing of God as the cre­ative force of the uni­verse, my pan­the­is­tic be­lief that God and cre­ation are one and the same, is the view that many athe­ists would share. Is there a God or is there not a God? That con­ver­sa­tion can’t hap­pen in any mean­ing­ful way un­til we stop and say, “What do we mean by God?”

Of the con­cepts of God that you’ve en­coun­tered, whether you per­son­ally be­lieve in them or not, which have you found to be most in­trigu­ing?

The one that is most fas­ci­nat­ing to me is that God, ac­cord­ing to cog­ni­tive psy­chol­o­gists, is just you, di­vinized. If you could imag­ine a di­vine ver­sion of your­self, that’s how you think of God, whether you’re aware of it or not; this is true even if you don’t be­lieve in God. Some­thing about that just seems log­i­cal, right? If you’re go­ing to try to con­ceive of a thing that is by def­i­ni­tion in­hu­man, how else are you go­ing to try to make sense of it but by the only thing that you truly know, which is your­self?

If you could imag­ine a di­vine ver­sion of your­self, that’s how you think of God, whether you’re aware of it or not;

this is true even if you don’t be­lieve in God. Some­thing about that just seems log­i­cal, right?



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