Reza Aslan's Zealot was high on my "enjoyed" list, and I learned quite a bit from it. Looking back on that post, I wish I had written more in-depth about my thoughts on it and how the book effected me. So I decided to pick up God: A Human History when I saw it available for advanced review.
I have been a fan of Allan since reading Zealot, and I find him to be an accomplished scholar who does outstanding historical research. This should come as no surprise seeing as how this is literally his job. I need to spell that out early on, though, so that we can be clear in explanation that the dude has got a point. You don’t have to be an atheist to find his work to be incredibly deep and explanatory. However, if you don’t like exploring knowledge that may contradict your faith, you should look for another work. That being said, I would encourage you to explore historical facts that you believe might not support what you have faith in — you might find some insight into why you believe what you believe.
So now that my disclaimer is out there, let’s get to the meat of the book. I have a teensy background in religious history just through reading my beloved non-fiction religious scholars, but I had never explored the origins of the human belief in God. It’s funny now that I think about it, particularly as cognitive psych-oriented I am, that I have never spent time mulling over this. Hence my fascination with Aslan’s latest work.
Where does God come from? Not in terms of physical origin, but in our own thoughts and minds. Who is he, and what is he like? Since no one on this earth actually knows (not even you), we as hominids with complex cognitive reasoning skills have created a likeness in our image because it’s what we can understand. How can we possibly imagine a being that isn’t something within our cognitive framework already? (This starts to get complicated on my end in terms of psych concepts, so as simply as I can explain it: we can’t know more than we know, so the conception of God is super complicated.)
So ancient relatives of ours created God in their own image. Religion helped settle hominids and, Aslan argues, pushed us from a hunter-gatherer culture to an agricultural one. We created many gods pan-culturally with similar backstories based on historical events, and those gods had the ability to do specific things that humans could relate to. They were an explanation for a species who are primarily meaning-makers. (Now you are getting a part of my human development class mixed in with Aslan!)
Then comes in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. I could go into it all here, but you should read the book yourself because it is an awesome (in the most literal sense of the word) intellectual exploration of humans and deities and how we got to here.
Aslan discusses some important-to-me topics in here such as theory of mind and ancient Hellenic culture, and I was amazed at my ability to synthesize it all. I was fascinated and humbled by the research presented and the depth of Aslan’s understanding of from whence we come. I only read one chapter at a time so I could ruminate on his words and the string of his narrative in relation to my own history and conception of the divine.
The most moving piece of his book was the conclusion when Aslan opens up about his own journey to believe in what he does. He leaves the journey up to each of us, but indeed I identify with his short but profound words about his own beliefs, because I share them. He says in the last chapter that to reach this point in your beliefs, you have to come to it willingly and deliberately, and this struck such a strong cord with me. He’s right. I, too, have come here willingly and deliberately. What a beautiful thing it is.