God: A Human History – a rescue attempt by Reza Aslan

God: A Human History – a rescue attempt by Reza Aslan November 23, 2017

‘Religion scholar’ Reza Aslan’s new book, God: A Human History, traces the human relationship with gods from the Palaeolithic, Greek, and Egyptian eras to the rise of  Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Aslan’s history highlights the ongoing compulsion to attribute human characteristics to gods over millennia and blames God’s poor image on this “dangerous” humanisation. It’s not God that is jealous or vengeful, he says, but our “nature” and “penchant for violence”.

Luckily for God, Aslan is here to rescue Him.
Gods and religions have caused so much distress that even those who have spent a lifetime apologising for and ignoring the doctrinal foundations of their abuses must make for a rescue attempt.
Historically, as documented by Aslan, gods and religions have been a way of explaining the unexplainable (such as earthquakes or failed hunts). Despite the evidence, however, Aslan says our “brains are hard-wired” for religion and that religion is “inherent” in children. He is a man of faith after all.
But belief in religion or God is not an hard-wired evolutionary trait but more likely a by-product of non-religious functions. Scientist Richard Dawkins uses the example of a moth burning itself on a flame to explain this; the moth does this not because of an evolutionary instinct for suicide but as a by-product of steering via moonlight.
Clearly, God is perceived in the image of man not because of anything inherent in us but because he is man-made.  Children believe in God not because they are born believers but because of indoctrination from the day they are born and ongoing physical and psychological abuse such as faith schools, child veiling and gender segregation deemed acceptable only because of religion’s privileged position in all societies.
That religions and Gods still hold sway in the 21st century despite advances in science is simply because of their continued usefulness in maintaining class, gender and social inequalities and injustices and suppressing our dreams and our hopes for a better life in the here and now.
Religions and Gods persist because they remain the best tools of the powerful to control the uncontrollable, including “disobedient” women and children.  This is the crux of why God still sells books and makes fortunes – even though there is no God (la ilaha).
Aslan’s book is naturally brief (the footnotes are similar in length to the entire book). It has to be given his inclination to erase the murder and mayhem carried out in God’s name and his sanitisation of religion as mere “language” and a “set of symbols and metaphors”.
And as is always the case with Aslan, Islam gets the easiest of passes. The tiny Islam chapter selectively focuses on Sufi-ism; Mohammed, Islam’s prophet, is unrecognisable as a social justice type rather than a war-mongering misogynist.
Aslan’s book ends with a plea for the “dehumanisation” of God and for Pantheism (meaning All is God and God is All). His plea is labelled “bold” and “provocative” by his publishers though it is just another old and tired way of looking at God that is neither bold nor provocative.
In a world drowning in religions and gods, it is hard-pressed to see how Pantheism will bring “peace amongst religions” and change things for the better as the author promises. Given Aslan’s proclivity for self-promotion, Pantheism will certainly change things for him; he can keep repeating the last lines of his book in a mirror: “You need not fear God. You are God”.
Meanwhile, whilst Aslan re-packages the same old God in order to rescue him, what will rescue us? Well, certainly not more religion or gods but rather laïcité (the separation of religion and the state) and an end to religious indoctrination and abuse of children.

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  • Italian Scallion

    Like I always say, “Ban ALL religions as they are extremely dangerous.” Plus, all religions treat women as objects and not equals.

  • Rob Andrews

    Yeah…Aslan’s book ends with a wishy-washy, “god is in us” or “God is love”. Hard to argue with that kind of thing. It’s too cloudy.
    It’s very easy for a child–who doesn’t understand anything–to fall back to the simple explanation of a ‘ father figure’ in the sky. I did for a while even though I wasn’t indoctrinated in any way.
    The big reason for the persistence of religion is good old fear of death.

  • Darwin T. Humanist

    Dear Maryam;
    Lovely reasoning and fulsome riposte to Mr. Aslan.
    It is time for a new book from you Maryam. The hunger is there. We need more eyes and ears on the religions of the world. The other thing that keeps religion going is the fear of community if you reject whatever faith you were raised on. Being alone sucks!

  • Miodrag the Lecturer

    I am tired of all discussion about the divine precluding polytheism as an option. In fact, I do not even like Advaita in Hinduism. Always for particular/individual, never for universal/merged.

  • Broga

    Extraordinary how much time, effort, cruelties, vengeance and destruction have been devoted to this fantasy of a God. The resources sucked out of economies, at the expense of necessities, is grotesque. And yet the charade continues.

  • Brian Jordan

    Hard wired for religion? Surely that should be something more like “hard wired to seek explanations and, in default of finding them, make them up”.
    Of course, that wouldn’t explain religion by itself: you’d need to add “hard wired tendency to control others”.

  • StephenJP

    Many thanks to Marian Namazie for this revealing review.
    One wonders what sort of audience Reza Aslam thinks he is addressing. It can’t be his fellow Muslims, most of whom would surely regard his position as wishy-washy at best and heretical at worst. It can’t be sceptics of any background, who are most unlikely to be convinced by his shameless apologetics or his weak grasp of history. It certainly can’t be firmly committed Christians, many of whom would sooner die than admit that a professional Muslim has anything to tell them about the Lord.
    I guess that Aslam has calculated that the best way of bolstering his media career is to pitch for the Karen Armstrong camp of fretful half-believers, who need some reassurance that their Invisible Magic Friend is still around somewhere, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

  • Broga

    Stephen JP: I liked your description of “fretful half-believers.” I was once, when in my youth I tended to be a bit mouthy about my atheism, given a book written byTeilhard de Chardin. I can’t remember now what it said but I think that it probably appealed to the “fretful half-believer.” What I do recall is that the more I read it the more it seemed like a smoke and mirrors job.
    I think there must be a lot of those books around which create enough uncertainty to snare the unbeliever into thinking that he/she has failed to understand what is there. My wife, in a failed attempt to retrieve her from atheism, was given “Honest to God.” I have encountered people so convinced of their Christian belief that they cannot enterain the thought that my opinions might be equally valid. And so they must convince me of theirs.

  • StephenJP

    Broga, I wonder whether it might have been “The Phenomenon of Man”, about which the great Peter Medawar wrote one of the most scathing reviews of all time:
    It includes the imperious take-down: “Its author can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself”.

  • sowa

    Seems like deities are REALLY bad at PR if they let themselves be painted as violent, ruthless and vengeful (aren’t most scriptures supposedly dictated directly by deities?). Of course there is much simplier explanation: preachers gave them those attributes so there would be a stick (divine punishment) next to a carrot (afterlife) but I suppose that would be too obvious for “religion scholar” who is also God. It’ll never cease to amaze me how good humans are at rationalisation.

  • David Anderson

    Brian Jordan, spot on. One has only to read The Golden Bough by Sir James Frazer to discover all the gods and magic made up to explain things that we could not understand. Yet, here we are in the 21st century still clinging to the idea of some god moves in magical ways to explain things many people do not understand.
    Thanks for the review Maryam.

  • CoastalMaineBird

    Italian Scallion: I always say, “Ban ALL religions ”
    No. Banning will do nothing except feed their sense of persecution and righteousness.
    We should stop making exceptions for religions. Tax exceptions, social exceptions, etc.
    If you have a deeply held belief that a magical incantation said over your pancakes and syrup will turn them into the body and blood of Elvis Presley, you will be universally considered a fool.
    Why should it be different for JC Superstar?

  • Broga

    Stephen JP: ” Many thanks and that indeed is the book I had in mind. And Peter Medawar’s review is exemplary in its exposure of the flaws in the book. I thought this sentence summed up the reason why the book defied my ability to understand what others had insisted was profound:
    “It is written in an all but totally unintelligible style, and this is construed as prima-facie evidence of profundity.”

  • StephenJP

    Broga: and he also produces this gem, which it would be difficult to get away with nowadays:
    “The spread of secondary and latterly tertiary education has created a large population of people, often with well-developed literary and scholarly tastes, who have been educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought”. 

  • Broga

    StephenJP : Wow!

  • Brian Jordan

    Broga: and he also produces this gem, which it would be difficult to get away with nowadays
    They’d melt at the very idea!

  • Mohammad Himar

    And guess who are now the new champions of religion (Islamic in particular)? It is the regressive authoritarian left. Does this have anything to do with the totalitarian nature of socialism? Well, of course.