God: A Human History
by Reza Aslan
Illustrated. Random House. 320pp. $28.
If you’re looking for some kind of Cartesian logic knot that offers proof of whether God exists or not, this is not the book for you. [Spoiler alert: No one knows for sure.] But if you are a curious-minded folkorist, either secular or believing, with a literary taste for the intersection of science and mythology, physiology and faith, politics and cosmology — then it’s a page-turner. As books about religion go, it’s profoundly unlikely to spark heated debate. Instead, it takes a simple strategy of inversion — the premise that we made God (every version ever) in the image of ourselves, and not the other way around. Not because God does or doesn’t exist or needs to be invented — but rather, because our species has instinctual need to give the abstract concept of our gods an appearance, important symbols, and physical forms, the better to comprehend, explain, and worship them.
Reza Aslan is a brilliant religious scholar with a generous, conversational writing style. Transparent about the status of his own faith, his approach is both detached, in an academic sense, and personal, in an emotional one. It’s quite clear how deeply felt and thorough has been his pursuit of knowledge in his field. We all stand to benefit from his attempts to reconcile the development of humanity’s many expressions of faith with the chronicles of environmental and political history. And that’s the perspective of this book: a human one. He traces expressions of faith to the earliest appearance of humanoids, as far back as Neanderthals, contextualizing the formation of animism (the belief that every creature and object on earth possesses a soul) all the way to latter-day Islam and the Sufi tenet of the permanent oneness of all things, injecting a hint of Spinoza and physics and the theory of matter, and Jung’s definition of the Self. Along the way, Aslan lingers over elaborate, mystical cave paintings, pantheism, monotheism, the emergence of idols, temple-building, gods with names, and all the myriad ways in which life on earth’s war and politics inevitably influenced society’s concept and enactment of its religious dogma.
Engagingly illustrated and lavishly sourced (the bibliography of citations at the end is its own miniature Library of Alexandria), Aslan’s book is to a history of religions what Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Physics in a Hurry is to the history of the universe — a bite sized and accessible overview that communicates new thinking on a complex topic without an iota of dumbing-down. Less an argument in favor or against any single column of thought, and more a reset on the paradigm of conventional narrative, Aslan presents humanity’s eons-long parade of deities as nothing more nor less than divine versions of ourselves, ones that serve to amplify cultural differences more often than smooth them over, accompanied by a dangerous tendency to justify our own flawed behavior and political agendas.
It is refreshing to encounter a book about religion that advocates critical thought and the pursual of further independent investigation, all the while admonishing radical tolerance and making room for whatever it is that you end up discovering. If there is a case to be made by the book, it is one in favor of pluralism, or at least of a form of faith that makes more sense, by seeking to resolve the paradoxes of myth and reality not by demanding blind faith but by seeking a real explanation that includes everything — even non-belief. For Aslan, this has set him on a path that started with Islam, dipped into Christianity, returned to Islam and has settled on its offshoot, Sufism. Aslan’s explanation of this sect’s history and tenets is the most plausible I have ever read, and its expression of a unified theory of existence and belief sounds pretty good — especially because it was founded by a poet. In the arc of the book, Sufism is posited as rooted in the legacy of man’s earliest impulse. Remember animism? The idea that everything has a soul and all that? Sufism further proposes that much like in science, in spiritual matters all things are one, neither created nor destroyed, eternal despite superficial changes, including everything you can see, everything you cannot, everything that has ever lived or died, you, and God too — whatever that turns out to be.
Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Downtown LA. She is LA Editor for Whitehot Magazine and a contributor to KCET’s Artbound, as well as HuffPost, Vice, Flaunt, Fabrik, Art and Cake,Artillery, Juxtapoz, ALTA Journal of California, Palm Springs Life, and Porter & Sail. She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes loads of essays for books and exhibition catalogs, curates and juries a few exhibitions each year, is a dedicated Instagram photographer and author of experimental short fiction, and speaks at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. She sits on the Boards of Art Share-LA and the Venice Institute of Contemporary Art, and the Advisory Council of Building Bridges Art Exchange.