Reza Aslan’s new book God: A Human History (Random House, 2017) provides a history of conceptions about the divine world. His working thesis is that humans have a near universal impulse to conceptualize the divine world in human terms that are linked with the social, economic, and political status of their societies. This history moves from the animism of our early cave painting hunter-gatherer ancestors, to those who experienced the agricultural revolution and began to settle into sedentary life, to those who began to dwell in cities and present their gods in the image of their political systems (what he calls politicomorphism, p. 102). The trajectory of human religious thinking will eventually lead to several attempts to be monotheistic (e.g., Akhenaten, Zoroaster, and the Jews), which are not fully successful in dehumanizing God—that is, not describing God in human form.
There are many fascinating twists and turns in the book. His discussion of the ways that cognitive science might provide answers to why humans have so frequently posited the existence of souls in animate and inanimate objects (chapter 3) offers an interesting point of entry into social scientific discussions of religion. The book is impressive in its historical sweep and I think it will be useful as a textbook for introduction to religion classes.
There are some inevitable drawbacks, however, to such a broad ranging scholarly endeavor. The scholars who write such works cannot be an expert in everything they write about . In Aslan’s case, he does an impressive job of bringing together a wide range of scholarship, however, I couldn’t help but notice some of the outdated bibliographic items from the 50s, 60s, and 70s on the Bible and the ancient Near East.
I also couldn’t shake the sense that in his portrayal of human thinking about the divine he followed older anthropological models that understood religion to have evolved in a steady way towards the pinnacle of monotheism, and then perhaps to pantheism if we follow his lead. While I am sure Aslan knows that there are various trajectories in religious history, and that it is difficult to speak of progress in relation to religious concepts, those things did not come across strongly in his book.
At the end of the book, Aslan tells the reader that his own intellectual and spiritual journey have brought him to a pantheistic understanding. God/god is everything. Everything is God/god. A pantheistic understanding resonates with various of the mystical traditions in the major religions. For him, it was the Sufi tradition of Islam that got him there. In his description of various possible ways of understanding pantheism, Aslan states that it is just as possible to understand the Oneness of all things from a materialist perspective (pp. 167–168). This makes me wonder why the need for a specifically religious pantheism rather than a non-religious materialist understanding of the world? As a thoughtful person, I am sure Aslan could provide and answer to that. In fact, he does to some extent when he says that there is no evidence to prove things one way or the other, so we must simply choose (p. 171). I don’t object to this portrayal of the intellectual situation, but it does make me wonder if his next book will document his journey from pantheism to atheism.
In any case, for those wanting a well-written and accessible introduction to the history of the conception of God, Reza Aslan’s new book will provide an excellent point of entry,.
The book can be found at https://www.amazon.com/God-Human-History-Reza-Aslan/dp/055339472X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1522980358&sr=8-1&keywords=God+a+human+history&dpID=41WDjYy3oPL&preST=_SY291_BO1,204,203,200_QL40_&dpSrc=srch