It is one of the most famous sentences in the Bible. In the beginning, we are told, "God created man in his own image". A phrase so resonant, so pleasing, that it has inspired everyone from Milton to Michelangelo, William Blake to Mark Twain.
It is also, says Reza Aslan in his new book, bunk. Not merely incorrect, but the opposite of what is true. In God: A Human History Aslan turns Genesis on its head. He argues that God didn't make man in his image; man created God in his image. "God became," he writes, "literally human."
Aslan is far from the first to suggest this. The Greek writer Xenophanes of Colophon wrote that if horses or oxen had hands then "horses would draw the figures of the gods as similar to horses and the oxen as similar to oxen". Mortal Narcissuses, we gaze endlessly at the depths of the heavens and see only ourselves.
Aslan, an Iranian-born American academic and author who was born into the "tepid Islam" of his parents, has some experience of this urge to anthropomorphise the infinite. When he was a child, he explains, he thought as a child. "I thought God was a large, powerful old man who lived in the sky — a bigger, stronger version of my father, but with magical powers," he writes, in one of several early sentences that make you want to throw this book across the room.
Now Aslan has become a man, he has (via an initial conversion to Christianity, then a late-breaking conversion to pantheism) put away such childish things. He thinks like a man — or, to be more precise, he thinks like an anthropologist with a dash of the historian thrown in. He no longer sees God as a celestial version of his grizzled father. Instead he sees him as something between a historical– fingerprint and a quirk of neuroscience.
The human brain, he explains, has a highly developed ability, almost a desperation, to see faces in things. Imagine you're walking past a knotty tree trunk. Catch the tree out of the corner of your eye and you might think, for a moment, that there is a face in it. This ability is called — here comes the neuroscience bit — hypersensitive agency detection device (Hadd).
Hadd makes us see humanity everywhere, even in Heaven itself. And where we see faces, we see souls. "We are the lens through which we understand the universe and everything in it," Aslan writes. "We not only humanise the world; we humanise the gods we think created it." In other words, the gods are less omnipotent regents than divine Rorschach splats.
Well. Yes. Maybe. This book, like the Bible, is a game of two halves. The earlier sections, set in the dim and distant past, are slightly less convincing than when Aslan reaches the era of the written word. God: A Human History covers a vast span of space and time — not quite from Creation onwards, but at least from the Neolithic era — and does so in a nice, easy, rattling-along sort of way that raises more questions than it answers.
In blithe passages we bounce swiftly over everything from Adam and Eve's spirituality (they had one) to the effect of religion on morality (zip, or at least no more than any other social practice). Many sentences feel less like fact than like one half of a finals exam question. The phrase "Adam and Eve seem to know intuitively that they are embodied souls" feels as though it should have been preceded by the words, "Do you agree with the statement that . . . " While the assertion that "religion is little more than a 'language' made up of symbols and metaphors" all but demands the word "discuss" after it.
Nonetheless, the extent of our divine anthropomorphism is fascinating. We don't just draw the gods' persons in our image — with faces, hands, beards and bad temper — we draw their political systems in our image too. Societies that have democratic assemblies allow their gods divine assemblies; despotic societies favour dominant despotic deities. One god, the emperor Constantine said, one emperor. Or, this suggests, vice versa.
Unquestioned assumptions are prodded. Take the comfortable idea that Judaeo-Christian religion is at root monotheistic. Rubbish, says Aslan. "By no stretch of the imagination could the early Israelites be considered monotheistic." Think for a moment and it's there, in one of the most famous of biblical lines — should you care to see it. "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." Not, note, there are no other gods. Just that you shan't have 'em.
Quite which god you shall have is, he points out, not that clear either. Aslan claims that the traditional all-powerful god of the Old Testament, the god of Moses and Abraham, is two different gods. The first is called El, the second Yahweh. Most glide over this, assuming that, as in Tolstoy, characters have many names, but are one. Not a bit of it, says Aslan; they have two names because they are two gods who later merged. A fact that is, at best, awkward.
This book, like the Bible, is definitely uneven. But the Bible didn't do too badly. And as an introductory biography of a figure who, whatever your beliefs, has good claim to be called the most influential of all time, it is interesting indeed.