A word of advice to the religiously curious: Don't trust any history of God that has only 171 pages of text. Reza Aslan's new project, "God: A Human History," is aimed at the analytically minded spiritual seeker, the type who hopes to answer deep questions on the divine with study data and tidbits about evolution. But instead of arming readers with interpretive tools and good questions, Aslan tells a highly selective, generalized tale with the goal of proving his own beliefs.
This fits his oeuvre. A professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, Aslan wields words skillfully and speaks elegantly; his ideas are perfectly suited for the internet-video age. He has a knack for tidy arguments: He's perhaps most famous for eviscerating a Fox News host who questioned why Aslan, a Muslim, would want to write "Zealot," his 2013 book about Jesus. Aslan may well be the most talented religious translator of his generation. But in his primed-for-television sureness, he misses an opportunity to engage the many Americans who are searching for new ideas about God. Rather than cherishing the complexity of belief, he chooses spiritual arrogance.
The idea of the book is fairly simple: Human spirituality can be explained in one cohesive, linear story about our universal desire to see ourselves in God. Aslan is skeptical of religion, which he sees as "little more than a 'language' made up of symbols and metaphors." He's more interested in "the ineffable experience of faith," which for him is "too expansive to be defined by any one religious tradition." While he claims he's not interested in proving or disproving the existence of God, by the end, his metaphysical commitments become clear. He believes God is universal, present in everyone and everywhere, and no more capable of making moral demands on humanity than any person. "The only way I can truly know God is by relying on the only thing I can truly know: myself," Aslan writes. It doesn't matter whether people believe in God or not, he implies. "We are, every one of us, God."
This mix of humanism and pantheism guides Aslan's narrative choices. He structures the book as a linear progression of faith, moving from animism, or the attribution of a soul to all objects, to monotheism, or the belief in one God. He's deeply interested in the origin of religious impulse, settling on an evolutionary theory: When ancient hunter-gatherers saw gods in the world around them, they were just trying to detect threats, looking for signs of humanlike beings with the ability to harm. An intuitive belief in the soul is "humanity's first belief," Aslan writes. We are wired to see the divine.
As human civilization evolved, so did people's worship of humanlike gods, Aslan says. People began to see themselves as "rulers of nature, gods over the earth," he argues, which led to the development of agriculture. Ancient civilizations revered their ancestors and pantheons of gods with human traits; emperors and kings lifted specific gods to rule others in their image. While monotheism emerged in fits and starts, Aslan writes, it finally took hold among the ancient Israelites. He goes on to summarize the first 600 years of Christianity in 17 pages, bringing religious history to its culmination in Islam, "a kind of doubling down on the very concept of monotheism."
It's a convenient story for an author arguing that a single, universal theory can adequately summarize thousands of years of contested history, text and myth. Aslan shows little interest in religious traditions that don't fit this pattern, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, which are mentioned only in passing. His history of God barely travels east of the Arabian Sea.
Instead, Aslan bushwhacks his way through intellectual history in pursuit of his point. Émile Durkheim, one of the most important early sociologists of religion, is taken down in two paragraphs. Aslan is clearly bothered by what he sees as theological inconsistency, dismissing the Christian notion that God's Trinitarian nature is a mystery and Muslims who don't grapple with the "paradox" of attributing human qualities to Allah, who is supposed to be distinct from creation. Each successive religion has rendered earlier forms irrelevant, he suggests, ultimately leading to the universalistic revelation he delivers in his book.
Aslan finds this expressed in the mystic tradition that "revitalized Islamic theology in the face of orthodox rigidity," known as Sufism. "At last," he writes, "we arrive at the inevitable endpoint of the monotheistic experiment ... God is not the creator of everything that exists. God is everything that exists."
It's a slippery play. Aslan self-identifies as a believer, but acknowledges that someone might as well think everything from the Big Bang to the balance of mass and energy "is all just an accident of atoms." After this whole glib race through the history of religion, it turns out Aslan has no taste for religious particularity: textual debates that can animate a lifetime; ritual practices bound by sacred law; theological concepts that are specific to one tradition, rather than common to all.
Aslan spends much of his public life defending Muslims against bigotry, including comments by New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. But ironically, he seems to share some of their intellectual biases. Like Aslan's CNN series, "Believer" — canceled in June after he wrote a foul-languaged tweet about President Trump — "God: A Human History" is aggressive atheism tempered and remodeled for the millennial age: doggedly universalistic, obligation-free and relentlessly focused on self-revelation. While Aslan claims to walk alongside the seeker, his orientation is actually the opposite, forgoing humility and spiritual hunger in favor of simplicity and self-righteousness.
Readers searching for God in Aslan's history will most likely be disappointed. But in this, there's a hidden blessing. Unlike Aslan's search, theirs will continue once the book is done.