A biography of God? No: an account of how men have modeled the gods in their image and likeness. But this apparently skeptical book does not deny God and provides ingredients for the debate on why all cultures, in all times and places, have sought a spiritual dimension. The human brain, says Reza Aslan, tends to believe in God, gods, or at least a soul. Was it an evolutionary advantage? No, it was not: look elsewhere for the explanation.
"I am not interested in the question of whether or not God exists, which is impossible to answer. The question that has led me to write this book is what is meant when the word God is said. That is an almost universal word. And each one understands something very different ", explains by phone from Los Angeles this scholar of religions, author of God. A human story, which Taurus now publishes in Spanish.
Aslan (Tehran, 47), a professor at the University of California, knows beliefs because he has studied them for various academic institutions, has published books, and has featured in lectures and debates. And because he has lived diverse faiths. His Iranian parents came to the US fleeing the Khomeini revolution. As a child he was a Muslim (Shiite); in adolescence he converted to (evangelical) Christianity; Then he returned to Islam and, after approaching Sufism, today he defines himself as a pantheist. What "is not a fashion new age"He warns, if not" probably the oldest belief in humanity ", which he intends to revive. "Pantheism is the refusal to accept a distinction between the creator and the creation; it is the belief that God is all things and all things are God. "
First myth that attacks: that religion arose because it was an evolutionary advantage, a cohesive element in primitive societies. He thinks otherwise: "Religion was a disadvantage, because all the resources and efforts put into expressing religious feelings could have been used to ensure survival," he argues. So the most plausible hypothesis, he says, is that it is "an accidental product of another evolutionary advantage. An accident, in other words ". Aslan recalls that there was no morality in the gods of antiquity: for example, the Mesopotamians or Egyptians were "wild and brutal", and the Greeks were "conceited and capricious beings".
Second myth in question: religion appears with the agricultural revolution to strengthen the power of leaders. No, Aslan says: "The religious drive is hundreds of thousands of years old. What is a relatively recent phenomenon is institutionalized religion, with priests or shamans. "
The book begins with the first manifestations of spirituality of the Homo sapiens, visible in the cave paintings. And in a place as surprising as Göbekli Tepe, a hunter-gatherer sanctuary in present-day Turkey that could date back 12,000 years before Christ. The first vestige of an organized religion. "It is possible that the construction of Göbekli Tepe not only marked the beginning of the Neolithic, but the beginning of a new conception of humanity," he writes. And so it connects with a third denial, that the sedentary lifestyle was the effect of agriculture. "Proto-cities were built with hundreds, in some cases thousands of people, around the religious monuments. Once they had become sedentary, they looked for a way to deal with the growing population: grow food and tame animals. It is the opposite of what has always been thought ", he affirms.
The author reviews the origins of the three great monotheisms, but questions the extent to which they can be considered as such. About Judaism, he maintains – like other experts – that it is the fusion of two neighboring religious traditions, those that worshiped the gods Yahweh and El (or Elohim), who are spoken of differently in the Pentateuch. Because the authors who shape the Old Testament, from exile in Babylon, do not hide the many contradictions: "Quite the contrary. If you read Genesis, It looks like a book, but in reality there are four different books written in different centuries. It is a blanket made of scraps ".
Another common rebutting belief is that Jesus or Muhammad were aware that they were founding a religion. "What you and I call Christianity was created by Paul. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke were just another version of Judaism, "he says. It is the Gospel of John, the latest, the only one that divinizes the Messiah. The other determining figure is the Emperor Constantine, who, three centuries later, faces the doctrinal dispersion of Christianity and intends to impose an official version. That process ended in the dogma of the trinity, the attempt to reconcile that a unique God has a son who is also God. The trinity, he observes, was an abrupt break with Jewish monotheism, but "it satisfied the polytheistic tastes of the early Christians, who were mostly Greek or Roman."
Nor did Muhammad claim to found a religion, according to Aslan. "What you see in Muhammad, and he was not the only one of many reformers in Arabia at that time, is an attempt to return to the original monotheism of Abraham. As often happens, very soon after Muhammad's death, the surrounding community began to present itself as a new religion. There is no evidence that anyone declared himself a Muslim before Muhammad's death, "he says.
In his personal evolution, Aslan noticed the Sufi mystics, who were accused of blasphemers because they said: "I am God." In them he found what he was looking for: "the climax of the belief in a unique, singular, non-human, creative and indivisible God".
"If God is everything, why call him God and not the universe?"
"God is not a name, it is an idea." What that idea means varies depending on who uses the word. I would define it as pure existence. You are right: we should be more careful in using the word God.
Fanaticism is for Reza Aslan nothing new in history and he explains it as a reactive phenomenon. "Religious fundamentalism reacts to religious liberalism; like political fundamentalism, like the one we see in the United States, it is a reaction to globalization. Yes, it is terrible to see the rise of radicalisms, but it is because of progress, because of multiculturalism, because of the greater support for LGTBIs, and that is more important than how they react. "
The writer puts militant atheists like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris in the category of extremists. "The new atheism does not seem to me a very intellectual movement. An atheist does not believe in God and that's it. These are antitheists: they say that religion is an insidious evil that must be eradicated from society. And that is more like religious fundamentalism than atheism. "