A Human History
By Reza Aslan
Illustrated. 298 pp. Random House. $28.
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.”Continue reading the main story
Reza Aslan may be best known as the author of notable books about Islam as well as the best-seller “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” and he’s also in demand as a commentator on talk shows and cable news programs.
But Aslan has several other irons in the fire, including the new series “Believer,” which premieres 10 p.m. Sunday on CNN. In it, he immerses himself in several different religions in an attempt to understand the emotional truths at their cores.
That project, which he discusses below and in a recent podcast, is far from his only small-screen endeavor. He’s also working on an ABC comedy that he hopes will do for Muslims in America what “Will & Grace” did for LGBT men and women.
“‘Will & Grace’ did more to advance LGBT rights in this country than any lawmaker, than any politician, than any thought-leader did,” Aslan notes. “That’s the power of TV. You may not have ever met a gay or lesbian person in your life, but you get to see them on television.”
The comedy, which Aslan is working on with former “Friends” writer Andrew Reich, is still in the development stage, but it’s part of a number of efforts to demystify who American Muslims are. It’s certainly an important task in a time in which hate crimes and racial profiling are on the rise.
“There are 3 million Muslims in America,” says Aslan. “That’s less than 1 percent of the entire population, so chances are you don’t know a Muslim. There are 350 million [Americans], and it makes perfect sense to think that you could go your entire life in this country and never come face-to-face with another Muslim. So the only opportunity that you have is television.”
But Aslan is not ignoring the power of the Internet: He’s also involved in a Web series called the Secret Life of Muslims, in which American Muslims — some famous, some not — talk about their lives and faith.
“It’s a series that allows Muslims in the United States to speak for themselves,” Aslan says. “These last couple of decades, and certainly this last election cycle, we’ve heard a lot from people about who Muslims are, and what Muslims think, and what they believe. It’s very rare to actually hear them themselves. [I believe that] minds are changed through relationships, not through information. So getting to know these people, getting to know their stories, is I think a profound way of shifting the perception about this community in the United States.”
Given what a minefield talking about religion can be, it’d be understandable if TV storytellers veered away from the topic. But many have done the opposite, and no program has been more committed to exploring the pain and beauty of faith more than HBO’s “The Leftovers,” which returns April 16. Aslan has served as a consulting producer on the show, and though he was careful to avoid giving any spoilers on the final season, he said he thinks the show’s fans won’t be disappointed.
“For storytellers like [‘Leftovers’ executive producer] Damon Lindelof, who have figured out a creative way to talk about these universal sentiments without necessarily getting too bogged down in specific religious ideas, I think that the reward is going to be astonishing,” Aslan says. “I mean, that’s the reason why ‘Leftovers’ fans are so passionate about it. I have atheist friends who love that show. I have friends who are fundamentalists, evangelical, Bible-believing Christians, and ‘The Leftovers’ is their favorite show. It’s precisely [because it has] created a new set of metaphors, a new way of talking about faith that allows people to be drawn to it, regardless of how they themselves experience faith.”
In the new CNN series “Believer,” Aslan, who was born in Iran, immerses himself in various faiths, not as an observer, but as a participant in each group’s rituals and day-to-day lives. In the six-part series, Aslan lives with members of an ultra-Orthodox sect, with American Scientologists, with Hindu ascetics in India, with Vodou practioners in Haiti, and with a group in Hawaii that believes the apocalypse is nigh.
“I’m not a tour guide who’s going to point to people and say, ‘How interesting! Look at those people over there, and the things that they are doing.’ I rip off my clothes and I jump in with them,” Aslan says. “I’m fortunate in that, I tend to have a little bit of a name that people recognize. They know that I’m going to be somebody who is going to come to them without judgment, without an attempt to make fun of their beliefs. That I’m just there to experience and to understand. What was really surprising to me was how quickly these different religious communities did end up opening to me.”
Viewers should not expect the TV equivalent of a dry, introductory college course about each of these groups. “I sometimes joke that it’s a little bit like Anthony Bourdain’s [‘Parts Unknown’] but with faith instead of food,” says Aslan.
For Aslan, historical facts and explanatory descriptions can of course be useful when discussing matters of religion, but they’re only part of the way that people experience faith. There’s also a deep emotional component when it comes to religion, and that can lead to people reacting in extreme ways when they feel those core elements of themselves and their group are under threat.
“If it’s true that religion is first and foremost a matter of identity,” that might partially explain the roots of ferocious reactions to perceived threats, he notes. “If people feel as though they’re very sense of self is under siege by other people, by majorities in their communities, by a minority in their communities — [that can seem like] an existential threat. And that leads to extremism. Because it’s not my beliefs that are under siege, it’s who I am as a human being.”
And it’s those kinds of visceral beliefs that Aslan tries to explore in “Believer” and his other TV projects.
“I could just keep writing books,” Aslan said. “But I feel like with TV, I can communicate these things in a way that I just can’t just by writing about them.”
For the entire conversation with Reza Aslan, check out this podcast.