Reza Aslan’s new book, in which he becomes a pantheist

Reza Aslan’s new book, God: A Human History, came out five days ago. Click on the screenshot to go to the Amazon page:

Curiously, despite Aslan’s recent television series, Believer, the book doesn’t seem to be garnering a lot of attention—or praise. (But perhaps that’s because his series was dreadful and got canceled.) The book got no stars from Kirkus, but did garner this statement:

The author seems anxious to shock readers with his argument that God is in everything. “I am,” he writes dramatically, “in my essential reality, God made manifest. We all are.” Aslan’s conclusion is not necessarily revolutionary, though to many believers, it may seem surprising. As a history, the book is a brief yet interesting, mostly engaging work, though it does not touch on the idea of God as manifested in Asian cultures. Though the two books have differing scopes and purposes, Karen Armstrong’s 1993 classic, A History of God, is a better choice.

Well, maybe a “better choice” in the sense that you’d prefer to eat cat rather than dog feces, but the review does mention what seems to be the theme of this book: pantheism. God is everywhere, including ourselves, and isn’t the anthropomorphic being in the sky, one with feelings and orders, touted by the Abrahamic faiths—including Aslan’s faith of Islam. Publisher’s Weekly also withholds a star and also mentions his lack of discussion of Asian religion:

Aslan is adept at translating serious academic theory into lay-reader friendly prose, but he also shares his own perspective as a person of faith and advocates for a renewed pantheism—though he says it can be called by many names. In making his case for pantheism, he barely mentions the voices of Hindu traditions, lesser known pantheistic philosophies, or specific indigenous traditions that have long held beliefs similar to those he advocates. Despite these issues, any general reader interested in religion will find much to learn about how the idea of God or gods has evolved and changed according to geographical, economic, political, and social contexts.

I can’t find any reviews on the other two big vetting sites, Library Journal and Booklist (maybe I’ve missed them). The advance praise for the book comes only from Philip Jenkins and, predictably, Bart Ehrman, and we hear from nobody else on either Amazon or the publisher’s website. And even the New York Times didn’t review it, though reviews usually precede or are coincident with a book’s release.

The Spectator did discuss it, however, in a semi-snarky review by Alexander Waugh which, though it doesn’t explicitly say Aslan is a slick huckster, clearly implies it.  Waugh begins by going into the ways Aslan has distorted his credentials and training (we needn’t reprise these here). He then throws Aslan a bone before chewing on the meat of his thesis, which appears to repudiate much of Islam (and Christianity):

Aslan writes in clear, concise and attractive English. He is intelligent and has an uncommon ability both to marshal and contextualise seemingly random facts, and is skilful at condensing complex ideas into short, effortless paragraphs. But despite his claims to high scholarship, he is at heart a popular historian. Even his end-notes are fun.

The surface message of his book is simple. He repudiates the ‘humanisation of God’, by which he means man’s historical desire to portray him in his own image —to give him a face, eyes, hair, hands, feet, a tongue, lips, even a womb (Job 38:29) and bowels (Jeremiah 31:20). . . .

. . . Aslan has no time for any of this, but considers it an aberration borne of human arrogance that began when man started putting fences round animals. Prehistoric man, he argues, worshipped animals as spirits; but farming subjugated the beasts and so man made God in his own image. Islam, according to Aslan, is innocent of all this. References in the Quran to God’s eyes, hands, face and shin are to be read metaphorically. Isn’t this also true of the Bible?

Waugh spices up his meal with some gratuitous snark, which of course affords me a little Schadenfreude:

As Aslan’s commentary passes from French and Spanish cave drawings to the temples of Göbekli Tepe, and from ancient Egyptian animists to the monotheistic Yahwists, it becomes increasingly obvious to the reader that his impatience is growing; that the scholarly impartiality he vaunted so famously in his interview on Fox TV is starting to disintegrate and that he is now bursting out of his chrysalis. He is an ambitious man who enjoys the limelight. He has already played many parts — Christian, Muslim, businessman, sociologist, lecturer, editor, presenter, producer, public intellectual, scholar, historian, creative writing tutor and performing clown. Now it looks as though he wants to become a guru.

. . . If Aslan is hoping to found a new religion based upon this ancient wisdom and his own charismatic personality he may succeed. He is after all articulate, handsome and a keen self-publicist, who already appears to have a following of sorts. If he plays his cards right he could be wearing togas and flying around in a private jet in five years’ time.

It’s a staple of atheist writing that man made God rather than the other way round, but now Aslan seems to adhere to that too:

I don’t think it would be spoiling the story (it’s not that kind of book) if I revealed Aslan’s conclusion: ‘God,’ he writes three pages from the end, ‘did not make us in his image; nor did we simply make God in ours. Rather we are the image of God in the world — not in form or likeness, but in essence.’ This he describes as a personal ‘epiphany’, arrived at through his ‘long, and admittedly circuitous, spiritual journey’. Only now does he reveal to his readers that the history contained in the first 166 pages of his book is a ‘mirror’ of his own ‘faith-journey’. His title, God: A Human History, might just as well have been God: A History of Me. ‘The entire reason we have a cognitive impulse to think of God as a divine reflection of ourselves,’ he writes, ‘is because we are, every one of us, God.’

And so this extraordinary book, which started as an informative history of an idea, transforms itself into a self-help manual and an autobiographical consecration, delivered as a sermon from the pulpit of the author’s personal epiphany. ‘God,’ he writes, ‘is not the creator of everything that exists. God is everything that exists’ — an idea which leads him inexorably to his final remarks: ‘So then, make your choice. Believe in God or not. Either way, take a lesson from Adam and Eve and eat the forbidden fruit. Do not fear God. You are God.’

Aslan’s theology, as well he knows, is not original. It is called pantheism — an ancient belief that God exists through his creation — that the creator and that which he has created are indivisible.

Waugh continues with a potted history of pantheism, and then winds up wondering about something that’s struck me as well. In repudiating the tradition of Islam, in which the Qur’an sees Allah as a real being with real feelings, and in espousing a form of pantheism for which, after all all religions can be equally right, Aslan is turning himself into an apostate: a Maajid Nawaz of America. Dare he go to the Grand Mosque of Mecca and proclaim that the Qur’an espouses a man-made God? I don’t think so, for his head would soon be lonely for his body. But I think Muslims see Aslan as a useful idiot, conciliatory rather than “strident”, and so will leave him alone—as long as he stays away from Iran or Saudi Arabia.

If you want to see him discuss his book on MSNBC (oy, my kishkas!), click on the screenshot and then go to the video. You can see one reason why he’s taking this line: he argues that dehumanizing God not only gives us a “deeper spirituality,” but defuses some of the conflicts between people, preventing us from “dehumanizing” each other. That’s pure Karen Armstrong: “we’re all the same and we’re all love and yay! good stuff.”  He’s trying to reconfigure religion in a way that he thinks will make him even more beloved, and, as Waugh notes, a guru in a toga. I don’t for a minute think he believes what he says.

If candy corn were made human, it would be Reza Aslan

But if every one of us, including yours truly, is God, why did Aslan block me on Twitter? He’s blocking God.

h/t: Charleen

37 Comments

  1. Tom Besson
    Posted November 12, 2017 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    Joseph Campbell defines a myth as “an organization of symbols, images and narratives that are metaphorical of the possibilities of human experience and fulfillment in a given society at a given time”. God, in all its’ forms, is no more than our idea of what god represents, nothing more, nothing less. If anyone wants me to believe that God is a sky creature who created the universe and knows everything about us, and who, in some religions, controls or ‘wills’ our every thought and action, then I’d say, “Go ahead and pull the other leg.”

    • rom
      Posted November 12, 2017 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

      I like Campbell.

      Did he not say something like

      Mythology is what we call someone else’s religion.

      Dawkins … Pantheism “sexed up atheism”.

      It is where theism approaches atheism.

      • Posted November 12, 2017 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

        No. I don’t think so.

        Even if pantheism is less rigidly doctrinal, and thus, shares a bit in common with religions that have become less literal, Reza is using it to promote religion generally.

        • rom
          Posted November 12, 2017 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

          It’s a step in the right direction.

      • Ken Pidcock
        Posted November 12, 2017 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

        Pantheism allows you to still be special, not because the universe smiles upon you but because you have this amazing insight.

  2. Ken Pidcock
    Posted November 12, 2017 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    Others will no doubt disagree, but I was rather fond of Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God, right up until he goes after Steven Weinberg, at which point it becomes incredibly weaselly.

    • rom
      Posted November 12, 2017 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

      I read it twice … years apart

      First time I thought the first two thirds was great. The last third was weird.

      Second time around the last third made a bit more sense.

      Don’t recall the bit about Weinberg … whoever he is.

      • sshort
        Posted November 12, 2017 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

        Steven Weinberg (from Wikipedia):” is an American theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate in Physics for his contributions with Abdus Salam and Sheldon Glashow to the unification of the weak force and electromagnetic interaction between elementary particles.”

        He has also written many excellent books, including “Facing Up: Science and it’s Cultural Adversaries.”

        He teaches at UT Austin.

        • rom
          Posted November 12, 2017 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

          Thanks … I will have to see if I can see what the offending bits were.

  3. Cate Plys
    Posted November 12, 2017 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    Re whether Aslan is coming out as an Islamic apostate in this book, I’m not sure. According to the snarky and very enjoyable excerpts of the Waugh review, Aslan condemns other religions for humanizing God but excuses Islam: “References in the Quran to God’s eyes, hands, face and shin are to be read metaphorically. Isn’t this also true of the Bible?” And it makes sense that Aslan *would* give himself this out–he’s annoying, but not stupid. He knows how to go right up to the line of blaspheming as a Muslim without crossing it–because he knows how important it is not to cross that line.

    • Sastra
      Posted November 12, 2017 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

      It seems to me that many of the devout will let you get away with the rankest apostasy if only you keep asserting that you think their religion is both wonderful and true. It’s like that little trick of contradicting people while simultaneously nodding and smiling in seeming support of whatever they last said. When faced with cognitive dissonance, they go for the interpretation which offers friendship and reassurance.

      • Posted November 12, 2017 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

        There are many reasons that could motivate someone to tolerance, and certainly not all of them are evil. Don’t we laud tolerance in the West? It’s not all tricks.

        Cognitive dissonance is real, as is fidelity to the in-group, and so is simply not caring.

        • Cate Plys
          Posted November 12, 2017 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

          Sure, tolerance is often a good thing. Not always. Tolerating FGM, for instance, is not a good thing. But the limits of tolerance is a whole different discussion. The point here is that according to the Aslan book review–and again, I can only go by the review–Aslan’s book criticizes everyone else for humanizing God, but not Islam. Apparently the book gives the Quran the benefit of the doubt for only being metaphorical when humanizing God, while not extending that courtesy to other religions. That’s not tolerance.

          • Posted November 12, 2017 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

            I was talking about ideas, and not deeds — tolerance in the Liberal tradition concerns the former. FGM should not be tolerated, I agree.

            (Side note — it must suck to have the initials “FGM” and to participate in these discussions. :-|)

            I was replying to Sastra’s comment about the motives that members of a group could have in tolerating perceived fringe elements.

            The issue you bring up about unfair treatment, if true, deserves attention, but that’s not what I was attending to. Construing it as a tolerance issue is perfectly fine, but there might be more helpful ways of approaching it — especially if it’s just historically false, in which case, it’s just…historically false, and unfair to the tradition.

            To reframe what I’m saying: If I say that the people on my street don’t have nice cars, except me, I might be guilty of several things, but I’m not sure I would say that my comment is indicative of “intolerance”. Hubris, perhaps. Ill will or even contempt, perhaps. Again, in the Liberal tradition, intolerance usually concerns actions, not words or thoughts.

        • Sastra
          Posted November 12, 2017 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

          I was trying to point out that contradictions are often glossed over by listeners if they’re put forth with a smile of approval. That’s not so much ‘tolerance,’ I think, as hypocrisy and flattery.

  4. Larry Smith
    Posted November 12, 2017 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    Great post, thanks! I’ll have to remember that cat/dog feces line!

    • Posted November 12, 2017 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

      I could not continue reading after that. I will return when my wind is back and my sides stop aching.

  5. Posted November 12, 2017 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    After my fit of laughing (cat feces, teehee), I finished. (Dog feces, teehee) Aslan blocked gawd. JC, I may have to send you a medical bill for a cracked rib. 😉

  6. Randall Schenck
    Posted November 12, 2017 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    Two things hit me in the interview. Early on he said – We are born with that view of religion. Where does this idea come from, that you are born with any view of religion or for that matter, a view of anything? Then toward the end he says – Religion became corrupted by politics. Very strange statement that one, I always thought it was the other way around.

  7. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted November 12, 2017 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Karen Armstrong’s “History of God” was for a while very popular with humanist/rationalist groups.

    That capital she gained with humanists was lost a bit with the 2nd book in her God trilogy “The Battle for God” and then gone with the 3rd “The Case for God” in which she tackles the new atheism.

    Armstrong’s scholarship is IMO fairly sloppy, but not quite as disingenuous as that of RA, who sometimes just seems to be directly lying.
    Armstrong uses out of date scholarship on the Hebrew Bible and greatly exaggerates the degree to which early Christians thought the Bible was non-literal symbolic metaphors.
    She also over-relies on the trope of benign religion being “real” religion, thus whitewashing religion, but notably NOT with Aslan’s strategy of just saying as these issues with FGM, etc. are merely cultural. Unlike Aslan, in “Battle for God” Armstrong IS willing to admit various barbaric practices DO have a religious motivation.

    I thought her commentary on Genesis a bit dull, but one of her best is “The Great Transformation: The World in the Time of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah”. Her TED talk on the Golden Rule is not bad.

    I generally feel that if Reza Aslan is schitte, than Armstrong is more watery mush.

  8. Posted November 12, 2017 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t read the book, but the idea that everything that exists is a manifestation of God, the One, the Good, &c., is as old as Platonism (yes, I will argue this), taking full flower with Plotinus and the tradition flowing from him; this was absorbed into Christianity very early.

    I can’t say much about Islam, or philosophical Islam, though I have a few Brill monographs about this floating around my desk in one of the stacks. In Christianity, certainly, this is not called “pantheism”, and doesn’t even have a name. The idea that God is a being with properties and changes in response to other beings is foreign to educated Christians in Late Antiquity, for they know the Greco-Latin philosophical tradition(s). “Theophanism” is what some have called the developed metaphysical position of early Christians in retrospect (was that Eric Perl?), and that seems fair. We see it fully developed in figures like Pseudo-Dionysius (“Denys”) and Maximus Confessor, but already there in figures like the Cappadocians centuries earlier. Spinoza and Plotinus can both say what Aslan says, but they are very different in terms of their metaphysics. They are not responding to identical issues.

    Educated Christians in Late Antiquity approached the anthropomorphisms of the biblical text the way that many Platonists and Stoics approached the Homeric corpus: they purified it by reading it allegorically. So when the Psalmist complains that God has his thumb up his ass (usually obfuscated with “pluck Thy hand out of Thy bosom!” or even “take Your hands out of Your pockets!” in one translation), that’s read the same way that “God’s feet” or “God speaks” or “God’s face” is read: metaphorically, allegorically.

    The Hekhalot literature is an outlier, and, from the scholarly literature I’ve read on it (mostly the Marquette stuff) it is not supposed to be literal. One cannot imagine the distances between limbs as one recounts them. The Merkavah/Merkabah literature is less of an outlier, and the ascent to see God does not, as in the Enochic literature, culminate in any kind of anthropomorphic vision (and so with the 2nd temple texts I know of that deal with vision during ascents that occur in the context of ritual). The snippits of medieval Jewish philosophical theology I know do not affirm an anthropomorphic theism where God is a being with moods, &c. It’s impossible to totally avoid Plato in the ancient world, and so one cannot be educated and hold to this idea of God as a being who becomes angry, &c.

    So while I can’t say that Aslan approaches this in a responsible way, it’s not an irresponsible thing to affirm.

    ____________________
    PS: BTW, related to this topic, you’ll probably enjoy the more recent (post-atheist turn) of LeRon Shults. I’d also recommend Wesley Wildman. I think you’ll find both congenial.

    • reasonshark
      Posted November 12, 2017 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

      Fascinating post and good point about how longstanding and diverse that position is (though I wonder if one could make the case that Spinoza was more a closet atheist or agnostic than a pantheist).

      If I may quote: truly, there is nothing new under the sun.

      • Posted November 12, 2017 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

        I’m not sure that the modern atheist needs to look upon Spinoza as a competitor to his or her concerns: as I recall, Spinoza rejected the anthropomorphisms of the Jewish religion of his youth, and his theology is really a part of his cosmology. You’re comparing the wrong things.

        I’d give G.H.R. Parkinson’s Oxford volume of Spinoza’s _Ethics_ a readthrough; it’s certainly worth your time!

        • reasonshark
          Posted November 12, 2017 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

          Competitor? Odd way of putting it. Certainly not what I had in mind.

          I should explain: I had in mind what Dawkins called the “Einsteinian” sense of being an atheist or agnostic. That one can refer to the universe – say, poetically or metaphorically – as “God” without necessarily believing it IS God. I hope that clarifies what I was trying to say.

          Also, thank you for the recommendation.

          • Posted November 12, 2017 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

            Gotcha. My understanding of Einstein is that he was a self-described Spinozist, which, if so, is not merely projecting a metaphor onto the screen of the universe (if this is what you mean), but is, rather, claiming something true about the world and reality, metaphysically speaking. I have not read Einstein’s essays on religion in over 10 years, so I can’t comment. Regarding the word “God”, Spinoza means something VERY different than an Evangelical Protestant would. See his definition at the beginning of the _Ethics_ volume I mentioned above. Glad to pass on the recommendation! Spinoza is most definitely essential reading. 😀

    • Vaal
      Posted November 13, 2017 at 11:23 am | Permalink

      Interesting stuff!

      Though to my mind, the least reliable interpreters of the bible are Christians. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about those who fill the pews or the “sophisticated” theologians. If you are coming to the bible believing it to be the word of God (in any sense) you are motivated to produce a coherent message from a disparate group of authors and viewpoints, hence rounding every square to fit your circular hole of faith.
      It’s far more interesting to me to know what the authors likely meant or believed, vs how dogmatic Christians later interpreted the text.

      • Posted November 13, 2017 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

        Yes: the historical sense of a given biblical text is not the exclusive goal of any religiously-motivated theory – the religious want to hear the unity of the text, whether they are pagan Neoplatonist allegorists or Christian allegorists. Theology (in the sense of first philosophy) always has priority over either Homer or the Bible.

        The historical sense is not usually unimportant to the religious motive – on the contrary, it usually is, though more or less so depending on the school of interpretation and the motives and formation of the interpreter (the text is usually used for some more proximate aesthetic and religious project, though, rather than being explicitly brought up into any purported overall unity). The unity of God is often sought in the unity of the reading, and vice-versa. Jon Levenson has some great reflections on this in his _The Hebrew Bible, The Old Testament, and Historical Criticism_ or some such. _Who Wrote The Bible_ by Friedman, is worth a read. I have a book on my shelf I’ve not yet read on this titled _The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies_. Many or even most of the best Biblical scholars today are religious in some sense, so the two enterprises are not necessarily incompatible existentially, though I don’t know of any serious scholar who thinks that God spoke the words of the Bible. There probably are some, though.

        Like you, I’m not interested in anyone rounding the squares. I’d check out the Hermeneia and Anchor Bible series for this. For the educated laymen (vi&., non-specialist), they’re the best, I think.

        The historical reception of a text is interesting, but it’s quite distinct from authorial intent.

  9. Jon Butler
    Posted November 12, 2017 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    You’ve ruined candy corn for me.
    …but now I know better than to read the book…
    so thanks!

  10. Jimbo
    Posted November 12, 2017 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    ‘Godblocker’! LOL!
    You’ll make a memeticist out of me yet, Prof. Coyne.

  11. Jake Sevins
    Posted November 12, 2017 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    Reza thinks Sam Harris is God now. That should settle a few arguments…

    … unless he thinks God is wrong.

  12. Posted November 12, 2017 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

    “But if every one of us, including yours truly, is God, why did Aslan block me on Twitter? He’s blocking God.”

    Ha ha, nice one!

  13. Michael Fisher
    Posted November 12, 2017 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    That Reza Aslan is paying too much heed to the personal hairdresser who undoubtedly travels with him everywhere.

    Next year I expect he’ll pop up on Big Brother, X Factor or some new, awful panel show…

    Whose God is it anyway?
    Are you Allah ‘avin a laugh?
    Family Fatwa Fortunes

  14. Steve Gerrard
    Posted November 12, 2017 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

    It’s a poor choice of title and a bad cover design, for starters. It nearly shouts pretentious to me. Not the sort of thing most people would want to pick up. “You’re all wrong and I’m right” is not the best message to be sending. By the sound of the reviews, it’s not really worth reading anyway.

  15. Posted November 14, 2017 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    I’ve heard that in Orthodox Judaism and Islam about the most heretical thing one can claim is that god and the universe are of the same ‘sort of thing’. Dunno how justified that is, or how one would tell, but it is repeated in many places.

  16. Posted November 16, 2017 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

    Slightly off topic, I still can’t figure out why Aslan and Obeidallah, who both seem to be fairly liberal politically, all but refuse to acknowledge the illiberality of much of the Muslim world. Admitting that would in no way besmirch their own progressive credentials, nor should it reflect poorly on the overwhelming majority of US Muslims, who are much more tolerant, generally speaking, than their counterparts elsewhere. Really, I would think that more honesty from these two and their ilk would increase their standing in supposedly liberal circles. Can their apologetics really be that good for business? Or, in their hearts of hearts, do they really believe what they’re selling?


%d bloggers like this: