Interview: Reza Aslan on humanizing God

Reza Aslan in conversation with Charity Nebbe

First United Methodist Church — Thursday, Dec. 7 at 7 p.m.

Reza Aslan returns to Iowa City in support of his new book, ‘God: A Human History.’ — photo by Malin Fezehai

Reza Aslan will appear on Thursday, Dec. 7 at the First United Methodist Church (214 E Jefferson St, Iowa City) for a conversation with Iowa Public Radio host Charity Nebbe about his newest book, God: A Human History. The book takes a tour through the ways that the idea of God has changed the course of human civilization. It looks particularly at how conceptions of God become endowed with the needs and personalities of the individuals and societies that worship that God.

In addition to looking at the problems with personalizing God, the book also provides a concise, readable summary of the history of monotheism, stretching from early Egypt into its incarnation as Islam. Thursday’s event, sponsored by Prairie Lights, will take place at 7 p.m. Tickets are $28 for a bundle (two tickets and one copy of the book) and are available in person at Prairie Lights or via phone at (319) 337-2681.

Aslan was a visiting assistant professor at the University of Iowa while working on his M.F.A. in fiction. He has since become one of the foremost public intellectuals of our time — especially in terms of religion. Those who missed his best-selling Zealot, describing the life of Jesus, (or his interview with Fox News’ Lauren Green about the book) may have heard his name in conjunction with Believer, the series on CNN that was cancelled in June after Aslan’s outspoken criticism of President Trump. Aslan provides an understanding of religion that is both informed and inviting, intelligent and eloquent.

Are you looking forward to returning to Iowa City?

I left a piece of my heart in Iowa City, and so always like to come back. I was last there doing a screening of Believer, so it’s been 7-8 months. I’m looking forward to hanging out in one of the best bookstores in America.

What prompted you to write the book, and what did you anticipate as its response?

Most of the books I write are about religion — whether religious history or religious characters. This is the first book I’ve written about the religious impulse — faith, in other words. What I wanted to do is discuss is how the idea of faith came about and particularly the impulse we all have to humanize the divine, to consider God as a divine reflection of ourselves. I also wanted to offer a different, more pantheistic way to think about God, for people looking for spiritual fulfillment but who are uninterested in the religious baggage that goes along with that.

What is the book’s central claim, for those who haven’t read it?

The book presents the history of human spirituality going back before homo sapiens even existed to today as a long interconnected narrative where we try to make sense of God by giving God human attributes — by making a God that is little more than a divine version of ourselves, which is why that’s a dangerous impulse. It then presents another way to think God: less a divine personality, and more the divine substance of the universe.

What would you consider the most audacious claim in the book?

The one that people are really fascinated by is the idea that the agricultural revolution was the natural outgrowth of the birth of organized religion. We know our previous assumptions about why we became agrarian are false. The revolution was no revolution at all — it resulted in less food, fewer calories, more diseases — and we’ve tried to figure out why we did it when it was such a bad idea. The general consensus that’s starting to form among religious scholars is it was the creation of organized religion. We stopped wandering because we began to house our Gods in central locations, and the process led to planting seeds and penning animals. This is what is one of the more controversial and fascinating theories.

The way that you describe how religious impulses resulted in destructive decisions for humans seems to parallel our political system today. Is that intentional?

The central thesis of the book: We create a God that reflects our motivations, emotions, biases, bigotries. We divinize ourselves when we conceive of God, and doing so creates a divine being that shares what we love and hate. This naturally can lead to conflict and bigotries in the name of God — which is actually in our own name.

‘God: A Human History,’ released Nov. 7, 2017 by Random House

Much of your book foregrounds the political implications of various ways of conceiving God. Given this emphasis as an effective way to read Egypt and Rome, what kind of God would you say is truly prominent in America?

The American God is a God that is white, who is American, who shares our politics — that’s kind of what we do. We basically have turned God into a being that gives a damn about America and shares the same politics that we share, who shares our race. This is part of the destructive impulse and why we should fight against it.

Monotheism is by far the prevailing sentiment among Americans whether they’re part of a religion or not — God is conceived of in unitary terms by most Americans. But it isn’t about one or two Gods, but what you mean by God. And what most Americans mean by God is a being who shares their personalities and values. This is why Christians in Alabama ignore child molestation in the name of politics. It makes perfect sense when you see that the pastor defending [judge and Senate candidate Roy Moore] isn’t talking about God, but about himself.

The fundamental issue is that every single one of us conceives of God as a divine version of our selves, so there are 370 million views of God. It’s a cognitive impulse that we all have, and it lets us create a God with the same impulses that we do. When God loves or hates certain things, it’s just a sense of what they love and hate. It’s the reason why there are so many interpretations of God and scripture. It’s a destructive impulse and a way we want to think differently. I’m hoping for a dehumanized thing, something without personality.

It sounds like the element of the humanized God that’s problematic is personality, rather than other finite qualities.

We are capable of good and evil, have strengths and weaknesses, and we put all of that on our conception of God who shares our love and hate, social views. I’ve heard a lot of Christians come out in favor of the tax bill to say that it isn’t the job of the community to care for the poor — it’s the individual’s job. The Bible, of course, is all about community and communal responsibility. Secondly, it’s putting onto God our own economic policies

It seems significant that the book is 50 percent text, 50 percent background — footnotes, bibliography, index. Why did you decide on that format?

That’s how I’ve written all my books. I want them to be as accessible, entertaining and easy to read as possible. I write for a broad, general audience and hope that those who would otherwise not read about religion or religious history and will find it entertaining. But I’m a scholar, and some of my readers are interested in the scholarship and so I offer an opportunity to have access to readable notes, and a lot of them, so they know where I get my arguments from. But it’s a choice. I have two kinds of readers: one kind that wants to read the book and follow the argument, and one [kind of] reader that wants to be more engaged in the actual commentary and discussion.

How much can reconceiving God help us improve our current condition?

It lets people who want a deep, meaningful life but don’t want to participate in the bastardization of religion to promote grotesque political policies … get spirituality without that kind of baggage, and it lets a more peaceful, prosperous way of thinking about God emerge.