Reza Aslan isn’t your typical religion scholar. The Iranian American author, professor, and commentator once brilliantly humiliated a Fox News host who had questioned what a Muslim would have to offer by writing a book about Jesus—ignoring Aslan’s status as a widely respected religious academic who has four degrees in the field. That book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, would go on to become a #1 New York Times bestseller.
More recently, Aslan’s popular TV documentary series, Believer, was dropped by CNN last June, when, in the wake of President Trump’s call for a Muslim ban, Aslan tweeted that the president was a “piece of shit,” and “an embarrassment to humankind.”
In Aslan’s new book, God: A Human History, he presents a different approach to understanding the divine—one that’s more inclusive, and present in all of creation. Dr. Aslan recently spoke with the Mercury about God, and the constantly evolving nature of religion and spirituality. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
MERCURY: There have been many books written on the history and development of God. What motivated you to add to this already considerable canon of books on this subject?
REZA ASLAN: This is less a history of God, and more a history of the particular way of thinking about God—a way of thinking about God that arose deep in our evolution as a species, and which has essentially affected the way that we’ve always thought about God and all of the great religious traditions in the world, and that is this notion that I call the “humanization of God”: the idea that we conceive of God, not just in human terms, but often as a divine reflection of ourselves. And clearly that poses some very obvious problems. If we are foisting upon God our own human compulsions, our virtues and our vices, our personalities, our traits and characteristics, then we essentially divinize those things. And, to me, that is precisely what leads to such great religious conflict. This book presents a counterargument—a different way of thinking about God, a pantheistic way of thinking about God that, in my telling, is much more in line with the way that for hundreds of thousands of years we’ve thought about God, before the establishment of institutionalized religion.
What do you see as the future of spirituality and faith? As people, especially in the West, move away from belief in God and embrace more scientific explanations to understanding the universe, will religion itself eventually prove irrelevant?
Religion is in a constant state of evolution; it is constantly adapting itself to the changing nature of reality, the changing nature of our knowledge of the world. When we discovered Earth is not the center of the universe, it didn’t make religion go away. We just simply absorbed that information and moved on. And I think that, as we become more adept at understanding the very nature and fabric of the universe—including the enormous mystery entailed in the inquiry—the wall between science and religion is going to become thinner and thinner and thinner, until it eventually dissolves. We already speak in scientific terms; we speak about scientific knowledge in terms that very much mirror the way great religious mystics talked about the nature of reality. Long before scientists were able to say that all creation is one, mystics were saying all creation is one. It’s just that, for them, the definition of “the one” was God.
God: A Human History
by Reza Aslan