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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • The bestselling author of Zealot and host of Believer explores humanity’s quest to make sense of the divine in this concise and fascinating history of our understanding of God. In Zealot, Reza Aslan replaced the staid, well-worn portrayal of Jesus of Nazareth with a startling new image of the man in all his contradictions. In his new book, Aslan takes on a subject even more immense: God, writ large.
In layered prose and with thoughtful, accessible scholarship, Aslan narrates the history of religion as a remarkably cohesive attempt to understand the divine by giving it human traits and emotions. According to Aslan, this innate desire to humanize God is hardwired in our brains, making it a central feature of nearly every religious tradition. As Aslan writes, “Whether we are aware of it or not, and regardless of whether we’re believers or not, what the vast majority of us think about when we think about God is a divine version of ourselves.”
But this projection is not without consequences. We bestow upon God not just all that is good in human nature—our compassion, our thirst for justice—but all that is bad in it: our greed, our bigotry, our penchant for violence. All these qualities inform our religions, cultures, and governments.
More than just a history of our understanding of God, this book is an attempt to get to the root of this humanizing impulse in order to develop a more universal spirituality. Whether you believe in one God, many gods, or no god at all, God: A Human History will challenge the way you think about the divine and its role in our everyday lives.
Praise for God
“Timely, riveting, enlightening and necessary.”—HuffPost
“Tantalizing . . . Driven by [Reza] Aslan’s grace and curiosity, God . . . helps us pan out from our troubled times, while asking us to consider a more expansive view of the divine in contemporary life.”—The Seattle Times
“A fascinating exploration of the interaction of our humanity and God.”—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“[Aslan’s] slim, yet ambitious book [is] the story of how humans have created God with a capital G, and it’s thoroughly mind-blowing.”—Los Angeles Review of Books
“Aslan is a born storyteller, and there is much to enjoy in this intelligent survey.”—San Francisco Chronicle
Under the Cover
An excerpt from God
Adam and Eve in Eden
In the beginning was the void. Darkness. Chaos. A vast sea of emptiness without shape or substance. No sky, no earth, no waters parted. No gods made manifest nor names pronounced. No fates decreed until . . . a flash, some light, and a sudden expansion of space and time, of energy and matter, of atoms and molecules—the building blocks of a hundred billion galaxies, each studded with a hundred billion stars.
Near one of these stars, a particle of dust, a micrometer in size, collides with another and, through hundreds of millions of years of accretion, it begins to whirl, gathering mass, forming a crust, creating oceans and land and, unexpectedly, life: simple, then complex; slithering, then walking.
Millennia pass as glaciers advance and retreat over the surface of the earth. The ice caps melt and the seas rise. Sheets of continental ice soften and slide over the low hills and valleys of Europe and Asia, transforming vast forests into treeless plains. And into this refuge step the incunabula of our species—the “historical” Adam and Eve, if you will: Homo sapiens, “the wise human.”
Tall, straight-limbed, and powerfully built, with broad noses and unsloped foreheads, Adam and Eve began their evolution between 300,000 and 200,000 b.c.e. as the final branch in the human family tree. Their ancestors trudged out of Africa roughly 100,000 years ago, at a time when the Sahara was not the empty barren it is today but a land of generous lakes and lush vegetation. They crossed the Arabian Peninsula in waves, fanning north across the Central Asian steppes, east into the Indian subcontinent, across the sea to Australia, and west over the Balkans, until they reached southern Spain and the edge of Europe.
Along the way, they encountered earlier species of migrating humans: the upright Homo erectus, who had made a similar journey into Europe hundreds of thousands of years earlier; the hearty Homo denisova, who roamed the plains of Siberia and east Asia; the barrel-chested Homo neanderthalensis—the Neanderthal—whom Homo sapiens either annihilated or absorbed (no one knows for sure).
Adam is a hunter, so when you picture him, picture a javelin at his side, a mammoth’s fur split and draped across his shoulders. His transformation from prey to predator has left behind a genetic imprint, an instinct for the hunt. He can track an animal over seasons, patiently waiting for the right moment to strike in a blur of violence. When he kills, he does not tear into the meat and devour it on the spot. He brings it back to his shelter to share with his community. Huddled under a broad canopy made of animal hide and framed by mammoth bones, he cooks his food in stone-ringed hearths and stores the leftovers in pits dug deep in the permafrost.
Eve, too, is a hunter, though her weapon of choice is not a javelin but a net, which she has spent months, perhaps years, weaving out of delicate plant fibers. Crouched on the forest floor in the dim early light, she carefully sets her snares along the mossy surface and waits patiently for a hapless rabbit or fox to step into them. Meanwhile her children scour the woods for edible plants, unearthing fungi and roots, scooping up large insects and reptiles to bring back to camp. When it comes to feeding the community, everyone has a role.
The tools Adam and Eve carry are made of flint and stone, but these are not simple gadgets gathered from the ground and easily discarded. They are part of a permanent repertoire: durable and intricately cast; made, not found. Adam and Eve take their tools with them from shelter to shelter and trade them occasionally for better tools, or for trinkets made of ivory or antler, pendants made of bone and teeth and mollusk shells. Such things are precious to them; they set them apart from the rest of their community. When one of them dies and is buried in the ground, these objects will be buried, too, so the deceased can continue to enjoy them in the life to come.
There will be a life to come, of that Adam and Eve are certain. Why else bother with burial? They have no practical reason to bury the dead. It is far easier to expose the bodies, to let them decay out in the open or be stripped clean by the birds. Yet they insist on interring the bodies of their friends and family, on shielding them from the ravages of nature, on according them a measure of respect. They will, for example, deliberately pose the corpse, stretching it out or curling it into fetal position, orienting it toward the east to meet the rising sun. They may scalp or flay the skull, reinter it in a secondary burial, or remove it entirely for display, complete with artificial eyes to simulate a gaze. They may even crack the skull open, scoop out the brain, and devour it.
The body itself they will dust with blood-red ochre (the color a symbol for life) before laying it on a bed of flowers and ornamenting it with necklaces, shells, animal bones, or tools—objects that were dear to the dead; objects he or she may need in the next life. They will light fires around the body and make offerings to it. They will even place stones on the mound to mark the grave so they can find it again and revisit it for years to come.
The assumption is that Adam and Eve do these things because they believe the dead are not really dead but merely in another realm, one that the living can access through dreams and visions. The body may rot but something of the self persists, something distinct and separate from the body—a soul, for lack of a better word.
Where they got this idea we do not know. But it is essential to their awareness of themselves. Adam and Eve seem to know intuitively that they are embodied souls. It is a belief so primal and innate, so deep-rooted and widespread, that it must be considered nothing less than the hallmark of the human experience. Indeed, Adam and Eve share this belief with their forebears, the Neanderthal and Homo erectus. They, too, appear to have practiced various forms of ritual burial, meaning that they, too, may have conceived of the soul as separate from the body.
If the soul is separate from the body, it can survive the body. And if the soul survives the body, then the visible world must teem with the souls of everyone who has ever lived and died. For Adam and Eve, these souls are perceptible; they exist in numberless forms. Disembodied, they become spirits with the power to inhabit all things—the birds, the trees, the mountains, the sun, the moon. All of these pulse with life; they are animated.
A day will come when these spirits will be fully humanized, given names and mythologies, transformed into supernatural beings, and worshiped and prayed to as gods.
But we are not there yet.
Still, it is no great leap for Adam and Eve to conclude that their souls—the thing that makes them them—are not so different in form or substance from the souls of those around them, the souls of those before them, the spirits of the trees, and the spirits in the mountains. Whatever they are, whatever makes up their essence, they share with all creation. They are part of a whole.
This belief is called animism—the attribution of a spiritual essence, or “soul,” to all objects, human or not—and it is very likely humanity’s earliest expression of anything that could be termed religion.
Our primitive ancestors, Adam and Eve, are primitive only with regard to their tools and technology. Their brains are as large and developed as ours. They are capable of abstract thoughts and possess the language to share those thoughts with each other. They speak like us. They think like us. They imagine and create, communicate and reason like us. They are, quite simply, us: full and complete human beings.
As full and complete human beings, they can be critical and experimental. They can use analogical reasoning to posit complex theories about the nature of reality. They can form coherent beliefs based on those theories. And they can preserve their beliefs, passing them down from generation to generation.
In fact, nearly everywhere Homo sapiens went, they left behind an imprint of these beliefs for us to uncover. Some of these are in the form of open-air monuments, most of which were swept away over time. Others are inhumed in burial mounds that, even tens of thousands of years later, display unambiguous signs of ritual activity. But nowhere do we come into closer contact with our ancient ancestors—nowhere do they come more fully into focus as human—than inside the spectacularly painted caves that dot the landscape of Europe and Asia like footprints marking the path of their migration.
As far as we can tell, fundamental to Adam and Eve’s belief system is the notion that the cosmos is tiered. The earth is a middle ground layered between the dome of the sky and the shallow bowl of the underworld. The upper realms can be reached only in dreams and altered states, and usually only by a shaman—someone who acts as an intermediary between the spiritual and material worlds. But the lower realms can be accessed by anyone, simply by burrowing deep into the earth—by crawling, sometimes for a mile or more, through caves and grottos to paint, etch, and sculpt their beliefs directly upon the rock wall, which acts as a “membrane” connecting their world to the world beyond.
These painted caves can be found as far afield as Australia and on the islands of Indonesia. They appear across the Caucasus—from the Kapova cave in the southern Ural Mountains in Russia, to the Cuciulat cave in western Romania, and all along Siberia’s upper Lena River valley. Some of the oldest and most stunningly well-preserved samples of prehistoric rock art can be found in the mountainous regions of Western Europe. In northern Spain, a large red disk painted on a cave wall in El Castillo can be traced to approximately 41,000 years ago, just around the time that Homo sapiens first arrived in the region. Southern France is perforated with such caves—from Font de Gaume and Les Combarelles in the Vézère valley, to Chauvet, Lascaux, and the Volp caves in the foothills of the Pyrenees.
The Volp caves in particular provide a unique glimpse into the purpose and function of these subterranean sanctuaries. The caves consist of three interconnected caverns carved out of limestone by the persistence of the Volp River: Enlène to the east, Le Tuc d’Audoubert to the west, and in the center Les Trois-Frères, named after the three French brothers who accidentally discovered the caves in 1912.
The three caves were first studied by the French archaeologist and priest Henri Breuil, known as Abbé Breuil, who meticulously copied by hand the trove of images he found inside. His renderings opened a window into a dim past, allowing us to reconstruct a plausible interpretation of the astonishing spiritual journey that our prehistoric ancestors might have taken here tens of thousands of years ago.
That journey begins about five hundred feet from the entrance of the first cave in the Volp complex—Enlène—in a small antechamber now called the Salle des Morts. It is important to note that Adam and Eve do not live in these caves; they are not “cavemen.” Most painted caves are hard to reach and unfit for human habitation. Entering them is like passing through liminal space, like crossing a threshold between the visible and supersensible worlds. Some caves show evidence of prolonged activity, and others contain a sort of anteroom where archaeological evidence suggests worshippers may have gathered to eat and sleep. But these are not dwelling places; this is sacred space, which explains why the images found inside them are often placed at great distances from the cave’s entrance, requiring a perilous journey through labyrinthine passages to view.
In the Volp caves, the Salle des Morts serves as a kind of staging ground, a place where Adam and Eve can prepare themselves for the experience to come. Here, they are enveloped in the suffocating stench of burning bone. There are sunken hearths all along the chamber floor, blazing with piles of animal bone. Bone is obviously a strong combustible, but that is not why it is burned here. There is, after all, no shortage of wood in the foothills of the Pyrenees; wood is far more plentiful than bone, and far easier to procure.
Yet animal bones are believed to possess a mediating power—they are inside the flesh but not of the flesh. That is why they are so often collected, polished, and worn as ornaments. It is why they are carved into talismans intricately engraved with images of bison, reindeer, or fish—animals that rarely correspond to the bones themselves. Sometimes the bones are inserted directly into the clefts and crevices of the cave walls, perhaps as a form of prayer, a means of conveying messages to the spirit realm.
Burning animal bone in these hearths is likely a means of absorbing the essence of the animal. The overpowering aroma of smoldering bone and marrow in such a confined space acts as a kind of incense meant to consecrate those gathered here. Picture Adam and Eve sitting in this antechamber for hours at a time, swathed in smoke, swaying with their kin to the pounding rhythm of animal-hide drums, the tinny echo of flutes carved from vulture bones, and the ting of xylophones constructed from polished flint blades—all of which have been discovered in and around caves like these—until they achieve the sanctified state necessary to continue on their journey.
Adam and Eve do not amble aimlessly through these caves. Each chamber, each niche, each fissure and corridor and recess has a specific purpose—all deliberately designed to induce an ecstatic experience. This is a carefully controlled affair, so that moving through the nooks and passages, absorbing the images cast on the walls, the floors, the ceilings elicits a particular emotional response, somewhat akin to following the Stages of the Cross in a medieval church.
First, they must get on their hands and knees and crawl through a two-hundred-foot passage that links Enlène to the second cave in the complex, Les Trois-Frères. Now they enter a wholly new realm, one marked by something that is so obviously missing from the first cave that it cannot possibly be a coincidence. For it is in this second cave that Adam and Eve first encounter the rock art that so indelibly defines their spiritual life.
Reza Aslan is an acclaimed writer and scholar of religions whose books include No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam and Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. He is also the author of How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror (published in paperback as Beyond Fundamentalism), as well as the editor of Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and three sons.