God: A Human History by Reza Aslan

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Hagoth
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God: A Human History by Reza Aslan

Post by Hagoth » Sun Aug 21, 2022 4:58 pm

Highly, highly recommended:

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dogbite
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Re: God: A Human History by Reza Aslan

Post by dogbite » Sun Aug 21, 2022 6:29 pm

I didn't like Zealot. It struck me as sloppy scholarship that was written to justify to himself why he left Islam, became a Christian and then reverted to Islam.

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Hagoth
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Re: God: A Human History by Reza Aslan

Post by Hagoth » Mon Aug 22, 2022 10:38 am

Well, now he's a pantheist, which makes the most sense to me.
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Re: God: A Human History by Reza Aslan

Post by Hagoth » Mon Aug 22, 2022 2:51 pm

dogbite wrote:
Sun Aug 21, 2022 6:29 pm
I didn't like Zealot. It struck me as sloppy scholarship that was written to justify to himself why he left Islam, became a Christian and then reverted to Islam.
Interesting. That was not my takeaway at all, but I can definitely see your point. I guess, in a way, something like the CES Letter could be interpreted as Jeremy Runnell's justification for why he left Mormonism. It doesn't mean he didn't make some good points, but it certainly comes with a helping of personal justification.

I suppose you could say (if you're reaaaaallly stretching it) the God book is a justification for Aslan's journey from Islam to Christianity to Islam to Sufism to Pantheism. That may be his personal journey, but I don't come away with the impression that he's just trying to justify himself as much as he is laying out the ideas and evidences that led him on that journey.

The main thesis of the book is what he calls politicomorphism, the idea that the nature of God is the product of the needs of the political/social system in which that God or gods emerges. Hunter-gatherers intuit animated spirits in the elements of nature that affect their survival. Tribes coalesce those spirits into a Lord of the Beasts who blesses their hunts. As agriculture becomes established they develop a Sky God and an Earth Mother who they can supplicate for rain and fertility. City states elevate more elemental beings into local gods that eventually combine into a pantheon as those states form alliances. When empires arise, one of the gods climbs to the top of the ladder to become the chief god. After many faltering attempts at monotheism by others, the Israelites finally crystalized the idea of one god when they needed an excuse for all of their failures - they weren't the victims of more powerful gods than Yahweh, they were suffering the punishments of the One God, because there are no others. Eventually mystics encounter God via direct, personal experience that convinces them that God is more universal and less personal than anyone had imagined, that they themselves are part of God, and God must be in everything.
“The easy confidence with which I know another man's religion is folly teaches me to suspect that my own is also.” -Mark Twain

Jesus: "The Kingdom of God is within you." The Buddha: "Be your own light."

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Re: God: A Human History by Reza Aslan

Post by stealthbishop » Wed Aug 24, 2022 6:50 am

Thanks for the heads up. Looks like a book I would be interested in.
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Re: God: A Human History by Reza Aslan

Post by deacon blues » Thu Aug 25, 2022 8:53 am

Thanks for the well written summary of the book, Hagoth. It looks like it's worth exploring. It's been a while since I read Zealot and it seems like it was historic fiction. Am I remembering it right?
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Re: God: A Human History by Reza Aslan

Post by dogbite » Thu Aug 25, 2022 12:06 pm

It's not intended as historic fiction, but it might as well be, imo. Aslan is simple and approachable, but not really scholarly. Again, my opinion.

Books on this topic I would recommend.

The History of God by Karen Armstrong. She too has a belief of sorts she is directing the reader towards, but with what I feel is a lighter hand than Aslan, with a kind of utilitarian functionalism approach at the end. See Big Gods below.
Big Gods by Ara Norenzayan. This is more about how God(s) evoloved new functions in society.
Heaven and Hell by Bart Ehrman more about how Christianity developed a belief in the afterlife. There are interesting overlaps with his How Jesus Became God. But these ideas have informed western understanding of all religions in ways.
God is not One by Stephen Prothero, a rebuttal to the idea that Jews, Christians and Muslims worship the same being, Includes some other major world religions as well.

And not really on the same topic, but one with a very interesting view of the original Christianity worth exploring. Biblical Literalism: The Gentile Heresy by John Shelby Spong. This explores the Book of Matthew through the lens of Haggadic Midrash. That the annual liturgic cycle of topics of Judaism informed the generation of the Gospels as allegory to match the story cycles of the Torah as taught at Synagogue. Because Jews and the first Christians attended together at synagogue and the Christians used stories about Jesus to mirror the stories used by topic in Synagogue. The Jews have a history of understanding the scriptures allegorically rather than as literal fact. The first jewish derived Christians had the same ideas about scripture.

And it is this literalness that I think was Aslan's failure in Zealot. He opens with a discussion of the unknown authorship and sourcing problems leading to reliability issues. Then proceeds to parse Jesus words with literal exactness IN ENGLISH. He's (or was) still stuck in his evangelical conversion view of the New Testament.

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Re: God: A Human History by Reza Aslan

Post by Hagoth » Sat Aug 27, 2022 6:51 am

dogbite wrote:
Thu Aug 25, 2022 12:06 pm
It's not intended as historic fiction, but it might as well be, imo. Aslan is simple and approachable, but not really scholarly. Again, my opinion.

Books on this topic I would recommend.

The History of God by Karen Armstrong. She too has a belief of sorts she is directing the reader towards, but with what I feel is a lighter hand than Aslan, with a kind of utilitarian functionalism approach at the end. See Big Gods below.
Big Gods by Ara Norenzayan. This is more about how God(s) evoloved new functions in society.
Heaven and Hell by Bart Ehrman more about how Christianity developed a belief in the afterlife. There are interesting overlaps with his How Jesus Became God. But these ideas have informed western understanding of all religions in ways.
God is not One by Stephen Prothero, a rebuttal to the idea that Jews, Christians and Muslims worship the same being, Includes some other major world religions as well.

And not really on the same topic, but one with a very interesting view of the original Christianity worth exploring. Biblical Literalism: The Gentile Heresy by John Shelby Spong. This explores the Book of Matthew through the lens of Haggadic Midrash. That the annual liturgic cycle of topics of Judaism informed the generation of the Gospels as allegory to match the story cycles of the Torah as taught at Synagogue. Because Jews and the first Christians attended together at synagogue and the Christians used stories about Jesus to mirror the stories used by topic in Synagogue. The Jews have a history of understanding the scriptures allegorically rather than as literal fact. The first jewish derived Christians had the same ideas about scripture.

And it is this literalness that I think was Aslan's failure in Zealot. He opens with a discussion of the unknown authorship and sourcing problems leading to reliability issues. Then proceeds to parse Jesus words with literal exactness IN ENGLISH. He's (or was) still stuck in his evangelical conversion view of the New Testament.
I really enjoyed Armstrong's book and perspective. Same with the Ehrman books you mention. I have always intended to read Spong, and The Gentile Heresy sounds like a good place to start. Thanks for the other suggestions. I will add Norenzayan and Prothero to my list.

A couple of other books I enjoyed were Evolving Brains and Emerging Gods by E. Fuller Torrey, and The Early History of God by Mark S. Smith. Torrey looks makes an evolutionary argument for the development of the concept of God using neurophysiology, ancient skulls, etc. and compares the development of the idea of god(s) to the way developing children's brains develop the ability to understand such concepts. Smith demonstrates how the Israelites evolved their religion from the same polytheism of their neighbors into the eventual monotheistic Yahwehism. Particularly interesting to me was how Yahweh and Ba'al were pretty much different for the same guy. I think that's the one where he talks about what the showdown between Elijah and the priests of Ba'al was all about. The OT tells us that the priests of Asherah were there too, but not really doing anything. Both Yahweh and Ba'al claimed Asherah as there consort. They were basically fighting over a girl.

Oh yeah, Robert Wright's The Evolution of God is a worthwhile read too. And Finkelstein and Silberman's The Bible Unearthed. I've seen some pushback about that one but for me it did a really good job of illustrating how the Israelite culture evolved out of the surrounding Caananite culture and religion.

My problem is that my brain is very leaky, and I need to go back and skim all of these books to refresh my memory. Fortunately I'm an obsessive underliner!
“The easy confidence with which I know another man's religion is folly teaches me to suspect that my own is also.” -Mark Twain

Jesus: "The Kingdom of God is within you." The Buddha: "Be your own light."

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Hagoth
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Re: God: A Human History by Reza Aslan

Post by Hagoth » Sat Aug 27, 2022 9:39 am

The reason I recommend the Aslan book so highly is that he is a better communicator than 90% of the people writing religious books, and it's a really good place to start thinking about this stuff, in my opinion.

Here's an example of a concept that makes perfect sense the way he explains it, but which is totally misunderstood generally. When Moses comes down from the mountain he finds the Israelites worshipping a golden calf and loses his sh*t. The common Sunday school answer is that they were falling back into the pagan ways of the Egyptians. The more rational and far more interesting story is that Moses blew a fuse because the Israelites were slipping back into worshipping the god of Abraham. Abraham and Moses made covenants with entirely different gods. The people of Canaan knew little or nothing about Yahweh at the time of Abraham. Yahweh, like Ba'al was a lesser god in the divine assembly of El. El was the God of Abraham. This makes perfect sense when you consider that the Abraham narrative comes to us through the Elohist author and the Moses story comes from the Yahweist author. These two myth tradition were merged by the OT redactors to create a single story about a unified Israel that was entirely devoted to a single God, Yahweh. But that does not appear to be consistent with the original texts. Abraham made a fertility covenant with El, the original chief god of the Canaanites, whose symbol was the bull or calf. This tradition remained stronger in the Northern Kingdom where they worshipped at outdoor shrines, than in the Southern, where the temple to Yahweh was built. The shrines of the Northern Kingdom were images of bulls, and the OT tells us that Josiah ordered them ground to powder as part of the unification of the kingdoms. He condoned only worship at the temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem.

Anyway, Moses (or the tribe that claimed him, whether or not he actually existed) was a worshipper of this obscure God Yahweh. In the Ten Commandments story Moses makes a new covenant with Yahweh to have no other god, including El, in exchange for the promise of Yahweh's divine military support in conquering the other gods (by way of slaughtering their worshippers) of Canaan. His meltdown upon finding his people worshiping a golden calf is symbolic of Yahweh's requirement for everyone to get on board with him and to leave the old traditions behind.

Makes sense to me. BTW, the above narrative includes some of my own insertions.
“The easy confidence with which I know another man's religion is folly teaches me to suspect that my own is also.” -Mark Twain

Jesus: "The Kingdom of God is within you." The Buddha: "Be your own light."

dogbite
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Re: God: A Human History by Reza Aslan

Post by dogbite » Sat Aug 27, 2022 7:07 pm

The bible unearthed is starting to show some age I think. It's very documentary hypothesis based and the archaeology results havent been as supportive of that view since publication. The Elohist claims have been particularly challenged. If you're brand new to the topic, it's a fine starting point.

Evolving brains sounds interesting.

It still sounds like Aslan is playing more literally with the bible stores than I think they merit.

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Hagoth
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Re: God: A Human History by Reza Aslan

Post by Hagoth » Sun Aug 28, 2022 10:02 pm

dogbite wrote:
Sat Aug 27, 2022 7:07 pm
It still sounds like Aslan is playing more literally with the bible stores than I think they merit.
Sorry if I gave that impression, dogbite. He's talking about the symbolism embedded in the myths. The subtitle of the book after all is A Human History of God.

I think rumors of the the demise of the of the documentary hypothesis are premature. Like most things, the truth appears to be a lot more complicated than can easily fit into a simple hypothesis. It is more likely that many fragments of oral tradition were floating around the Ancient Near East and popping up in diverse cultures and that they were gradually collected and eventually found their way into the Hebrew texts. For example, the Old Babylonian Gilgamesh epic from the 2nd millennium BC has these lines:

But you, Gilgamesh, let your belly be full... Make merry each day,
Let your clothes be clean, let your head be washed, may you bathe in water...
let your wife enjoy your repeated embrace!

And the much later Ecclesiastes has this:
Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart... let thy garment be always white, and let not thy head lack ointment, live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of thy life.

Critics of the documentary theory don't entirely discount it. They argue about dates and influences, but as far as I know, none of them agree on a coherent replacement hypothesis. I don't think the Yahweist and Elohist influences can be easily discarded, but they are more likely concretions of multiple sources than of single authors.

I see a similar too-easy dismissal of Finkelstein and Silberman. Not all archaeologists agree with all of their hypotheses, but that's not an adequate reason to discount their fundamental observation, which is that the Biblical narrative the Exodus is myth and that there are many good reasons to conclude that the Israelites arose from among the Canaanites, and that the evidence in the ground does not support the timeline of the Bible. The most severe criticism appears to come from Biblical apologists trying to defend the Exodus story.
“The easy confidence with which I know another man's religion is folly teaches me to suspect that my own is also.” -Mark Twain

Jesus: "The Kingdom of God is within you." The Buddha: "Be your own light."

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