Holy humans: Why we project our personalities, biases, and desires onto God

Who or what is God? One religion answers this question better than the others

Culture & Religion

Did God make us in his image, or do we make him in ours? The answer becomes apparent when you ask devoutly religious people to describe their god. Religious scholar Reza Aslan cites a series of studies by cognitive scientist Justin L. Barrett which show that, on paper, the devout tend to score a perfect A for theological knowledge but, in conversation, that theology flies out the window—a god who is omnipresent was just "too busy" to hear a prayer, for example. The more people reveal about how they imagine the divine, the more they describe attributes and biases they happen to possess, what Aslan refers to as divinizing ourselves. "Unconsciously, we can’t help but to imagine God as essentially a divine version of ourselves. When we conceive of God we unconsciously, innately, impose upon God our own personality, our own virtues, our own vices, our own strengths, our own weaknesses. We project upon God our own biases and bigotries," he says. God is, by definition, unhuman and is therefore impossible to conceive of—but we humans have a psychological itch that must be scratched: we're compelled to know what our god is really like so we fill in the blanks with what we know best: ourselves. One religion satisfies this urge to know better than the rest: in the birth of Jesus, God literally becomes a human being. "That, I think more than anything else, explains why Christianity is the most successful religion in the world," says Aslan. Reza Aslan's latest book is God: A Human History

Did religion start one of humanity’s worst revolutions?

The agricultural revolution was one of the best things to happen to the human species, right? Wrong.

Culture & Religion

One of the single-most transformative events in human history was the agricultural revolution. Why did we stop hunting and gathering, and start planting and harvesting? It's a mystery, but scholars have speculated that perhaps it was because of a changing climate, or a drop in animal numbers in certain regions. A third option, which author and religious scholar Reza Aslan supports, is the hypothesis that institutionalized religion spurred early human agriculture in southeastern Turkey about 12,000 to 14,000 years ago—and he believes it has been a disaster for our species. "Human beings actually ended up consuming fewer calories—and certainly fewer proteins—during the agricultural revolution than they did when we were hunter-gatherers," he says. "... We’ve discovered that the process of farming actually created a whole range of new and, at that time, absolutely novel diseases and problems with human beings." In this view, organized religion is also responsible for the inequality that dominates the world today. Surplus food stocks and the advent of ownership in newly settled communities led to wealth accumulation and, ultimately, the stratification of society. The agricultural revolution may have been a net negative for humanity, says Aslan. What's more difficult to say, however, is where we'd be right now without it. Reza Aslan's latest book is God: A Human History.

What Is Religion For: Morality, Power, Evolution?

Religion as a belief system goes back hundreds of thousands of years. So why are so many of the religious peoples of today so focused on a supposed God that goes back only 5,000 years? The answer lies in how our brains work.

Culture & Religion

Religion, and the mentality it brings, have arguably shaped the human species more than any other force. We don't understand it, and perhaps never will. We are so far removed from religion's creation (pun presented but not intended) that we have instead just woven it into our daily lives and accepted it as something we can't understand. This leads to questioning, mostly about what religion actually is and what is the "right" one. But instead of asking "what" religion is (e.g. is there a big man in the sky who lives in a cloud, or egads maybe that crazy science-fiction author L. Ron Hubbard had it right after all?!), perhaps we're asking the wrong question. Children seem to be born with an innate understanding of "souls" or at the very least the semblance of self amongst something greater - posits Reza Aslan - and this knowledge that religion is based on a literal primitive instinct should allow us to understand the question of "why" religion is. If you go back far enough, Reza says, you can pretty much pinpoint various reasons as to why religion is. It's an interesting video, and one that is sure to have you thinking about the subject matter much later. Reza's latest book is God: A Human History.


Aslan challenges the West and Muslims to define this clash so that we can see that we are not all that different.