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
Reza Aslan is an internationally renowned writer, commentator, professor, producer, and scholar of religions. His books, including his #1 New York Times Bestseller, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, have been translated into dozens of languages around the world. He is also a recipient of the prestigious James Joyce Award. His newest book God: A Human History (2017) is out now.
Aslan’s first book, International Bestseller No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, has been translated into seventeen languages, and was named one of the 100 most important books of the last decade by Blackwell Publishers. He is also the author of Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in a Globalized Age (originally titled How to Win a Cosmic War), as well as editor of two volumes: Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East, and Muslims and Jews in America: Commonalties, Contentions, and Complexities.
In 2006, Aslan co-founded BoomGen Studios—the premiere entertainment brand for creative content from and about the Middle East—which has provided an array of targeted services ranging from strategic messaging to grassroots marketing to publicity and social media outreach, to producers, studios, and filmmakers—including Jon Stewart’s Rosewater, Netflix’s The Square, Disney’s Aladdin on Broadway and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, The Weinstein Company’s Miral, Discovery and TLC’s All American Muslim, and National Geographic’s Amreeka.
Aslan’s degrees include a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies from Santa Clara University (Major focus: New Testament; Minor: Greek), a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard University (Major focus: History of Religions), a PhD in the Sociology of Religions from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa, where he was named the Truman Capote Fellow in Fiction.
Aslan is a tenured Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside and serves on the board of trustees for the Chicago Theological Seminary and The Yale Humanist Community, which supports atheists, agnostics, and humanists at home and abroad.
Reza Aslan: There’s a cognitive psychologist by the name of Justin Barrett who did a series of really fascinating studies about the way in which people think about God. He asked a group of devoutly religious people—Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus—he basically gave them a form to fill out about the ways in which they think about the divine. And for the most part what he found was that they answered in theologically correct ways when talking about God as being, say, omniscient or omnipresent. But then he began to engage the same subjects in conversation. He asked them to start describing in regular language how they think about God. And what he discovered is that almost every single person, when forced to start talking about God, violated those core theological principles of God being, for instance, omnipresent and omniscient. In fact, what he discovered is that the more they talked about God, the more it sounded like they were describing some person that they met on the street. And this goes to a fundamental aspect about the way that we think about the divine, whether we are ourselves believers or not. And that is that, 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. We implant in God human characteristics, human personality, human desires all along with superhuman powers. And so, as a result, what we really do—again, whether we’re aware of it or not—is we divinize ourselves.
If you believe in God then what you believe in is something that is, by definition, utterly unhuman. And so the question becomes: how do you talk about that thing, how do you think about that thing, how do you form a relationship with something that is utterly unhuman? Well, the way you do so is by humanizing that thing. In fact, the entire history of human spirituality can be viewed as one long, intimately linked and remarkably cohesive narrative in which human beings increasingly humanize the divine. Until, of course, in the person 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 because, in a way, it scratches an unconscious itch that we all have. Our brains work in such a way that we are compelled to conceive of God in human terms. It’s an impulse that we’re born with, it goes back deep in our human evolution. What Christianity says is: God is not just humanlike, God is literally a human being. And imagine how appealing that notion is because if you want to think about God, you know, it’s an impossible task. It’s so difficult to conceive of something like God. And what Christianity says is that it’s not that hard, actually. You want to know what God is like? Imagine the most perfect person. Perfectly good. Perfectly compassionate. Perfectly sinless. That’s God. That’s a pretty easy thing to imagine.
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
Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?
But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.
What's dead may never die, it seems
The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.
BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.
The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.
As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.
The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.
"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.
An ethical gray matter
Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.
The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.
Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.
Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?
"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."
One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.
The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.
"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.
It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.
Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?
The dilemma is unprecedented.
Setting new boundaries
Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."
She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.
A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.
- Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
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