God: A Human History – Reza Aslan

god human history reza aslan

A book to challenge the way you think about the divine and its role in your life

Where does belief in God come from? How has the concept of God, or gods, evolved throughout human history? Why are we so prone to make God in our own image? Author and religion scholar Reza Aslan addresses these questions and more in this book.


The quest for the divine – Where does the impulse to seek the divine come from? The author explores what we know about the beginnings of human history, what our ancestors must have been like, and their hunter-gatherer lifestyle. He concludes that animism “is very likely humanity’s earliest expression of anything that could be termed religion.” Aslan makes a case for cave paintings largely being an expression of seeking the divine, as well as stone pillars and alters.

What are the origins of religion? – Can the development of religion be explained by Darwinism, experiences of awe and transcendence, the search for meaning, cultural/social developments, biological/psychological adaptation? The author explores each of these lines of thinking and the faults with each.

The agricultural revolution – Did the change from hunter-gatherer to agriculture based society bring about religion, or is the opposite true? Aslan describes the oldest known temple site of any kind at Gobekli Tepe, going back at least 12,000 years, which predates the rise of agriculture (and writing as we know it).

Humanized gods – Why is anthropomorphism so dominant in the majority of religions, especially ancient religions and mythology? We have a natural urge to explain the divine using the same emotions, motivations, and needs that we have as humans.

Polytheism to monotheism and beyond – Aslan traces the history of polytheism in Mesopotamia and the various forms of this to the development of monotheism practiced in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He also explores other views of theism, dualism, and spiritual practices that aren’t based on a traditional notion of God.


This is a very well documented book that will likely make many uncomfortable – theists and atheists, believers and non-believers alike. Though scholarly, it is still very readable and avoids the excessive antagonistic and/or condescending tone that many contemporary critics of religion use. I really appreciate the perspective Reza Aslan brings to the discussion about religion and spirituality. He will also likely surprise you with his own admission of belief. I definitely recommend this book.

Find out more about the author on his website here. That is also where you can find info about his other books and projects.


Educated: A Memoir – Tara Westover

Educated book cover

A story of surviving fundamentalism and finding freedom

Educated, by Tara Westover, is a really powerful story that covers a roller coaster of emotions. It is a memoir that details what it was like for the author to grow up in an extreme fundamentalist home in rural America. Her family (specifically her father) was deeply suspicious of the government and didn’t allow their children to go to school or to receive medical care – she didn’t get a birth certificate until she went to college. The book covers family relationships, fears about the outside world, and the author’s journey to finding her own identity.

Trigger warning: There are multiple episodes of physical, emotional, and psychological abuse throughout the book that could cause relived trauma for those who have experienced such things.


Mental health/illness – Though he never gets a formal diagnosis, it is clear that her father suffers from some clear symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia, mania, major depression, and some possible personality disorder issues. A brother clearly has some violent tendencies of his own that are not addressed either medically or by the family. The author also details what appears to be a major depressive episode of her own while working towards her PhD.

Abuse and Resilience – The author traces her journey from homeschooled (more accurately no-schooled) child to university and eventually earning a PhD. Childhood adversity and resiliency is a topic that I’ve covered before in this blog with the book Supernormal. Trauma is a complex thing and what makes some more resilient than others is worth an entire book itself.

Identity – Dr Westover continuously wrestles with which version of reality to believe – the one she sees when she’s out in the world with her grandparents and people in town, or the one presented by her paranoid, conspiracy obsessed father? This struggle might be hard for some to accept or understand, but it is a struggle that people in abusive and manipulative relationships have to endure.


I strongly recommend this one. It deserves all the awards and excellent reviews it has gotten. My only caution would be for people who have experienced childhood trauma. This book doesn’t sugarcoat or skip out on the details. I had to skip over more than a few sections. You might also need to do the same.

You can connect with the author on her website here and on Twitter here.

P.S. Here’s an interview with Bill Gates and Tara Westover

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion – Jonathan Haidt

righteous mind jonathan haidt book cover

What is the basis of morality and how does it influence our worldview?

In “The Righteous Mind”, professor and researcher Jonathan Haidt takes on the tall task of explaining how morality works, it’s possible origins, and how it directs us as individuals and cultures. He shows how humans are inherently moral creatures, but what typically divides us is how we view and interpret morality. This isn’t a fluff, pop-science book, it is a refreshingly honest look at the complex issues we face, done in a way that is far different than the heavy partisan takes out there.

Okay, with that intro bit out of the way, I feel like I need to say that you should just get this book and read it. I’m going to talk about some of the themes, but it won’t do a good enough job of capturing the nuance, important connections, and reasoning that this book excels at. And by nuance, I don’t mean in a “I’m afraid to talk about the issue directly so I’ll fill this space with complex and/or pedantic arguments detached from reality” type of nuance. I mean a focus on important subtleties regarding personality, cultural worldview, and definitions of morality. The author does a great job of breaking down some incredibly complex issues in an incremental way and provides the research to back up his reasoning.


Intuition comes before reasoning – The rider and elephant analogy helps to show how we like to think of ourselves as rational human beings who follow logic and principles, but we don’t work that way.

Morality isn’t just about harm and fairness – Professor Haidt shares his personal stories about how he came to see the importance of stepping outside of his moral matrix so that he could understand other moral foundations.

Moral Foundations Theory – “There are (at least) six psychological systems that comprise the universal foundations of the world’s many moral matrices. Here’s a handy summary from the wiki page on MFT:

  • Care: cherishing and protecting others; opposite of harm
  • Fairness or proportionality: rendering justice according to shared rules; opposite of cheating
  • Loyalty or ingroup: standing with your group, family, nation; opposite of betrayal
  • Authority or respect: submitting to tradition and legitimate authority; opposite of subversion
  • Sanctity or purity: abhorrence for disgusting things, foods, actions; opposite of degradation
  • Liberty: opposite of oppression

Morality binds and blinds – Humans are both selfish and groupish by nature. The mental imagery the author uses is that we are 90% chimpanzee and 10% bee. He also suggests how religion played a crucial role in human evolutionary history, enabling us to “transcend self-interest and become simply part of a whole.”

The reasoning behind our political and religious differences – Morality binds us together and we easily fall into groupish behavior and righteousness. This binding process blinds us from our weak spots and can cause us to be unable to understand how anyone could possibly see things differently.


I can’t recommend this book enough. It covers a lot of ground (research, psychology, history) without turning into an abstract/detached textbook. The author does a great job of mixing in personal stories to help illustrate points and admits to his own blind spots/weaknesses. It’s very refreshing to read a book that addresses such hot topics in an evenhanded way. Time will tell if moral foundations theory holds up, but it definitely goes a long way in helping to understand how good, well-intentioned people can view and experience the world so differently.


I’m going to add some of the most interesting quotes from the book here, but please know that there’s a much deeper context here. So I really recommend reading the book to be able to grasp the big picture and context of each quote.

“We are deeply intuitive creatures whose gut feeling drive our strategic reasoning. This makes it difficult – but not impossible – to connect with those who live in other matrices, which are often built on different configurations of the available moral foundations.”

“We may spend most of our waking hours advancing our own interests, but we all have the capacity to transcend self-interest and become simply part of a whole. It’s not just a capacity; it’s the portal to many of life’s most cherished experiences.”

“Morality binds and blinds. This is not just something that happens to people on the other side. We all get sucked into tribal moral communities. We circle around sacred values and then share post hoc arguments about why we are so right and they are so wrong. We think the other side is blind to truth, reason, science, and common sense, but in fact everyone goes blind when talking about their sacred objects.”

“Anyone who tells you that all societies, in all eras, should be using one particular moral matrix, resting on one particular configuration of moral foundations, is a fundamentalist of one sort or another.”

“We evolved to live, trade, and trust within shared moral matrices. When societies lose their grip on individuals, allowing all to do as they please, the result is often a decrease in happiness and an increase in suicide, as Durkheim showed more than a hundred years ago.”

“Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.”

“If you think about religion as a set of beliefs about supernatural agents, you’re bound to misunderstand it…religious practices have been binding our ancestors into groups for tens of thousands of years.”

“The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor. Everyone loves a good story: every culture bathes its children in stories. Among the most important stories we know are stories about ourselves…Life narratives are saturated with morality.”

“When asked to account for the development of their own religious faith and moral beliefs, conservatives underscored deep feelings about respect for authority, allegiance to one’s group, and purity of the self, whereas liberals emphasized their deep feelings regarding human suffering and social fairness.”

“The various moralities found on the political left tend to rest most strongly on the Care/harm and Liberty/oppression foundations. These two foundations support ideals of social justice, which emphasize compassion for the poor and a struggle for political equality among the subgroups that comprise society.”

“If you are trying to change an organization or a society and you do not consider the effects of your changes on moral capital, you’re asking for trouble. This, I believe, is the fundamental blind spot of the left. It explains why liberal reforms so often backfire, and why communistic revolutions usually end up in despotism…Conversely, while conservatives do a better job of preserving moral capital, they often fail to notice certain classes of victims, fail to limit the predation of certain powerful interests, and fail to see the need to change or update institutions as times change.”

Learn more about the book and author here. Here’s a link to the Wiki page for the book. Lastly, here’s that link again to learn more about Moral Foundations Theory.