This book was a completely fascinating history of the concept of monotheism, and I highly recommend it.
There were a lot of pieces I particularly enjoyed, and really it pushed me to investigate a lot of ancillary topics - in some ways that’s the best thing a book like this one can do!
Perhaps the most interesting concept explored was politicomorphism - the notion that religions change to accomodate or reflect the forms of government which their society adopts. Hence, for instance, the animistic “lord of the beasts” of hunter-gatherer societies gives way to an agricultural pantheon of anthopomorphic gods, which each govern some aspect of the natural world. Aslan doesn’t explore this topic through to moden times - indeed, the last chapter concerns Rumi, who died over seven hundred years ago - but it’s easy to imagine how this concept plays out in the concept of the divine right of kings and so on. I’d be more than eager to read a book exploring this one topic in more detail.
Politicomorphism is somewhat related to some relatively recent “chicken-and-egg” findings in archaeology. Until recently, it was commonplace to assume that humanity developed agriculture first, and that religion followed as a way to organize newly hierarchical societies. There are some very fascinating findings at the ancient temple of Göbeklitepe which suggest that it may have been the other way around: agriculture emerged as a way to support an organized temple complex. I don’t know all that much about the archaelogical consensus, but my sense is that Aslan tends to paper over some fairly important nuances in the debate in presenting these findings. Is it possible that religion developed first at Göbeklitepe, for instance, but that agriculture emerged first in other areas of the globe, like the Indus valley? Impossible to say.
As a general rule this book focuses on Abrahamic religions, and is particularly occupied with the mideast as a result. Left out of the picture are some fairly important religious traditions, and one gets the sense that they are ignored primarily because they don’t really make for a nice narrative arc. That’s understandable but somewhat unfortunate, as it paints a somewhat incomplete picture of the way we view monotheism as a whole; it also leaves unaddressed some interesting questions about how major world religions interact with each other, particularly Hinduism and Islam.
I was especially interested in the history of Jewish monotheism, and the related history of the Torah. Here again, the book papers over some rather rigorous and unresolved academic debate. It presents the three/four-source “documentary” hypothesis of the origin of the Torah without acknowledging other popular theories like the supplementary one. Nevertheless it’s a pretty interesting look at the history of this concept, and a pretty key turning point in the history of monotheism! I quite enjoyed this very fine-grained examination of the interplay of history and theology, particularly as it pertains to the Babylonian exile. (Though the conclusion that a big part of the Torah was written as a result of the exile is not even clear - there’s at least good reason to believe that major monotheistic themes emerged in the Torah decades before the Babylonian exile.) It certainly made me think a lot more about the traditional interpretation of the Torah, not to mention some related questions about the social justice tradition in Judaism.
I was a little unsatisfied by the conclusion of the book, which seems to leave the concept of monotheism firmly resolved by about 1250 AD, in the hands of Sufi mystics. Their notion that everything which was created by G-d must in turn be divine is certainly very fascinating and thought-provoking. But it seems a little odd to leave it as the final word on the matter, particularly because it just-so-happens to mirror Aslan’s own personal religious journey. A lot has happened in the history of religious thought over the last seven-hundred-plus years! Of course, it’s Aslan’s book and he’s entitled to fashion it in a way which promotes his doctrine of choice. It just seems to me that there’s more to be said.
I’m extremely glad to have read this book, despite a handful of shortcomings here and there. It’s really sparked my curiosity on a wide variety of topics, and it’s been rather eye-opening to have explored them since reading the book. I’d certainly recommend giving it a read!