Book reviews: Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Prove Jesus Never Existed At All by David Fitzgerald 

David Fitzgerald is either not really a brilliant writer or he has dumbed down his book to make it readable to the masses who are allergic to reading. Don’t get me wrong. I think this book has a lot of positive things about it. But the writing is amateurish. It reminds me of the teenage boy who throws tantrums while rebelling against the status quo. 

Fitzgerald doesn’t try to sugarcoat his distrust and distaste for Christianity which turns out to be both positive and negative. Positive in the sense that he doesn’t take anything historical at face value. Negative because as the book unfolds and you begin to see his arguments he begins to seem more illogical and more close minded. He doesn’t even try to hide the fact that he’s got a biased take on the research done on Christian mythology. He seems to be using research done by other respected people in the historical Jesus field like Richard Carrier, Robert Price and Bart Erhmann but doesn’t tackle opposing viewpoints from other scholars for me to think he has an airtight argument. 

But anyway that’s just my silly opinion. I’m not a religious scholar. I don’t believe there was a historical Jesus but I would not say this book has added anything new or fresh to what I’ve read from the other scholars I’ve mentioned above. It doesn’t lay out all the talking points but at least it’s a small brief read for those who don’t want to read mundane long books on the historicity of Jesus. The writing is so simple that even a 7year old could read it without getting overwhelmed. It could make a good intro to the Jesus myth hypothesis but not the best if you want to know about the overall arguments. Still a great book. Just try it out. 

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Book reviews: Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Epidemic by David Quammen 

What a frightful but entertaining read!! David Quammen is a brilliant scientist and storyteller all at once. He weaves narrative storytelling and science seamlessly like its the easiest thing ever. That’s the source of the overall brilliance of the book. Quammen manages to use his own personal experiences with disease scientists at the centre of the research and others in the thick of things to make the book more entertaining. Billy Karesh studying chimps in Moba Bai, Beatrice Hahn at the heart of AIDS research, Engel and Jones-Engel a husband and wife team from New York investigating prevalence of a monkey virus in Bangladesh temples, a Chinese scientist searching for the reservoir of SARS, an Australian vet who survived the Hendra virus, etc

The book is basically about how animal diseases jump or spillover into humans. He narrates how these diseases, commonly classified as zoonoses first appeared on the scene and how people react to these diseases in the beginning, how scientific research unfolded and how they escalated into global epidemics in some cases. He also discusses the tiny pathogens responsible and their evolution into killer monsters. He deals with a long list of deadly diseases like Hendra, Ebola, malaria, AIDS, Lyme disease, Q fever, SARS, etc. All dangerous and potentially lethal bugs if not dealt with properly. 

A few themes appear throughout the book. One of them is how humans interfere with nature, eat what they are not supposed to or encroach on wild habitats. It’s clear we are having more contact with animals, both domestic and wild, and this is one of the reasons why certain diseases have spilled over into humans. And also why in the future probably more lethal pathogens will spill over. As humans, we need to understand the nature of ecosystems better and try not to interfere with wildlife habitats. These diseases have killed millions and millions of people and it’s clear that these bugs especially viruses have the upper hand over us and we should be weary of the potential devastation involved. Zoonotic diseases will continue to spill over in future. But how long before we come across a pathogen capable of annihilating all of humankind? 

Book review: Over The Edge of The World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of The Globe by Laurence Bergreen

Just looking at the book cover and synopsis, I knew this was going to be a thrilling historical book. Right from the outset, you’re thrust into the complex world of 16th century Portugal and Spain. Ferdinand Magellan is a Portuguese sailor who is repeatedly denied the chance to sail an expedition to the Moluccas or Spice Islands. These islands harboured naturally growing spices such as cinnamon, cloves, pepper, and nutmeg which were extremely valuable. A few hundred pounds of cloves could purchase a seaworthy ship. Having been denied funding for his expedition and with the king of Portugal oblivious to his proposal, he left Portugal and went to Seville, Spain where with the help of a certain Ruy Faleiro, a seasoned sailor, and connections from his father-in-law, he manages to navigate the bureaucracy of Spain and successfully pitch his plan to sail to the Moluccas and claim them for the young king of Spain, Charles. Magellan claimed that the Spice Islands lied in Spanish territory as designated by the treaty of Tordesillas several years earlier. The Treaty split the world in two; the west from Cape Verde islands just off the North African coast onwards belonged to Spain and the East up to the Indies and beyond belonged to Portugal. This Treaty was drafted shortly after Christopher Columbus discovered the New World for Spain to enable Spain to expand it’s empire to the Americas. What the Treaty didn’t take into account was the shape of the planet. 

This was not just any ordinary expedition of discovery. It was also albeit a scientific one. For one, it would prove that the earth is round. Although it had already been proved by Erastothenes in ancient Egypt over 1500 years earlier, the more astonishing proof was circumnavigating the entire world. Secondly, this voyage proved something else entirely unknown; that the planet is covered mostly by water. Land occupies a small portion of it. Thirdly, it proved that the Americas were not part of the Indies but an entirely different continent.

Magellan’s plan was simple and precise. They were to sail to Brazil and then continue downwards to the South Pole until they found a passage or strait that led them to the Spice Islands. Columbus had attempted to find the strait leading to the Indies from the Americas because he knew the world was round and therefore you could reach the east if you sailed west long enough. Magellan had maps that were borrowed from different sources which speculated over a passage leading to the Indies. Having convinced the Casa de Contratación (House of Commerce which was in charge of expeditions) and King Charles of Spain, he was given funding and all the necessary help to make the voyage a success. The 19 year old King Charles was counting on the voyage to finance his political aspirations. He was set to be crowned King of the Holy Roman Empire, the highest position in Europe but he needed to bribe the electors in Germany and the ostentatiously greed pope with tributes. So the voyage, if successful, would partially help the young king become the most powerful man in Europe. 

It is human nature to make up stories about things we don’t understand. And that was what people did during the Age of Discovery. They thought that ocean water boiled at the equator, that if you sailed too far, you would fall off the edge of the world, that there were ferocious monsters like dragons which devoured sailors and that there were magnetic islands which pulled nails out of approaching ships. All this was just plain superstitious nonsense which people believed because they did not understand or know anything about the oceans. It also prevented many adventurous people from risking their lives to sail the oceans. It was probably one of the reasons why Magellan almost failed to mobilise his crew in Seville and had to look in other cities. 

Magellan was given 5 ships; Trinidad, San Antonio, Concepción, Victoria and Santiago. The whole fleet was named Armada de Molucca. Trinidad was the flagship and Magellan was the disciplinarian Captain General. They set sail in mid 1519 after months of preparation and assembly with a crew of 260 men of various nationalities from Portuguese to Spanish to French to Norwegian to Venetian and many others. Out of all these only a handful survived the entire journey. Eighteen to be precise. Others perished in war, mutiny, execution and scurvy. A few defected from the mission in San Antonio and returned to Spain. Magellan, being Portuguese, had a difficult time handling the self entitled Spaniards on the ship and his authoritarian brand of leadership did not help. This culminated in a mutiny while they were near the South Pole. In demonstrating his power, Magellan executed some of the mutineers and plugged their heads on sticks. A priest and another mutineer survived this ordeal but were marooned on a remote isolated island. Meanwhile, the Armada braved some of the worst weather known to sailors and many perished while navigating the strait. Food was insufficient and the men tried to fish or when they came across an island, they tried to get the inhabitants to give them provisions. When they were in Rio De Janeiro, they enjoyed feasts with the local people and, having been starved of female companionship, resorted to having wild orgies with the native women. 

The voyage is full of scenarios of this kind. The armada coming across a primitive people and trading with them for provisions and other valuable items. Sometimes islanders are not hospitable to strangers. Many times, they seemed to be hospitable hosts. Magellan and his crew held feasts with islanders in the Pacific and even tried to do mass conversions of all the islanders to Christendom. Magellan’s overindulgence in the affairs of local peoples soon paid off with his death. 

On the flagship, there was an educated fellow with connections to the Casa and the church, who was listed as the chronicler of the voyage, Antonio Pigafetta. He took a keen anthropological look at the people and cultures they came into contacts with and kept records of everything that happened during the voyage. Eventually, only two ships, Trinidad and Victoria, reached the Spice Islands. It was a long arduous journey in which many lives were claimed. The crew had survived massacres, wars, scurvy, extreme cold and high tides.

In the end, the Armada managed to prove that the earth is round by moving to the west until they reached the east. They also dispelled many longstanding myths concerning navigation, cosmology, geography, and oceanography. Although the voyage cost 4 ships of the Armada, it also provided many cloves (about 381 sacks) which were enough for the owners of the ships and the king to make a profit from the voyage. The voyage also changed our thinking of how we viewed the world around us, our place in it, and our knowledge concerning the world. It is probably the single most important voyage of the Age of Discovery for it’s sheer accomplishment of circumnavigating the globe, which was very unlikely had they known the perils standing in their way. Magellan’s circumnavigation proved to be near impossible to replicate afterwards mainly because of the extreme harsh weather in the strait and at the southern tip of South America. King Charles tried to send 3 more voyages unsuccessfully and Magellan’s voyage begun to look more and more daring and extraordinary. Indeed it was. 

One thing I noticed while reading is that the author meticulously researched the book and indeed there’s a bibliography of sources where every detail comes from. Yet the book reads like an edge-of-your-seat adventure fiction novel. I’m impressed at how well written the book is and how Bergreen has detailed facts so well and in unison with the book that it never interrupts the flow of the story at all. He could change the subject to rocket science in the middle of the book and you wouldn’t notice how he even begun or delved into the topic. All you would know is that you’re hooked. What a breathtaking book!! 

Book reviews: Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali 

Roger L. Simon has described her as a modern “Joan of Arc”. Christopher Hitchens considered her “the most important public intellectual ever to come out of Africa”. Saba Mahmoud accused her of taking advantage of the West’s post-9/11 hatred and prejudice towards Muslims to make a political career for herself. Others have discredited her as an Uncle Tom, a white in a black body, a symbol of neocolonialism, a native who sells secrets to the enemy. It reminds me of the Aunt Lydia character in The Handmaid’s Tale who tortures fellow women on behalf of totalitarianism and theocracy. Despite all these divisive mixed opinions, Ayaan Hirsi Ali has not faltered. She has soldiered on like the true fighter she was raised to be. She has weathered death threats and fatwas from so-called Islamic moderates in the West. She has demonstrated stunning bravery to fight for Muslim women’s rights (that some of them don’t know they have), freedom of speech, and against female genital mutilation and against the ancient fanatical ideology of male honour. Ayaan is not just an atheist but a feminist activist as well. In the moral philosophical system dubbed Islam, she is not the woman who left her faith but as stipulated in the Holy texts, she is considered an apostate. The Koran is very clear on apostasy. It is punishable by death. 

In this moving memoir, she details her own subjective version of events from her birth leading up to her immigration to America. She narrates her whole upbringing in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya. At times, she goes into detail more personal than I expected. For example, her circumcision (or excision) in early childhood. 

Gradually, we see Ayaan progress from a fundamentalist, uncritical Islam, sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood and antisemitism, to a humanist unbelief. She was born a fighter in a family of fighters. Her father was a revolutionary who fought for democracy in Somalia. She was subconsciously groomed to be a fighter for truth, autonomy, freedom for those under oppression, repression and mental submission to religion and it’s man-made edicts. She fights relentlessly for the rights and freedom of women and for this reason, I think the main theme of her memoir is humanism and autonomy; that humans have rights and that one’s gender doesn’t dehumanise them. 

In subtle ways, her book is a bit critical of traditional African beliefs which are always mingled with Christian or Islamic beliefs. This is a serious issue. I’m yet to see a modern critic of religion address this issue. Fortunately she does allude to it here and there in the book but doesn’t quite delve deeper.

She dealt with her loss of belief quite well. I would very easily say conversion from Islam to atheism but you can’t convert to no belief. Like most atheists, it’s not a conversion experience. It’s more a realisation that you nolonger believe than a conversion. Her point of realisation comes when she’s going on a vacation and takes along with her a copy of The Atheist Manifesto by a Dutch professor (there’s another by a French philosopher). By the fact that she even picks this book up is already proof that she had lingering doubts about her faith. She was probably already an atheist though consciously unaware of it. Her progression from a religious culture in Kenya and Somalia to atheism in Holland is a consequence of a head-on collision between faith and European values. Why does a seemingly godless Dutch society fare better than the religious ones in Saudi Arabia or Somalia, she asked herself. Her beliefs were in constant conflict with Dutch values like free speech, human rights and democracy. At some point, she had to choose. I like to think that anywhere anytime any place, no sober person chooses dogma and absolutism over evidence and freedom but humanity is full of surprises. 

Her book isn’t flawless as you would expect. I thought that she could have used better grammar or written certain situations better. The writing wasn’t great or sophisticated enough for me on the whole. Probably the memoir could have done better with more editing and rewriting. I can overlook such trivial issues if the message in the book is more important. Ayaan is a fantastic woman, a courageous woman, a good example of escape from oppression, a modern heroine for all those who strive and yearn for true freedom in the Islamic world. And it was indeed a privilege to read this memoir of her amazing life. 

Random Stuff #027: Dreams of an Alternate Universe

It was a bizarre dream in a bizarre time and place. I could sense it right from the vague beginning. What did I sense? The weirdness mostly but also a magical feeling that I was not supposed to be there. I was a misplaced being, a foreigner in a far away land. In some way, that all dreams convey, I knew I was there because I had gone there from another world. I also knew that my foreign identity in this world was to be kept clandestine.

As if by mere chance, I find myself at a bizarre looking university building. It’s a rectangular greyish smooth building with no particular decor about it. Just a building with a glass face at the front and a flat roof on its top. A layer of asphalt covers the front and goes into straight into the road adjacent. There’s no way to tell where the walkway ends and the road starts. Beyond the road is a very beautiful park with recently planted trees and grass so uniform in its growth one would think it’s a football pitch.

 As I stand at the enormous glass entrance, a beautiful petite African lady with a light brown skin complexion almost to the point of whiteness approaches me. She’s clad in a long white summer dress with a white scuff on her neck. Her hair was black as coal and plaited into a form of dreads I had rarely seen on earth. Once I see her, I automatically know we are both in love. But it’s a sacred love between two beings from different universes. She and a few of her colleagues and professors in the astrophysics department know that I am not here and I have employed their help to unlock the secrets of the multiverse. Along the way, this lady and I have fallen for each other. At this point, she is taking me to her dormroom which is inside this building. We head inside. The dream fast forwards to her room. Her room is so strange. It has mega compartments in the walls similar to the ones we use to confine dead bodies in a furnace chamber for cremation. This has the feel of death about it but I know it is the norm in this world. She leads me to the kitchen counter where she pours me some red wine and winthin a few minutes, we are getting overly intimate. 

The next day, we have exited the building. She’s supposed to be for an exhibition in the park at the front under a tent which has all kinds of photographic and artistic descriptions of the gigantic universe. White at the tent, she’s summoned someplace else by someone and has to leave me alone. I want her to stay. We hold hands for a brief moment and she leaves me, her hair being blown by a subtle wind, her soft skin more beautiful than ever. I let her go. Suddenly I notice how sublime the morning sun is in this world and I’m hypnotized for a long moment. I sit and watch it in amazement. End of dream. 

This was a bizarre dream right from the start. Usually I forget 90% of my dreams like most people. My dreams are also almost always about my dreams, hopes and fears and personal life experience like everyone. If I was to dream about anything that I never thought or visualised or had seen or experienced before, then that would be an extraordinary dream with no predetermined architecture from all our experiences. Sadly, such dreams are nonexistent. You only dream about what you have experienced or hitherto imagined. You can’t expect a medieval peasant or an early homo sapiens to dream about cars or mega cosmopolitan cities with skyscrapers, complex transport networks, or nuclear weapons. Instead their dreams are centred on village life, hunting and gathering, agriculture, stone weapons like spears and arrows, and other such things native to their life experience. In the same way, I don’t expect a 21st century human to dream about 25th century in any way that would approximate the reality of that time. If one was to dream about events that were similar to that time, there would be nothing to convince a skeptic that it’s anything other than a chance event. Think about it this way. At one point or another, it’s inevitable that any one human will dream about the future. There are 7.8 billion people on earth. What are the odds that one person will dream an accurate or approximate picture or view of the world 500 years in the future? I think the odds are high. Probability and chance favour the odds. 

My dream above is a dream about the universe and about a scientific pursuit to traverse the limitations of three dimensional space to travel to an alternate universe similar to ours. In a course of events that happen before my dream begins and of which I have no clear knowledge, I have travelled to a different universe and settled into it. I have no idea what events led me there or how I settled into the universe or even how I fell in love with the African student. I just intuitively know I did. Now was this dream so extraordinary or “out of the ordinary”? In a sense, it was. I don’t frequently have dreams about space travel or interuniversal travel or about being an astrophysicist. But I have thought about these things a lot and it seems inevitable that I would have to dream about them at some point. And I did. 

I’m not going to attach any significance to the dream because I don’t think dreams have any meaning or connection to real life. A friend told me that dream is about me being lured to death by a cunning serpent in the shape of a woman. But I’ll not indulge in such non sequitirs. This dream was sublime and spiritual in a way that I was, for a brief moment, contemplating it’s truth value and even believed in the existence of the multiverse. Not to stand back from the dream after a while and realise its aesthetic nature was blinding me from recognising it’s implausibility. In effect, I came back to my senses but it was nevertheless a beautiful dream. 

A Brief Rant on Existentialism 

Human existence is a dilemma. A sort of existential crisis built around mental gymnastics aimed at running away from reality or the uncompromising nihilism of the world. If the universe has no purpose, man shall offer one. If a universe has no consciousness running the show, we shall create one (or many) in our minds who are in our image. If you won’t create your ultimate purpose, other assertive personalities will do it for you. This is the dilemma, the confusion, the fear that we do not understand, the awkwardness of being a conscious being in this universe with a lot of unanswered (and unanswerable) questions. 

It’s only a couple millions years ago that the first human fossils appear in the fossil record. Even later that, just a couple hundred thousand years ago that modern humans first appear on the scene. We have been around about 200,000 years. A few ten thousand years ago, we woke, as a chick shutters an egg shell in search of life, from our eons of slumber; having evolved into homo sapiens, we took the first steps from primitivity, from small-mindedness, from pointless Savannah dominance, to civilization and culture, to dreaming of taking over the planet, to imperial dominance over all conscious beings. Man began to travel from the cradle of humanity in a subconscious bid of conquering all that exists. But the more we discovered in our endeavours, the more we realised we were a sorry lot trying to find our way. Our lives and genes and nature having compelled us with powers beyond what we could fathom initially or finally.

Ours was a search for ultimate meaning, purpose, order, direction or flow of all that is. But all we got back was indifference and solitude. The universe wasn’t ready to tell us anything. Not especially in the event we have the ability to find out for ourselves. In the course of these human events, we started to learn. We didn’t take long to know we are living on a pale blue dot with a yellow sphere illuminating our sky in the day and a full or crescent or half moon in the night. We probed more questions still. And the universe answered them. We were not just on a planet. We were in a solar system composed of a yellowish star burning millions of joules of hydrogen fuel and a few other planets which we occasionally worshipped as gods. Yet that wasn’t it. We were not just in a solar system. But just another star system in a seemingly infinite number of others orbiting a super massive blackhole in the middle of a galaxy we call Milky Way. We now know that this galaxy is one of thousands in a group we call a cluster. Add to this the surrounding clusters  to make up thousands of clusters in a larger group we call a galaxy supercluster. Yet our supercluster is one of thousands that, rounded together, make the observable universe as we know it with our current understanding. It could be much bigger than we shall ever know because it is expanding at a rate faster than light. 

As one grows, one puts away childish things. This childhood unveiling showed us things we didn’t want to see. We realised the sun was not made in cosmic gas clouds for us to feel heat or grow crops. We realised the moon wasn’t dismembered from earth to provide light at night. We realised we were solipsistic beings and that the world didn’t revolve around us. We realised that we knew but little to understand our place in the scheme of things. We realised that it was possible someone wasn’t looking out for us. We realised we had to make our way. We realised in some sense we are the conscious part of the universe, the subjective side of it that doesn’t tow the line of natural laws but simply obeys them.We realised we are the channel by which the universe responds to its rigid frequencies, the mouthpiece through which it communicates to itself. We realised what a privilege, an honour, an improbability it is to live in this beautiful expansive, mysterious universe. And what a gamble it is to live. A few of us who knew the dilemma realised how tragic and miserable and ignorant one would be to have had the chance to live this life if only for a brief few years and died having not known what a beautiful marvellous intriguing world we live in. 

Random Stuff #026: The improbability of existence.

It is very easy to look at existence as a trivial issue when it could be, highly likely, that it is more improbable than the universe itself. Think about it for a second. If we exist in this universe and it’s vastness, and all have a common consensus on which came first, whether we are believers or nonbelievers, it follows that the later advent of living beings (in the form we know them at least) is more improbable than the universe or even the empirically unproven multiverse. In the scientific and evolutionary sense, a universe could exist with galaxies and galaxy clusters and clusters of those clusters and yet there is a small chance that not one of those infinite planets will have the ingredients of life at least as we know it. 

Deoxyribonucleic acid commonly referred to as DNA is the fundamental building block of life, the source of living infrastructure, the instruction manual for life on earth that was, in hindsight, anticipated by Charles Darwin as soon as he published On the Origin of Species in 1859 and brought with it a new paradigm shift to our understanding of nature and the universe. It took up to the 1900s for someone to rediscover the work that Gregor Mendel had done, in an Austrian research monastery in 1860s, and had this conclusively proved the existence of genes, to finally vindicate the early DNA theorists. Still work had to be done to sew together two fields in biology–evolution and genetics. And so was birthed the modern synthesis which explains evolution in relation to genetics. But that was the 1930s and an evolutionary worldview was incompatible with religious doctrine. Some had the guts to declare it ungodly or satanic, and some still do. Others are less obscurantist and more willing to bend religious doctrine to fit scientific fact. So they say it was God’s way of creating flora and fauna. Which in turn either makes God to be a slow creator that had to go through several failed experiments to come up with a solipsistic human or this God allowed evolution to happen naturally without divine interference and thus we are not as special as religion claims we are or we are just a lone step in the evolutionary process.