The future of banking

“Bank 3.0: Why banking is no longer somewhere you go, but something you do” by Brett King

According to the author, Brett King, there are 4 phases of behavioural disruption in banking: 1. The arrival of the internet 2. The emergence of smart device or app phone 3. Our switch to mobile payment on a broad scale (which is where we currently are) 4. Banking no longer being somewhere we go, but something we just do.

Published in 2013, this book is largely about the road to the 4th disruption. It shows an exciting glimpse of what the future may look like and how banks will play their role in it. It is a world where “someone else owns the customer, [while] banks become the manufacturers, networks and processes that support the utility of banking.”

The book ultimately takes us through the evolution of banking, which are illustrated by abundance of data and statistics to provide us with the contextual trend, where now by the time I read it in 2021 I can see how plenty of the predictions by King have already happening.

An essential read for bankers or those who are interested to learn about the banking industry.

The insane story of the rise and fall of Theranos

“Bad Blood: secrets and lies in a Silicon Valley startup” by John Carreyrou

How can a 19 year old Stanford dropout, with only 2 semesters worth of chemical engineering credits, is able to start a company in Silicon Valley focusing on cutting-edge new science in medicine?

How can she then surrounds herself with all-stars management team (such as General James Mattis and former Wells Fargo’s CEO Richard Kovacevich), employ the most capable experts (Stanford, MIT, Caltech and Cambridge PhDs are not uncommon among the 800 employees), backed by a number of diverse investors (with Rupert Murdoch, Carlos Slim Helu, Betsy DeVos, among many of them) and highly regarded board members (like Henry Kissinger and George Shultz), not to mention the numerous media exposures and her attendances at formal White House events.

How can she pull all of this off, even at one time regarded as the female Steve Jobs that will revolutionise the healthcare industry, only ended up becoming a fraud?

This is an incredibly bizarre true story of Elizabeth Holmes, and the rapid rise and spectacular fall of her start-up bio-tech company Theranos.

The author, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner John Carreyrou, interviewed more than 150 people (including more than 60 former theranos employees) to set the facts straight, turned it into THAT 2015 investigative reporting at the Wall Street Journal, before re-telling the story in this book in a gripping manner that reads like a thriller movie.

It is filled with hope and brilliance, lies and deceits, lots of lawsuits, harassments, and even suicide. It’s no wonder that the book has received so many awards including winning the Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year award in 2018. It is simply hard to put down the book once you start reading it.

Lessons from the rebel yogi

“Inner Engineering: A yogi’s guide to joy” by Sadhguru

Sadhguru is like the rebel yogi, the contrarian guru, that says spirituality is overrated, that teaches us NOT to believe in what the many gurus are saying if you don’t agree with them (including him). He’s bluntly honest, and often slap us back into grounded reality with his logical approach, which is supported by plenty of stories that are amusing and often funny.

In fact, right at the very few early paragraphs he dismantles the feel-good but empty or misleading mantras that we use to live by in the modern society. Mantras such as  “be in the moment”, “do one thing at a time”, “positive thinking”, the utopian idea of heaven, and as simple as the word “stress management” in which he commented “why would anybody want to manage stress?”

And instead, he offers a worldview that is grounded in common sense and, increasingly as the book progresses, in Yoga practises where he discusses about mind, body, and energy from the point of view of what he call the “science of yoga”.

It is a soothing book to read, one that serve as a calm reminder in this fast paced world of our basic senses, one that teaches us how to be more connected with the universe, and with its basic teachings can lead us to becoming joyful as an effect. Because everything that is happening in our lives we experience it within ourselves, which is controllable for us.

As Sadhguru remark, “Human experience may be stimulated or catalyzed by external situations, but the source is within. Pain or pleasure, joy or misery, agony or ecstasy, happens only inside you. Human folly is that people are always trying to extract joy from the outside. You may use the outside as a stimulus or trigger, but the real thing always comes from within.”

In addition, I read this book using audiobook with Sadhguru himself as the narrator, and with some bell sound effect for every Sadhana part (practices), and a soft chanting background in every box of story. It really brings the reading experience into a whole different feel.

A little bit of context: Israel Palestine conflict

CONTEXT NO. 1: The big picture

Have you ever noticed that Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israeli government very often cause trouble in Gaza and the West Bank during the holy month of Ramadan? Very intentionally.

The UN then usually may or may not issue a condemnation. They even issue a sanction if they’re feeling good about themselves, only to be vetoed by Israel’s – even bigger bully – cousin: the US. Every. Fucking. Time. A proof that UN Security Council is full of shit, designed only to serve the interests of its permanent members and particularly its largest funder.

Frustrations then normally lead the majority of the world’s citizens to join boycotting Israeli products. But after few weeks, the “BDS movement” will fade out and life goes back to normal for most of us. No amount of petitions will make any difference either.

Along the way, plenty of NGOs (such as THAT famous one in Indonesia) manage to collect donations for Palestine, with the flow of money not really answerable to an audit. Sure, some are distributed to help the Palestinians, but the majority of them disappear into thin air. Because the Israeli government also restrict the amount of aid that the Palestinians can receive.

Meanwhile, just after around 4-5 days Erdogan usually show up to milk this crisis to boost his propaganda image.

But after about a week or so the protests of the Palestinians on the ground usually die down, because they literally don’t have the energy to do so (Israel only provide foods to the so-called “open air prison” that meet caloric level BELOW the sufficient amount per person per day).

Moreover, thanks to the strong Israeli lobby in US Congress (AIPAC), US funding to Israel ($3 billion/year + $8 billion loan guarantees) will remain way bigger than their aid to Palestine ($235 million, only restored last month after completely abolished during Trump era) to ensure the Palestinians will never win the assymetric clash against its apartheid ruler.

So things will eventually become nice and quiet again in the media, until Netanyahu needs the conflict to escalate once more, so that he can distract the public from his many corruption scandals, or to win an election (this time he failed to create a coalition, and they may need to do another election).

And the cycle will repeat itself in a few months time, in a similar manner.

CONTEXT NO. 2: Analogy

Read the news and replace the word “al-Aqsa Mosque” with “Vatican.” That’s pretty much what’s happening now. The Israeli government is attacking the 3rd holiest site for Islam, in the holiest month. Now imagine the reaction if Italy is raiding, shooting and burning the Vatican during Christmas.

The media call it “clashes”, world leaders can only condemn with no action, any real sanction by the UN will be vetoed by the US, and they will get away with it.

CONTEXT NO. 3: History

Israel vs Palestine is not the long ongoing fight between the Biblical Israelites vs Philistine, they’re both long gone as an ethnic group. The Israelites vanished after 722 BC when they were crushed by the Assyrians, While the Philistines disappeared by the late 5th century BC after they were destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylonia.

While the native Palestinians are Arabs, the Jews in there have roots from Ashkenazi Jew in Georgia, who came to the British-controlled Palestine from mostly Eastern and Central Europe thanks to a movement called the Zionist movement. The movement was boosted by the rise of Hitler who slaughtered every Jew in sight in late 1930s-1945, which in western Germany and northern France were mostly Ashkenazi.

It is as if European Gypsies (another “homeless” tribe) choose 1 country to be their motherland, start mass-migrating there, and eventually after having enough Romani in the country they start claiming independence. Or imagine the many Burmese refugees in Bangladesh one day declare the country theirs and rename it to “Rohingya”, and start treating the native Bangladeshi as 2nd class citizens in an apartheid system.

The Zionist Jews deliberately use the Biblical name “Israel” to justify their occupation of the Palestinian land, after the British left abruptly in 1948 without a clear succession plan and then acknowledged the independence claim at the UN. To make sense of this move by Britain, google: Balfour Declaration.

CONTEXT NO. 4: Politics

Newton’s 3rd law state that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. But for an assymetric action, where the victim has no equal power against the abuser, the opposite reaction will manifest itself in the form of guerilla movements. This is how Hamas was born among the oppressed Palestinians.

For every jet fighter missile attacks by the Israeli government, Hamas can only retaliate with rocket shots that were smuggled into their compound. For every systemic killing by the Israeli government (such as food restrictions, violence by soldiers on the ground with the latest technology, etc), Hamas’ best effort is to attack back using terror tactics such as suicide bombings and threats that generate much less victims.

Don’t get me wrong, Hamas is without a doubt a condemnable terrorist group. But they use terror as a tactic because their even more condemnable oppressor have more potent power than terror: legalization.

What Israel do may be ilegal (for example in the current crisis they violate Article 4 of the Geneva Convention and UN Security Council Resolution no 478), but it’s not a big problem in the eyes of the compromised international community. Just as the other settler-colonies such as US, Canada, and Australia have done so themselves: the genocide of Indians and Aborigins, for example, were not punishable by the law that they create for themselves.

Hamas is only one of several reactions that came out from the oppression. While Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) resort to religious fundamentalism (and revolutionary in nature, AKA war-minded), there are also nationalistic organisations that are evolutionary in nature, such as Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and its dominating faction, Fatah. Remember Yasser Arafat? He was the chairman of PLO, the closest attempt for them to achieve a peace agreement with Israel (the Oslo Accord), before Israel decided to poison him a decade later.

Hamas is based in Gaza, while PLO is based in the West Bank. Israel likes the PLO because it is weak and submissive, the international community even give them an observer status in the UN (at par with Vatican and Taiwan). Whenever you read about the Palestinian Authority and its Palestine President (Mahmoud Abbas) that’s [currently] PLO.

Hamas, on the other hand, is a dick. Israel hates Hamas. So much so that when Hamas took full control over Gaza, the Israeli government blocked the area into practically an open air prison until now. PLO also hates Hamas because they keep derailing PLO’s diplomatic efforts with fresh terror attacks (which became THE excuse for Israel for breaking any negotiation).

Things get complicated because Hamas is eventually funded by Hezbollah of Lebanon, which in turn is funded by Iran. Meanwhile, Israel is funded by the US, and protected by Egypt and Saudi. So like in many places in the Middle East, such as Syria and Yemen, Palestine is another battle ground for their proxy wars.

So who are the bad guys? The oppressor, for sure. But the good guys? This isn’t a Hollywood movie where there’s a clear line between the protagonist and antagonist, as Hamas is a terrorist group while Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority is a corrupt institution that benefits only the few. The victims are clear though, the ordinary Palestinians.

The Palestinians are played like a pawn, and get killed in the process, because Netanyahu failed to grab power in the last Israeli election (unable to form a coalition to back him), while awaiting trial for his many corruption scandals. Meanwhile, Mahmoud Abbas (of PLO) is postponing the first Palestinian election in 15 years, and blaming it on Israel for not allowing voting in East Jerusalem (which the Israeli government denies, but will benefit from).

This pisses Hamas off, with Hamas simultaneously angry at Israel for doing so and accusing PLO of deliberately delaying the election so that Hamas will not secure their inevitable win (Mahmoud Abbas is growingly unpopular among Palestinians).

This is why an incident in the West Bank can now spillover to a full-blown war in Gaza.

CONTEXT NO. 5: The core problem

Unfortunately, none of these touching big protests around the world matter, not a single country can do anything to change the reality on the ground, not even a UN sanction can prevent the violations to happen in front of our eyes, if AIPAC still exist.

And as long as AIPAC exist US will forever flex its muscles, pulling strings and threats to everyone standing up against “Israel’s right to self defense.” Just look at those impotent Arab countries who do absolutely nothing concrete to save their massacred brothers and sisters.

That’s why the talks among countries only amount to “de-escalating tension” or “stopping the violence” or aiming for “ceasefire”, and not punishing the killer(s) or penalizing them for attacking worshippers at Al-Aqsa Mosque (violation of Article 38, third paragraph, of the 1949 Geneva Convention IV).

What about Israel violating another Geneva Convention on freedom of press (Article 79 of Additional Protocol I) by literally bombing down an entire building that housed the Associate Press and Al Jazeera? And killing medical staffs and experienced doctors in Gaza (article 36 of 1949 Geneva Convention II)? They got just a tiny slap in the wrist and being asked to pinky promise not to repeat that naughty behaviour again.

Just like NRA is a cancer for the ridiculously preventable gun violence problem in the US, AIPAC is the biggest cause that ensures this slow cleansing of Palestinians is happening (the “collateral damage” for their full occupation of the land). The lobby group also tie the hands of every single US president since 1963 from taking any action against Israel and/or for Palestine. Even Obama who publicly dislike Netanyahu still cannot do anything significant to dismantle the apartheid.

So, the solution is actually simple (but not easy, borderline impossible): Abolish AIPAC (and its coalition), and you won’t believe how fast the enduring Israel Palestine conflict can be over.

What an introduction!

“Introducing Chaos: A graphic guide” by Ziauddin Sardar, Angela Adams, and Iwona Abrams

This is a short but detailed book, with nice illustration at every page, covering everything about the subject matter that has always been the most intriguing for me: the chaos theory.

But what delightfully surprises me is, what I thought would be a breeze “introduction” book (as per the name of the series) with only 171 pages long, can turn out to be so densed, mind-bending, and enlightening enough to make me see science and a lot of other concepts connected to chaos theory in a new light.

It completely ruined my plan for a relaxed, no-brainer, weekend. But oh it’s so invigorating.

A classic, with all the cliches

“The Master Key System” by Charles F. Haanel

It’s holiday time during the pandemic, which means relaxing at home. And I want to read a light book that has little narrative to follow. It should be short and direct, broken down into short chapters and even written one paragraph at a time in a quotation-like sentence if possible, to make it a lighter bite. It should cover topics that are soothing for the soul but stimulating enough for the mind, a book that I can still learn from but with oh so minimum effort (hey, it’s a holiday mood).

Is there such a book, my dear Coesus? As it turns out, there is. It’s Terry Crews’ favourite book (didn’t see that coming, did you?). And this book nailed it. Sort of. Well not really. Ok fine, let’s just say it’s not my cup of tea.

There’s some weird stuff going on with most of the ideas in the book, such as the believe that our minds can somehow connect to the universe (the Cosmic Mind), that everything is originated in the Universal Mind, that you can get what you want if you mentally concentrate on the object of your desire (without work? The author, Charles F. Haanel, didn’t say anything about work to get it) complete with the morning mantras in front of the mirror, while he’s also selling the concept and usage of solar plexus a little too much.

Moreover, apparently if we’re in debt it’s wrong to worry and think about the debt. Instead, we should focus on the opposite: abundance (yes, Edwin. Concentrate on what you want). The book also claims to have the secret solution to every problem known to mankind: to apply spiritual Truth on it. So, bone marrow cancer? The spiritual Truth. Solution to Israel vs Palestine conflict? The spiritual Truth. Where will Doge Coin move next? The spiritual Truth.

All in all, the book has this overall feel of being at a presentation of an MLM product that makes you borderline questioning its legitimacy. Because nearly nothing tangible come out from the ideas. And instead, just BELIEVE hard enough with no clear cause-and-effect steps on how to achieve them (AKA, the law of attraction).

But perhaps I should cut the book some slack, because it was afterall written in 1912, from the simpler times. It was even before World War 1. So it’s understandable that the concept of the book isn’t really that applicable for our modern era. But then again, Aristotle was from the 4th century BC and Isaac Newton lived in the 17-18th century, and their ideas are phenomenal. And furthermore, this book is also featured in the modern-day book “The Secret” (which mystifies the psychological concept of “confirmation bias” into practically a magic show). So maybe, just maybe, it has always been wacky even for its days.

Unblocking the Resistance

“The War of Art: Break through the blocks and win your inner creative battles” by Steven Pressfield

Every once in a while the A-list superstar guests at the Tim Ferriss Show podcast are asked about their favourite, or most life-changing, books. And without fail, this book often come up as the top 3 books. And now I can see why.

It is a light, good feeling, kind of book but with such an impactful message, which are broken down into several neat mini chapters (1-2 pages long) in just few hundred pages that are easy to read. They say that some of the best books ever written are thin books but with mighty content, just like Marcus Aurelius’ Meditation or Sun Tzu’s Art of War. I truly believe that the War of Art also live up to that category.

The core theme of the book is what the author, Steven Pressfield, calls the Resistance. It is that block you have in your life that prevents you from doing all the things that you’ve always wanted to do. And in this book he masterfully define the broad term of the Resistance into a multi-layer guide for many different walks of life.

Now, every sentence of the word in the book has this feel of wisdom in it, and this reflected from the author’s own harsh journey, where he too met his Resistance for years (decades, in fact). He got divorced, went bankrupt, resigned from a stable job to end up working odd menial jobs for years until well into his forties, even became homeless at one point, before he finally took the courage and developed the know-how to deal with his own Resistance. Hence, everything that he writes in the book came from his own incredible experience.

Today, Steven Pressfield is a best-selling author of several successful novels, one of which even turned into a movie (The Legend of Bagger Vance, starring Will Smith, Charlize Theron and Matt Damon), and he was even made an honorary citizen by the city of Sparta in Greece.

Here are some of my favourite quotes from the book:

“It was easier for Hitler to start World War II than it was for him to face a blank square of canvas.”

“The Resistance covers every one trying to pursue everything, from health, entrepreneurial, seeking creative outlets, recovering from addiction, education, political, charity, everything that rejects immediate gratification in favour of long-term gain.”

“Resistance arises from within. It is self-generated and self-perpetuates. Resistance is the enemy within.”

“The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel towards pursuing it.”

“Anything that draws attention to ourselves through pain-free or artificial means is a manifestation of Resistance.”

“Fundamentalism is the philosophy of the powerless, the conquered, the displaced and the dispossessed.”

“The fundamentalist cannot stand freedom. He cannot find his way into the future, so he retreats to the past.”

“The professional cannot allow the actions of others to define his reality.”

“To labor in the arts for any reason than love is prostitution.”

“We humans have territories too. Ours are psychological. Stevie Wonder’s territory is the piano. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s is the gym. When Bill Gates pulls into the parking lot at Microsoft, he’s on his territory. When I sit down to write, I’m on mine.”

The anatomy of the Bible

“Misquoting Jesus: The story behind who changed the Bible and why” by Bart D. Erhman

This book breaks down the long creation process of the New Testament, complete with all the human fallibility and politics.

This is not like a whistle blower account of an insider, however, nor it is a blasphemy attempting to discredit the holy book. Instead, it is a genuine quest of a scholar who loves his religion to discover the real texts of the religion of the book.

The author, Bart D. Erhman, went to a fundamentalist Moody Bible Institute, and then proceeded to continue his bachelor’s degree in a top-rank evangelical college, Wheaton College, before studying with the world’s leading expert in the field, a scholar named Beuce M. Metzger at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Along the way he had to learn Greek (the original languages of the New Testament), Hebrew, and Latin, so that he can read the Bible and its supporting documents in its originally intended wordings. He also learned modern European languages such as German and French, in order to be able to read what other scholars had said about any particular things. And this depth of skills shows in the book.

Erhman remarks, “Christianity from the outset was a bookish religion that stressed certain text as authoritative scripture.” “However”, he continues, “[t]his is a textually oriented religion whose texts have been changed, surviving only in copies that vary from one another, sometimes in highly significant ways.” He then elaborates, “[t]he task of the textual critic is to try recover the oldest form of these texts. This is obviously a crucial task, since we can’t interpret the words of the New Testament if we don’t know what the words were.”

And this, in essence, is what the book is all about.

It is about the many authors, translators, scribes, scholars, and editors of the Bible. It is about what Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote and why they wrote it in such ways. It is about the ghost writers using pseudo names. It is about the verses that got inserted into the Bible, and about the many more Gospels that did not make the cut. It is the story from the very beginning to our modern point of time in the likes of NIV Bible and New King James Bible, and the behind the scene evolution in between about what constitute the sacred texts of the faith, which span over hundreds of years.

Central to the debate is of course the teachings of Jesus Christ. However, the birth and the spread of Christianity was actually thanks to Paul. As Erhman explains, “the New Testament is largely made up of letters written by Paul and other Christian leaders to Christian communities (e.g., the Corinthians, the Galatians) and individuals (e.g., Philemon).”  And the problem today is, the 21 letters that survive in the New Testament are only a fraction of those written in total. For example, in 1 Cor. 5:9 “[Paul] mentions a letter that he had earlier written the Corinthians (sometime before First Corinthians). And he mentions another letter that some of the Corinthians had sent him (1 Cor. 7:1). Elsewhere he refers to letters that his opponents had (2 Cor. 3:1)”, and none of those referred letters survived today.

Moreover, most people who live in the early era of Christianity were illiterate, while the printing press has not been invented yet until the 15th century. Thus, the vital role of the spread of Paul’s letters lie in the hands of the scribes, who copied the letters word by word into a manuscript. In the early days scribes were only volunteers who can read and write, and not necessarily an informed scholar. Thus the early manuscripts were ridden by so many errors and typos and misinterpretations.

The human shortcomings then continued with the copied manuscripts being copied themselves, while it is also not uncommon that the writings were intentionally altered due to forgery, misquotation, or even inserted with hidden agendas, which dilute the original texts over time and can create discrepancies.

For example, the story of the woman taken in adultery, as it turns out was not originally in the Gospel of John, but instead it was added by later scribes. Another similar example is the last 12 passages of Mark (the elaboration of Jesus’ resurrection), that was also added by a latter scribe. It is also argued that the member of the Apostles were in fact larger than the list of 12 men, with women played a significant role, but was largely edited out.

Furthermore, even a difference of one word in a translation can change the meaning of the story altogether, such as in the story of Mark 1:39-41 where Jesus heals the man with a skin disease. While in one surviving manuscript the translation in the start of the sentence of Mark 41 reads “And Jesus, feeling compassion…. (from Greek word: Splangnistheis)”, scholars found another translation that said “And Jesus, feeling angry… (from Greek word: Orgistheis).” Indeed, the difference between compassion and anger provide an entirely different tone of the story.

Meanwhile, as Christianity progressed to become a major religion, the level of sophistication of the scholars also level up. This was the era when many translations and editions of the Bible emerged, from Jerome’s Vulgate, to the Polygot edition, Complutensian Polygot, the Greek New Testament, translations by Stephanus, by Beza, by Elzevirs, by John Mill, and many more scholars (most of whom are profiled in chapter 4).

And along with the growth, the many theological debates among these translators, scribes, and scholars also become increasingly professional and fascinatingly combative as time progresses, which brilliantly occupies the great latter half of this book.

Perhaps the biggest debate can be found in the 2nd and 3rd century, where there were Christians who naturally believed that there was only one God, but there were also other Christians who believed that there are two gods (the God of wrath and the God of love and mercy), while other such as Gnostic Christians insisted that there are 12 gods, another sect believed that there are 30, others said 365, all of whom insisted that their views were true and had been taught by Jesus and his followers. These different sects as you can imagine wrote different interpretation of the holy texts. And the debates cover a lot more grounds, including whether Jesus was the son of God, if Jesus’ death brought about the salvation of the world or not, and so on.

It is discomforting to conclude that, according to Erhman, “[t]he books we call the New Testament were not gathered together into one canon and considered scripture, finally and ultimately, until hundreds of years after the books themselves had first been produced.” Even the King James Version that is fairly familiar for us, “is filled with places in which the translators rendered a Greek text derived ultimately from Erasmus’s edition, which was based on a single twelfth-century manuscript that is one of the worst of the manuscripts that we now have available to us!” And the newer versions such as the New King James, Revised Standard Version, or the Good News Bible? They are all still based on texts that have been changed in places.

So does this mean that the Bible is a fraud and its integrity is compromised? No, far from it. It is indeed a shocker at first, that reality is never that straight forward, that these holy scriptures were not directly given by God in one piece from the very beginning (perhaps God intended it to evolve this way?). But what Erhman shows is the New Testament is a very human book with all its human flaws, which makes it authentically ours.

This very human problems explain, for example, why there are many Christian denominations today that are filled with intelligent and well-meaning people, who “base their views of how the church should be organized and function on the Bible, yet all of them coming to radically different conclusions (Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Appalachian snake-handlers, Greek Orthodox, and on and on).”

And while the scholarly debates among these different denominations will unlikely to reach a unifying conclusion in our lifetime, one important thing is certain: the many good messages of the Bible remain uniformed and universally applicable. That the basic lessons from Jesus are not lost in the political debates.

So which denomination is the authentic one, which sect is the right one, or which version of the Bible is the correct one? It doesn’t matter what or who the messengers are, as long as the messages are passed on and implemented daily by the good-intentioned Christians. As they say, “love thy neighbour, and the rest is commentary.”

The birth and evolution of religion

“The Great Transformation: The beginning of our religious traditions” by Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong refer to it as the Axial Age. It was a period of time between 900 to 200 BC where in 4 distinct regions the great world traditions came into being: Confucianism and Daoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, monotheism in Israel, and mythology and philosophical rationalism in Greece.

These traditions bring us the likes of Socrates, Plato, Buddha, Confucius, Jeremiah, Euprides, Mencius, and the mystics of Upanishads. Even today, in times of spiritual and social crisis we constantly referred back to this period of time for guidance, as Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were all latter-day flowering of the original Axial Age.

So what prompted these 4 regions to develop a similar philosophy?

This book is about the history of that period of time. It is about the people and the conflicts, the drama, and the reconciliations.  About how spiritual and religious lives evolved, with all the stories exquisitely told in impressive detail and reads like 4 different epic colossal movies. It is quite literally 4 big historical accounts combined into one dense narrative.

Now, due to its incredible wealth of knowledge this book is not only heavy to read, but also challenging to summarize. But here are the 5 main points that I learned from the book:

Firstly, the 4 Axial Age traditions were born out of a reaction of their respective circumstance of the time. Confucius was born in the middle of lawless, battle-torn, region. The birth of the dark Greek mythology stems from a period of 400 years of darkness in that region due to war and hardship. The Axial Age in India began when the ritual reformers began to extract the conflict and agression from the sacrificial contest. While Israel started their Axial Age after the destruction of Jerusalem and the enforced deportation of the exiles to Babylonia, which then the priestly writers began to create a philosophy of reconciliation and non-violence.

Even in what Armstrong refer as “the final flowering of the Axial Age”, the prophet Muhammad (PBUH) lived in a violent society when old values were breaking down, before Islam arrises. Indeed, as Armstrong remarks, “[t]he religious traditions created during the Axial Age in all four regions were rooted in fear and pain.”

The second point of the book is, when the environment changes the religion changes along with it. One of the most common occurances of change is political move, which can sometimes include or emit a deity from a culture. For example, when King Solomon made diplomatic marriages with foreign princesses, the marriages include the merging of the gods in the royal cult, where they built temples for them in the hills outside Jerusalem.

Another example of the politics of gods is the story of Elijah. In the old Middle Eastern theology, El had appointed a deity to each of the nations: Yahweh was the god of Israel, Chemish the holy one of Moab, while Milkom was the god of Ammon. But some Israelites prophets felt that their god Yahweh would be undermined in the region if a king imported a foreign deity into the royal cult. Hence, during his time, Elijah tried to keep the god of Baal in Phonecia so that Yahweh would remain thriving as the local god, where the brutal story on how exactly he did it was told grippingly in the book.

Meanwhile, Yahweh Himself was originally one god among many others (He was a god of war), but later in the 6th century BC as the circumstances changed He too evolved to become the only God in the eyes of the worshipers, which in turn evolved to eventually become the sole God that we familiar with today.

Thirdly, when the religion gets too brutal or corrupted there will be a breakaway sect, such as Christianity from Judaism, Protestants from Catholic, and the many religion out of Hinduism like Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, while Islam fixed the problems of old Pagan faith that was no longer working in Arabian society.

Fourthly, all of the Axial Age changes had often occurred between two imperial-style ventures. The Indian Axial Age occurred after the demise of the Harappan Civilization and ended with the rise of the Mauryan empire. The Greek Axial Age transformation occurred between the Mycenaean kingdom and the Macedonian empire. The Chinese Axial Age got under way after the collapse of the Zhou dynasty and ended when Qin unified the warring states. And the Jews, who had suffered horribly from the imperial adventures in the region, had been propelled into their Axial Age after the destruction of their homeland and the trauma of deportation that severed their link with their past and thus forced them to start again.

And lastly, most of the Axial Age sages did not leave a book. Instead, their teachings were passed on orally, which was the custom back then. And their wisdom were eventually written down as a holy text long after they’re gone, which as you can imagine could be exposed to the many risks of human errors or misquotations or hidden agenda of the writers.

Hence, everything that have been written down ever since, everything that we now know in the modern society, are the product of many environmental changes, compromises, evolution, revolution, mergers and acquisitions, or even anihilation of deities and cults over a long and turmulous period of time.

So, in short: 1. The Axial Age were born as a response of a violent era 2. When the environment changes the religion changes with it 3. When the religion gets too brutal or corrupted there will be a breakaway sect 4. The Axial Age occurred between two imperial-style ventures 5. Most of the Axial Age sages did not leave a book, and their written wisdom could be exposed to the many “agency problems.”

Seeing this summary might prompt us to ask the next question: will this pattern repeat itself? Karen Armstrong remarks that reformation should be happening all the time, that religion cannot stand still. Because if they cannot adapt they will become obsolete and fade away, just like the many religious cults mentioned in the book that did not survive the Axial Age. And yes, according to Armstrong, we are now in the midst of a Second Axial Age.

A book that sums up anti-theist’s way of thinking

“The End of Faith: Religion, terror, and the future of reason” by Sam Harris

What can you learn from someone you disagree with the most? As it turns out, there’s not much to learn from the ever biased and hypocritical Sam Harris, a person whose whole book is about condemning religious violence but yet criticises Mahatma Gandhi’s pacifism as “highly immoral.” So much for challenging my default perceptions every once in a while.

I cannot treat this book with an open mind when the very first few paragraphs consist of ficticious over-dramatized story of a terror attack to make his points, then assume without a doubt that ALL 1.5 billion Muslims are supporting terrorist attacks, that ALL baptized Christians cannot respect the beliefs of others, and that moderation is a myth in any religion.

It is astonishing for me that for a self-proclaimed atheist he’s preaching a way of thinking that are strikingly similar with the argument of every religious extremists: that their way of thinking are the correct one, others are stupid or even dangerous, and therefore should be abolished. Religious scholars such as Karen Armstrong refer people like this as anti-theist, rather than atheist, an extremist in their own way.

Yes, there’s no denying that there are plenty of religious hardliners today, as covered in “The Wahhabi Code” by Terrence Ward or even “Buddhist Warfare” by Michael K. Jerryson, but if he actually reads all of the religious texts (rather than point out some of the bad verses without providing the context, and excluding the later verses that cancel off these bad verses), Harris would find several unifying messages across many different religion for the better of humankind, in which the Rig Veda commented as “Truth is one, the wise call it by different names.”

So the problem is not religion, remarked Karen Armstrong in her brilliant book on extremism “Fields of Blood”, but human struggle for power and money. It is not religion that is violent or peaceful, says another religious scholar Reza Aslan, but it is people that is violent and peaceful. And blaming religion as the cause (rather than the tools and justification) for violence is missing a huge point, akin to blaming atheism on all the desructions and genocides caused by atheists Stalin and Mao.

But it doesn’t stop Harris for presenting what he thinks as the biggest demon in this book: Islam. He dedicate the whole 44 pages of chapter 4 on “the problem with Islam” but yet fail to mention about the ACTUAL problem with Islam: the descendants of Ibn Saud and Muhammad Abdul Wahhab that captured the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in the 1920s, and forced their extreme version of the Hanbali interpretation into the world with their petro-dollars. The fact that the vast majority of terror attacks in the 21st century – from Al Qaeda to today’s ISIS – all have roots in Wahhabism is lost in this book. And instead he leave out Islam’s 1300+ years of progression (he might not even aware of the Golden Age of Islam), and thus gives the impression that Islam has always been a barbaric religion since birth. It is as if he’s portraying Christianity solely based on the conducts of the Crusades, but then fail to mention about the Crusaders.

Conversely, I can’t help comparing Harris with Alain de Botton, another atheist. Like Harris, de Botton believes that God does not exist and that religion is nothing but a human invention. But de Botton also believes that these human inventions are key to create order out of chaos in many parts of cultures and civilisations throughout history, provide good instructions for daily living, and that there are so many things that we can learn from religion and can implement in the secular world to make us a better human being.

Things such as meditation, where Sam Harris has the audacity to critise the Buddhist religion (Buddhists, he says, improperly treat Buddhism as a religion, which is “naive, petitionary, and superstitious” and that such beliefs impede the spread of Buddhist principles), but then created a meditation app with the purpose of cashing in on the teachings of the Buddha.

Indeed, apparently according to Harris the teachings we found in religion are not that bad, and in the book he actually mentions about the strong points of religion such as “strong communities, ethical behaviour, spiritual experiences”. But instead of being respectful, Harris insult them as obsolete and says “it require no faith in untestable propositions – Jesus was born of a virgin, the Koran is the word of God – for us to do this”, then proceeded to “steal” the religious teachings as if he figured them out himself from sheer logic.

Believe in the miracles, or don’t believe in the miracles. Follow the doctrines with no questions asked, or constantly seeking historical accuracy of the events. It doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an atheist or a pantheist. What matters, as de Botton remarks, is that we live life as a decent human being and treat others the way we want to be treated. As progressive Christian Matthew Disterano commented, kind atheists are closer to Jesus than mean Christians. And abolishing religion alltogether – as per Harris’ big takeaway – will take away THE solution to very old problems in humankind, one that is brilliantly analysed in “A World Without Islam” by Graham E. Fuller.

Alain is wise to be a kind atheist. Alain is respectful. Alain is not a hypocritical a-hole. If you’re an atheist, be more like Alain.