Monthly Archives: June 2016

What I learnt from reading the Book of Genesis

I bought a Bible and decided to read as much of it as I can. I’m not a theologian, but my idea is to read it with an open mind, although I have already been warned that ”the lightning that is about to strike you is doing press ups’, but that’s really neither here nor there.

I’m genuinely curious about what it contains, because I suspect that there is a big gap between the actual contents and  what I think is in the Bible.

I started from the beginning, that is, the book of Genesis. This is what I learnt.

  1. The creation story has caused a tonne of controversy: I don’t know what most Christians think of the origin story in the bible, or how they reconcile it with evolution. I would like to think that, for most people, it doesn’t matter. However Christians are obliged to believe that since the Bible is the word of God, then it is infallible, completely accurate and the ultimate word of God. Various churches interpret this differently, ranging from ultra Conservative Christians that insist  that ‘creationism’ should be taught as mainstream science, to more liberal Churches that  view the Bible as a human witness to the glory of God, the work of fallible humans who wrote from a limited experience, unusual only for the insight they have gained through their inspired struggle to know God in the midst of a troubled world. Unfortunately for the hardliners, science continues to poke some very big holes into what they believe in, and that is causing a lot of anxiety and very weird counterarguments that go to great lengths to prove that the garden of Eden actually existed.
  2. There seems to be two separate creation stories: How God created the earth is explained in Chapter 1 and then again in Chapter 2. In chapter 2, God is a lot more physical, he walks around explains his actions and thoughts. In Chapter 1 he is a lot more powerful and a lot more high level. He issues commands with his voice and they happen. The explanation for this by theologians fall in two camps: the stories are in fact one with no contradiction, or that they are allegorical and should not be taken as fact.
  3. Eve was tempted by a talking snake: We were taught in Sunday school that Eve was approached by Satan disguised as a snake but a very basic reading of the text tells us otherwise. She was, in fact, approached by a talking snake that the text expounds by saying: ‘Now the serpent was more subtle than any other wild creature that the Lord God has made.’ Later the snake is banished to eat dust and crawl on its belly. I was honestly surprised by that.
  4. Punishment seems to be based on whether or not you are the chosen one: Cain and Abel are the first. They sacrifice their harvests to God, he rejects Cain’s, which makes him jealous, which leads him to kill Abel and then he is cursed. We aren’t told why God rejects Cain’s sacrifice. (Later on we find out that God really likes the smell of burnt offering, which never ever include a side of veggies.) Then Jacob and Esau. Jacob tricks his brother into selling his inheritance and then tricks his father into blessing him but that’s all okay. Much later on, Esau meets up with his brother Jacob and he is surprisingly magnanimous despite the fact that Jacob took what was rightfully his. (This surprised me because I always thought that Esau was the evil one, plus no-one names their kids after him).  It happens too with Jacob’s sons; Reuben is denied his birthright because he slept with his father’s concubine, but Judah gets the okay even though he mistook his daughter in law for a prostitute and got her pregnant. Some men, like the unfortunate Esau, are cursed for marrying foreign women, while others, like Joseph, get a pass. So far, morality is subject to whether or not one is considered chosen to build the great nation of Israel.
  5. God seems to be evolving: During the early chapters, God appears physically and has conversations with people, including the time he was walking around in the garden of Eden looking for Adam and Eve after they ate the fruit. He carries out negotiations with Abraham on whether or not to flatten Sodom and Gomorrah. Later on, he starts appearing in visions; and graduates to using ‘men’ and angels as his representatives during critical moments. As the population grows larger and more preoccupied, he disappears for long periods of time, but always comes back to reassure the current patriarch that they are chosen and that they are special and that all of Canaan will belong to them. Sometimes, God has to physically go down and verify what people are actually doing, like with Sodom and Gomorrah. For most of Genesis, people don’t actually pray. They offer up animal sacrifices because the smell pleases God, and they receive direct instructions from him or an emissary.
  6. God doesn’t seem to be alone: After Eve and Adam get expelled from the garden, he says that man has ‘become like one of us’ and protects the garden by placing a cherubim on its eastern side. In Chapter 6, we find out that the sons of God went down to have children with the daughters of men. In chapter 11 (the Tower of Babel) he feels threatened by the unity and ambition of his people, and so says ‘come, let us go down and there confuse their language so that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ Later on, we are introduced to angels who go down send his messages, like in Chapter 19 (Sodom and Gomorah) where he sends down two angels to go warn Lot of the impending doom; the time an angel intervenes between Hagar and Sarai’s domestic issues, persuading her to go back to her mistress instead of risking it in the wild and of course when Jacob fights an angel all night without seeming too surprised.
  7. Abraham pulled a low key con using his wife: Twice, Abraham passes off his wife as his sister, and then the king likes her, then God tells the king not to touch Abraham’s wife, and then she is returned to Abraham and then they get land, cattle or both, plus a free pass to live in the new country. For some reason though, Abraham confesses to one King (Abimelech) that Sarah is indeed his sister, because she is the daughter of his father but not the daughter of his mother. This is the last time they did this, at which point Sarah was already past child bearing age and in her own words, very old. (Her husband was already well over 99 years old.) Isaac pulls the same stunt with his wife later on.
  8. The story of Joseph is really nice: Joseph and his brothers take up several chapters. Unlike most of Genesis where things seem to happen for no reason, Joseph’s story has clear direction, good guys and bad guys and ultimate triumph. He is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers (although he didn’t help the situation by snitching on them and then insinuating that he is better than them), but by his own virtue and a bit of help from God, he becomes Pharaoh’s trusted aide and saves the whole country from famine. He also gets reunited with his family and all is forgiven. The only weird thing is that, at some point the famine gets so bad, that most of the Egyptians sell off everything to buy food. So Joseph tells them to sell their land and themselves into slavery so as to get more food. And that is how from then on, farmers must give a fifth of their harvest to Pharaoh. Seems like a pretty raw deal.
  9. Judah and his really messed up family: Right in the middle of Joseph’s story, (chapter 38) we get introduced to Judah’s family drama. Judah starts hanging out with some Adullahmite character, with undertones that he is a bad influence. So he marries a Caananite woman and has three sons with her. Judah’s first born was wicked in the sight of the Lord, so he died. Since he was married, Judah directed his second son, the famous Onan, to go continue his brother’s legacy and have a child with Tamara, said widow. Onan wasn’t having any of it, so he used the withdrawal method. This was not cool, so God killed him. Unfortunately, Judah’s youngest (and final) son was too young to get married, so he sent Tamara back to her in-laws, promising to give her his remaining son as her a third husband once the boy was old enough. However, Judah seemed to forget his promise, and this did not sit well with Tamara. So a few years later, when Judah was in her hometown with his dodgy buddy, she covered her face and waited for him the gate of the city, where he unwittingly proceeded to hire her services as a prostitute with the promise of a goat. Since he didn’t have it with him, he gave her his staff and his signet and cord  as an IOU. (when he sent his buddy to pay her, she was nowhere to be found). Later his in-laws came to report that his daughter in-law was pregnant as a result of her whoring ways. So they dragged her out and were ready to burn her, but then she produced Judah’s staff and signet, proving that he was the father. So he pardoned her and she gave birth to twins, which we later on find out form part of the lineage of Jesus Christ. There are plenty of explanations as to why this story is in the Bible, mostly that God doesn’t appreciate people who break promises, or those who neglect their family obligations and also that he can work through unrighteous men to do good deeds. None of this stops Jacob from lavishing blessings on his son.
  10. The story of Onan could have been taken out of context: Onanism apparently means interrupted procreation, and has been used to claim that contraception is wrong in the eyes of God. However, reading the passage, it seems like God was angry at Onan for disobeying his father by refusing to get his sister in law pregnant, and not because he took offence at semen on the ground.
  11. There is a big focus on resources: Right from the creation story, where cattle are mentioned at least twice, to long passages describing how Abraham solves disputes with foreign kings over ownership of wells, to decisions made to part because the land cannot support the wealth of two men, to Jacob’s shenanigans to outsmart his father in law’s attempts to trick him out of his livestock, you can see  why the promise of the land of Canaan to the  people of Genesis makes sense. Life was tough.

The Book of Genesis reads like an epic tale of struggle and conquest. Its characters face monumental struggles, brother turns against brother, alliances shift, and only the most cunning survive. Knowing what I know about the rest of the Bible, and the New Testament, it feels like some of the passages were inserted to justify what happens in the future. (A good example is Lot and his daughters, because we know the Moabites and Ammonites later become the enemies of Israel).

Nonetheless, I look forward to seeing how the rest of the story progresses.

The Anatomy of a Conspiracy Theory

Conspiracy theories. The real alternative truth. What the media doesn’t want you to know  about what actually happened on 9/11, how the Illuminati control the world, how the West uses political/ gay rights/ human rights activist/ International Criminal Court infiltrate and destroy perfect and morally upright African societies. Look beyond the headlines and see the shadowy forces that really control the world behind closed doors and drawn curtains.

It’s cloak and dagger stuff that can draw out a surprising amount of outrage, anger, and very personal insults during circular arguments that lead nowhere.

Do they hold any merit or  are they simply grown up fairy tales that we tell ourselves to explain away the unbearable anxiety that comes with living in a world with so much injustice, uncertainty, chaos and disaster?

I don’t know. But what I do know is that they offer a fascinating glimpse into the irrational part of our brains, and that none of us are truly immune from them, or other bias.

My thoughts on conspiracy theories:

A good conspiracy theory cannot be disproved: You know why? The person dismissing the link between vaccines and autism as nonsense  is either so deeply brainwashed that they cannot see the ‘truth’ in-front of them,  or they are part of the conspiracy. These people are usually called ‘sheeple’ and need to ‘wake up’ by reading Natural (and how cancer can be cured with peaches) and other dubious websites that come off as ‘scientific’ but in actual fact are elaborate fronts to sell dubious supplements and ‘cures’.

Consider the Catholic Church Tetanus vaccine campaign against the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the nebulous ‘West’. According to the Catholic church, these vaccines are a secret sterilizing campaign to control the population of Africa. Well and good, except that the WHO denies this, and has plenty of science to back this up. However, the church trumps this over and over again by calling on independent labs to carry out tests that are never conclusive enough to settle the matter once and for all, but just convincing enough to keep casting doubt.

The question remains, however, why WHO would want to sterilize people in secret, and yet at the same time provide crucial life saving drugs worldwide in places where the government couldn’t be bothered to. Why save lives and then engage in a convoluted plot to prevent conception?  And although these sterilization scares have been popping up since the 70s,  birth rates in developing countries are still double digit.

Because their goal all along, aside from eradicating preventable diseases and supporting fragile health care systems, is also to sterilize poor people in the most tedious, round about and inefficient way possible.

I would say WHO’s plan sounds a lot like something made up by a cartoon villain,which means it is pretty lousy and ineffective.

A good conspiracy is based on a grain of truth: Back to the WHO / Catholic church saga. This is not the first time these accusations have sprung up, and it will not be the last time. First off, WHO has very well documented experiments on said contraceptive vaccine, except that it failed and is yet to yield any viable result. But the facts are there, regardless, that they did attempt to make such a vaccine.

Another more unpleasant example is the fact that, throughout history, medical experiments have been carried out on populations perceived to be inferior. American doctors withheld treatment for  black people with syphilis without their knowledge to study the effects of the disease. Nazis performed gruesome experiments on Jewish captives in camps. Pharmaceutical companies have been known to dump sub-standard drugs into poorly regulated (read, third world) markets.

This is one reason  why conspiracy theories, no matter how crazy, are so convincing. Because they really could happen. Because there are people out there without scruples and with agendas that could be harmful and the power to execute them. It’s just that their agendas are rarely as sweeping as we would like to believe,  and more often than not, if there are enough people involved in the scheme, someone somewhere with their own motives will blow the whole thing out of the water. (Which is how most nefarious plots have been uncovered.)

A good conspiracy resolves the deep anxiety we have about the world: All conspiracy theories seek to explain seemingly random but unfortunate situations/ events that do not have a clear cut cause. That do not have clearly demarcated good and bad sides.

A very scary example is the current outbreak of the Zika virus in Brazil that coincides with a spike in the number of children born with microcephaly. The much vilified WHO, in typical scientist speak, says that there is a strong connection between the two, but stops short of confirming a definite link.

Meanwhile, Monsanto, the evil food corporation that will kill us all with their GMO monstrosities has been blamed for introducing GM modified mosquitoes, and introducing a pesticide to kill mosquito larvae, that could also be blamed for the birth defects. For a while there, there wasn’t much information, and that was enough time for people to conclude that the Zika virus is part of Monsanto’s evil plan for world domination.

Unfortunately, we know very little about how our world works. Well meaning interventions often have unintended consequences.  And especially now, when, more than ever, humanity is interfering with our environment so much that, not only is climate change a given, but also that some scientists argue that we should name this age the ‘Anthropocene’, or the age of the humans. (Who drowned the oceans in plastic, killed off most other animals and suffocated themselves with carbon dioxide.)

This will probably get worse in the coming years, so we can certainly expect more theories about how the Americans introduced Ebola to West Africa (then inexplicably offered help to curb it and played a part in ending the epidemic) and have now moved on to phase 2 of their sinister experiment in Latin America.

A good conspiracy is a quasi- religious endeavor: Defending a conspiracy theory is very similar to defending your religion to a non-believer, and vice versa. It is something that becomes part of your identity, something that you choose to believe in. Once that happens, we move from objectivity to ‘beliefs’.

There is nothing wrong with beliefs, except that you cannot argue with someone about their beliefs productively or successfully. As humans, we are so invested in defending our beliefs that our minds play a trick on us –  we seek only evidence that reaffirms our beliefs and dismiss anything that doesn’t. (The next time you are arguing with someone, track how much you time you spend actually listening and trying to understand what they are saying as opposed to waiting for a space to repeat your counter argument in a louder voice.) It’s okay, we all do it.

So once we move from facts to beliefs, it’s game over. It simply cannot happen because in doing so, you challenge a person’s very essence, leaving the other person with no choice but to double down and scream louder about the lizard people.

A conspiracy theory is like a virus: Good conspiracy theories have so much staying power that they never entirely go away. No amount of scientific evidence, rational discourse or facts can challenge the theory. Why? Because they are not falsifiable. This means that any counter-evidence can be dismissed as ‘you are part of the conspiracy’ or worse still ‘you are a ‘Sheeple’ that blindly follows the West.

Once you are infected with a virus, it cannot be cured. So the answer is to prevent infection. Yet conspiracy theories spread because, unlike boring, hesitant scientists with their ‘it is highly probable’, ‘there is great consensus’, blah blah blah…the theory smacks you in the face ‘WHAT THEY DON’T WANT YOU TO KNOW ABOUT VACCINES AND AUTISM’ or, ‘PEACHES AND CANNABIS OIL CAN CURE CANCER, BUT  BIG PHARMA WONT HAVE ANY OF IT’

Sometimes the most ignorant speak in the most confident tones. How do you prevent infection? Take some time out to do some research. Find out both sides of the argument and you will soon notice a pattern. Avoid websites that use CAPS LOCK to highlight their most important point. If you spot the word sheeple, run away.

A good conspiracy must absolve individuals from responsibility: When you are up against the Lizard people, when all the money and fame in the world is controlled by the Illuminati, when the political and economical situation at home is secretly being controlled by sinister Western forces with even more sinister agendas, what can the mere individual do?

For example, every so often (especially during times of economic hardship) great African leaders (and all dictators in all of history) decry Western (or other) meddling and interference with the goal of imposing western/ foreign values onto our virginal societies, corrupting our morals and turn us into stooges. (Bonus points, they want us all to start practicing homosexuality.) Think Boniface Mwangi, who is clearly being paid by the West to destroy Kenya. Or the ICC, which has long been UNFAIRLY targeting African leaders, including our very own Ruto and Kenyatta. Conveniently forgetting the fact that we dragged the ICC into our own mess in the aftermath of the 2007 post-election violence.

No matter, because these are shadowy Western forces .

This narrative is seductive because, if everything is a conspiracy, if the individual has no agency, then all one’s personal failures can be excused.

So you see, the REAL reason we are poor, or unsuccessful is because THEY won’t let us. Those Lizard People. Or the West. Oh and if you try to fight them, THEY will take you down, because they can’t be having any of that.

Conspiracy theories distract us from very real and very serious problems: Conspiracies are much more exciting than admitting that the vast majority of problems that we have in the world are exceedingly complex, involve an unbelievable number of causes and are very difficult to solve. Questions like why so many parts of the world are so poor. Questions like why some countries are more equal than others. Questions like how much of local policy is controlled by special interest groups (republicans funding abstinence only programmes in Africa to prevent HIV; the role of evangelical churches in the rise of violent homophobia for example.) Questions like why corruption is so rampant and why companies are allowed to siphon resources from developing countries while paying ridiculous baby taxes in said countries. Questions like why the IMF has been offering terrible advice since forever and why no-one has taken them to court yet. Questions like whether our current economic model can reasonably allow all countries in the world to enjoy living standards that the global North currently does. And wondering if there is anything we can really do about it.

It’s much easier and neater to lay the blame at the feet of the Illuminati.

Conspiracy theories can be dangerous: Despite our reliance on science and modern medicine every day, we still insist that our beliefs trump expert research and opinion. People have died as they tried to prove that they can cure cancer with homeopathy, that they can prevent autism by not vaccinating their children and of course by trying to pray away all manner of treatable but dangerous illnesses. It hasn’t worked so far, but beliefs trump evidence and reason far too often.

In a way, this kind of thinking demonstrates just how far the world has come in terms of technology and knowledge.  We have become so far removed from devastating epidemics that we can’t understand why  these mysterious injections are still necessary. We can go to the dentist and so will not die from an infected molar. We don’t consider childbirth as a life threatening event. Surviving childhood illnesses is considered normal.  We are educated enough to ask questions and challenge the book learnin’ people but not invested enough to read past catchy headlines.

Conspiracy theories exist because they fulfill a need to explain disturbing events such as disease outbreaks, disruptive technology and major scandals. They fill in the blanks of our limited knowledge and reaffirm the belief that there is order in the world, and that there is good and bad and that the two are distinctly separate. They reduce the complexity of events that we can scarcely explain, and in so doing, translate our unspecified anxieties into focused fear and anger at specific (although largely non-existent) groups. They help us form a narrative that explains the world we live in, that analyses the random events that happen into neat categories with clearly marked heros and villians.

They give us a sense that we are privy to secret knowledge in a world we find ourselves ill equipped to deal with.

But they also tell us that the world is a messed up place that is brutal and unfair. They tell us that none of us really know what exactly is going on, and that is very scary.

Nothing is ever as simple as it seems.