Two years of adventure travel gives rise to a book about enlightenment and humanism
By Peter Baker
When leaving on my round-the-world adventure, I’d decided that the marriage of email with global travel held untapped potential. So I recorded my experiences via a series of communiqués. That string of correspondence later became a travelogue – one born not via the normal recipe (plan trip, take notes, write book), but which was spontaneous, raw and recorded in real time.
The adventure included cycling across Europe, swimming the Bosporus, working as a barman in a Sydney drag club, hitchhiking through Australia, dancing salsa in Quito’s women’s prison (with a young Columbian cocaine smuggler) and twice being hospitalised by bees.
In addition to such only-live-once antics, I used the adventure to carry out certain tasks which a working life doesn’t easily allow. One of those tasks was to read the Bible and the Qur’an.
My own background is non-religious. My rationale was education. Whichever way you spin it, the Bible and Qur’an are two of the most history-shaping texts the world has seen. One is always being told what they say. I thought it would be worth finding out what they actually say.
The experience provided many insights into Judaeo-Christian-Islamic mythology. For example, I was under the impression King Solomon was a paragon of wisdom. The only story I knew was the one where two women claim a child, Solomon threatens to cut it in half, then awards the baby to the woman who objects. What I didn’t understand is that that’s the only wise thing Solomon does. Apart from that it just goes on (for pages and pages) about how wise he is, while gushing about his 700 wives, his 300 concubines and the slave labour he uses to construct prestige buildings.
Anyone considering a similar undertaking should be warned: the core canon of Abrahamic scripture is not for the fainthearted. The Old Testament can be particularly gruelling. In my case, reading every last sentence required the unexpected intervention of a 12-day stay in a Croatian infection hospital, and was accomplished while attached to an intravenous drip.
In the end, two years of such mind-expanding reading material, along with the discipline of writing 500 words a week, the incessant note-taking which that necessitated, and the kaleidoscope of cultures experienced (I passed through 28 countries and five continents, and lived in four different cities) demanded something more than a travelogue. So I used the book to set out a world view.
That world view is profoundly optimistic regarding the long-term future of the human project. Taken from first principles, humanity is an evolved species of ape. There is no reason to suppose we should be able to run a civilisation on a planet. Given that, the fact we’re becoming rather good at it is deeply encouraging. Much of the pessimism about our species comes from comparing the real world to an imaginary world, which only exists in our heads.
So what of religion? Regarding that phenomenon, I’m firmly in the Samuel Taylor Coleridge school of analysis: instead of asking ‘is it true’, the more important question is ‘what is religion’?
My conclusion is that the most complete way of understanding religion is as the conceptual architecture which has grown up in human societies in order to provide a framework for thinking about their place within, and relationship to, the universe.
‘God’ is not a defined term in Abrahamic scripture. Having asked hundreds of people what they mean by it (and I’ve asked more atheists what they don’t believe in, than theists what they do), to my mind there’s only one intellectually coherent definition: ‘God’ is a synonym for the universe. Apparently that makes me an ‘Einsteinian pantheist’.
All religious systems undergo constant evolution (whether or not the adherents admit as such). If the Abrahamic religious forms wish to have relevance in the long term, they’re going to have to evolve into something which embraces our unfolding understanding of the truth (rather than being at odds with it). That will involve divesting much of their pre-scientific cosmological baggage (much of which was written down, then unhelpfully declared immutable, some time ago). It will take generations of greater minds than mine to envisage what that process of religious evolution will look like, and see it through.
Meanwhile, I undertook my own act of devotion, adulation and thanksgiving. I immersed myself in my home world as fully as I was able, in order to rejoice in its splendour and diversity, and to give expression to the deep and overwhelming sense of wonder I feel at being alive.
Peter Baker’s book, The Jolly Pilgrim, was published by the HotHive and is available from Amazon.
An excerpt from the book can be found here.