Gemmell: The Book of Rapture

Book of Rapture coverNikki Gemmell tackles big themes in her new novel – science, religion and the evils of tyranny, no less. She universalises her subject by disguising ethnic groups, religions, cities and languages and the supposed origin of her text, while simultaneously individualising it by focusing on a mother’s love for her children.

The political situation is all too familiar to us, an authoritarian regime attempting genocide against a minority within its own population. (No, I won’t call it ‘ethnic cleansing’, because that disgustingly cynical phrase attempts to give state-sanctioned racism, persecution, brutality and murder a semblance of virtue, and using the term legitimises it.) The minority is defined by both ethnic and religious affiliation — again, an all-too-familiar scenario.

One minority family is caught in the middle. Continue reading “Gemmell: The Book of Rapture”

An introduction to the main schools of Buddhism

This page presents a short introduction to the history of the various Buddhist traditions, which I researched to help me make sense of the mass of written material available online and in print. Having gone to the trouble, I thought I might save others some of the effort by making my work available here.

It has a companion page outlining the core beliefs common to all schools. The two may be read in either order.

Continue reading “An introduction to the main schools of Buddhism”

Core Buddhist Beliefs

This page is a companion to Buddhist Schools, which presents an overview of the transmission of the Buddhist teachings. Here we present an even briefer overview of the teachings themselves. The two may be read in either order.

The main branches of Buddhism, the Southern or Theravada and Northern or Mahayana schools, have gradually drifted apart in the 2400 years since Buddha taught his followers in Northern India. A World Buddhist Congress in 1966 brought together representatives of all traditions and agreed on a ‘common basis’ which all accepted. Continue reading “Core Buddhist Beliefs”

Big Questions reading list

This short list recommends a few books that may be of value to those interested in religion (particularly Buddhism) and philosophy. It’s just a personal list, not a systematic set of references, so use it for what it’s worth.

1. Nonfiction

Books which are primarily about people and society but throw light on Buddhism as practised in Tibet and China.

Bones of the Master by George Crane (1996)
George Crane, American poet, meets Tsung Tsai, a Chinese Ch’an (Zen) monk who escaped from the disastrous Great Leap Forward in 1959-60. The two of them travel to Inner Mongolia to re-establish the monastery.

Namma by Kate Karko (2001)
An English girl marries a Tibetan and goes to Tibet to live with his still-nomadic family for a year.

2. Fiction

…with a religious and/or environmentalist slant and a sense of humour. A fun way of exploring serious ideas.

Forty Signs of Rain by Kim Stanley Robinson
The President of the USA doesn’t want to know about global warming but an odd coalition of American scientists and Tibetan diplomats is about to do something about that. It is the first book of a trilogy but can stand alone.
The other two books are very good as well but don’t really make sense without their partners. In Fifty Degrees Below and Sixty Days and Counting we get disastrous climate changes, a presidential election which puts an activist in the White House, and the beginnings of wholesale changes to the way the USA operates; also a bunch of sub-plots which any other author would spin off into a whole new book. More:

The Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson (2007)
Science fiction about ecological collapse and much more. My review is here.

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett
Gods really do exist on Discworld, but only so long as people believe in them. Their power is proportional to the number of worshippers they have, which makes for some fairly desperate deific competition.

Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett
Golems are made to serve. Does that mean they should have no rights?

If you’re hooked on Discworld after these two, read Thief of Time or Reaper Man next. If you’re not, you probably never will be.

My introduction to Discworld is here. For a tiny sample of Pratchett’s work, visit

American Gods by Neil Gaiman is ‘serious’ (and very, very good) fantasy which brings immigrant Americans’ gods to modern USA. The book (2001) is now quite old; the TV series (2017 onwards) has been updated and adapted by the author and it is also very good but it is rather different.

3. The serious stuff – books about religion

The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh
A short, very clear, no-nonsense introduction to mindfulness meditation, which is all about giving full, calm attention to the present moment. It is very practical – lots of exercises and very little religious theory although it’s very firmly grounded in Vietnamese Buddhism. As such, it’s a great introduction to something that more and more of us need in these stressful times.

Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana
Buddhist meditation explained from a Theravada perspective. Very readable at any stage of the path but profound enough to reward re-reading when one has practised for a while longer.

Tao Te Ching
The classic of Taoism. The thoughtful, poetic and beautifully-presented edition from Element translated by Man-Ho Kwok, Martin Palmer and Jay Ramsay is my favourite, but there are many others.

God – the Interview by Terry Lane
Against Religion by Tamas Pataki
Two attacks on Christianity with occasional swipes at Judaism and Islam. Both make some very good points, though neither plays quite fair. Links take you to my reviews of them.

Created April 2008,
updated and published here February 2021

Continue reading “Big Questions reading list”

Pataki vs Religion

Against Religion

Tamas Pataki

Scribe (2007)

Tamas Pataki could be accused of misleading advertising. His title should have been Against Christianity or Against Monotheism. And his cover image, with its implicit hard-science associations, is misleading too, because he argues against religion primarily on the basis of Freudian theory.

To be fair, Pataki does warn the reader in his introduction that he is going to focus on the monotheistic religions. Christianity (the religion of about 33% of the world’s population) is his main target, while Islam (20%) and Judaism (a mere 0.2%) are often caught in his field of fire but less often singled out. He barely mentions Hinduism (13%) or Buddhism (6%), and in fact his prime argument applies to them poorly or not at all. Continue reading “Pataki vs Religion”