The Plight of Pluto

     Nothing is safe these days. As if we haven't had 
enough unsettling news lately, THE NEW YORK TIMES reports 
on its front page: "Pluto dodged a bullet today."

     The scientific community has been debating whether 
to count Pluto as a planet. In fact, the very definition 
of a planet is in dispute. Depending on how you define 
the term, the solar system may consist of anywhere from 
8 to 53 (or more) planets. So far, Pluto has retained its 
planetary status; the Planet Definition Committee has 
just voted to recognize not only Pluto, but Ceres and the 
recently discovered Xena (a.k.a 2003 UB313).

     Standard criteria include size, shape, shape of 
orbit, and composition (is the object rock or ice or 
what?). Pluto is only one-fiftieth of the Earth's size 
and its orbit is described as "unusually elliptical." 
Whether it is ice or mineral is uncertain.

     The issue is stirring surprising passion. 
"Plutophiles," as they are called, ardently insist that 
Pluto should remain a member in good standing of the 
so-called solar system. I suppose their opponents must be 
called "Plutophobes." Personally, I have no dog in this 

     Speaking of dogs, thousands of schoolchildren have 
written letters on behalf of the beleaguered little 
planet, perhaps influenced, I can't help thinking, by 
affection for the Disney canine.

     What does it all mean? Well, it appears that 
astronomy is far from being the settled science we have 
supposed it to be -- to say nothing of the implications 
for astrology. How can we place any faith in our 
horoscopes as long as so many basic questions about 
celestial bodies remain unresolved? Astrology has never 
quite recovered from the Copernican theory, and Pluto 
wasn't discovered until 1930. The head spins.

     With its usual liberal bias, the TIMES refers to 
"the solar system," a term that of course presupposes the 
Copernican theory.

The Mystery of Islam

     Why is Islam so baffling to the West? I think the 
reason is both simple and elusive. Someone has defined 
religion as what a man does with his solitude. But this 
epigram describes the Muslim very poorly.

     Hilaire Belloc, who (in his book THE GREAT HERESIES) 
long ago predicted today's Islamic revival, also observed 
(in SURVIVALS AND NEW ARRIVALS) that Protestantism had 
turned religion into a matter of mere opinion, a private 
option of the individual. Those who see religion this way 
are bound to find Islam hard to comprehend.

     When an ancient Roman asked if you were a Christian, 
Belloc went on, he wasn't asking your opinion about 
Jesus; he was asking whether you belonged to a certain 
quite visible society and practiced its rites.

     That is what religion meant in those days; a 
religion could hardly exist in solitude. The Romans 
didn't care much about your opinions, as long as you paid 
ritual tribute to their gods, including divinized 

     We have to think of Islam as the exact opposite of 
mere private opinion. It claims to be a public and 
universal truth, demanding everyone's submission and 
denying any rights to unbelievers, except provisionally 
and on strict conditions. It isn't a mere department of 
life, as religion is for most modern Westerners; it has 
little or no interest in "dialogue" with other faiths. 
Its rites and worship bear little resemblance to the 
Christian sacraments.

     To a Christian, Islam seems opaque for several 
reasons. Its claim to have superseded Christianity seems 
worse than absurd; the Prophet seems to have been a cruel 
and vindictive fanatic who has impressed his own 
personality on his creed; according to Srdja Trifkovic, 
the Jews he tried to convert regarded him as "a poorly 
educated Arab refugee," with only a "superficial, 
secondhand knowledge of [their] tradition," and rebuffed 
him, whereupon, in rage, he arbitrarily altered his 
teaching to condemn them and to justify persecution of 

     In one episode, Trifkovic notes, his followers 
beheaded 900 Jewish men who refused conversion in front 
of their wives and children, then raped the widows, one 
of whom the Prophet took as his own concubine; "such 
treatment had already been sanctioned by prophetic 
revelation." (His "revelations" were remarkably 
convenient for his purposes.)

     If all this is so, it's no wonder that the Koran 
teaches that "Verily, Allah teaches us, and we believe 
it, that for a Muslim to kill a Jew, or for him to be 
killed by a Jew, ensures him an immediate entry into 
paradise and into the august presence of Allah." No 
wonder it also teaches that anyone who denies any of its 
verses may be beheaded, and that believers in the Trinity 
are damned forever.

     Furthermore, the Koran contradicts the Hebrew and 
Christian Scriptures in what seem purely fanciful ways: 
Ishmael, son of Abraham, was the father of the Arab race, 
for instance, and Jesus neither died on the cross nor was 
resurrected. At times the Koran even contradicts itself.

     Islam still bears the whims of its founder. Even 
today, startlingly crude and violent slanders of Jews 
remain current in the Arab press and respectable among 
even educated Muslims. Trifkovic speaks of a "darkly 
psychotic hatred" that is rarely reciprocated by Israeli 
Jews. This aspect of Islam is almost incredible; until 
recently, I myself could hardly believe it. But it can 
hardly be overstated, and the Jewish presence in a Jewish 
state has only inflamed it further.

     While limiting ordinary believers to four wives, the 
Prophet exempted himself and took nine (some for social 
and political alliances), plus concubines. The confusion 
he left in his wake resulted in the endlessly bitter 
Sunni-Shi'ite schism, which continues today. Whatever his 
faults, he must have had singular charm and magnetism as 
well as military prowess.

     The continuity of Islam with Judaism and 
Christianity has been grossly exaggerated. In fact, there 
is little. The Jewish prophets and Jesus are hardly more 
than names in Islam, which adopts few of their teachings 
and rejects or neglects most of them.

     Loving one's enemies and praying for one's 
persecutors are alien to the spirit of Islam. So, it 
seems, is the simple critical reason the secularized West 
takes for granted.

Today's Headlines

     I hate to sound so negative, because in my 
experience most Muslims are quite decent people. But this 
seems to be more in spite of their religion than because 
of it. Maybe I'm missing something, but some of the most 
alarming facts I've read about Islam and the Muslim world 
seem to be undisputed.

     It would be one thing if we found them only in 
recent anti-Muslim propaganda; but when we find them in 
dispassionate, scholarly books written long before 
today's wars, they are pretty hard to doubt.

     The horrors of today's headlines seem prefigured in 
the Koran.

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