The Plight of Pluto(Reprinted from the issue of August 24, 2006)
Nothing is safe these days. As if we havent 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 Earths 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 fight.
Speaking of dogs, thousands of schoolchildren have written letters on behalf of the beleaguered little planet, perhaps influenced, I cant 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 wasnt 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 todays 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 wasnt 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 didnt care much about your opinions, as long as you paid ritual tribute to their gods, including divinized emperors.
We have to think of Islam as the exact opposite of mere private opinion. It claims to be a public and universal truth, demanding everyones submission and denying any rights to unbelievers, except provisionally and on strict conditions. It isnt 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 them.
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, its 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-Shiite 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 ones enemies and praying for ones persecutors are alien to the spirit of Islam. So, it seems, is the simple critical reason the secularized West takes for granted.
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 Im missing something, but some of the most alarming facts Ive 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 todays wars, they are pretty hard to doubt.
The horrors of todays headlines seem prefigured in the Koran.
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|Copyright © 2006 by The Wanderer,
the National Catholic Weekly founded in 1867
Reprinted with permission
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