A Bad Week for Religion

CNN (Feb 17) published a story, “Religion’s Week from Hell”, about the spate of atrocities, more or less religiously motivated, that took place in the previous week:

“Across several continents, including North America, Europe, Asia and Africa, scores of religious believers suffered and died in brutal attacks over the past seven days. Christians, Muslims and Jews alike all fell prey to assaults.”

One of these stood out because there seemed to be an atheist at the bottom of it: three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, shot dead by Craig Stephens Hicks. He frightened a lot of his neighbors even before this attack, and it is not entirely clear just what his motives were. The recent killings of Jews, other Muslims, and Christians were all carried out by Muslims – some affiliated with Al Qaeda and others with ISIL. At what point will large numbers of people decide, like Hicks, to take revenge on Muslims for these repeated attacks from groups like ISIL? It is indeed something to worry about.

There are about 1.6  billion Muslims on the planet. Almost all are law – abiding, peaceful people. It is they, and not their violent would-be leaders of whatever stripe, who define their beliefs, read their holy books and literature, and follow more or less faithfully the advice and counsel of their spiritual leaders. But any group of people, particularly those motivated by ideology, could become aroused to action. This is the fearful result of provocations repeated too often.

ISIL claim to be the correct interpreters of Islam. According to an article by Graeme Wood in the March Atlantic, these people believe they have established a caliphate – a territorial state in the ancient Islamic tradition, obeying strictly the injunctions in the Koran as to treatment of enemies, apostates, and the like. In effect they are ultra-fundamentalists intent on imposing a rule of law established for Muslims over 1000 years ago. The prescriptions of this law are bloody minded in the extreme. Wood concludes in his article that the west has no choice but to confront this regime, but should not fulfill Koranic prophecy by sending in occidental forces on the ground. Many of the victims of these groups have been Muslims. Condemning Islam would only make it more difficult to suppress these extremist groups, and it would be unjust as well. Most Muslims are not deserving of that.


Permission to Operate

Just before we took off for France last June, we played host to an organization that was promoting solar power for private homes in our area. I have two friends who were members of the group.  One, a retired engineering professor, had long experience with solar power; the other, a biology professor, had already installed a system in his home and was an active member of this group. I had talked with both about it, because I had received an offer from a private company that would install a system but retain ownership of the equipment, selling me power at a fixed rate likely below what the power company would offer. What about this? I asked my engineer. His answer – they are making more money out of this than you. He went over the economics with me, and I became convinced that it made sense to actually buy a system. So, at the suggestion of my biologist, on that June day my wife and I posed on the back lawn for a story for the local paper, which would promote the cause of solar power in our community.

Our vacation lasted three weeks, and so we did not actually get the ball rolling with the contractors until July. Over the course of the next several months, the project proceeded at a glacial pace, it seemed to me. There were weeks when I would hear of no progress; occasionally somebody would show up for a crucial piece of design work, and then nothing would happen. In November, finally, a crew came to install a new net meter that could handle a new parallel source of power to the house. A week or two later some people came to install posts in the ground to hold the ground unit. It was not until early January that the crew arrived to lay the cables, install the 16 ground panels and 5 roof panels. Even then it was not ready to go. We had to wait for the power company to send an inspector and then issue the Permission to Operate. That just arrived a couple of days ago, and today we finally turned on the system. We were in the middle of about 60 households who had signed up for the contract that had been negotiated by the group.

Harry Cleaning Snow of the Solar Panels

Problem: the panels were covered in snow. Fortunately, my contractor informed me, I could buy a snow-raker from an auto parts store or car dealer and without damaging the ground panels scrape the snow off. This entailed a fair amount of work, because I had to dig a path through deep snow to even get to the unit. I also had to buy a long extender from the paint department at Home Depot so that the scraper could reach the top panels. After a fair amount of effort I had removed the snow by midafternoon. By the end of the day the system had collected 3 KWH of solar electricity. I feel as I did when I got paid my first dollar.

The Symmetry of Slaughter

President Obama is catching flak from Republicans for remarks he made about the murderous acts committed in the name of Christ during the crusades and later in Jim-Crow country, rightly comparing those to the barbarisms of ISIS. An article in the New York Times, February 6 2014 reported for example : “‘The president’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime,” said Jim Gilmore, the former Republican governor of Virginia. “He has offended every believing Christian in the United States.”’ In my opinion, however, Obama was right. Everyone was horrified, for example, by the burning to death of a Jordanian prisoner by ISIS a few days ago. But how is that different, really, from the stake burnings at the hands of the Inquisition, a Catholic institution that continued doing this until the early 1830s? It is not just Islam and Christianity that carry this burden of history, as witness the terrible religious violence that has occurred regularly in India. Religious wars are comparable in moral terms if not in sheer scale to the violence of Nazis who killed millions of Jews, handicapped, or Gypsies during World War II, based on a long festering prejudice pumped up to a racist ideology. People are capable of mortal violence when they believe on religious or ideological grounds the evil character of some other group. Gilmore’s criticism, apart from its obvious pandering, shows simultaneous ignorance of history and human nature. Add to this the frequent ignorance and denial of science among Republicans, one is struck that the Republican Party remains vulnerable to the criticism, in the words of one of its own, Bobby Jindal, as “the stupid party.”

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