The Facebook atheist

ImageI recently started a group called Atheists Assisi on Facebook, that notorious maker and breaker of contemporary friendships. The group — the first and only one to my knowledge — is devoted to forging a community of atheists in the Assisi area. As one member jokingly put it, “In the land of St. Francis are you sure they won’t burn us as heretics?”

Believe it or not, the first problems I encountered weren’t from vigilante Franciscan monks but from well-meaning expats like myself. When I posted a link to my page on a popular expat group on Facebook, I was considerate enough to tag it “for anyone who might be interested.”

Of course that didn’t stop a minor deluge of comments along the lines of, “Please refrain from preaching, moralizing or ridiculing others’ beliefs” and “I was brought up to respect other people’s beliefs” and “Talking about religion only destroys friendships.” At one point I was even compared to the Seventh Day Adventists.

Thankfully, a few had my back. My critics were reminded that I wasn’t proselytizing or poking fun at others’ beliefs. In fact, all I had done was post a link that contained the word “atheist.” Apparently, that was enough to start the machine gurgling and sputtering. You’d have thought I’d announced the successful cloning of Torquemada and the reconstitution of the Spanish Inquisition.

The idea lurking behind these disputes is that atheists — at least those of us who make a point of talking about it openly — are a kind of militant faction roughly comparable to Al Qaeda. We fanatically harangue passersby about their beliefs, insult them, beat them, spit on their prophets and leave them to suffer from internal bleeding before an oncoming rig — all the while laughing our heads off at their credulousness. We’re a callous bunch, aren’t we?

The truth is that most atheists, even the angriest and most militant, bear no resemblance to the caricature. Most of us are animated by a love of logical argument and a desire for evidence in support of claims. We love to talk, discuss, provoke but also listen and attempt to understand why others feel as they do. We don’t generally carry explosives. We don’t overpopulate prisons. A quote that represents our position might be, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

It’s a pity I feel the need to write a paragraph like the one above. It’s disheartening that atheists remain the target of hostility, not only from true believers but also from decent people who claim tolerance for everyone – except atheists.

In fact, the one piece of advice my critics had for me was, “Just shut the hell up. You’re ruining the party for the rest of us.” What we were discussing wasn’t religion or atheism, though. It was the right to discuss religion and atheism. I had been accused of parachuting my beliefs behind the wall erected to shield them from inquiry, a wall behind which they can never be questioned, ridiculed or challenged.

But what good are belief systems that go unquestioned? What good is it to carry beliefs in your head that never see the light of day? How do you even know you believe something if you’ve never inspected it sufficiently to see what it’s actually made of?

It seems to me about the worst decision one can make is to insulate cherished beliefs and make them inaccessible to inquiry. It also suggests that such beliefs can’t stand up to even superficial scrutiny. Hence the fear of discussing them openly and the desire to censor those who would.

This is a recipe for disaster. There’s no better way of weeding out bad ideas than letting them get some fresh air. I for one am content to let others question my most strongly-held beliefs for the following reasons:

  • If my beliefs can withstand logical inquiry then they are probably constructed on solid ground and therefore generally sound (ok to keep until further notice)

  • If my beliefs crumble at the first sign of resistance they are at best poorly developed and at worst worthless (best to get rid of these ASAP).

If you look at societies that ban free inquiry and doubt you’ll find them all to be oppressive if not downright totalitarian. Toleration of free speech and free thought is the essence of a free society. The paradox is that some use the right to try to shut up those whose speech they disagree with.

I’m not implying that’s what was being done in my Facebook episode. I don’t think there was an actual desire to tamper with my right to free speech. What I think happened was that a few people overreacted to a word they dislike, one that challenges their beliefs without their needing to put on armor or pick up a sword. They instead imagined the battle as it might have been: the besieged castle, the hot oil, and the fleeing king galloping through the woods naked.

And that was enough for them. Because the king is naked, and the only person who will remind you of that is the pesky little atheist on your Facebook page.

Assisi has atheists!

The light of reason breaking over Assisi

This is just a quick, informative post to let readers (and search engines) know that there is a new group on Facebook called Atei Assisi | Assisi Atheists. The idea behind it is to give atheists and other non-believers in the Assisi area – or Umbria, Italy and anywhere else they might live – some much-needed visibility.

Assisi, as most people know, is famous in all the world for one thing: St. Francis. A man who spoke to animals. A magician. And probably a charlatan (he was supposed to have stigmata – a red flag if ever there was one.)

It goes without saying that such a place probably has a bunch of frustrated atheists chomping at the bit. Plus, it doesn’t cost anything at all to “like” us. It’s free and always will be. So let’s show the theocrats we’re here to stay!

Ratzinger’s blood libel against atheists

Not exactly a denial of God, is it?

It reminds me of Durban: a gathering of peace-minded folks from all over the globe getting together to discuss problems which afflict us all. But all they can talk about is Israel. The love-fest turns into a blood libel against the Jews.

Joseph Ratzinger knows that he can’t aim his pious invective at the Jewish people as his predecessors did. So this most contemporary pope takes aim at the next best enemy of his faith: atheists. It’s another blood libel in the making. Here are his words from Assisi yesterday*:

The enemies of religion…see in religion one of the principal sources of violence in the history of humanity and thus they demand that it disappear. But the denial of God has led to much cruelty and to a degree of violence that knows no bounds, which only becomes possible when man no longer recognizes any criterion or any judge above himself, now having only himself to take as a criterion. The horrors of the concentration camps reveal with utter clarity the consequences of God’s absence.

Do we really demand that religion disappear? Or do we just demand that it know its place and stay in it, and not meddle in things which aren’t its business? And there in that last line is the blood libel: that Nazism was the outcome of atheism. But Ratzinger was in the Wehrmacht as a young man, and knows perfectly well that Nazi anti-Semitism was a Christian inheritance. Adolf Hitler was a Catholic who has never been excommunicated and Mein Kampf was never added to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum as, say, Kepler, Voltaire, Locke, Mill and Galileo were. Kettle black enough for ya’?

The absence of God leads to the decline of man and of humanity. But where is God? Do we know him, and can we show him anew to humanity, in order to build true peace? Let us first briefly summarize our considerations thus far. I said that there is a way of understanding and using religion so that it becomes a source of violence, while the rightly lived relationship of man to God is a force for peace. In this context I referred to the need for dialogue and I spoke of the constant need for purification of lived religion. On the other hand I said that the denial of God corrupts man, robs him of his criteria and leads him to violence.

See? There it is: “the denial of God corrupts man, robs him of his criteria and leads him to violence.” While religion can be used either as a means to violence – as Ratzinger knows only too well – or peace, atheism inevitably leads to the degredation of humanity and the violent corruption of society.

He’s telling fibs again. The happiest societies on Earth are the most secular. Sociologists know this. Ask anyone who has escaped from religion and they will likely tell you they are happier and feel “free” for the first time in their lives. This is not uncommon at all, no matter which religion is being left behind.

This knowledge is making the pope shit his pants.

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* One year ago, almost to the day, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said some disturbingly similar things about atheists. And he published them in a Vatican newspaper, to boot.

An unwelcome guest

Don’t expect to hear many voices pipe up in opposition to the pope’s visit to Assisi tomorrow. There will be no demonstrations, occupations or black bloc terror (thankfully not this last). Maybe in other countries, but not in Italy. Just phony respect, ecumenical backpatting and “reaching out” to atheists, heretics and other people who would’ve been tortured and burned not so long ago – possibly in this same city square.

Allow me to register one clear voice in opposition to this man and the rapacious organization of politicized religion he heads. Don’t let the pomp fool you; we haven’t ALL been taken in. There are people in Italy, in Assisi even, who detest this man, his church and all that they stand for: superstition, ignorance, bigotry, greed, corruption, falsity and the pretension that they alone are above the laws that govern the rest of human society.

I, for one, do not welcome Joseph Ratzinger to Assisi.

I Finally Saw One of Those Plastic Jesus Dolls

We were in Assisi for a few days and we went to the living manger scene (I’m writing a poem about this, so stay tuned), which is a kind of reenactment of the night Jesus was (supposedly) born in a stall near Bethlehem. At least that’s what happened in the play. I’d have to go and check my NT for the details, assuming they are the same in all four gospels. At the end of the imaginative scenery – complete with faux-synagoge and dress-up rabbi, a rare sight in Umbria – there is the family portrait, sitting patiently bathed in firelight from the burning oildrums (all of this took place out in the cold, a realistic touch). Yosef, Miriam, and little plastic baby Jesus. In this manger scene, most curiously, Jesus had a sister. She looked to be about six or seven, and she was real flesh and blood and DNA. And a hell of a lot more convincing than baby Yehoshua! What she was doing there, assuming the (dubious) virginity of Miriam, is anyone’s guess. But it occurred to me that this is the reason they sell those little baby dolls in religious shops, along with shepherd’s gear and staffs aplenty. It’s a costume party every Christmas.

Afterthought: it occurs to me that perhaps they use a plastic doll for Jesus to accentuate that he was not born of dirty sexual intercourse between two humans.  Apparently they prefer a supernatural kind of rape, which is considered holy. But still, plastic is so cheesy don’t you think?