The freedom of unbelief

Liberi di non credere
By Raffaele Carcano
Editori Internazionali Riuniti, 2011. 379 pages (in Italian)

The PD should be advocating a more secular agenda.

Raffaele Carcano, who heads the UAAR, Italy’s association of atheists, has written a vademecum on the current state of secularity in Italy. Here the reader will find no philosophical arguments for atheism, no attacks on religious belief or even a catalogue of indecent behavior by the Catholic Church and its hierarchy. Instead, Carcano guides the reader through the routine abuses of the rights of non-believing citizens: from the suppressed atheist bus campaign in Genoa to the Lautsi vs. Italy ruling that crucifixes in public classrooms are not in violation of freedom of conscience, the hand of the Vatican is never far from the puppet theater of Italian politics.

Secularism is on the rise, however. Non-affiliated Italians, according to a recent study cited, represent nearly 20 percent of the population and the number is growing. Compare that figure with the only two percent belonging to minority (non-Catholic) religions and you realize they represent a fair slice of the citizenry. Yet they have almost no voice or visibility. Moreover, their rights are trampled by such institutional perversions as the “8 per thousand” religious tax (income tax routed to the Church), Catholic religious teaching in public schools, and the ostentatious display of (exclusively) Catholic symbols in public spaces. Add to this the tendency of Italian media to pander to the Catholic Church and report every grunt and groan of its leaders uncritically.

Then comes the political class, to which the author devotes two full chapters, serving up an analysis of the near-total abandonment of secular causes to which few politicians — right or left — give more than lip service. In fact, the Democratic Party takes the brunt of the criticism for being practically the only center-left party in Europe that doesn’t lift a finger to advance a secular agenda. The only parliamentarian noted for her devotion to secular causes is Emma Bonino, who was shot from both sides during her 2010 campaign for the governorship of Lazio.

The Italian situation is contextualized throughout the book with reference to the European Union and the United States, even going back to ancient times (the first recorded book burning, according to Carcano, was of the “impious” Greek author Protagoras). The tone is sober, but not without the appropriate irony. The reader comes away with the impression that Italy is less a modern secular nation than a kind of milquetoast theocracy. Non-believers may no longer be tortured or burned for their impiety, true, but they are consciously marginalized and proselytized to by a cynical political class and their hubristic clerical bedfellows. Which, one might add, is nothing to be proud of in the 21st century.

From The American

The State Crucifix

Review of Il Crocifisso di Stato By Sergio Luzzatto Einaudi, 2011. 127 pages

“Without the crucifix on the wall, they say, Italy would no longer be the same. I agree… it would be fairer, more serious, better.” These words grace the cover of Sergio Luzzatto’s compelling polemic against the “crucifix of the state.”

In Italy, no public building — be it a police station, courtroom or classroom — is without a crucifix appended to the wall. Many have argued that its presence is innocuous, or a matter of traditional identity rather than religious proselytizing. But whose identity? Certainly not that of Italian Jews like Marcello Montagnana, who raised the issue in the 1990s; or his wife, Maria Vittoria Migliano, whose opposition to the omnipresent symbol began in the 1980s. Or the growing number of secularists and non-Catholics who see in the state-sponsored crucifix a flagrant violation of Italy’s constitutional secularity and their right to freedom of conscience.

Luzzatto, who teaches modern history at Turin University, recounts the history of this ubiquitous Catholic symbol beginning with its rise in the Middle Ages as the signifier par excellence of discrimination against heretics, Jews and Muslims. Given its lengthy history of intolerance, it’s ironic that today’s Vatican wishes to pawn it off as the equivalent of a pizza margherita: bland, neutral, inoffensive. Even worse are the politicians who can’t agree on anything but the need for the crucifix — right, left and center all fall in line the moment the pope raises an eyebrow. This is astonishing for anyone familiar with the exceedingly partisan nature of Italian politics.

Author Natalia Ginzburg, according to Luzzatto, furnished the “Ur-Text” of arguments in defense of the crucifix. Her 1988 article was published in L’Unità, the official newspaper of the Italian Communist Party, and has been mined for decades by those wishing to preserve the public exposition of the crucifix. For Ginsburg, the crucifix is “silent,” “represents human suffering” and — perhaps most egregiously — “has always been there.”

Well, no, it hasn’t really. Luzzatto demolishes the inconsistency of Ginzburg’s thesis. The crucifix was affixed to the public wall at a precise moment in Italian history. It became a mandatory presence under Mussolini’s Fascist state. How’s that for benign, silent, universal? This book is a welcome corrective to such historical myopia and — for lack of a better term — bad faith.

From The American