“Take Down Our Crucifix and We’ll Cut Off Your Arms”

I just finished reading Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason (read it!), which took me two weeks in the subway going back and forth from work. I first encountered Jacoby when I read her book Freethinkers (read this too!), and have come to enjoy her logic-driven brand of cultural skepticism.

In Italy there is a culture war underway. It is not a debate over evolution vs. creationism. Somehow, despite the numbers (quoted in Dawkins’ latest book) that 32% of Italians believe that humans and dinosaurs coexisted on this planet – in Turkey it’s 42%, in Sweden 9% (2005 stats) – there is no debate over evolution. There is a debate over crucifixes.

Now the Catholics are on the counter-offensive. Slogans like “take down our crucifixes and we’ll cut off your arms” abound, crosses affixed to the doors of UAAR and Radical Party offices, and even a mayor (a self-declared non-believer) who will fine 150 Euro to any teacher who doesn’t have a crucifix on the wall of his or her classroom. He’s even taken pains to put up crucifixes in public places where they had been absent. Another upped the fine to 500 Euro.

Last year P.Z. Meyers earned himself death-threats along with Christian “compassion” while blogging his way to fame over a communion wafer scandal. The scandal culminated in a photograph (you can see it here) of a desecrated communion wafer – or “cracker” as Meyers insists on calling it – along with coffee grounds, a banana peel, a copy of the Koran and – just to show he’s a fair-minded bloke – a copy of The God Delusion. When I jokingly asserted we should burn a crucifix or two in public (they burn flags here) along with a mezuzah and a statue of the Buddha I was greeted with frowns. Of course, burning or desecrating these objects is only meant to accentuate their existence as objects. Isn’t the prohibition against idolatry widely interpreted to mean, “Don’t bow down before objects?” And yet here we have a cultural civil war underway for the sake of a piece of wood and plastic nailed up above a blackboard.

As ever, it’s not about the wood or the plastic. It’s about tradition, an “ancient” tradition going back some eighty years to Mussonlini’s fascist government. Mussolini was greeted at the time by Pope Pius XI as “the man Providence has led us to.” The Lateran Treaty was signed, as well as a concordat with Hitler’s Germany. Hitler, for the record, has never been excommunicated by the Catholic church.

A big hep, hep, hep! for tradition.