Baptism ends in drowning

Here is a story from this summer which I had missed due to my excusable lack of vigilance. It’s about a child who was killed during baptism by full-immersion in Moldova. I understand full-immersion baptism is much less common than the ordinary sprinkle-on-the-head kind, and there’s probably a good reason why.

My favorite comment: “How sad – but strangely ironic that in giving him God’s blessing, God didn’t see fit to protect him…”

Indeed – where was almighty God, anyway?

A simple matter of faith

The Center for Inquiry has released a statement on the controversial Cordoba House, aka GZM, in lower Manhattan. The CFI take on things cuts the whole matter down to size: the real problem is religious faith, not which religious faith. All are equal, and equally fatuous. Another brick in the wall of the God Museum.

CFI maintains that a mosque near Ground Zero, in and of itself, is no worse than a church, temple, or synagogue. It is undeniable that the 9/11 terrorists were inspired by their understanding of Islam, and that currently there are far more Islamic terrorists in the world than terrorists of other faiths, but the deeper threat confronting humanity is not confined to Islam. To the contrary, it is presented by all religions. Religious morality is based on faith and authority, with the authority often being a sacred text cobbled together long ago that readily lends itself to contradictory interpretations. The Bible and the Koran have been used to justify almost everything, from mass slaughter of those with other beliefs, to slavery, to oppression of women and gays and lesbians, to the throttling of scientific research—as evidenced by the recent halt to stem-cell research. Faith will continue to harm and kill, whether it is in Oklahoma City or New York City, until people stop basing their conduct on imaginary divine commands and accept their responsibility to reason together. To honor those killed by faith fanatics, Ground Zero and its immediate vicinity should be kept free of any newly constructed house of worship — of any religion.

Be a Skeptic!

I’m not trying to convert anyone. What, I wonder, would that be? There is no skeptic’s religion. Being skeptical is a stance, a way of thinking critically about the world, a method of engaging with information. After all, you can’t believe everything. It is not a religion. Skeptics may be Jews, Christians, atheists or agnostics. Skeptics have no commandments, no sacred texts, no sectarian law. They don’t discriminate on the basis of sex, ethnicity or sexual preference. Most importantly, they have no idols – so even monotheists can feel comfortable as skeptics. After all, skeptics aren’t pagans (rural folk, as it were) venerating little carved figurines by an open fire.

Anyone can be a skeptic, and all of us are already skeptics in a certain sense. For example, it has been pointed out that as far as Greek mythology goes most of us are skeptics. Not many people alive today believe in the gods of Olympus or the Delphic oracle. Ditto a whole slew of ancient gods and divinities which we group together as myths, or rather stuff other peple believed in long ago. It goes without saying that, for an atheist, יהוה is a mythical god. So is Jesus, for that matter. This is not to disparage them, however. Many skeptics are devoted readers of the bible. They just don’t believe in it.

Though even skeptics recognize that many people do indeed beleive in Jesus, יהוה, and many other gods (“all of us worship the same god” is a politically expedient myth ; we don’t) and goddesses, angels, devils and heavenly intermediaries of all types: the tooth fairy, Santa Claus, Gabriel, Metatron etc… the list is long and tedious. Jews are necessarily skeptical of Christian claims, as are Christians of Muslim claims. I mean, either Jesus will return or he won’t. Either moshiah will come or he won’t. So far, so bad. They can’t all be right.

A skeptic makes no such claims about the nature of the universe, but limits himself (or herself) to interpreting facts and making educated guesses. A skeptic has no trouble saying, “I don’t know (right now).” The religious mind, on the other hand, often seeks utter certainty on one hand and fathomless mystery on the other. Needless to say, this is incompatible with a skeptical worldview.

 

 

Go to Hell! We’ll Never Take Down Our Crucifixes!

Italy’s getting scary again.

Ignazio La Russa, who has no degree in science and is therefore unworthy of having views on religion, went off his nut on Italian tv the other evening. The debate over the EU court’s judgement that crucifixes in public classrooms are a bad idea is off and running. Berlusconi has said that Italy will defy the court and the EU, and that no crosses are coming off the walls of any classrooms.

His position was backed up by the homophobic, conservative Catholic politician Rocco Buttiglione. Buttiglione’s brilliant solution to the problem of religious symbols contaminating public spaces is apparently to multiply them. The more, the merrier, he said. Just don’t take down them crosses! Perhaps my mezuzah proposal wasn’t too radical, after all.

Even if you don’t understand a word of Italian, you can grasp the meaning of what La Russa is getting at here. He calls Piergiorgio Odifreddi, a well-known mathematician and one of Italy’s only public atheists, a man without a degree (!) who “puts up and takes down crucifixes as if they were bath towels.” He then castigates the show’s host for not standing up for the dignity of the cross, telling him he is beyond absolution for his sin of silence.

Of course, he’s no Christian integralist, an afterthought he throws in as a final consolation. In case you thought maybe he got off on the wrong foot. “They (the EU?) can go to hell! Well never take down our crosses!!”

“Atheist Piece of S*%t!”

Corriere della Sera ran a story today on the family whose case went up to the European court in Strasbourg, resulting in a ruling unfavorable to the Vatican, yet quite favorable to all Italian passport-holders.

Sami, whose parents are at the helm of the controversy, told the Italian daily that at one point during the proceedings (which began in 2002 – seven years ago!) he was surrounded by his classmates and beaten up to the tune of “Atheist piece of s*%t!”  Mighty Christian of them, eh?

So much for those “universal values” of Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone. The crucifix, even at the scholasic level, encourages irrepressible division between Catholic students and those who don’t wish to see a crucified Jesus every time they turn their heads in class. Archbishop Bertone made a hilarious comment that the EU was going to take away Italy’s dearest symbols (crucifix) and replace them with Halloween pumpkins. To appreciate Bertone’s sense of humor, it’s worth noting that Halloween is not a recognized holiday by the Catholic church. It’s even considered spooky.

If they refuse to take down the crosses, I think we should begin a campaign to put up mezuzahs on every doorpost in every public structure in Italy. It’s only fair, after all, as the Jewish people have been here since before Jesus was, well…circumcised.

Why Are We Still Arguing About This?

Today the European court made an important ruling against the display of crucifixes in Italian public schools, saying that “the display of crucifixes in Italian public schools violates religious and education freedoms.” Right. But the Vatican doesn’t see it that way. In fact, they (and most Italian politicians who either believe this hooey or don’t have the balls to stick up for their country against the bishops) are even trying to twist the crucifix into a universal, non-denominational “cultural” symbol. As Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini puts it:

”In our country nobody wants to impose the Catholic religion, let alone with a crucifix, but it is not by eliminating the traditions of individual countries that a united Europe is built.”

The Bishops’ Conference added:

”The multiple significance of the crucifix, which is not just a religious symbol but a cultural sign, has been either ignored or overlooked.”

Don’t be fooled. Europe is no more united by the crucifix than the United States are by the Ten Commandments. In fact, if anything unites the countries of the Euopean Union, it is a collective desire to get beyond the stifling, warring factionalism of inter-Christian warfare. The Catholic church imposed itself on Europe (and much of the rest of the Christianized world) largely through religious war and political domination, extirpating all other religious denominations except for Judaism, which was left to suffer beneath the heel of the Church as a “living witness” to Christ. Ghettoized, expelled, forced to convert, stripped of their rights and property, they were prepared for the slaughter of crusades, pogroms and – given enough time – the unprecedented carnage of the Shoah. This is the legacy of the Christianization of Europe and the universal values of the Catholic church.

It’s time Europe left them behind for good, making Christianity just another one of the many competing religious and non-religious identities on the continent. Everyone has the right to choose a religion and practice it, believe in it and love it. But no one has the right to impose that religion (yes, Christianity is a religion) on anyone else. Italy is a secular country, born in strict opposition to the totalitarian dogma of the late 19th century church (infallibility, et al). Under Mussolini, the church was given new life as a de facto state religion. The Italian constitution has upheld these agreements to this day.

The time has come for them to be abrogated in the name of humanism and a pluralistic, secular Italian state with freedom of religion for all and privilege for none.

The Year of Living Jesusly

There is a new book out by Rev. Ed Dobson, who tried to live like Jesus for a year. Apparently the question WWJD was unanswerable, so he decided to take the matter into his own hands. Of course the good Rev. is following in the wake of A.J. Jacobs’s Year of Living Biblically and Benyamin Cohen’s My Jesus Year, both wholehearted attempts (well, not exactly) to come to grips with the “reality” of the Bible and/or its most famous son in the twenty-first century. I read Jacobs’s book, which was at times funny, insightful and gratifying – enough so that I feel I can skip the other two and any others that might crop up in their wake.

Anyway, this book has some pretty poorly researched marketing. Read on: “Live one year as Jesus lived. Eat as Jesus ate. Pray as Jesus prayed. Observe the sabbath as Jesus observed. Attend the Jewish festivals as Jesus attended. Read the Gospels every week.”

Read the Gospels? Maybe it’s just me, but isn’t the whole point of the Gospels that, by the time they were written, Jesus was already dead? Or does Jesus read them in heaven? If so, I hope he’s learned Greek by now.

Well, I’m saving up my energy for my first book, My Year of Impersonating Muhammad. I hope nobody’s thought of that one yet. It should be a wild romp!

Debaptism Is Your Human Right

Lately I’ve been fascinated by the debaptism phenomenon in Italy, called “sbattezzo.”  The numbers of debaptisms aren’t high yet (a few thousand are presumed), and it’s difficult to gauge exactly how many people debaptise themselves (I prefer the reflexive form) because the only records are kept by the Catholic church itself. Being a strictly individual act, there is no association of debaptized persons. The option is, however, promoted by the Italian Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics (UAAR) as coherent with religious freedom and freedom from religion.

Below are three videos about debaptism. They’re in Italian, so get a dictionary out if you have trouble understanding. This is one of the most interesting new developments in Italy in recent years, challenging the widely held belief that “all Italians are Catholics” and, far more importantly, the self-granted authority of the Catholic church over the lives of unwilling subjects. 

It’s important, in my view, that people know that debaptism is an option. I’ve never been baptised, so this is not my personal war against the Catholic church (in case you were worried). But it is consonant with human rights and individual freedom to be able to undo a symbolic gesture like baptism. There are also legal aspects related to Canon Law, but that’s Adele Orioli’s job (the woman in the videos) to explain. I’d bet most people don’t even know they have this right, which is why they’ve launched this campaign.

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

The Real Enemies of Faith? Humanists!

The UAAR posted this rebuttal on its website, from Il Tempo:

The real enemies (of faith) are individualism, hedonism, indiscriminate thirst for profit, consumer slavery, lack of goodwill and weakened soldarity. “Secularism” in our time reinforces and energizes these countervalues, which proliferate among the young. Here the enemy makes its nest: not in the synagogue or the mosque.

Funny, in the Book of Revelation the Synagogue of Satan was the real enemy of faith. Now Satan is a humanist?

The Borderlands of Jewishness

A few thoughts from a thoughtful reader (I’ve regularized some of the punctuation and uncapitalized the “A” in Atheist for obvious reasons):

Halacha, Jewish religious law, is the only thing that determines Jewish identity. And the issue is very clear indeed, and always has been. The Tanakh tells us that a Jew who adopts any other faith, is an ex-Jew. An Apostate. Now this does not – as in Islam – necessitate nor involve negativity towards this ex Jew. Not at all. But it’s just a statement of fact: a Jew who becomes a Christian = a Christian, just as a Jew who becomes a Muslim = a Muslim.

As for atheism:

Rabbis and Halacha are very clear on this too. Atheism doesn’t involve embracing another, conflicting faith. An atheist Jew, is simply a non practising Jew. Simple as that. Or, if the person prefers not to identity as Jewish, then the atheist is, well, an atheist, who was born into Judaism but has now left. But according to halacha, the atheist is still part of the Jewish family whereas the ex Jew turned Christian, or ex-Jew turned Muslim, is not.

Historically, Jews that converted to other faiths, and then later wished to return to Judaism, had to formally “convert” back to Judaism. I’m slightly concerned that your poll gives the impression that popular opinion can determine who is and is not Jewish. It can’t.

Also, as I’m sure you know, there is a specific Christian Evangelical movement, whose members were never Jews to start with, yet who pose fraudulently as ‘messianic Jews’ and who knowingly lie and misrepresent Judaism and Jews. This group provokes a lot of conflict between Jews and Christians.

For my part, I tend to be skeptical when any debate over Jewish identity is resolved by invoking the overriding authority of halakha. That’s part of what got us into this mess in the first place, and since non-Orthodox Jews are the majority these days (and the source of all that Jewish pride we feel when we talk about Spinoza, Freud, Einstein and Mel Brooks) I think we should have some say in the matter.

There are no easy answers. Nothing is “simple as that” about Jewish identity. Invoking the Tanakh–a collection of ancient Jewish literature otherwise known as the Hebrew Bible–as the fount of all wisdom on matters of personal or collective cultural identity is a push in the wrong direction. We all seem to agree that non-observant Jews are nonetheless Jews, and this fact alone proves the weakness of this argument.

I’m tempted to say that all of this is a matter of opinion. That we celebrate Spinoza (who was given a hearty herem, or  rabbinic excommunication, for heresy from Europe’s most liberal and enlightened Jewish community) as one of our greatest sons only points to the fallability of halakhic law. It is malleable, elastic even, and all it takes is a shift in the way we think about ourselves to tame the once mighty voice of the the Law. God, in the end, is as subject to shifting cultural sands as the marketplace.

From a non-theistic point of view, this all borders on silliness. We know that the Bible was written by men (and likely even women) and believe that there is no supernatural authority whose word is eternal and unchanging. If there were, where is such a word to be found? The Talmud itself would be heretical as it meddles with the Torah on almost every page, adding and subtracting according to the wisdom and convention of the day. Wouldn’t the Torah itself have been enough without the addenda of the prophetic and hagoigraphic books that round out the Tanakh? I hope this brief gloss will suffice to convince the reader that there is nothing simple or clear-cut about Jewish identity.

The poll I posted (Are Jews Who Believe in Jesus Still Jews?) seeks opinions to what is one of the taboos of mainstream Jewish discourse. It does not seek irrefutable answers. Why can a Jew be a Buddhist and not a Christian? Perhaps there is something “conflicting” is the idea of a Jewish-Christian, though the earliest Christians were without exception Jews. So, clearly, this is another cultural-historical construct with no guidelines grounded in religious absolutism. Such is the nature of cultural identity.

We know there are Jews who have embraced Christianity throughout history for various reasons, ranging from personal belief to the threat of death. We also live in a society in which religious and cultural identities are a smorgasbord. There may indeed be excellent reasons why a modern Jew cannot believe in Jesus Christ and still be considered a Jew by fellow Jews (and I believe there are) but let’s not defer our reasoning to the divine think tank to understand why this is so.