***BREAKING*** Millions of Italians are atheists!

Gosh, living in Italy is just too damn funny sometimes. I mean, where else can you meet people who say things like, “This is a Catholic country” and “Catholic traditions must be respected?” These are people, I might add, who get divorced and use birth control. 

They couldn’t pack more irony into a phrase if they tried. Of course, when they say “respected” they mean “submitted to without complaint.” After all, that’s what’s at the heart of the whole “Italy-is-a-Catholic-country” schtick. It means, If you don’t like our bigoted traditions, you can go home. As if everyone who disagreed with Catholic traditions were an immigrant (and immigrants, as we know, have no right to complain). Try pointing out that there are plenty of native Italians who disagree with having a de facto state religion and you just get blank stares. Incredibly, many Italians still think all other Italians are Catholic! Ha!

So sometimes, being the militant secularist that I am, I like to point out to them that

***BREAKING*** Millions of Italians are atheists! Others just don’t give a fuck about religion! Still others are Jews, Muslims or other despised religious minorities! You Catholics are not the only ones on this peninsula! Get it into your heads! There’s room for all of us!

This country is in serious need of hearing dissenting points of view.

Target: reason

Wow, this theocratic call-to-arms by Baroness Warsi slipped right by me! She’s actually proud to be leading “the largest ministerial delegation from the United Kingdom to the Vatican” ever (that is, to a “country” which despises everything modern liberal democratic states hold dear in favor of totalitarian theocracy.) Her tactic is to pretend that religions are all friends with one another and that the big bad wolf is militant secularism. Sound familiar? Those pesky secularists, always poking fun at wholesome religious craziness!

Go ahead and read the piece. It’s funny if you don’t dwell on the fact that she’s a representative of the UK government who wants to mainline religion back into politics – just like the good ol’ days. And Warsi gets a bit nasty, too, when she asserts:

“[Secularism] demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes – denying people the right to a religious identity because they were frightened of the concept of multiple identities.”

I wonder if Warsi has reflected on the fact that the Vatican – which she is so proud to visit – signed concordats with both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, and supported every fascist regime in Europe throughout World War II (when they pragmatically thought the future of Europe would be fascist). No, I bet she hasn’t thought much about that one.

Warsi loopholes her way out of this, however. She reassures us secularists, “I am not calling for some kind of 21st century theocracy.” She’s just calling for more respect for religion. That’s reassuring. But why should religion get our respect without earning it?  That’s not clear from her article. She’s too caught up in her ridiculous revivalism.

via WEIT

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

Aliaa Magda Elmahdy has my support

A courageous woman

In my view, there are few issues as pressing as secularism. In Europe we largely take it for granted. While religions still benefit from enormous privileges in probably every country and society (see here for Italy), its influence has been largely attenuated in recent centuries. While secularism has had many victories, it has by no means won any wars. Its principles must be staunchly guarded even where they appear most entrenched, as religious dogma is always waiting for the right moment to pounce on individual freedoms and tear them to shreds. We who live in (largely) secularized societies have the duty to defend them from predators. Either that or we will eventually lose the ground we have gained and go hurtling back to less enlightened times.

Secularists in secularized countries have it easy, though, compared to those living in places where religion is still extremely powerful and soaks through every pore of society. These are places where it isn’t just unpopular to be an atheist, secularist or humanist, but it’s downright dangerous. So those fighting against religious tyranny in places like the Middle East and Africa deserve our support. They are the ones on the front lines, risking their lives to protest against Islamism and its hydra-headed bigotry.

Maryam Namazie writes:

Student, atheist and blogger, Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, 20, posted naked pictures of herself on her blog to show her “screams against a society of violence, racism, sexism, sexual harassment and hypocrisy”. Showing her body particularly at a time when Islamists in Egypt are trying to secure power is the ultimate act of rebellion. Don’t forget Islamists despise nothing more than a woman’s body. In case you didn’t know, women are the source of corruption and chaos and must be covered up at all times and not seen and not heard.

Aliaa has also received the support a number of Israeli women. (Incidentally, most of these women have covered themselves.)

Appropriately, there is a call for “Nude Photo Revolutionaries” at Namazie’s blog.

I give my unconditional support to these courageous women.

[via Ophelia Benson]

Jewishness without god

The following short essay was written for Moment Magazine’s 2011 “Elephant in the Room” contest. The question put to all contestants was, What does it mean to be Jewish without belief in God? 500 words isn’t much space to elaborate in, but here is my entry. 

I didn’t win the iPad 2, which was the main reason I entered the contest (truth be told). My essay was excerpted, however, under the heading “Finalists” on their website. You can read the three winning essays there as well.


I grew up secular and came to my Jewish identity as an adult. When my Jewishness first struck me, I regretted not having had a religious education. I was so unfamiliar with the Bible I didn’t even know it was about the Jews. There was much to catch up on.

The next four years were spent teaching myself to be Jewish. Living in Rome, my options were limited. I went to an Orthodox synagogue. I frequented a struggling group of Reform Jews. I studied Hebrew at the local JCC. I constructed an ad-hoc form of kashrut, which seriously damaged my relationship with a dying aunt. I read deeply in Jewish history and the history of anti-Semitism, which didn’t make me many friends at parties. However, I did feel I was beginning to understand what being Jewish was about: feeling uncomfortable in the world.

In my Jewish excursions, one thing I never felt comfortable with was God. I disliked newly-learned expressions like “Baruch Hashem” (“Blessed be the Name”) and the socially-driven piety I saw around me every day. (The Jews were behaving just like the Catholics, I thought.) The end came when, at Yom Kippur services one year, they brought out the Torah scrolls and the congregants began kissing them. “Idolaters!” I wanted to scream. I left and never went back.

Not long after this – and likely as a product of my voracious studying – I concluded I was an atheist. I spent some time thinking about how to reconcile my sense of Jewishness with my rejection of the Jewish God and, eventually, Judaism itself.

First I began to notice how many fellow Jews were atheists. They were everywhere: Spinoza, Einstein, Freud, Woody Allen, Isaac Asimov and Amos Oz. Even the so-called “New Atheist” movement was brimming with Jews: David Silverman, Jerry Coyne, Christopher Hitchens, Steven Weinberg and Susan Jacoby. These Jewish atheists were sensible, creative, highly-motivated people. And free of the superstition that so annoyed me.

I sometimes hear that a Jewish atheist is an oxymoron. In such cases I like to tell my one of my favorite jokes. A young student reveals to an elderly rabbi that he is an unbeliever. “And how long have you been studying Talmud?” the rabbi asks. “Five years.” “Only five years, and you have the nerve to call yourself apikoros!?” (Apikoros is a rabbinical term for “atheist”, from the Greek philosopher Epicurus.)

As an atheist, my Jewishness is rooted in a shared historical identity and not belief in a popular idea called “God.” If I thought for a moment that lacking this belief disqualified me as a Jew, I’d have no trouble saying goodbye to Jewishness forever. But I feel no pressure to make this choice. Jews have always been heterodox in their beliefs, despite attempts by zealots to unite them under one banner or another. It’s a bit like herding cats, or atheists.

Are we really “militant” atheists?

A quick post in response to James Wood’s recent piece in the New Yorker, “Secularism and its Discontents.” Wood misses no opportunity to take a swipe at “militant,” or “Darwinian” atheists (as he calls them) in his review of The Joys of Secularism. I used to admire Wood as a critic, but ever since he became an apologist for faitheism I can’t even make it through an entire article he publishes.

Discussing Philip Kitcher’s contribution, Wood writes:

His essay is characterized by its humanity, and by its willingness to borrow from religion. He will get no reward from the Darwinian atheists for this…

Oh, presumably because “Darwinian atheists” are incapable of humanity? Or unfamiliar with the religions they reject? Why are we always reading that religion is brimming, just overflowing with humanity? And that atheism is cold, and cold-hearted? Has Wood ever read a single book or blog by his nemeses, the New Atheists?

I think not. If he had, he would see clearly that they are not bereft of his much-prized humanity. It’s a patently ridiculous dichotomy he has set up. Aren’t we a little tired of this gnu-bashing already?

If you want to read a collection of very human essays by atheists – and Kitcher contributed to this one, too – try 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists. You’ll understand just how wrong Wood is on this one.

An insult to language

I haven’t read Susan Jacoby’s “Spirited Atheist” column in a month or two, but today I found an absolutely wonderful article on A.C. Grayling’s The Good Book: A Humanist/Secular Bible. Suffice to say the first time I read any of Grayling’s souped-up anthology I thought it sounded awful, like one of the umpteen translations of Genesis that try too hard at saying the same well-worn phrases in novel ways. But how many ways can you find to write, “In the beginning…?” They all just end up sounding vaguely “biblical” no matter how you rearrange the words (which is likely the point.) Here’s Jacoby:

Let me quote from the first chapter of the first “book” (again, modeled after the format of a standard bible), called—what else?—Genesis.“In the garden stands a tree. In springtime it bears flowers; in the autumn, fruit. The fruit is knowledge, teaching the good gardener how to understand the world…When Newton sat in his garden, and saw what no one had ever seen before: that an apple draws the earth to itself, and the earth the apple….”

You can’t satirize this stuff. Forget the vapidity of the language. It’s not even factually accurate, which, at a minimum, a secular bible ought to be. Another chapter (9:18) has arteries carrying “nascent blood,” while “lengthening veins return the crimson flood.” Wrong again. Arteries carry bright red blood, because it is fully oxygenated, away from the heart, while the returning blood in veins is much darker because it is generally deoxygenated.

Apart from my initial sense of enthusiasm on hearing about Grayling’s Good Book, I’ve had some reservations about it (I generally enjoy Grayling’s work). I’m not sure how homogenizing 3000 years of wisdom into an authorless mish-mash of slightly “elevated” (read: biblical) language serves any purpose – especially if one’s purpose is to offer an alternative to the Bible. One thing I love about literature is knowing who wrote what, when. I think that really does matter in the end. And unless the intent is satire, I don’t think many atheists/secularists will be drawn to a book based chapter-and-verse on another book we’ve read – and often trashed – the Bible.

Jacoby sums up:

There has already been a good deal written, particularly in England, about whether Grayling’s bible insults religion. This is utterly beside the point, since the book is an insult to language, to authors who deserve credit for their words, to translators who deserve credit for translating those words, and, above all, to the intelligence of secular readers. We don’t have one Good Book. We have good books, thousands of years of them, and the real Euripides, Shakespeare, Spinoza and Darwin are all available to provide a genuine humanistic education.

Exactly. Who the hell needs a sterilized version of Shakespeare, anyway?

Robert Ingersoll on theocracy

Robert Ingersoll was one of the most eloquent voices for reason the English language has ever known. His words ring as true as ever today:

The government of God has been tried. It was tried in Palestine several thousand years ago, and the God of the Jews was a monster of cruelty and ignorance, and the people governed by this God lost their nationality. Theocracy was tried through the Middle Ages. God was the Governor — the pope was his agent, and every priest and bishop and cardinal was armed with credentials from the Most High — and the result was that the noblest and best were in prisons, the greatest and grandest perished at the stake. The result was that vices were crowned with honor, and virtues whipped naked through the streets. The result was that hypocrisy swayed the sceptre of authority, while honesty languished in the dungeons of the Inquisition. […]

If God is allowed in the Constitution, man must abdicate. There is no room for both. If the people of the great Republic become superstitious enough and ignorant enough to put God in the Constitution of the United States, the experiment of self-government will have failed, and the great and splendid declaration that “all governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed” will have been denied, and in its place will be found this: All power comes from God; priests are his agents, the people are their slaves. […]

We have already compared the benefits of theology and science. When the theologian governed the world, it was covered with huts and hovels for the many, palaces and cathedrals for the few. To nearly all the children of men, reading and writing were unknown arts. The poor were clad in rags and skins — they devoured crusts, and gnawed bones. The day of Science dawned, and the luxuries of a century ago are the necessities of to-day. Men in the middle ranks of life have more of the conveniences and elegancies than the princes and kings of the theological times. But above and over all this, is the development of mind. There is more of value in the brain of an average man of to-day — of a master-mechanic, of a chemist, of a naturalist, of an inventor, than there was in the brain of the world four hundred years ago. […]

These blessings did not fall from the skies. These benefits did not drop from the outstretched hands of priests. They were not found in cathedrals or behind altars — neither were they searched for with holy candles. They were not discovered by the closed eyes of prayer, nor did they come in answer to superstitious supplication. They are the children of freedom, the gifts of reason, observation and experience – – and for them all, man is indebted to man.

Read the rest here.

Judeo-Christian roots? There’s no such thing

The pope is naked. Judge Luigi Tosti has torn his dress off and thrown it to the wind. And along with it goes the masquerade of Europe’s “Judeo-Christian” roots.

I asked permission to place a menorah next to the crucifix as a reminder of pope Ratzinger’s words, which assert Europe’s “Judeo-Christian” roots. I did this because I know that Catholics are racist hypocrites and they’d never have allowed a Jewish symbol to be placed by the crucifix.

It’s a pity, really. A lot of people seem to like the idea that Europe’s once-Christian majority decided to share its cultural wealth with the Jews. Of course, that was after centuries of the most terrible persecutions and having denied them just about everything imaginable in the realm of rights. After Nazi Germany, Europe could no longer bury its head in the sand.

One problem is that Europe is no longer very Christian. And it hardly has any Jews left. So – from a Jewish perspective – it’s too little, too late.

Another problem is that if anything unites the European Union, it is certainly not adherence to biblical authority. That, after all, is what is implied by the term “Judeo-Christian roots.” It’s a trope, and a clever one; however, Jews and Christians disagree on the most fundamental things – those very things that keep Jews Jewish and Christians Christian.

What about the Greeks and the Romans? Didn’t they help to lay the foundations of what we now call European civilization? Christianity was late in the game, picked up the pieces of a broken empire, and proclaimed itself ruler over Jew and Gentile alike. The Gentiles were Christianized by the sword; the Jews, persecuted, massacred, coverted by torture and ghettoized by the same Christians that now wish to share their bounteous “roots” with them. Again, too little, too late.

We’re so used to hearing “Judeo-Christian roots” that it no longer even registers. Besides being an exercise in phony diplomacy, it’s exclusionary towards anyone neither Jewish nor Christian.

Another use of the term is as a weapon against that very secularism that binds Europe. It’s a favorite of Catholics, for instance, who wish to defend their theocratic ambitions in Italy. “Judeo-Christian” lets them sound ecumenical to the uninitiated. It lets them play peace-love-and-understanding. But it’s pure unadulterated bullshit.

Judge Tosti knew this when he asked permission to place a menorah next to the crucifix in his courtroom. He knew his request would be denied. He knew those smooth-talking Catholics were hypocrites who don’t put their money where there mouth is.

I submit that the only Europe worth living in is a secular Europe. The Enlightenment project is what allows Jew, Gentile and everyone else to live here together without a holy war in every city. It’s hard enough, but its the best way we’ve ever discovered.

Today the pope is naked. No amount of fancy dress will cover up that fact.