The pope’s plaything

Picture a miniscule centro storico — really just a few blocks of old stone houses — the kind with a church and a butcher and a funeral parlor, and a road leading to the next town a few kilometers away. As in every such town, there’s a café where the elders and youth gather at separate tables to smoke cigarettes and watch the days fizzle into evening. It’s a quiet existence. Separation of the sexes and all.

It’s in such a town that we have landed, at the feet of Assisi, Italy’s “holy city” (as my wife keeps reminding me). Assisi, from our vantage point, crouches majestically on its hillside; behind it looms the Subasio, capped with snow. The sky broadens outward in every direction. It’s a marvelous landscape.

Somewhere in the “The Gay Science,” Nietzsche wrote that a mountain is impressive from far off. Once you’re on top of it, though, your perspective changes. It’s no longer so stately. It’s just a collection of trees, rocks and paths. I am reminded of this every time we go to Assisi. If you’re not in the market for holy relics or religious trinkets, there’s not much to do except stroll around and have a bite to eat.

In our town there is a 10-foot-high crucifix in front of the elementary school. As an atheist I can deal with religious imagery. Such things don’t put me off because to me they lack meaning. But I am adamant about such symbols not being part of the civic realm. They don’t belong in police stations, in courtrooms or — make that especially — in public schools.

To paraphrase a friend: Did I think living in a small village in central Italy, nestled in the region of St. Francis of Assisi, would be a secular cakewalk?

No, of course not. But what about the rest of the country? The Catholic religious saturation of public life isn’t an Assisan problem. It’s an Italian problem. You can’t go anywhere in this country without the crucifix being — excuse my French — shoved down your throat. It’s literally everywhere you turn. It’s even on the peaks of mountains (yes, there are even mountain climbers who attempt to “convert” nature). It’s so prevalent that most people — even most secularists — think its normal. It isn’t.

Thankfully, there is a proper place for the crucifix. It’s called a church. Or a home. Or a Catholic school (though one may rightly question the very idea of “faith schools”). It is emphatically not the public classroom, which should be a haven for secular education and social integration. If Italy is ever to hold its head high in the European Union, it must break its mischievous pact with the Vatican and stop ransoming its youth to the bishops. It must give up its de facto state religion once and for all. It must regain its independence and integrity, in short.

March 17, 2011 is a national holiday. We’re supposed to celebrate 150 years of the unification of Italy. Many Italians smile awkwardly at the thought of Italy being united because they know it isn’t. Not really. But it’s worth remembering that one of the fundamental freedoms won by the Risorgimento was the secular state. It was an exercise in putting the Catholic Church in its place by restricting its sphere of influence (and its landholdings). Of course, the Vatican bounced back under Fascism — and never went away.

I love this country. I’m proud of its rich cultural heritage, its contributions to art, science and gastronomy. But the world is laughing at us right now. Italy’s two most powerful men are a fount of endless shame and embarrassment. One lives like a gluttonous sultan out of the “Thousand and One Nights”; the other, in the words of Christopher Hitchens, is “a mediocre Bavarian bureaucrat… responsible for enabling a filthy wave of crime.” Both of these men, prime minister and pope, have virtually unlimited power to do as they please with this country. It is their plaything.

I don’t mean to assert that if the Catholic Church is politically hobbled the crooked will be made straight. That’s just one example, albeit a pervasive one. There’s also widespread nepotism, organized crime, political corruption and a countless other shortcomings. And every one of them takes cover in the shade of the church. Perhaps folding that umbrella would prove a promising start to further reform. It’s worth a try.

Contrary to widespread belief, Italy doesn’t need a violent revolution to right its wrongs. It doesn’t even need an Egyptian-style popular uprising. It needs a revolution of legality, which may prove far more difficult than beheading kings.

Published in The American

Israel can has atheists?

Lately I’ve been reading a blog called the Atheist Rabbi. I’m not exactly sure what kind of rabbinical work there is to do among atheist Jews, but whatever: he has his degree and it makes a provocative name for his blog.

I like the way he sets the tone of a recent post:

It’s been a year or two since I last attended a meeting of the local rabbinical association, but the last time I did, I walked out with a sick feeling in my stomach.

When was the last time you read such a line? The post is about Christians United for Israel, a Christian Zionist group. Most Jews I know who support Israel (meaning, who do not wish for its destruction) are ambivalent about Christian Zionists. On one hand, they are a broad support group; on the other, they are convinced Jesus is returning and Israel represents the site of Armageddon. I’m not too comfortable with the Left Behind scenario, not because I think it might actually happen, but because I don’t want that to be the reason behind any sort of political activity. Messianism is an awful idea.

The post closes on a secular, democratic note you will never hear sounded either by Israel’s most maniacal religious supporters or its most heinous “We’re all Hezbollah” detractors:

I support Israel, too.  The version of Israel that I support is a secular, democratic state preserving Hebrew and Jewish culture while protecting the rights and dignity of the minorities in their midst.  I care not one whit for “holy” stories, sites or borders.  The only thing that is sacred to me is human life and well-being.

Accepting support from anyone who views Israel as the fulfillment of nonsensical supernatural legends is as irresponsible as it is ridiculous.

This is the view of a rabbi whose blogroll includes Richard Dawkins, Pharyngula and Greta Christina. I’ll be checking in regularly to find out what’s going on in his mind.

As a secular, atheist Jew I’m interested in more blogs like the Atheist Rabbi. What do Israeli atheists have on their minds? Are there any secular lobbies in Israel comparable to the Secular Coalition for America? I mean, if Turkey has all those atheists, what about a country in which a quarter of all its citizens claim to be nonbelievers?

Please send links.

Sucking up

Franco Frattini, Italy’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, keeps piping up about the “right” to display the crucifix in Italian public schools. He’s bristling over the Strasbourg Court’s hearings; soon they will have to make a decision over whether or not the crucifix can be legally affixed to the wall in public classrooms in Italy.

There are almost no politicians in Italy willing to stand up to the Church on this one (surprise, surprise). Left or right, it makes amost no difference. In fact, it was the State that appealed to Strasbourg after the court had decided that crucifixes were unlawful. The State doing the bidding of the Church. All in the name of brainwashing its own children from the time they are old enough to get an education.

Italians have broadly failed – and their representatives most miserably of all – to understand the principles of secularism. They want that label on their constitution, but are frightened to follow it up in practice. The pope gets angry and stamps his foot and frowns. And they, in parliament, are his subjects.

No disagreement here: Garton Ash vs. Hirsi Ali

Another long, eight-part debate, this time between Timothy Garton Ash and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Garton Ash is a master of backpeddling and the “veiled compliment” (you’ll have to watch the whole thing for Hirsi Ali’s rejoinder and Garton Ash’s embarrassing comeback quip). He insists they agree 100% on everything – except what they disagree on. Also, around the end of part six – assuming anyone reading this is as interested as I am in watching the whole thing – Hirsi Ali says something I can’t make out, which is followed by a long bleep-out of Garton Ash’s reply. At the end of part eight, it is explained that this had nothing to do with the debate and was omitted at Garton Ash’s request. Does anyone know what was actually said? If so, please share this tidbit of information in the comments section below.

Eric Kaufmann: Inheriting the Earth

The Friendly Atheist has an interview with Eric Kaufmann, author of the just-released book Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?: Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century. Kaufmann’s book appears to be an attempt to persuade us, using demographic statistics, that secularism and liberal democracy are soon to be a thing of the past. Religious fundamentalists simply have more children than the rest of us, and nobody has fewer children than atheists and secularists. This is bad news because, any way you look at such a future, you lose.

One obvious remedy would be for secularists to play the game of demographic warfare, tripling the number of children they currently are having and indoctrinating them in a fundamentalist-style secularism. But that would make us just like the religious fundamentalists. Indeed, secularists more or less agree on the fact that secularism relies heavily on critical thinking, individual liberty and the rule of law, not dogma and zealous indoctrination. So that is an unlikely solution. Kaufmann has another suggestion.

FA: Should atheists start having more babies?

EK: Tough question. My instinctive answer would be ‘yes’, but this would only be effective if immigration were reduced and religious fundamentalists responded to calls for smaller families, which is unlikely. There is also the matter of global warming to worry about — we don’t want a population footrace with fundamentalism. So in the end, the most promising course is to somehow attract more people away from fundamentalist religion, no easy task.

I’m looking forward to the critical reception of Kaufmann’s book. So far, the only other article I found is this one from the Telegraph, gleefully (almost) herlading the demise of modern secular democracy (“Atheism is doomed,” etc.)

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.