A Bible in Every Home

The Klansmen up north now want to make sure every home has a bible in it, at least in their jurisdiction. Re-christianization? You’d think there were menorahs in every public place and synagogues a-go-go, or perhaps the piercing cry of a muezzin penetrating the whine of the baby Jesus on Christmas day. Just what are these people fighting for, and against? They already live in a society that protects their religion on a silver platter, with a separate clause in the Constitution just for them. Now they want to throw out all the immigrants (non-Christians, or just “non-whites?”) and enrich the bookshelves of those allowed to stay with a book they probably haven’t even read themselves.

I agree that every person should read the bible at least once. Only then can they grasp the madness that drives such crusades as this.

“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.

The Crucifix Debates: No End in Sight

Can it be uprooted?

In 2003, the year I moved to Italy, I witnessed my first “crucifix debate” on television. Adel Smith, the controversial protagonist of that episode and the founder of the Italian Islamic Party, had caused a stink by demanding that all crucifixes be removed from public buildings in Italy. They apparently offended him, though he was raised as a Catholic. He even threw one out the window of his mother’s hospital room. Religious conversion is strong medicine.

Six years later, the debate is back. The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France has ruled that crucifixes in Italian schools violate the religious and educational freedom of children. At the center of the debate this time is a non-religious Italian family who don’t want their children to be conditioned by religious symbolism in what is nominally a public classroom.

Some readers might be asking themselves, “But why are there crucifixes in public schools in the first place?!” To an American, this is unthinkable. But the Vatican is not in New York City. And it’s where the trouble began more than 80 years ago with what is known as the Lateran Treaty.

The Treaty was devised under the Fascist government of the 1920s, and it stated that Catholicism was the sole state religion. Part of the agreement stipulated the presence of the crucifix in all Italian schools and public buildings, where they remain to this day, and “religion hour” — the teaching of the Catholic religion in all public schools. The religion teachers are handpicked by the Vatican and paid for by the state. Roll over, Thomas Jefferson.

All of this flies in the face of the Risorgimento, of course. Italy, as an autonomous nation, was founded in direct opposition to the Church. The integralist Pope Pius IX famously referred to himself as a “prisoner of the Vatican,” and no pope after him — until the agreements with Mussolini’s government — would set foot on Italian soil. In a country proud to have moved past the Fascist era (there is even a national holiday to this effect), it is perhaps anachronistic that Article 7 of the Constitution proclaims: “relations [between the Catholic Church and the State] are regulated by the Lateran Treaty.” Why not overhaul that as well, one wonders?

What we have on our hands is essentially a human rights issue. Is there a place for religion in the public sphere of a secular democracy in the 21st century? Religious apologists have remarked that we might as well tear up the Union Jack and the Finnish flag (and the Danish one, I suppose, that bastion of secularism), all of which have crosses. They’ve also suggested that the flag of the European Union has an encrypted Madonna and child among its 12 stars. Or that Europe has non-negotiable “Christian roots.” In these claims one hears the pronounced voices of reactionary bishops more than those of civil servants in a modern democracy. Yet Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini and Italian Senator Rocco Buttiglione all made them, among others. Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa, topping them all, said recently that the EU court could “…go to hell. We’ll never take down the crucifixes.”

Even more telling are the attempts made by some Catholics to separate the crucifix from its religious context. As the Italian Bishop’s Conference put it, “The multiple significance of the crucifix, which is not just a religious symbol but a cultural sign, has been either ignored or overlooked.” Which raises the question: what culture are they referring to?

Italian culture is, like all other cultures in all other times, a grab-bag of goodies. Of the 3,000 or so years of recorded Italian history, Christianity has decidedly marked the last 2,000. But Judaism, it is often pointed out, has a longer history on the peninsula than the offshoot sect. Should Jews then insist mezuzahs be nailed to every doorpost of every public building from Bolzano to Syracuse? They have as good a case as anyone.

Of course, no one will take my little provocation seriously. After all, there are Jewish schools that cater to the needs of religious Jews. The same should be expected of Catholics.

Public spaces are for everyone. They are not Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Wiccan or Buddhist. Taking crucifixes off the walls (Buttiglione comically suggests that a plethora of symbols should go up instead — a solution even more risible than their elimination) does not condemn Catholics to atheism. This conveniently misses the point. Religious freedom includes freedom from religion as well as the freedom of religious affiliation. People in their homes may display any symbols they desire, or even a multitude of them. They may frequent any house of worship or none at all. They may read the Gospels or the speeches of Robert Ingersoll. On this, I think, we all agree.

The promotion of the crucifix from a strictly Catholic religious symbol (Protestants don’t use it) to a “universal” symbol of inclusion and suffering is dishonest sidestepping. The conflation is simply insulting. Nothing could be less universal than a religion, especially one with an unbroken tradition of obscurantism, religious warfare, persecution and anti-modern policies. Besides, nearly all Catholics in the developed world flout Catholic dogma when it contradicts their immediate personal interests — without so much as flinching before the eternal fires of hell.

What more proof do we need that the European Union is bound by the modern secular principles of human rights and not the by cross (much less the crucifix)? Why not cut the head off the bull, as they say here in Italy, and abrogate the Lateran Treaty once and for all?

Published in The American

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.

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?

Religion Should Be Abolished from the Public Sphere

A frightening new law was recently proposed in Italy: in addition to the already fatuous “religion hour” in Italian public schools (and you thought “one nation under God” was bad) – which is really an hour in which students are obliged to listen to a handpicked Vatican mouthpiece mouth off (paid for by the State, naturally) –  there has been a recent proposal to add Islam to the “choice” (I am quotating here – see sidebar) of religions that are taught. The reason is worth quoting: to avoid abandoning little Muslims “to the ghettos of the madrassas and integralist Islamic schools” (Corriere della Sera). Brilliant! So let’s bring integralist Koranic teachings into the public schools, where they can wage their eternal battle for children’s minds with the Catholic Church itself. Let’s let our children be the little soldiers in State-funded religious warfare. Otherwise – and here, I feel, is the real reason behind the proposal – they might become kamikazes.

For an alternative to the teaching of the Catholic religion (IRC), the UAAR (Italian Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics) has proposed a program to abolish this propagandistic aberration from Italian public education.

Think about it: shouldn’t every single child have the right to personalized religious teaching in the classroom? The son of Wiccans, the daughter of Hidus, the twins born to Red-Letter Christians should all have the same right that is granted to the children of Catholics in this country. It would be chaos, as you can imagine. Muslims may yet get that taste of equality, but only because integration is so poor and Islamic schooling has the unfortunate tendency to churn out suicidal religious fanatics (and they have growing numbers). This really has nothing to do with integration or equality.

Religion should simply be abolished from the public sphere. You have a home. You have a church, mosque, synagogue. Use them to teach religion, and leave the public schools to teach science, math, history and perhaps even the history of religions. That would be a fair and necessary innovation. Anything else is bigotry.

True Fighting Words

Susan Jacoby, in her book Freethinkers, takes on Glenn Beck’s beloved Battle Hymn of the Republic:

The Battle Hymn, one of the most powerful calls to arms ever set to music, was not only religious but Christian to the core. The last verse…as well known during the war as the famous first verse is today, explicitly articulates the song’s Christian doctrinal basis and emotional appeal…But what was a devout Christian from the North, fightling under instructions from his God, to make of an equally devout Southern cousin whose God–ostensibly the same God–had handed down a contradictory set of instructions?

Clearly food for thought, but does Beck think?