My unremarkable loss of faith story

I have been unofficially appointed “God columnist” for this magazine. Don’t ask me how that happened, because I don’t even believe in it. God, that is. It’s not quite right for me to use gender-specific pronouns when speaking of what, to my mind, doesn’t even exist.

I think my appointment has to do with the fact that I can’t seem to stay away from the subject of religion. Try as I might, I can’t avoid it. It’s everywhere I look. To tell you the truth, I don’t really mind it unless I’m expected to revere it, pay it “respect,” or financially support it in any way other than voluntarily.

Then there are those other itsy-bitsy issues that keep popping up like the National Day of Prayer. Some of my secular friends are bewildered as to why we atheists are upset at something so benign, so negligibly harmless as a government-sponsored prayer day. It may sound silly, but once God gets its foot in the door, all sorts of unsavory things scamper in with the breeze.

I know this because I live in Italy, where the constitution states that all religions are equal, but that the relationship between the Catholic Church and the state is governed by the eighty-year old Lateran Pacts. Crucifixes are stuck to the walls of public schools, courtrooms and other buildings. There is even a Catholic religion-hour in school, with teachers handpicked by the Vatican and paid for by the state.

In the eyes of a secularist, this is a bad thing. It means that non-Catholics are put on a separate plane in public life. Where are our symbols, we ask? The answer from the religious apologists is telling, though. No longer are they mouthing off about “truth” and “salvation” in defense of their symbols; now they use more acceptable terminology like “The crucifix is an inseparable part of Italian culture,” or “It is a universal symbol of love.” As some skeptics have pointed out, that is also a working definition of pizza.

But now for my unremarkable loss of faith story. Losses of faith stories are fascinating, don’t you think? They exude an air of epiphany similar to that of religious conversion, at least on the surface. The truth is that I, apparently alone among my countrymen and women, came of age in the United States of America — the most devout developed country on earth — without so much as ever having peeked between the pages of a Bible. In fact, and I’m slightly embarrassed to admit this (but isn’t that what personal anecdotes so gingerly proffer?), but I wasn’t even aware that the Bible was about the Jews.

Of course, I knew I was Jewish. I just had no idea what that meant on a historical scale. Religion was perhaps the only subject — right next to politics — that was never addressed in our home. Years later, my sister would come to regret this omission. But it wasn’t deliberate. Our parents were simply not religious people, and the enlightened suburb of Baltimore we lived in was not Bible-drunk. In many ways it was the archetypal American secular experience.

It wasn’t until I came to Italy that I realized what I had missed. When I met my wife, she had just gone through an idol-smashing of her own, in which she had managed to break through the wall of traditionalist religion that society and her family had built around her. She had become infatuated with Judaism. That’s when I began to read the Bible, because being Jewish suddenly seemed electrifying and special. This was no longer midtown Manhattan.

I read the Bible, or “Tanakh,” as I learned to call it. I felt I needed to grasp Jewishness at its core. As I read, I tried hard to believe what I read. I began — for the first time — to employ expressions like “God willing” and “Thank God.” I tried praying, although I knew no Hebrew. I would mouth the words I read in transliterated Roman characters: “Baruch atah adonai, eloheynu melekh ha-olam…” Over time I began to make some sense of all this newness. I began to think deeply about God, observe a very personalized form of kashrut (the Jewish dietary laws), attend synagogue on holy days and fast on Yom Kippur. This lasted for about three years. Then, as quickly as it began, it ended.

Looking back, I realize I censored myself at every pass. I constructed an ad-hoc reality for myself out of holy books. I wouldn’t even read novels on shabbat because I wished to preserve some of its holiness. No matter that I worked on that day. God didn’t want me to be unemployed, did he? Then who would praise him? I’d stroll home from work, basking in the glow of the dying sunlight, then dutifully search out the first three stars which marked the beginning of the profane week ahead. It wasn’t much of a Sabbath, but I managed to make it feel special. I knew I could feel the presence of the shekhinah, the divine essence, descending on the world each week.

Or maybe it was just the smog at Largo Argentina.

- Published in The American

Some of the old tricks

I used to play around on ramps like this when I was a tyke. Then gave up skating when I went to college, like so many, and never went back to it. I was even embarrassed by my past as a skater (it was very unintellectual-sounding) for awhile, but I got over that, too. Now I really enjoy checking out what the young’ns are doing these days. They just keep blowing my mind.

Update. Compare with this video, recently salvaged by a friend (and don’t laugh). Play simultaneously for optimum effect:

National Day of Prayer is such a bad idea

I’m not even sure I can find the words – without offending almost everyone I know – to describe why this is such a bad idea. “What is so offensive about God?” It’s this kind of question that creates atheists.

Those, myself included, who do not think God – or any type of “higher power” – exists (except in the minds of the faithful), might answer, “Nothing is offensive about God, as long as you keep Him or It out of public life.”

National Day of Prayer is clearly in violation of this principle. Non-theistic Americans are being told, “Unless you pray, you are excluded. Your government encourages you to pray.” For what, pray tell? Money? Power? To stave off disaster from our shores? To win the lottery?

If you do believe in God, or any of the many gods on offer, that’s your business. I respect you, even if I may not respect your belief. I will not lobby for our government to enforce an National Day of Unbelief. And I will remind you that the only type of society in which both you and I are equals is a society which nurtures each individual’s right to believe, or not believe, in accordance with his or her own conscience.

I don’t especially want to turn you into a non-believer. I don’t care to debaptize you or your children. Calm down. There is no atheist inquisition out to get you. All we want are the equal rights guaranteed to all citizens by the constitution, with no favoritism of the religious over the non-religious.

And I would expect religious people to be a bit more up in arms over this as well. Do you really want your government trampling over your personal relationship with God? Rev. Barry Lynn has a great piece in which he writes,

Government is supposed to be neutral on religion. It has no business telling people how, when or where to pray — or even if they ought to pray. Government does lots of things well, but meddling in our private religious lives is not among them.

I know people who think we atheists are “obsessive” about separation of church and state. But this is a very real, and important, battle none of us can afford to lose.

“Will you ask that ‘under God’ be removed from the Pledge of Allegiance? ‘In God We Trust’ from money? Will you people not stop until you have destroyed God entirely?”

This is typical Fox News talk, and not really worthy of serious discussion. But, for the record, it wouldn’t be a bad start.

Because once you open the door to God, all sorts of opportunistic little critters start scampering in. And, trust me, you don’t want them around.

Mario Dell’Arco

No, I haven’t stopped blogging. But I do have a life. Among the many things I manage to pack into the twenty-four measly hours of a day, I translate poetry. Since I’m working on a manuscript, the blog logically goes on the back burner. And since nobody reading this has probably ever heard of Mario Dell’Arco, here is a sample of his work. This and about ten other lyrics were published in the Autumn 2009 issue of the Journal of Italian Translation. Go buy a copy.

Diffidenza

Giove compie mill’anni, e l’animali
je porteno er cadò.
La serpe striscia co una rosa in bocca
e Giove: – Cocca, accetto li regali;
ma da una serpe, e da la bocca, no.

Diffidence

At Jove’s one-thousandth birthday bash
the animals paid their respects.
The serpent brought him a rose. Jove quipped:
– That I love presents everybody knows;
but from the snake, and from its mouth,
that gift I can’t accept.

I don’t usually do this, but…

…I’m going to now, because this is so damn funny I want everyone I know and don’t know – Democrat, Republican, Dino, Rino – to read it. Spot on, as they say in the UK. Via Tom Bissell.

A day in the life of Obama (as envisioned by a typical Republican) by Lewis Grossberger

6:30 AM: Obama awakened by clock radio tuned to NPR’s popular morning drive-time show, Kronsky the Bomb Thrower and His Anarcho-Syndicalist Zoo. “You know what would be fun?” Kronsky quips. “Getting the workers to seize the means of production and execute the blood-sucking capitalist bosses!” “If only,” mutters Obama.

7:30 AM: on way to Oval Office, Obama ducks into private chapel, slipping off shoes and prostrating self while facing Mecca. He chants high-pitched, ululating prayer to Allah in foreign tongue then before leaving, bows before busts of Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Hitler and Saul Alinsky.

7:40 AM: Rahm Emanuel enters Oval Office, gives Obama secret Illuminati handshake, says, “Good morning, Comrade President. The Iranian ambassador is here to discuss his scheme to undermine America’s security.” Obama says, “Show him right in.”

9:05 AM: Snack of sweetened camel milk served with dates, figs, pita and hummus. Then Iranian ambassador exits White House through secret tunnel so Fox News won’t see him.

9:30 AM: House Speaker Pelosi arrives to plot strategy for government takeover of lucrative garbage-collection industry. Obama gives her large suitcase full of cash for bribing Congressmen.

10 AM: Editors of New York Times, Washington Post, New Yorker arrive to receive weekly instructions.

11 AM: Daily intelligence briefing by CIA and Pentagon officials on activities of America’s enemies. Bored, Obama does crossword puzzle, then dozes off.

Noon: Lunch with leaders of world gay conspiracy, who lobby Obama to appoint a transsexual to Supreme Court.

2 PM: Quiet ceremony in Rose Garden, where elders of Kikuyu tribe give Obama plaque honoring him as first Kenyan to become President of U.S.

3 PM: Latte with key advisers Al Gore, Michael Moore, Rev. Wright, Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Al Sharpton, Bill Ayers.

4 PM: Basketball with White House staffers. Obama’s side allowed to win, as usual.

7 PM: Dinner with family, leaders of Acorn.

9 PM: Obama reads a chapter from Das Kapital for Kids to Sasha,Malia.

10 PM: In private quarters, Obama, Michelle are so moved watching PBS documentary on suffering of poor widows and children of al Qaeda suicide bombers,  they decide to make contribution.

11 PM: Bong hits, anal sex, then sleep.

2:25 AM: Succubus enters bedroom, mounts sleeping President and has her way with him while whispering demonic instructions for next day.

Leaving the Flock

Paul Constant has an enraged plea for excommunication in The Stranger. Constant writes:

I demand to be excommunicated because I do not believe women are second-class citizens. I demand to be excommunicated because your missionaries are informing impoverished citizens of third-world countries that birth control is a sin when it is in fact the single most important thing they could do to gain some small amount of control over their economic situation and health. I demand to be excommunicated because your church has become a hate group as virulent as any this world has ever seen, one that is unnaturally obsessed with the sex lives of good men and women across the planet. I demand to be excommunicated because I do not condone child rape or the concealment of child rape.

I don’t think any sane bishop would excommunicate even the most heretical baptized Catholic these days, simply because they need the numbers. In fact, I wonder just who does get excommunicated these days. What do you have to do, deny the Holocaust? Rape deaf children? Masturbate in private?

There is an easier way, Paul. It’s called debaptism. In Italy they do it every year. There is also a UK version.

Raffaele Carcano of Italy’s UAAR, in an interview with the author of this blog, said:

So-called debaptism is nothing more than the legal translation of a basic human right: the right to change religion, or have none at all. Debaptism (in Italy) makes a break with the Catholic Church, and therefore the right not to be denigrated by the Church for one’s behavior.

Italian law has unfortunately recognized that, in questions of faith, the baptized are “subject” to the ecclesiastical hierarchies and must be “obedient” to them. Debaptism serves to avoid this. One can also debaptize … because one doesn’t share certain attitudes of the Church. […] Anyone can find the reason he or she prefers.

Take heart, Paul. I bet if you write the UAAR an email they will walk you through the process.

L’Affaire Babini

An interesting development in the Babini affair is the content of the monsignor’s retraction. He denies having ever said anything anti-Semitic. “Certain words have been attributed to me which I never said…about my brothers the Jews.” There is fuzziness surrounding this interview. One of two things is going on, though. Either Babini gave the interview as published (in a kind of threat, Potifex claims to have the “tapes” of the  interview), and then retracted it in a sort of vague and non-committal way, or the whole thing is a fabrication.

I say non-committal because what is “anti-Semitic” in one person’s eyes may not be so in another’s. Perhaps there are those, like L’Osservatore Romano in its anti-Semitic heyday, who play the game of distinction between “good” and “bad” anti-Semitism. The good kind is actually anti-Judaism, or hatred of the Jewish religion. The bad kind is, presumably, violence against the Jews themselves. This is an extremely dangerous “distinction,” however, which led to the demonization of an entire people and sowed the seeds from which the Shoah grew. This “distinction” has also allowed the Catholic Church to wash its hands of any true responsibility in the Shoah. The brute killing was carried out by a “pagan” regime. Where might they have gotten their most dangerous ideas from? Why did they find the masses so indifferent and even willing? Could centuries of the most poisonous anti-Jewish propaganda by the Church have had something to do with it?

Interestingly, the Wikipedia entry for L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s “semi-official” newspaper, skips the entirety of the 20th century. There is simply a widget reading, This section has no content. We learn nothing about what it actually published in its glorious heyday leading up to the Second World War: it’s vicious anti-Semitic campaign in the 1890s, its uncritical acceptance of ritual murder charges against Jews, its endorsement of Italy’s racial laws of the 1930s. Today L’Osservatore prides itself in “presenting the genuine face of the church and the ideals of freedom.” “145 years as the ‘genuine face of the Church,'” reads an article in the Catholic News Service from 2006. One hundred of which have no content, apparently.

Why bother about L’Osservatore Romano, though? Because it seems the Vatican is playing a never-ending game of hide-and-seek with “official” “semi-offical” and “unofficial” pronouncements. One might infer that the only “official” voice of the Church is that of the pope himself. That leaves a huge margin for bishops, priests, cardinals and the like to voice various “unofficial” points of view, some of which push the limits of free speech up against a wall. When Lilli Gruber of Otto e Mezzo, a popular evening news program in Italy, recently invited a cardinal to speak on the pedophilia scandals, Gruber smilingly acknowledged that the cardinal could not say certain things. Is his therefore an “official” voice, constrained to silence on touchy issues? Who can know? Can “offical” voices become “unofficial” if they lead to scandal or a worsening of the Church’s public image?

If the interview is indeed a fabrication, one would expect serious action to be taken against the Pontifex blog by the Church itself. One would expect the Italian media giants to have caught on to it by now and have published some kind of editorial apology. But none of this is happening.

I couldn’t, say, fabricate an interview with Hillary Clinton, quoting her as saying, “We’re going to nuke those sand niggers in Iran” (I’m being entirely facetious here), have the story picked up verbatim and uncritically by the New York Times and Washington Post and countless other media, then have Clinton retract her statement as “having said nothing against the Iranian people” and still keep the interview up on my blog without some serious legal action.

But that’s kind of how things stand at the moment with the Babini affair.

A Zionist Plot to Bring Down the Church

It just keeps getting curiouser and curiouser. After Father Cantalamessa’s embarassing blather about the Church being the victim of anti-Semitism, now it’s Monsignor Babini of Grosseto’s turn to make the Vatican turn red. In an interview with the medieval website Pontifex, the venerable monsignor said what I am beginning to imagine a sizable amount of Vatican cronies actually believe (but are far too prudent to state openly): the pedophilia scandal is a “Zionist attack, given the force and sophistication…they don’t want the Church, they are its natural enemies. In the end, historically speaking, they murdered God.”

It gets better: “Don’t believe that Hitler was crazy. The truth is that the Nazi’s criminal fury was unleashed by the Jews’ excesses and ebezzlement, which strangled the German economy.”

Are you laughing yet, or crying? Babini then goes on to deride homosexuals, predictably accusing them of some sort of lobby to bring down the pope. Freemasons dutifully get theirs. In the end, there is not much to distinguish this interview, published on the internet in the year 2010, from the vitriolic attacks of the pre-war Osservatore Romano, or Der Sturmer.

But there is more than meets the eye here. The website Pontifex is in no obvious way an “official” organ of the Catholic Church. In fact, it’s nothing more than an ultra-traditionalist, obscurantist blog publishing the most disgusting, offensive and retrograde opinions imaginable anywhere in the “civilized” West. They flirt with exorcism, demonology, angelology and satanism. They are obsessed with Jews, homosexuals and sex. Nothing new here.

The interview was promptly retracted – according to Corriere della Sera – by the Italian Episcopal Conference. Apparently, Monsignor Babini denies having ever said such horrible things about Jews. The website Pontifex prompty shot back that Babini and the IEC are in the hands of the Jews. “All it takes is a sneeze by the American Jews for them to recant.”

Strong words by an integralist Catholic website. So strong you’d think the Vatican would distance itself from them immediately if they were making this stuff up. You know, so people don’t confuse bigoted, anti-Semitic Catholic bloggers with actual “official” declarations of the Catholic Church. With such tight control over what is said by the clergy, one would expect no less.

But the interview is still up. Is it a fake? Did Pontifex invent it out of whole cloth to voice their integralist opinions in no uncertain terms, hitching a ride on the back of Monsignor Babini and the good reputation of the Church itself? Would the two largest Italian dailies have published such words without some minimal fact-checking first?

I can’t say. But it isn’t much different from what we read in the Osservatore Romano, the official Church daily, in the not-so-far-away 1890’s: “Anti-Semitism ought to be the natural, sober, thoughtful, Christian reaction against Jewish predominance.” (David I. Kertzer, The Popes Against the Jews) We might also recall the Lefebvrian Bishop Richard Williamson, a holocaust denier, reinstated by Pope Benedict XVI last year. His choice words were: “There was not one Jew killed in the gas chambers. It was all lies, lies, lies.”

And just last week, on Good Friday, the pope’s personal preacher, Father Cantalamessa, had his fifteen minutes of infamy likening public outrage at the Church’s cover-up of pedofilia to “the worst aspects of anti-Semitism.” What are its best aspects, one might wonder?

The Church is spiraling downward in a maelstrom of scandal. It seems every time it opens its big unofficial mouth, it sticks a large official foot in. You can’t get away with this for very long, though. You can’t repeatedly make the same ignorant and offensive claims and then say you didn’t make them, or that they weren’t “official.” You can’t run from the law forever. Richard Dawkins just might catch up with you.