How Italy’s “8 per mille” religious tax works

I don’t have much time right now to write a lengthy post on the “8 per mille” (that’s “8 per thousand”) religious tax. It’s an obligatory tax, and the taxpayer must choose which religious confession gets the money. If the taxpayer is a Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu he or she is out of luck. Their religions aren’t able to participate. In that case the taxpayer might simply not choose, or choose “State”, in which case the money almost certainly goes directly to the Catholic Church. 

The UAAR has done an excellent job of informing the public on how this all works. Around 60% of Italians don’t choose, perhaps because they’re apathetic or have no idea what’s at stake. Only 37% or so actually choose the Catholic Church, yet the C.C. receives around 87% of the entire tax. Something’s clearly wrong with this picture.

If you understand Italian, this short video explains what’s going on (and how the C.C. spends the €1 billion or so they get as a freebie from the State each year.)

The “8 per mille” Wikipedia page exists in ItalianEnglish and Hebrew.

Low-hanging testicles

Jerry Coyne has a post commenting on a review of his book Why Evolution Is True at the BioLogos site. Jerry is always funny, and not at all deserving of his reputation in some circles as a misanthrope. If you read the WEIT blog regularly, you’ll know that he’s always picking on these folks for mixing up religion and science. Poor folks! Why can’t the biologists just let the BioLogos crowd be so they can go on reconciling God with His creation in peace and quiet?

Well, because He did a pretty bad job of it. And Jerry has a little list:

Organisms are full of flaws.  Considering only humans, we have descending testicles that can cause problems, very difficult childbirth in females, vestigial wisdom teeth (and appendixes) that can become impacted or infected, and our recurrent laryngeal nerve, which, instead of connecting the brain and larynx by the shortest route, loops way down around the heart and comes back up again.  These are not features an intelligent designer would have given us. But those features are completely understandable in light of evolution.  The nerve, for example, was constrained to form a long loop because a blood vessel moved backwards during our evolution from fishy ancestors, forcing the nerve (which once lay next to that vessel) to elongate around it to retain its connection with the larynx.

I’m always wondering how IDers and their ilk can reconcile a benevolent designer with…childbirth. Any man who’s ever seen a woman go through labor knows what I’m talking about. It’s torture. Not to mention the women who’ve actually gone through it. I’m surprised they aren’t all atheists. Maybe there’s a T-shirt in that thought.

Here’s my limerick about it:

If life on this earth was designed
with all of us neatly in mind
why isn’t it clear
just why we are here,
not to mention the crippled and blind?

If there’s an intelligent designer, I want my money back.

The greatest

When I sent a fake Bob Dylan tweet last night before going to bed, I didn’t realize he was turning seventy today. Seventy! I’m not going to go into a long spiel about how Dylan is the greatest songwriter since X or how he revolutionized contemporary music more often than Y, because there’s really no point. But who’s got the consistency of quality we find in Dylan’s work over such a span of time? Lou Reed has always been my rock-n-roll hero, but he’s been constantly checked by Dylan every step of the way. I love Lou for his chutzpah, much of which he likely lifted wholesale from Bob (and both via Warhol). Bob made Lou possible, not the other way around.

Anyway, here’s a brief post I wrote a few years ago under my then-nom-de-plume about the influence Blonde On Blonde had on my youthful self.

I arrived in New York City armed with a roll of twenties, my mother’s suitcase, and a portable tape player. I kissed mom goodbye, paid rent for a week (this was a hotel on the Bowery!) and went back upstairs to contemplate my life. I was barely twenty, freshly dropped out of artschool, and unemployed with few or no prospects. I remember throwing Blonde On Blonde into the tapedeck, lying back on my rented cot, and hearing the words that  illustrated my predicament with what seemed an eerie truthfulness. The organ swerving through trickling guitars. That mercury sound. The nasal voice. “Well, the bricks lay on Grand Street…where the neon madmen climb.” I was two blocks from Grand Street! In the middle of the muddle of Dylan’s masterwork–this was why I had come after all! The Chinese fishmongers were still there, the street was indeed paved with bricks, everything shimmering in the bronze light of an early March sunset in Manhattan. Twenty-nine years after the album was cut. The first day of the rest of my life.

In time I must have memorized every word of this album, the most enchanting and eclectic of Dylan’s long career. It functioned like a treasure map of the city, as I followed its clues from point to point, navigating through the people and the places with unassailable curiosity, searching out the Dylanesque in every bookshop and bar. Years passed, and the traumas of life in the city brought me regularly back to Dylan’s couch in order “to find out what price/ you had to pay to get out of/ going through all these things twice.”

(Note: I looked for a Dylan performance of “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” on YouTube, but all I could find were covers. So listen to Cat Power, ’cause she rocks, too.)

Belief (almost) made me a complete asshole*

I’ve been having a debate (what else to call it?) on Facebook lately with a couple of friends over whether religion can be held responsible for its homophobic teachings. I say it can and should, whereas my friends disagree. They suggest that prejudice most likely has a different explanation, and religions simply capitalize on pre-existing feelings of hatred and fear. That’s quite true. But religion has crystallized these emotions and normalized them for billions of people, weaving them into the fabric of belief. To be a Roman Catholic who does not think homosexuals are “disordered”, or “unnatural” is to have shed an important part of that belief system, and one that is hammered home at every opportunity by those in charge of Roman Catholic beliefs.

Once, when I was flirting with religious belief, I was on the road to such thinking as well. I remember quite vividly the way in which my perception of sexuality became more prudish. I was reading the Bible and trying hard to put my thinking in line with what I thought was a “Jewish” view of sexuality. While I never became homophobic, I did begin to think differently about two men having sex (but not two women). I began to adopt more “conservative” or “traditional” opinions. And this opinion was rather negative, as I recall it.

It didn’t stick, though. The more I studied and tried hard to ignore the cognitive dissonance of “believing” while going to the movies on Friday evening – which is strictly forbidden by Jewish law – the more I felt like the whole edifice was just that: an artificial construct. Then it fell, just like the cardboard cut-out it was.

The experience was useful, however, for it put me in the mind of a believer for a short time. Some might say this isn’t accurate, as I was never really any such thing. Either way, it felt a lot like what I’ve read over and over again about the tension people feel when they put their religious beliefs to the test and decide they can’t go on lying to themselves.

To get back to homophobia, though. In my admittedly anecdotal experience, I was aware of a change taking place. And that wasn’t because of radical preachers, fundamentalist company or any such thing; it was what I had begun to intuit about the Bible itself and its archaic worldview (I even began to wonder how one might make sacrifices in the 21st century). I only wished to get in line and act, well, religious.

Thankfully, this proved rather difficult. I have a bad habit of analyzing things to death, and for me whatever ad-hoc idea of God I’d begun to formulate in my head vanished under scrutiny. By the time I’d finished reading The End of Faith, I had accepted that the religious life – and accompanying worldview – wasn’t for me.

In fact, more than anything it was the way an even diluted religious belief messed with my mind that turned me off. It was a bit like drugs (I’ve had bad experiences on both). It was the realization that I wasn’t in full control, that I felt puppeted, manipulated by the things I was reading. I even began to entertain creationism, which is a perfect example of the way religion can damage one’s thinking; I can think of no other reason on Earth anyone would question the evidence for evolution if not for a religious (read: Abrahamic) worldview.

As an atheist I’m always discussing religion with people who will discuss it with me. Having briefly tasted belief, I’m curious to know what others experience and how it affects them. Some even quip that I’m more “religious” than the religious because I take belief seriously. Well, I’ve seen what it can do, and it’s heady stuff. Trust me.

* Some people think I’m an asshole now, of course; but they don’t know what was happening inside my head then.

Miracle in Petrignano

Our Lady of Alderaan

One of the perks of living in Italy is that, no matter where you end up, you are in the realm of miracles. They happen all the time here. But like UFO sightings, hauntings or any other paranormal activity, miracles never seem to happen to me. I wonder why that is.

Not long ago we were having dinner with some friends when one mentioned that the Virgin Mary had appeared in our local church last year. There had been a big brouhaha over it on television, and apparently the Vatican is now doing whatever it is they do to “verify” the supposed breach of all known laws of reality. We might be living in the next Lourdes, or Medjugorje, for all we know.

According to RAI’s Massimo Giletti, who hosted the relevant television special, one of the “seers” of Medjugorje (one of the six people who supposedly saw the Virgin Mary appear the Herzegovina town in 1981) was at the church of our modest hamlet for some commemorative prayers. An elderly woman who was attending took out her cell phone to film the service for her daughter. When she got home and watched the results, there was “a luminous figure” in the foreground. The woman sustained later that there was “no one there” while she was filming.

Miracles often begin their lives this way. Let’s take a closer look, though.

First, Assisi is a place known for one of the best-loved saints in Catholic canon, St. Francis. Everything near Assisi is bathed in the glow of this humble man, and our town is no exception. He was akin to the Italian Jesus (or was until Padre Pio usurped his throne). It’s a very suggestive place, even for a skeptic.

Second, we are in the presence of religious believers. Who else goes to church to see a religious celebrity like the woman of Medjugorje, anyway? So two very essential elements are in place for miracles to happen.

What would be truly astonishing is if the woman had filmed something quite unrelated to the Catholic faith. Joseph Smith maybe, or a Hindu deity. That would’ve at least been worthy of scrutiny. That she filmed the Virgin Mary is prosaic; it’s expected in a place already saturated with Virgin Marys. They are on the walls, in paintings, on street corners, in people’s houses and in their wallets. There should be nothing surprising if she “appears” on someone’s cell phone.

The image itself is very suggestive — at least to me — of Princess Lea from Star Wars. There is a famous scene in the movie where she appears in a hologram projected by R2-D2. Supplicating, she says, “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.” It’s an astonishing resemblance. So how do we know it wasn’t Princess Lea in that church?

We don’t, any more than we know it was or wasn’t the Virgin Mary. Because for a vague white glow to be either of those two presupposes an enormous amount of supporting evidence, which we just don’t have. We’d need to establish their historical existence, first of all. One is a minor character from a book written thousands of years ago and full of all sorts of things we know to be fanciful, falsified and just plain fraudulent. The other is from a movie made comparatively recently, in 1977. The actress Carrie Fisher — who played Princess Lea — is still alive, giving a slight edge of probability to our admittedly absurd hypothesis.

I could go on, but I’m only trying to establish the idea that miracles are in the mind of the credulous. When enough people begin believing these things, the Vatican authorities step in and “verify” them, creating a moneymaking publicity machine in the process.

One could say that not all supposed miracles are accepted by the Vatican, thereby suggesting that there are some criteria by which miracles are tested for veracity. As they are by definition unfalsifiable, though, it really appears to be a matter of shrewdness. The case of Padre Pio is a good example. The Vatican actively opposed his cult for decades, until it grew too large to be ignored. So they incorporated it. Now, as they say, he’s more popular than Jesus and almost every Italian knows someone who has been “miraculously cured” by him. I know I do.

I’m daily amazed that adults are susceptible to such obvious nonsense. What doesn’t amaze me, though, is that Italian state-television cynically plays to this credulity. They know their public, and they will do just about anything to keep them as uninformed and complacent as possible.

From The American

Italian politicians playing on their iPads in Parliament

Here are some photos of Italian politicians using their time wisely. In these photos only right-wing parties are represented, but you can be sure that center and left parties are doing the same. If you’re on a Northern League mailing list, I’m sure you’re getting them (I’m not so I don’t). And they wonder why nobody trusts them?

(Italy Chronicles has done a more in-depth post on these same photos.)

Archy the Cockroach takes on the Universe

From the incomparable Lives & Times of Archy and Mehitabel by Don Marquis:

the universe and archy
the inspired cockroach
sat and looked at each other
satirically

you write so many things
about me that are not true
complained the universe

there are so many things
about you which you seem to be
unconscious of yourself said archy

i contain a number of things
which i am trying to forget
rejoined the universe

such as what asked archy

such as cockroaches and poets
replied the universe

you are wrong contended archy
for it is only by working up
the most important part of yourself
into the form of poets
that you get a product capable
of understanding you at all

you poets were always able
to get the better of me
in argument said the universe
and i think that is one thing
that is the matter with you

if you object to my intellect
retorted archy i can only reply
that i got it from you
as well as anything else
that should make you more humble

Archy was such a freethinking cockroach. Gotta love the little guy!