The Facebook atheist

ImageI recently started a group called Atheists Assisi on Facebook, that notorious maker and breaker of contemporary friendships. The group — the first and only one to my knowledge — is devoted to forging a community of atheists in the Assisi area. As one member jokingly put it, “In the land of St. Francis are you sure they won’t burn us as heretics?”

Believe it or not, the first problems I encountered weren’t from vigilante Franciscan monks but from well-meaning expats like myself. When I posted a link to my page on a popular expat group on Facebook, I was considerate enough to tag it “for anyone who might be interested.”

Of course that didn’t stop a minor deluge of comments along the lines of, “Please refrain from preaching, moralizing or ridiculing others’ beliefs” and “I was brought up to respect other people’s beliefs” and “Talking about religion only destroys friendships.” At one point I was even compared to the Seventh Day Adventists.

Thankfully, a few had my back. My critics were reminded that I wasn’t proselytizing or poking fun at others’ beliefs. In fact, all I had done was post a link that contained the word “atheist.” Apparently, that was enough to start the machine gurgling and sputtering. You’d have thought I’d announced the successful cloning of Torquemada and the reconstitution of the Spanish Inquisition.

The idea lurking behind these disputes is that atheists — at least those of us who make a point of talking about it openly — are a kind of militant faction roughly comparable to Al Qaeda. We fanatically harangue passersby about their beliefs, insult them, beat them, spit on their prophets and leave them to suffer from internal bleeding before an oncoming rig — all the while laughing our heads off at their credulousness. We’re a callous bunch, aren’t we?

The truth is that most atheists, even the angriest and most militant, bear no resemblance to the caricature. Most of us are animated by a love of logical argument and a desire for evidence in support of claims. We love to talk, discuss, provoke but also listen and attempt to understand why others feel as they do. We don’t generally carry explosives. We don’t overpopulate prisons. A quote that represents our position might be, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

It’s a pity I feel the need to write a paragraph like the one above. It’s disheartening that atheists remain the target of hostility, not only from true believers but also from decent people who claim tolerance for everyone – except atheists.

In fact, the one piece of advice my critics had for me was, “Just shut the hell up. You’re ruining the party for the rest of us.” What we were discussing wasn’t religion or atheism, though. It was the right to discuss religion and atheism. I had been accused of parachuting my beliefs behind the wall erected to shield them from inquiry, a wall behind which they can never be questioned, ridiculed or challenged.

But what good are belief systems that go unquestioned? What good is it to carry beliefs in your head that never see the light of day? How do you even know you believe something if you’ve never inspected it sufficiently to see what it’s actually made of?

It seems to me about the worst decision one can make is to insulate cherished beliefs and make them inaccessible to inquiry. It also suggests that such beliefs can’t stand up to even superficial scrutiny. Hence the fear of discussing them openly and the desire to censor those who would.

This is a recipe for disaster. There’s no better way of weeding out bad ideas than letting them get some fresh air. I for one am content to let others question my most strongly-held beliefs for the following reasons:

  • If my beliefs can withstand logical inquiry then they are probably constructed on solid ground and therefore generally sound (ok to keep until further notice)

  • If my beliefs crumble at the first sign of resistance they are at best poorly developed and at worst worthless (best to get rid of these ASAP).

If you look at societies that ban free inquiry and doubt you’ll find them all to be oppressive if not downright totalitarian. Toleration of free speech and free thought is the essence of a free society. The paradox is that some use the right to try to shut up those whose speech they disagree with.

I’m not implying that’s what was being done in my Facebook episode. I don’t think there was an actual desire to tamper with my right to free speech. What I think happened was that a few people overreacted to a word they dislike, one that challenges their beliefs without their needing to put on armor or pick up a sword. They instead imagined the battle as it might have been: the besieged castle, the hot oil, and the fleeing king galloping through the woods naked.

And that was enough for them. Because the king is naked, and the only person who will remind you of that is the pesky little atheist on your Facebook page.

Assisi has atheists!

The light of reason breaking over Assisi

This is just a quick, informative post to let readers (and search engines) know that there is a new group on Facebook called Atei Assisi | Assisi Atheists. The idea behind it is to give atheists and other non-believers in the Assisi area – or Umbria, Italy and anywhere else they might live – some much-needed visibility.

Assisi, as most people know, is famous in all the world for one thing: St. Francis. A man who spoke to animals. A magician. And probably a charlatan (he was supposed to have stigmata - a red flag if ever there was one.)

It goes without saying that such a place probably has a bunch of frustrated atheists chomping at the bit. Plus, it doesn’t cost anything at all to “like” us. It’s free and always will be. So let’s show the theocrats we’re here to stay!

The importance of being Catholic

There’s been a recent crackdown on religion teachers in Palermo, Sicily. Apparently, they’ve been asked (required is more like it) to produce a certificate of Catholic moral fitness in order to keep their jobs. These, mind you, are teachers of Catholic religion in Italian public schools, chosen by the Vatican and paid for by the State. Now it seems the Vatican has begun to notice that not all Catholics are quite as obedient as they’d like them to be.

How many of those who call themselves Catholics follow the teachings of the Church to the letter? How many of them go to mass, confess, take communion, avoid sex which isn’t for reproductive purposes, don’t use contraception, don’t get divorced, don’t have abortions, haven’t betrayed their spouses, don’t steal, lie and so on?

It’s seriously funny, isn’t it? I wish I were optimistic enough to agree with some people that we are witnessing the death throes of Roman Catholicism, but harmful and ridiculous ideologies have a way of sticking around for millennia.

But guess what? The teachers are really pissed off about this! Which is a good thing, and I hope their anger spreads more generally through the population and Italians finally realize they’re sick of being preached to by a corrupt gang of homophobic sissies. Most Italians have better moral values than the Catholic Church peddles, despite the fact that they often define themselves – erroneously – as “Catholics.”

They’re not, any more than I’m a Hasidic Jew.

***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.

God does not exist!

Every time I go to the supermarket there is a guy selling socks in the parking lot. It’s not always the same guy, but he always says the same thing: “Hello, my friend…” and then elicits handouts with a combination of smiles, hand gestures and appeals to the goodness of god.

Sometimes I give him spare change. Once I gave him a banana, for which he seemed grateful. I’m sorry for his predicament (he’s likely a refugee from a war-torn place), but I try not to let myself become an easy target for people begging for money, either. Maybe this is a holdover from my New York days.

Today we had a brief conversation. It went like this: “Hello, my friend!”

“Hey.”

“Ah, god is good, is he not?”

“No, he’s not. You should thank people who have helped you out, not god.”

“But doesn’t god help you, my friend?”

“He’s never done anything for me.”

“Why don’t you believe in god?” he asked.

“Because he doesn’t exist!” I said gleefully. I made sure to smile, too, so he could be sure that he was speaking to a happy atheist. (Maybe secretly I was hoping he’d take a swipe at me. To his credit, he didn’t.) Then we got in the car and drove off.

Later, I asked my wife if I’d been too hard on the man. She replied that he came from Africa and had seen who knows what horrors before embarking for Europe. He may have lost his family and possessions along the way. He’d probably come from a country where life was hell, and seen things that would make us shudder. My little quip wasn’t going to cause a breakdown in him.

Fair enough. I wasn’t going for that, anyway. I was just expressing mild outrage at the idea of a person who depends upon the kindness of strangers but can’t thank them directly. Instead, he thanks “god” – the same all powerful god, no doubt, who surveys his perpetually war-trashed African homeland with such an approving grin.

You can’t have one without the other, can you?

Italy’s Ugliest Churches

I’m always tired of people yapping about how wonderful Italy is because it’s full of beautiful old churches. Well, it’s just as full of terribly ugly modern churches. The kind which make you shiver, the ecclesiastical equivalent of the Yugo. I posted some photos of one of them here. There is even a blog devoted to them: bruttechiese. Here are some others.