So Patti Smith is playing the Vatican

When I first heard the news on Facebook the other day that Patti Smith was going to play the Vatican Christmas concert in Rome on Dec. 13, I thought my friend was just pulling my leg. Since then the news has gone viral. She’s the talk of the town, much as she was when I arrived in NYC in 1995 to see her on the cover of the Village Voice. I’ve loved Patti as much as anyone, I suppose. Her music and her style have influenced me (at least the me of my twenties) more than most. That said, it’s been a while since I’ve really followed her. I began to rethink our relationship after I went to see her at the Auditorium in Rome in 2007. She had draped a Palestinian flag over the stage. I have nothing against the Palestinians, mind you, but I was there for the rock-and-roll, not the politics. But, as my friend retorted, you don’t get Patti without the politics. So be it.

Which brings us to Pope Francis and the Christmas concert. A great many people are enthusiastic to see Patti accept the pope’s invitation. There is even a photo of the two of them greeting each other in St. Peter’s Square earlier this year (staged, no doubt). Patti has always had a strong spiritual streak throughout her work, though she has been quite critical of (organized) religion. Her most cited lyric, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins / but not mine…” might even have pitted her as a papal antagonist. So what’s going on here?

I don’t mean to piss in the Christmas pudding (if that’s the expression), but I’m a bit disappointed in Patti for having accepted this invitation. I’ve been at odds with myself for a day and a half over just why, having had some trouble putting my finger on what irks me. And I’m not sure I’ve figured it out (perhaps I’m just being Grumpy Atheist Guy, who knows?), but I do feel the need to try and put my thoughts down. Especially because I can’t find another atheist blogger who has had anything negative to say about this yet.

I’ve spent quite a lot of blogspace writing about the Catholic Church (see my list of posts Crucifixes and Creationists) and its invasion of Italian life, both public and private. In my view, they are not a jolly bunch of men running around Rome in antique dresses. They are, rather, a powerful, power-hungry and enormously invasive political machine – the oldest institution in the Western world, as they love to say – with retrograde ideas about human well-being and dogmas which are largely incompatible with modern conceptions of human rights. They are also losing ground and numbers in a way which has forced them to reposition themselves in society.

Everyone knows religion depends on follwers to thrive, not unlike social media. In a world which is becoming more and more secular, with more and more Catholics leaving the church, the Catholic Church is in a existential crisis. Sometimes I tune in to Radio Maria, the official Vatican radio station, while I’m in the car. I like to keep up with what they say to their constituent, so to speak. It’s not uncommon to hear them speaking at length about how the Church is focusing on how to reach out to the youth. It even has a name: la Nuova Evangelizzazione (the New Evangelization). I see things like the Patti concert not as an interesting side note on Francis’ musical tastes (“Hey, he likes Patti Smith. Cool!”) but as part of a larger re-make/re-model strategy in the Catholic Church. It’s marketing, plain and simple, and Francis is their cover girl.

I’m a cynic, I know. Why am I attempting to ruin something so benign? If it’s true, as my friend pointed out, that “you don’t get Patti without the politics” then what is her political message now? I can’t imagine she is unaware of how antagonistic the Catholic Church is to the cause of abortion, contraception, euthanasia, secularism, and a host of other problems which are par for the course. Not to mention Francis’ recent involvement in an exorcists’ conference in Rome, and all the superstitious nonsense that entails.

Here is Patti’s unforgettable portrait of Dot Hook:

She’s real Catholic, see. She fingers her cross and she says
Theres one reason. Theres one reason.
You do it my way or I push your face in.
We knee you in the john if you dont get off your get off your mustang Sally…

(“Piss Factory”, 1974)

Perhaps Patti Smith is just another of the millions who want to believe that Pope Francis represents change in the Catholic Church. He has swept aside his unsmiling predecessor Benedict XVI with one of the greatest institutional facelifts in history. But, here in Italy, we haven’t seen much actually change on the ground. Despite Francis’ rhetoric, the Church is still a tax-exempt, multi-billion dollar business. It still clings to its innumerable fiscal privileges. It still insists on preaching to children when they are just barely out of diapers. It is still a greedy, self-serving tinpot kingdom living off the Italian State at the expense of its citizens. For these resons and many others I can’t bring myself to sing “Gloria” at the news of the upcoming concert.

Perhaps “Free Money” would be more appropriate for her new cronies. It’s something they know well.

First ride

skatefeet

My new skateboard came in the mail the other day. It’s an Enuff, a British brand that didn’t even exist when I quit skating 20 years ago. I did the easy thing and ordered a complete board because I couldn’t remember all the components or even be bothered to decide between all the available parts. On their website they have a message about using wood from renewable forests, their boards are considerably cheaper than well-known brands, and so far I can’t even tell the difference.

As soon as I unwrapped the board I began cruising around the kitchen. I was surprised that I didn’t fall immediately. Within hours I was downstairs carving in the parking lot and doing short manuals (riding on the back wheels, if you don’t know). I left work early that evening and hit a spot I’d been eyeing on the way home. Stop for a moment and think about what you just read: A 40 year old man stopped on his way home from work to skate, alone, in the dark after two decades of not having so much as rolled on a skateboard. And what do you think happened? I slammed. Twice.

Slamming is skateboard jargon for falling hard. I had found a nice smooth area to roll around in. As this is a rather pleasurable activity to do fast, I began to go faster. An unseen pebble sent my flying across the pavement: glasses on face, keys and phone in jacket pocket, button-down shirt and all. It was like a slap in the face from my mother. So what did I do? I swept the pebble away with my foot, muttered something about “goddamn pebbles” and got back on the board again.

It felt triumphant, although my elbow hurt. I imagined I might be able to ollie, and after a few tries I think I got off the ground slightly. A man about my age with a large German Shepherd walked up to me and asked if there was a ramp at the local church. I told him I didn’t know, but thought it unlikely. I added that today was my first day skating. “E sai già fare l’ollie!?” (“And you can already ollie!?”) Well, it’s been a while, I added. He mentioned that he had also recently begun skating again. Cool. “Ci vediamo.” “See you around.”

Skater language is always the same. No matter how much Shaksepeare you’ve internalized through years of reading, as soon as you step on a skateboard it’s back to monosyllables. Cool, yeah, right, wow, u-huh. I’m always pleasantly taken aback when I see a skater who can speak well, like Rodney Mullen in his recent TED talks. I guess I have an old prejudice (based in part in personal experience) of skaters as mainly an anti-intellectual crew. This, at least, was the image projected in the 1980s when skateboarding was synonymous with lawlessness, hardcore and Satanism. These Reagan-era memes must have contaminated my mindstream, despite minimal contact with teenage Satanists.

As I was heading towards the car there was a short drop from the sidewalk into the parking lot. Sweaty and self-confident, I ollied lightly off the curb – a routine move. But the parking lot was gravelly and the board stopped dead and sent me stumbling across the asphalt. My body contorted itself in an effort not to fall and scrape my hands, and as a result I got a bruise between my ribs which began to hurt immediately (and still does two days later.) This time I thought, you are a stupid forty year old oaf. Skateboarding is dangerous. You can kill yourself. Even the instructions that came with my new board spell it out clearly: if you are married and have children, choose a different sport.

Then I remembered what drew me to skateboarding in the first place as a restless tween: skateboarders are known for their independence, non-conformity and defiance of authority. Not unlike atheists. No wonder my feet feel so at home on the griptape.

Making memes

When I was in college I was there to study graphic design. When I began to study, however, I realized I wanted nothing to do with the graphic design crowd (and my teacher and I mutually loathed each other) so I opted for “sculpture”, a loosely-defined major which basically included anything you could invent in three spatial dimensions. We sculpture majors looked down our noses at our ad-agency peers. “They aren’t real artists,” we’d scoff. “They just want to get a good job one day.” We still believed real artists lived in broken-down lofts without plumbing and ate ramen noodles for lunch and dinner (black coffee for breakfast, please). This, of course, made them artists.

Of course, I’m no longer eighteen. I have developed an – ahem – appreciation of other forms of creativity that don’t perforce involve splattered paint and vodka. One of them is the internet meme. Meme is an interesting word because most people who use it use it to mean ‘internet meme’, or photos with catchy slogans or witty quotes. Memes, of course, were coined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene in 1976. They are a bit more complex than lolcats, but we can love them both.

I have recently taken to reworking some of my photos via cool apps that make it simple to do. Here’s one I like – made with Phonto – which uses a photo taken at the Museo della Tortura in Montepulciano, Tuscany to make a point I feel is worth stating. I’ll upload some of them here from time to time. I hope you enjoy them. Feel free to spread them.

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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.