Making it gnu

There has been a lot of dissatisfaction penned lately against the Gnu Atheists. Call it in-fighting. A friend put it this way after I’d sent him Ophelia Benson’s reply to Julian Baggini: “I felt like I was reading the kind of fashionably CP debate the 20s spawned in magazines 5 people read but two were later assassinated for when Stalin made sure to end debating.” I’ve learned through many heated emails that my friend is not a Gnu Atheist, though I most definitely am.

The attacks range from “Don’t be a dick” slaps-on-the-wrist to outright “we’ve outgrown this childish New Atheism crap.” The message is clear: we need to forge alliances with the moderate religious groups; only together can we fight the real fanatical dickwads. And the Gnus – while they may have done much of the legwork in kicking down the door – are spoiling our cause with their rant.

Which all sounds very nice, except that the Gnus have been doing a fine job of fighting dangerous nonsense for a long time now – at least since Baruch Spinoza set down his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. In fact, there is really nothing “new” about the Gnus, save the medium (blogs, mainly) and the skyrocketing success of a few of their books (Hitchens & Dawkins et al.)

But to read the accomodationists, or “fatheists”, one gets the idea that the Gnus have overstepped some invisible boundary of polite debate ethic. They are routinely accused of being “strident,” “no-nothing,” presumptuous, indelicate. A favorite criticism is that the Gnus attack a straw man God, or the religion of only the most fanatical fringes. Real people, they admonish, are more like Karen Armstrong and Terry Eagleton; they believe in a vaporous, disinterested God who can be all things to all people. Well, hip hip hooray. PZ Myers has posted a challenge on his blog. Send him your best contemporary arguments for God and he will, uh, consider them. I predict they will fail dismally, though like all Gnus I am open to the possibility – however faint – that I might be persuaded.

I’m with the Gnus on this one. I’ve read their books and regularly read their blogs and I can tell you I’d be proud to call this disparate bunch of nerdy atheists my pals in unbelief. Not that I dislike the more moderate tone of the “accomodationists” (I realize not everyone is comfortable taking such strong positions), but I have a problem when they begin chastising their more flamboyant peers for being, well, too outspoken. It’s thanks to the Gnus, after all, that meeker atheists are getting op-eds in mainstream newspapers like HuffPo, Guardian and NYT. Remember Natalie Angier’s Confessions of a Lonely Atheist, published in the NYT less than ten years ago?

You want to know who the Gnu Atheists are in their own words, and how far from a pack of jackals they really are? Hang out at Pharyngula for a few hours, then walk across the street to Butterflies and Wheels, Ex-Catholic Girl, Blag Hag and Why Evolution Is True. That’s where the action is right now. These are exciting voices. They are also fiercely liberal, wonderfully intelligent and disarmingly good-humored. You’re in for a pleasant surprise.

For a long list of atheist blogs check out the Atheist Blogroll, which lists 1270 openly atheist blogs as of this writing (including this one). Enjoy your day.


Images of holiness: Padre Pio

Here is a photo of my favorite Bad Saint, Padre Pio. He faked his stigmata with chemicals, laundered money in the black market of Nazi-occupied Paris, and philandered his way to becoming the number one Christian saint in Italy. Some say he’s more popular than Jesus, but I think that’s just latent anti-Semitism.

Religion in school (is not cool)

I’m dreading the day when we send our daughter to nursery school, because that’s when the indoctrination begins. Everybody knows Italy has “religion hour” in its public schools, part of the government’s bending-over-backwards to let the Church infiltrate the tender minds of its young. Now Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini wants to teach the Bible in school, too – presumably during the part of the week when kids don’t already have to listen to some Vatican-appointed, State-funded Man o’ God drone on about how each and every one of them were born sinners.

Ms. Gelmini says she is moved by her own faith, as well as her Italian citizenship. Apparently, the two are indistinguishable to her. “The foundations of the West were built upon Christian teachings,” she said. “Without understanding this presence, it’s impossible to study its history, understand its philosophy or appreciate its art and culture.”

Imagine that: Western Culture is completely indebted to Christianity as its sole cultural benefactor. No Greeks. No Romans. No Jews. No Enlightenment. In her personalized, teleological version of history Galileo was a pure product of Catholic scientific education. And this is the woman in charge of the educational standards of Italy’s youngest generation. No wonder around here there’s a saying: Italy exports brainpower and imports saints and witchdoctors. (Curzio Maltese)

I wonder if maybe Ms. Gelmini wouldn’t have been happier if she’d just become a nun, but I guess it doesn’t pay as well.

Ophelia took the words right…

…out of my mouth.

That vicious authoritarian theocratic homophobic misogynist hierarchical thug presumes to blame atheists for Nazism when his own fucking church was all but an ally of the Nazis and really was an ally of Mussolini and Franco.

That about sums it up with uncommon economy.

Ratzinger’s war against atheism

Miranda Celeste Hale writes an excellent blog called Ex-Catholic Girl. Here is her recent post on Pope Ratzinger’s declaration of war against atheism from his current tour of the UK.

…instead of using his platform to give a genuine apology to victims of clergy sexual abuse, or to take responsibility for his own actions in the subsequent widespread and institutionally-sanctioned cover-up of this abuse, he decided to lash out at atheists, asserting that atheism led to the Holocaust and that atheism is bringing about the downfall of civilized society as we know it.

My favorite line is this zinger, though.

An educated and empathetic individual is the Church’s worst enemy.

I’d add, is religion’s worst enemy. But you get the picture.

Baptism ends in drowning

Here is a story from this summer which I had missed due to my excusable lack of vigilance. It’s about a child who was killed during baptism by full-immersion in Moldova. I understand full-immersion baptism is much less common than the ordinary sprinkle-on-the-head kind, and there’s probably a good reason why.

My favorite comment: “How sad – but strangely ironic that in giving him God’s blessing, God didn’t see fit to protect him…”

Indeed – where was almighty God, anyway?

My earliest memory: Gene Simmons mauls the refreshment stand

Memory is a funny thing. I’ve read that we remember almost nothing from before we are three years old. So imagine one of your longest-running memories being one of Gene Simmons mauling the refreshment stand in the 1978 made-for-tv movie KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park! I was three years old when I saw it on television, and I’ve always cherished – if that’s the word – this scene as one of my earliest memories. Thanks, YouTube, for making the past continuous. Fast-forward to 5:20.

* This video has been blocked. : (

The Friar in the Maternity Ward

Train station, Assisi: "Dear Children, you are invited to convert!"

A few weeks ago our daughter Melissa was born in the hospital in Perugia; within seven hours she had already become the target of religious proselytizing. A friar, whose apparent job it was to prowl the maternity ward lecturing exhausted, newly-minted mothers on the Catechism had snuck into my wife’s room after breakfast. “And have we given some thought to how we’re going to raise these children?” This was his icebreaker.

My wife (I was home napping after almost 40 hours of wakefulness) sent him packing with a pithy yet diplomatic, “We’re not believers.” She tells me that the dyspeptic Man of God began lamenting the presence of atheists, saying he didn’t know what the word even meant. “Everyone believes in something,” were his apocryphal last words before stomping off.

“It’s a good thing I wasn’t around,” I said. “And what would you have done, punched him in the nose?” And here I said something that surprised even me. “I would’ve bought him a coffee and talked things over.” Ah, the noble cadences of new-father speech. “Oh, please. You can’t talk to these people. They’re dogmatic! Just nod politely until they go away.”

My wife was probably right about that. What could I possibly have said to a fanatical friar whose mission in life is to convert defenseless infants? Silly me, always thinking a good attempt at seeing-eye-to-eye is the solution to life’s problems. But I didn’t want to convert him; I just wanted to present him with a novel idea: that what he felt was the most important thing in the world — namely, baptizing children and raising them in the Catholic faith — was to some people merely an annoyance. To others it was downright offensive.

A few days after the incident (we never saw him again) my brother-in-law asked us to be godparents to his three month old son. Here we go again, I thought. “Does your brother even know how these things work? Does he understand that a baptism is — at least for the Church — the most serious thing imaginable? And that they’re not going to let an atheist Jew shepherd one of their subjects without a fight?” I was almost rolling up my sleeves.

I’ve been to baptisms and listened to the recited prayers, and there are things even a godparent must assent to that I would feel uncomfortable with. It’s a profession of faith, and of keeping faith. How odd that so many with baptismal certificates have never actually paid attention to the words being spoken, quite literally, over their heads. Oh, that’s right, they were infants when it happened!

“There’s no way I’m doing this. I’m not making any false affirmations before a congregation,” I said. That is, assuming that an ultra-liberal, schismatic priest would even allow me to lie through my teeth. “Why are we suddenly being trailed by these people?” A no-brainer, I mused. We had a kid. Welcome to the Dollhouse of Catechumens.

It’s no surprise that religion goes after the young. I doubt most people like to think of it in those terms, though. Many tell themselves they are helping instill a system of values at an early age. Others invoke a sense of community. Others believe they are ensuring salvation for their children. Very few seem to consider that the children themselves are not consulted on these matters. Waiting until they are old enough to make informed choices almost guarantees that they will go their own way. And who would want that?

Richard Dawkins, in his book “The God Delusion,” makes the case that religious indoctrination of children is tantamount to child abuse. James Joyce made a similar point in “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man“: “As the waters of baptism cleanse the soul with the body, so do the fires of punishment torture the spirit with the flesh. Every sense of the flesh is tortured and every faculty of the soul therewith: the eyes with impenetrable utter darkness, the nose with noisome odours, the ears with yells and howls and execrations, the taste with foul matter, leprous corruption, nameless suffocating filth, the touch with redhot goads and spikes, with cruel tongues of flame.”

The passage goes on for a few pages, but the tone is unchanging. Hell is the most horrible place imaginable, and unless you do exactly as we say, you have inherited a one-way ticked called Original Sin. Couple scaremongering with a lust for young boys and institutional cover-up and one wonders why anyone would entrust their children to such self-appointed babysitters.

In answer to the friar’s question: Yes, we have given a great deal of thought as to how we are going to raise Melissa. First up is Bertrand Russell’s oft-cited and immortal assertion, “The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.” Notice he did not write “guided by faith.” Next we have Robert Ingersoll (the “Great Agnostic” shares a birthday with our baby girl!) who proclaimed, “In the Bible will be found no description of a civilized home. The free mother surrounded by free and loving children, adored by a free man, her husband, was unknown to the inspired writers of the Bible.” He knew; his father had been a preacher.

In short, I think it’s time parents took the ethical education of their children into their own hands. Whatever failures await us, they are sure to be less gruesome than Joyce’s cartoonish description of Hell; and I’m betting the rewards will be far greater than any schmaltzy visions of Kingdom Come.

Published in The American