Jesus and Mo and me

Jesus and Mo – that atheistically philosophical comic strip starring our favorite prophetic odd couple – have been inspired to one of their dialogues by Italy’s dear Foreign Minister Franco Frattini. Frattini has gotten oodles of attention this week while he’s been in China. The Friendly Atheist reprinted the UAAR’s letter to President Napolitano in English, where they call for Frattini to step down over his atheophobic remarks. This blog has had many hits as well, and thanks go out to everyone who left me encouraging comments. Welcome, new readers!

If you don’t read Jesus and Mo, check them out:


Yes, we are helping

A quick thought from Voltaire, because I’m out the door now.

“Be assured that one enthusiastic, factious, ignorant, supple, vehement Capuchin – the emissary of some ambitious monks – who goes about preaching, confessing, communicating and caballing, will much sooner overthrow a province than a hundred authors can enlighten it. It was not the Koran which made Muhammad succed: it was Muhammad who caused the success of the Koran.”

…and we need all the help we can get!



“I am never forget ze day”

I suppose I have my mother to thank for turning me on to Tom Lehrer, one of the most brilliant musical satirists alive. His stage patter alone would be worth listening to, but the fact is that each of his songs is a polished little diamond of parodic perfection.

Lehrer was very much admired by the educated snobbery of another age – being very much an elitist snob himself – though I doubt too many people under forty have him on their iPods (I do).

If you don’t know him, I’d recommend the winning “Lobachevsky” which is as good a place to start as any. It’s the sordid tale of a mathematician who plagiarizes his great masterpiece, which is then turned into a Soviet blockbuster film “starring Ingrid Bergman” – or alternately Brigitte Bardot – “as part of hypotenuse.”

This country is rotten and it will never change, no matter what

Atheists, non-believers and freethinkers are pissed off across the globe like never before. Just this past week I discovered new freethought websites in Greece,  Cyprus, Uganda and Italy.* I’m now keeping a list, so if you know of any I don’t please send info.

I am pissed off this week because Italy’s Foreign Minister Franco Frattini wrote an article which he published in the Osservatore Romano, a Vatican newspaper, attacking atheists as “perverse” and a “threat to society.” I’ve translated the money quote into English so non-Italian readers can see what theocratic bigots are running the roost here:

“Christians also must be able to forge an agreement with Muslims on how to fight those aspects which, like all extremisms, threaten society. I refer to atheism, materialism and relativism. Christians, Muslims and Jews can work together to reach this common objective. I believe it’s time for a new humanism in order to struggle against these perverse phenomena, because only the centrality of the human being is an antidote to fanaticism and intolerance.”

So it’s war he wants, and he’s rallying his homophobic, misogynistic friends at the Vatican against his fellow citizens in a holy alliance which is supposed to include their worst historical enemies, Jews and Muslims. I’m beginning to think we’ve entered a new phase of religious warfare on Earth: it’s no longer going to be Muslims vs. Christians or skirmishes over minor doctrinal differences, but the faithful against the secular. The only thing they can agree on is that non-believers are the enemy (at least they can finally agree on something) of their unfounded truths.

I should point out Frattini’s howler in his call for a new humanism. Is he really unaware of the fact that almost all atheists are humanists? And that faith in the supernatural is by definition not humanism, because it relies on a power outside humanity to solve humanity’s problems? That’s why we call ourselves humanists.

I wrote a short note to President Giorgio Napolitano over at the Quirinale in my best polite Italian, explaining my personal indignation. The UAAR has called for Frattini’s resignation, stating that his ideas are “clearly incompatible with the [Italian] constitution and detrimental to Italy’s international standing” as a “founding member of the European Union.”

But what pisses me off even more are my fellow atheists and secularists – Italian and American – who chide my microscopic efforts. “Why bother? This country is rotten to the core. It won’t change because you wrote an email or posted something angry on your blog.” What should I do, accept that Italy is a Vatican proxy and that I live in a Catholic theocracy? Are these the same people who want me to “accept” that the Tea Partiers mean business and will be ruling the United States in an Evangelical coalition, imposing their God on the rest of us while we kvetch that “it’s pointless to speak out”? The whole point of Gnu Atheism – if you haven’t been listening – is that those days are a distant memory. Non-believers have begun to speak up in unprecedented numbers the world over and they are not going to shut up any time soon.

Go ahead and declare war on us. We’ll continue to send indignant emails, and start blogs and websites dedicated to combating your superstition, ignorance and contempt for reason. And, in the fullness of time (we can cite the Bible, too, guys) we will win this battle. One blog at a time.

* The hat tip goes to PZ Myers, who is tracking the global spread of freethought websites daily at Pharyngula.

Auden, supine?

Harold Bloom’s latest book is out, Till I End My Song: A Collection of Last Poems. Leafing through a copy, I found a wonderful poem by W. H. Auden (hardly surprising) called “A Lullaby:”

Your daily round is done with,/you’ve gotten the garbage out,/answered some tiresome letters/and paid a bill by return,/all frettolosamente.

A troublesome footnote follows at the bottom of the page. Thus, my email to the publisher.

Dear HarperCollins,

I wish to notify you of an error I found in Harold Bloom’s new book, Till I End My Song, published by Harper this month. On page 287 there is a note on W.H. Auden’s poem, “A Lullaby” explaining the Italian adverb frettolosamente (line 10). The translation reads, “Lying down.” I have no idea if this is Mr. Bloom’s note or someone else’s, but frettolosamente means hurriedly, hastily. This makes perfect sense in the context of Auden’s poem, as “lying down” would be an odd way to take out the garbage (though one could surely pay one’s bills that way). Please forward this to the correct recipient.


Marc Alan Di Martino

p.s. What’s Italian for “howler?”

The ear of the eavesdropper

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi recently raised eyebrows by again poking crude fun at the looks of Democratic Party chief Rosy Bindi, his favorite punching bag. “Orcodio!” Berlusconi said in a joke involving Bindi. Roughly translated, the expression means “Fucking God!” Though the Vatican used its daily house organ, Avvenire, to deplore the vulgarity, it seemed more concerned with the damage done to an omnipotent, omniscient Creator than to mere mortal Bindi.

According to Italian law, public blaspheming of “the Divinity” through the use of “invective or offensive language” is punishable by a €51-to-€309 fine. Irish law imposes a €25,000 penalty for similar desecration. In my home state of Maryland, blasphemy was punishable through fines and imprisonment, or both, well into the 20th century. In Muslim-majority countries governed by sharia law, blasphemy can carry the death penalty.

My Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate defines blasphemy is “irreverence toward something considered sacred or inviolable.” By that definition we are all blasphemers in most foreign lands, or even in our neighbors’ living rooms. I may be a blasphemer in my own mother’s eyes.

Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so blasphemy is in the ear of the eavesdropper.

Of all the idiotic laws devised by our species, those on blasphemy are the most flagrantly boneheaded. They’re little more than an intellectual form of Prohibition, and are radically antithetical to what philosopher A.C. Grayling labeled “the fundamental civil liberty,” free speech.

What kind of all-powerful Deity needs secular law enforcement to protect it from the concerted jests of a handful of comedians, biologists and assorted demonic riffraff? In fact, the more you scrutinize the concept of blasphemy the faster you reach the conclusion that it simply does not exist — like God, I’m tempted to say.

In a brilliant article in the Italian free-thought magazine L’Ateo, Viviana Viviani attacked the inconsistency of existing legislation. “The Mother of the Christian God,” namely the Virgin Mary, she wrote, “can be publicly blasphemed in Italy with no penalty.” Mary is not technically a divinity, whatever that means.

The deft can alter a consonant and dupe the Divinity. Laws don’t protect uncles (“Zio Porco“), animals (“Zio Cane“) or people named Diaz (“Porco Diaz“). The Divinity must be a dimwit if he can’t figure that out.

As a counterpoint, a website called “Atheist Ireland” has compiled a list of 25 blasphemous quotes attributed to the likes of Jesus, Muhammad and Pope Benedict XVI. All of us, in fact, are both blasphemers and atheists when it comes to the gods and religious sensibilities of others. Protecting all concepts of the divine from offense would mean creating Stalinist network without borders to check the world’s every utterance.

If anything needs legal protection, it’s not God but freedom of speech.

The attempt to limit expression in the service of protecting the public’s religious sensibilities is a kind of sadism. In a flourishing democracy there’s no protection from opinions you don’t like. You deal with them or find somewhere more congenial to live, preferably a cave. Religion is also a personal choice — unlike ethnicity, handicap or gender. It has more in common with political affiliation or sports fandom than biological happenstance.

In Italy, all-encompassing blasphemy laws are worded to protect even minority religious opinion. Porous terms such as “the Divinity” blaspheme the One God as much as any village atheist ridiculing the faithful in the public square.

Bible readers know that the mere recognition of the plethora of ancient godlings enraged a jealous Yahweh. But Yahweh himself blasphemed to no end against the existence of Ba’al and other false gods.

Much of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, revolves around this basic tension. The result produced the kind of theocracy we see mirrored in today’s Iran, where blasphemy is a crime on par with murder and Holocaust denial is deemed the quintessence of free inquiry.

The surest way to defeat bad ideas is with better ones.

You say God exists and is omniscient. I say that is a comforting illusion.

You say Jesus was born of a virgin and rose from the dead. I say those are fairy tales.

You say Allah punishes the unbelievers. I say give him my address and phone number.

But neither of us gets a last word on the subject, one that is then enacted into law to silence the opposition. The word for that is hubris.

Published in The American

Carrie Fisher was almost my sister

My mother was a huge, salivating fan of Eddie Fisher in her adolescence. I think she was even president of the Eddie Fisher Fan Club in her hometown. She used to tell me of the time when she traveled to New York City to see a concert of his, made it into his hotel room at some point in the evening, and made off with a Coke bottle he had drunk from (“If I’d had my way he would have been your father.”) She never forgave my grandmother for throwing it away. “Eh, trash!” I can hear her mewling as she tossed it out.

Eddie Fisher died last month, on my birthday. Here is a brief tribute to the man who might have been my father, and whose career dried up after the rise of rock-n-roll.

Teenage atheists, you are normal!

Ophelia Benson has an article in the New Humanist on Gnu Atheism. I especially like the last paragraph:

Spare a thought for that teenager though. That’s the other side of all this. Yes there is some noisy atheist ranting and name-calling on the internet, but on the other hand, ten years ago that godless teenager would have thought she was the only atheist in the universe, and now she knows very well she isn’t. Maybe she pushes back a little too hard now and then, but she is feeling liberated and no longer isolated, and that’s a good thing. Eventually atheism will become commonplace, and the drive-by commenters will calm down. The teenager in North Dakota has a better future.

Mere blasphemy

I’m late in commemorating Blasphemy Day 2010, but as PZ Myers says, “every day is blasphemy day.” It is with great pleasure that I post a photograph I took in the bar in the Assisi train station, which is overflowing (the bar!) with Catholic religious paraphernalia. It makes it difficult to swallow a cappuccino without uttering something blasphemous. Knowing sinners like me are passing through on an hourly basis, they have helpfully posted the following warning next to the cash register:

Translation: “Christ suffered for you. Christ died for you. Don’t continue murdering him by blaspheming his name. Every time you offend God through an act of blind pride, His Son is murdered again; you repudiate the love he gave us. DON’T BLASPHEME. Blasphemy offends your God. It offends the community. You degrade even yourself.”

What place such blatant religious propaganda has in a train station snack bar is beyond me, but this is Italy and free speech plays second fiddle to Catholic teaching. So if ever you find yourself in Assisi and you spill something on your tie while rushing to catch your train, remember that Jesus died for your sins and bite your tongue. Otherwise you might offend the nice old pious barman by screaming, “Jesus-fucking-Christ stop that goddamn train!”

*If you don’t believe me here is another photo of the espresso machine, Pious the Barman and some cute Jewish maiden and her son.