More fun with comments

The following brief exchange is from the comments section to my recent post. I’d mentioned that Martin Yanosek – a commenter from Stanley Fish’s original NYT piece – wasn’t being clear. Did he agree with Fish, or did he agree with the judges? Or, improbably, both?

Anyway, he found my blog and cleared things up as best he could. I admit I’m still in the dark about his reasoning, though, and I’ve begun to suspect he may have been one of the judges in Strasbourg.

Martin Yanosek says:

Hello there, Mr. Di Martino! I agree with the court and, although I admire Dr. Fish’s analysis, I think Italian parents should be allowed to let their kids study in the presence of the crucifix. You’re right, though. I don’t know about “all” Italian parents. Only God does! You do believe in God, dontcha!?*

Oh, Mr. Di Martino, I see that I missed answering your question about how the crucifix is Christianity’s greatest symbol. In its evolution as a symbol one must take into consideration the cosmic irony of the crucifix’s meaning over time. The crucifix’s meaning has evolved from that of a purely utilitarian implement of torture to today’s meaning of everlasting life. I think the tremendous irony inherent in the evolution of the crucifix’s meaning is what makes it Christianity’s greatest symbol. I hope I answered your question. Regards, Martin Yanosek

Marc Alan Di Martino says:

Martin, I appreciate you taking a moment to clarify your stance. That said, your position is still unclear. You wrote, “If the Vatican was headquartered on Long Island I would probably disagree with the court’s ruling.” Why is that? Were that the case, and by your logic, American parents would have the right to have their children educated “in the presence of Christianity’s greatest symbol.” Or is it okay if it’s in a country you don’t live in, but not okay when it’s in yours?

As for the symbol itself, does it matter at all that most Christian denominations don’t recognize the crucifix as their symbol? Not to mention non-Christians and non-theists – which is quite a lot of us, even here in Italy. Don’t we have the right to have our children educated in the presence of our symbols? Or are we expected to submit before the irony of the holy Roman torture device?

Martin Yanosek says:

Long Island doesn’t have the tradition of Roman Catholicism that Italy does. Long Island has more of a Great Gatsby tradition. Without our traditions life would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof of St. Peter’s Basilica! We should submit to the irony of everlasting life! Peace be with you, Mr. Di Martino! Amen.

Marc Alan Di Martino says: 

Just to recap, Italy has numerous traditions other than Roman Catholicism. It’s still just another religious confession, and it’s not even the oldest one we have. Shalom, Mr. Yanosek.



Fun with comments

Stanley Fish has a great Opinionator piece on the Lautsi vs. Italy ruling in the NYT. Read the whole thing; if I were so erudite, it’s what I’d have written in my post. Granted, mine was a sudden burst of WTF!? Fish nails it. (h/t goes to Stewart and Greg simultaneously!)

The comments are great, too. Here are some that stood out for me:

“While living in Italy a few years ago I felt sufficated by the constant displays of crucifixes — in my daughter’s day care center (Italy has excellent public pre-schools), post offices, city hall, etc. That, plus displays of the madonna, etc. in the same public places. I don’t know if this is the same case referred to by Mr. Fish, but I was rooting for the parents of a Muslim child who had brought suit that the presence of a crucifix at school discriminated against their child. The standard response — that the crucifix is a cultural symbol — makes sense to no one but Catholic Italians.” (mmsch)

“Italy is a Christian country. The cross is a symbol of Christianity. Why is it that you don’t complain or mention that in Islamic countries they have Muslim symbols in their schools and that in Israel they have Jewish symbols in their schools? Why is it that the Christians have to be tolerant of everyone else but you give a pass to the above mentioned religions? Do you think for one minute the Muslims or Jews would worry about offending Christians in their countries? I doubt it. How about an article on how tolerant the people of Saudi Arabia are and how they let non Muslims practice their religion in that country? And how Islam is so welcoming and tolerates non Muslims in their countries. Ask the Coptic Christians in Egypt about how they are allowed to display their faith at all without getting killed by Muslims. I missed your article on that one. Let’s just show how intolerant the Christians are and give others a pass on their prejudices. Yea let’s do that!” (vonvondavont)

“Given all that is going on in the world, this wasn’t worth reading. Of all the things to write about.” (Vern Edwards)

“How about this. The cross has been displayed there for years. You should be looking at the cross and thinking of that- thinking of what that means. If you don’t like it, leave. And that’s from someone who hasn’t been to church services in 20 years.” (MacBones)

“However flawed the court’s reasoning is about the crucifix, Italian parents have the right to have their children educated in the presence of Christianity’s greatest symbol. If the Vatican was headquartered on Long Island I would probably disagree with the court’s ruling. You’re analysis is superb, Dr. Fish! And the fish is also a great symbol of the Christian faith. I always knew you were one of us!” (Martin Yanosek)

I can’t quite follow the logic of that last one. Does Mr. Yanosek agree with the judges or with Fish? And how is the crucifix “Christianity’s greatest symbol?” And why does he think “Italian parents” are all Catholics?

I have people like him in mind when I write this blog; I’d appreciate it if more people got the simple idea into their heads that Italy is not a Catholic country populated exclusively by Catholics. It’s more diverse than that, even if the Strasbourgians have just fed the rest us to the lions.

Come out, come out wherever you are!

Hemant Mehta has an interesting post on a study suggesting that the greater the presence of atheists – or even the perceived presence – the less prejudice there is in their regard. It’s counterintuitive, which is cool; apparently it goes the other way for most minority groups. It’s a good reason – if you still needed one – to come out as an atheist (if you are one, that is).

This paper confirms what many of us have known for a long time: If people know an atheist personally — or realize there are more of us out there than churches or popular culture would have them believe — the distrust, unelectability, and don’t-you-dare-marry-into-my-family mentality decreases.

So what are you waiting for?

Tell the people in your life that you don’t believe in a god.

Start the conversation.

Destroy their negative stereotypes about us.

There’s no better time to do it.


Roberto De Mattei responds to his critics

From today’s Corriere della Sera:

The attacks on me are a typical example of the relativistic dictatorship denounced by Benedict XVI. I’ve done nothing other than reaffirm the traditional Catholic doctrine of providence.

First of all, I wasn’t speaking as Vice President of the CNR but as a citizen and a believer. I limited myself to quoting a 1911 book written by Monsignor Mazzella, Archbishop of Rossano Calabro, who was commenting on the 1908 earthquake in Messina and the mystery of evil*. The point is, as St. Thomas Aquinas taught, nothing happens in the universe that isn’t willed – or at least permitted – by God for precise reasons. And we can’t exclude the hypothesis of divine punishment, even if we can’t be sure.

There’s a short interview which follows this tasty tidbit. It’s the same old music about persecution of Catholics by the scientific establishment for belief in “anti-scientific” doctrines like transubstantiation.

Then the standard invective against atheists, who refuse to debate him (he’s a creationist). Maybe they won’t bother because his ideas are worthless – did he ever think of that? Then a word or two on “practical Catholic atheism,” “for whom God is absent from history, and who created the universe only to wash his hands of it.”

It’s a great interview, really. It says so much about the warped mentality of believers. If I find time, I’ll translate the whole thing; it could be useful.

*De Mattei, if you’re reading, I will resolve the mystery of evil in four words: There is no God.


Two rabbis walk into a dialogue

I’m delighted to see that two rabbis have entered into a dialogue on religion. One is Jeffrey Falick, the Atheist Rabbi, whose blog is hosting the debate; the other is Frederick Klein, an Orthodox rabbi who took up Falick’s challenge.

Lately HuffPo, or PuffHo, or whatever it’s called, has been hosting various rabbinical voices attempting to talk sense to us new atheists. There’s David Wolpe and Adam Jacobs, and there was that debate where Hitchens and Harris were terribly rude and gnuish to Wolpe and his colleague Bradley Artson Shavit.

I’m thrilled about all this. As a Jewish atheist I’ve had endless discussions with Jewish friends about atheism, faith, God, morality and tradition. It’s been tough to find many other Jews who will stand up and say, “I’m an atheist.” My guess is that they would somehow feel un-Jewish, and that for them Jewishness is at some level sustainable only through passive acceptance of rabbinical tradition. Even if they don’t believe a word of it.

I remember once asking a Lubavitch rabbi what his position on evolution was. He sent me a link to another Lubavitch rabbi rambling on for an hour before a room full of Lubavitchers. His point was that anything that conflicted with the Torah was, well, unacceptable. End of discussion.

Let the Lubavitchers wall themselves off from reality until moshiach arrives. In the real world, the dicussion continues unabated.


Robert Ingersoll on theocracy

Robert Ingersoll was one of the most eloquent voices for reason the English language has ever known. His words ring as true as ever today:

The government of God has been tried. It was tried in Palestine several thousand years ago, and the God of the Jews was a monster of cruelty and ignorance, and the people governed by this God lost their nationality. Theocracy was tried through the Middle Ages. God was the Governor — the pope was his agent, and every priest and bishop and cardinal was armed with credentials from the Most High — and the result was that the noblest and best were in prisons, the greatest and grandest perished at the stake. The result was that vices were crowned with honor, and virtues whipped naked through the streets. The result was that hypocrisy swayed the sceptre of authority, while honesty languished in the dungeons of the Inquisition. […]

If God is allowed in the Constitution, man must abdicate. There is no room for both. If the people of the great Republic become superstitious enough and ignorant enough to put God in the Constitution of the United States, the experiment of self-government will have failed, and the great and splendid declaration that “all governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed” will have been denied, and in its place will be found this: All power comes from God; priests are his agents, the people are their slaves. […]

We have already compared the benefits of theology and science. When the theologian governed the world, it was covered with huts and hovels for the many, palaces and cathedrals for the few. To nearly all the children of men, reading and writing were unknown arts. The poor were clad in rags and skins — they devoured crusts, and gnawed bones. The day of Science dawned, and the luxuries of a century ago are the necessities of to-day. Men in the middle ranks of life have more of the conveniences and elegancies than the princes and kings of the theological times. But above and over all this, is the development of mind. There is more of value in the brain of an average man of to-day — of a master-mechanic, of a chemist, of a naturalist, of an inventor, than there was in the brain of the world four hundred years ago. […]

These blessings did not fall from the skies. These benefits did not drop from the outstretched hands of priests. They were not found in cathedrals or behind altars — neither were they searched for with holy candles. They were not discovered by the closed eyes of prayer, nor did they come in answer to superstitious supplication. They are the children of freedom, the gifts of reason, observation and experience – – and for them all, man is indebted to man.

Read the rest here.

It gets worse

It gets worse. In 2006 De Mattei said the following in an interview with Zenit, a Catholic news agency.

“Italian identity isn’t just generically Catholic, but is defined by the function of the papacy. Italy’s vocation isn’t simply to host the papacy, but to serve it, to permit the papacy to perform its universal role. Italy is itself when it serves the Church, and it betrays its own identity when it reneges the Church.”

Here we go again: I’d love to know why these people think throwing around the word “universal” makes them sound so important, so profound. No religious confession is universal in character.

This is a prime example of the way Italy has been compromised by the Catholic Church. Italy is a sovreign nation, not a hotel for the papacy. This kind of thing is disrespectful to millions of Italians who are not believers in the supernatural fairytale of Roman Catholicism. It’s wholesale bollocks.

There are countless people running around saying idiotic crap like this. They want us to buy into their obsession with authority. They want us to kneel and kiss rings and fawn at the riches of the papacy. They want us, in short, to stop thinking and let them catapult us back to the Middle Ages.

Well, no thank you.

Creationists say the darndest things

Roberto De Mattei is back. He’s a crackpot creationist who also happens to be the Vice President of the National Research Council (CNR). From an American perspective, he might be comparable to Francis Collins. Both are outspoken Christians, though they would probably argue over which version is the true one.

Collins may be a bit of a clown, but I’m convinced he would never resort to the kind of malicious theodicy that De Mattei has with regard to the recent disaster in Japan. Speaking – or, preaching – on Radio Maria, De Mattei has posited that the catastrophe is part of (surprise, surprise) Almighty God’s plan.

Quoting a Monsignor Mazzella he said, “Great catastrophes are a terrible but paternal sign of God’s benevolence which call attention to the ultimate scope of our lives.”

To this he added: “If the Earth offered no danger, pain or catastrophe it would fascinate us to no end, and we would too easily forget we are citizens of heaven.”

And, “…catastrophes are the just punishments of God” inasmuch as “to the guilt of the Original Sin are added our personal and collective sins, and while God awards and punishes in eternity, it is on Earth that he awards and punishes nations.” Listen to him here if you know some Italian.

Now, I’m not surprised by any of this. If you really believe there is a God who made the world, destroyed it by flood, remade it, intervened occasionally here and there with his prophets, and has an ultimate plan for all of us, then I suppose such reflections are only natural. That, we might say, is the root of the problem.

Religion warps minds. There can be little doubt about this. It has the capacity – I’m paraphrasing Steven Weinberg – to make good people do evil things. De Mattei’s speech, like so many American pastors’, fits this bill.

What happened in Japan is nearly unthinkable: an earthquake accompanied by a tsunami cut loose an atomic disaster. Many lives have been lost or ruined, and at present we have little or no idea what’s in store for the Japanese people. There’s radiation in the seawater, and there’s no reason to thing this thing will end tomorrow.

I can think of no better reason, if you believe in God, to abandon that belief this instant. Natural disasters necessarily come under God’s plan if you believe he has one. That is, if he is benevolent, omnipotent and omniscient. If he’s not, then your God is no better than a broken air-conditioner. Get rid of it.

The “reasoning” of De Mattei and anyone else who searches for God’s benevolence in the untold sufferings of humanity is hardly worth responding to. But it’s the maliciousness, the arrogance of De Mattei that irks me. He should be shunned for such assertions instead of made Vice President of the CNR.

But this is Italy – what do you expect?

* You can sign a petition calling for De Mattei’s resignation here.

The crucifix post-Strasbourg

Carla Corsetti, the Secretary of Democrazia Atea –  Italy’s only explicitly atheist political party – has penned a response to the Strasbourg ruling that religious symbols in public schools are not in violation of human rights. Corsetti is a lawyer who has herself appealed to the Administrative Regional Court (TAR) of Lazio over the presence of the crucifix in her son’s schoolroom. Here is that link, in English.

Winners and Losers by Carla Corsetti

Culture wars have neither winners nor losers; either everyone wins or everyone loses. The difference is measured by who is aware of this and who isn’t. And we are among those who understand the universal value of certain conquests. The European Court has told us that the crucifix is a passive symbol, inert, and it has told us that decorating public schools with it isn’t in violation of human rights.

This interpretation – which we do not share – won’t stop us. We don’t feel culturally defeated and, on closer inspection, the Catholics themselves are the losers. After this ruling no Catholic will be able to calmly assert that the crucifix is a symbol which “unites”, or that is it shared peacefully. After this ruling the crucifix is trapped between those who wish to impose it through abuse of power and those who refuse to submit to it. By now the crucifix is unequivocally, definitively and irreversibly the symbol of a bullying religious confession at the expense of those who are not its members.

Catholics were unable to defend the crucifix as one defends the most precious things, which are to be cherished with discretion and in private. At the cost of imposing it they’ve deprived it of its religious significance, presented it as a cultural symbol and accepted its secularization. They weren’t even upset when someone justified its ostension as part of the furnishing of a public classroom, along with the chairs and the wastebaskets. They were the first to desecrate it.

We will accept the cultural and legal challenge while continuing to call attention to the fact that this is a symbol of death, a symbol which has accompanied genocide and war, massacre and rape, dirty business and paedophilia. It doesn’t belong to us, not even culturally, and from today onwards we have yet another reason to remove it from our children’s sight.

And here is a revamped crucifix reflecting the new reality.

It's our symbol, too, right?