There was a self-congratulatory article in Helsingin Sanomat today, about how a Finnish lady beat the Italian state through the European Court of Human Rights. She started a process that got the ECHR telling Italy to take down the crucifixes hanging in every classroom ever since Mussolini wrote up a law that put them up there (or probably before). The Italians argued that the crucifix isn't actually a religious symbol at all; rather, it symbolizes Italian history. The ECHR thought that was a load of horseshit.
Now she's getting death threats.
We have a crucifix up on our wall, too. A pretty small one, and in a not-too-obvious corner of the bedroom (right by where I do my zazen, as a matter of fact, although I face the opposite wall). It has a tiny silver Christ on a wooden cross, with some mother-of-pearl decorations around it. It's from Jerusalem. My wife's grandparents brought it from there back in '48, when they had to leave because of that unfortunate misunderstanding between Jews and Arabs. That crucifix means a quite a lot to my wife, and bothers me not the least bit.
Perhaps I'll get a little Manjushri to keep it company, one of these days.
I feel extremely strongly that people -- especially children -- should not have religion forced on them. I had a religion teacher at school, when I was about seven, who was a psycho. She went on about demons standing behind our left shoulder, and every time we think a bad thought or say a bad word, it summons another one. Scared the willies out of me. I must've been eleven before I mustered up the courage to say "poop," and even then I glanced behind me in case anyone hairy with horns on showed up. So, on that level, I very much sympathize with the Finnish atheist who started this particular flap. (Besides, she's got guts being an outspoken atheist in a country like Italy.)
But is that -- religious coercion -- really what this is about?
I don't know, never having even visited a school in Italy. The article in Hesari certainly didn't have enough about that to go on. However, I do know that a crucifix on a classroom wall is just that -- a crucifix on a classroom wall. It doesn't mean anything beyond what people make it mean.
A Communist in the Pareto and Mosca tradition can turn it into a symbol of class oppression, ignorance, and bigotry. A Muslim could turn it into a memorial of the Crusaders boiling and eating Muslim babies in Ma'arra. A Jesuit brother can make it into a fiery symbol of Heaven for the elect and Hell for the damned. A more laid-back Christian could make of it a reminder that there's more to life than the daily mass of confusion we live in.
And for most of us by far, it would quickly turn into just another fixture on the wall, so familiar that it's not even noticed.
Arguing that a crucifix is not a religious symbol is, as the ECHR points out, horseshit. Of course it is. It is, however, many other things as well, one of which is a symbol of Italian culture and history, just as much as the Duomo of Florence, the Pietà of Michelangelo, Verdi's Requiem, the Bernini Babes in Roman churches, or the old geezers clicking through their rosaries at street corners in Sicily. Italy is a Catholic country, and I don't see any point in trying to pretend otherwise.
I'm a bit worried about the consequences. I think that the likeliest outcome of this mess is that the chasm dividing Christians and non-Christians will only become wider. Christians will feel threatened, and will see atheists as intolerant, uptight jackasses eroding the foundations of their culture. Non-Christians will react to that in predictable ways. And that will advance the cause of religious freedom -- including the freedom from religion -- not at all.
Removing the crucifix from the classroom wall won't change anything if the attitudes making it a problem won't change, and if the attitudes do change, the crucifix will cease to be a problem.
I do not believe that the solution to the religious coercion, brainwashing, divisions, and other problems we're experiencing is to expunge all religious symbology from public life. Religion is a facet of life, and it's counterproductive to pretend it isn't. Rather than pursue the vain goal of getting everyone to (dis?)believe the same thing, we need to learn to get along despite our differences.
Perhaps we need more religious symbols, not fewer of them. Perhaps it would have been a better solution to hang up Om, the name of Mohammed, and the Pythagorean solids next to the crucifix (and, hey, why not the ensō as well, since we're at it?)
This has been tried, once, but it doesn't appear to have caught on. It's at the Roman-Catholic church of St. Barbara, in Bärnbach, Austria. The church was (re)designed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser, a way-cool architect that should be taken much more seriously than he is. Outside the church is a processional way, which consists of a set of gates, each of which carries a symbol of a world religion: Islam, non-Catholic Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Shintoism.
The last gate carries no symbol at all.
I found that very touching.