Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Italy, the Crucifix, and the European Court of Human Rights

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.


  1. Symbols are sensitive stuff. When wounds are fresh, the precense of a symbol might be poking in open wounds. It's a display of power, a display of authority. The need for a certain symbol to be displayed needs always be questioned with the question "why?".

    If an individual carry a pin of lets say a nations flag, the WWF symbol, amnesty, the humanist man, the crescent moon of Islam, or even a swastika, it's their choice. It's like expressing your individuality, that you have some sort of attachment to that symbol and you might even be open to a debate about it's meaning.

    But consider if the state orders every classroom in Finland had to have the picture of Tarja Halonen in it. If it needed to have a large bloated flag. The icon of Soumen Sosialidemokraattinen Poulue. The hammer and sickle (it's tradition!) or... the christian cross. That's a whole different matter, especially if the symbols are still associated with a force that still oppress many of the students, women, homosexuals, freethinkers.

    Getting rid of the crucifixes is a symbolic action in itself. It's a step towards cultural democracy. It's an indication that an organization cannot flash it's ruling prescence in an environment where opinion is supposed to be free. In which you can speak your voice, speak your opinion, challenge oppression.

    You have suggested "hang all symbols there", but then comes questions:
    1. Who's symbol shall be there and who's shouldn't? What system should be used?
    2. Shall ideas that haven't been named "religion" be there as well? Wiccans, humanists, pagans, political parties...
    3. Whats the point with displaying a load of symbols?

    Political correctness on the level you ask for loose it's value and it stops being liberal. A school is for education, not a place in which you make a point about who's in and who's out. The old saying "none mentioned, none forgotten" applies here. Let PEOPLE carry the symbols, let PEOPLE decide what traditions they wish to upkeep. That's culture. The state pushing culture upon it's people is totalitarianism.

  2. Then again, the state can't help but push culture upon its people. The state is a cultural artefact, after all. In that sense, all states are totalitarian; indeed, all culture is totalitarian. France's decision to ban carrying of overt religious symbols in schools is exactly as coercive as Iran's decision to require them. The difference lies in what cultural norm is the subject of coercion.

    My suggestion was more than a little whimsical, but why not pursue it a bit further? I'd answer your question with

    1. Anyone involved. If a Muslim wants the name of the Prophet up there, it goes up there. If a Hindu wants Om up there, it goes up there.
    2. I don't know. The lines are always fuzzy, fluid, and in motion, and the purpose of discourse is to decide where to put them.
    3. I advanced it as an alternative to removing symbols that are already there. From where I see it, the problem is one of religious coercion -- excluding people who do not follow the dominant religion, or forcing the dominant religion on them, and the crucifix as a symbol of that coercion.

    For sure, removing the crucifix would be one way of addressing the problem, but then again, so would displaying other symbols in equal prominence with it. I don't know if it would work any better, but it is an alternative.

    My main point with writing this little article was that I fear that this decision is actually likely to worsen the problems it's meant to address. We need to build bridges between people, not walls, and I see this as another wall going up -- between Christians and secularists; between nationalists and internationalists.

    Just last night, the leader of our local right-wing populist party calmly explained on TV that this is exactly the kind of undemocratic erosion of national sovereignty that the European Union represents: the matter of the crucifix on the wall of the Italian classroom is something that should be left up to the Italians, not dictated from on-high by some sheepskin-wearing judges answering to no-one.

    You know what? He's right. It isn't up to us to dictate what Italians should or shouldn't put up in their classrooms, and the fact that the EU does is symptomatic of something that's gone awry with it.

    And that, JemyM, is why I feel bad about this decision. The effects are the opposite of the intention. It's a harmful decision, on very many levels -- and I hope it gets reversed.

  3. This isnt really that big of a deal. It is only when you arent allowed to speak religion with other religous people if there is a non religious person in the room, then there si an issue imo Because I believe that it is an infringement of freedom of speech.

    It may be rude to do so especially if someone is listening in for some reason. What next you cannot speak any other language but your national language in a public place? But that is what you have here in Australia it seems.

  4. The thing about putting up every symbol is that it gets mired in petty details in a real hurry. Start with the fact that many symbols (more specifically, the ideologies folks attach to them) don't play nice together. Move to having 18 walls full of symbols. Finish with extended arguments over preferential placement and special dispensation for minority symbols that were oppressed at some point in the last 2000 years.

    Much better to get rid of the things entirely, but that's not terribly practical either. In the end, about the best compromise is to keep it all very localized. Thus, the EU has no business in such decisions. Of course, that's going to encourage tribalism over time, but you know me--a little us-n-them is just good fun.