As those of you who read my G+ stream (no I still don’t have a custom URL) probably have noticed, the trip down memory lane has not been very positive for me. Part of the cause is likely to be found in my spending a whole week alone in Las Vegas — yes the city is something that everybody should see at least once in their life. But don’t go alone, seriously. But even if it hurts and depresses me quite a bit, I think a third part to the series needs to be written.
It might be because I’ve been reading Penn Jillette’s book – I started while waiting to see their show, finished it quite quickly too – and I feel I have to say something about religion at this point too, even if it’ll upset some of the people reading me.
I have noted before that I’m an atheist. I try usually not to make my life choice weigh on other people, but after reading Penn’s book, I thought it might be a good idea to at least share my point of view. Whether you agree or disagree with it, it’s really none of my business. After all I don’t expect anybody to count me as an expert in religions or philosophy. And if you can’t respect my opinion as a software developer because of my opinion on religions, well, I don’t really care. It’s your problem. Since I expect a number of my readers are not really in the known about Catholic customs, I’ll try to provide a few Wikipedia references here and there. I have not read every single article, so I’ll trust Wikipedia not to say too many idiocies.
Yes I’m saying it in the most cynical way here, but this is actually what I would consider a tenet of my personal philosophy. People have areas of competence, and I rarely get enough confidence in a person to listen to every single word they utter as Truth. Scratch rarely, I never do that. Two Richards (Stallman and Dawkins) have been instrumental in their starting or fueling movements I find fundamental for modern society (Free software and atheism) — but I don’t worship the people, I could worship the ideals, but the word is also bad I think, even if I like the quotation. Both of the Richards have demonstrated to be quite a bit out of touch, and quite misogynistic. I still think Free software and atheism are important for the world.
My political ideas are probably best left for a different post as well, I only touched upon them a few times, and never for something really important, but let’s just say I don’t usually agree with Penn’s political views. On the other hand, I end up liking his life philosophy. Funnily enough, for somebody who likes Ayn Rand, he doesn’t seem to take many pages off the book on his lifestyle either. I guess the same applies for him: you can like part of someone else’s thoughts without liking everything.
So if this is going to be a trip down memory lane, let’s start with the Start — I’m born in Italy, in the North East which is definitely not known for a history if atheism. Indeed, Venice is very well known for its churches. The town I was born in, though, had a very non-beautiful church, as it was basically a prefab built to host catholic mass. I know this because of course being Italian, I was baptized — as Diego Francesco Pettenò. I did not find out about the second name until I went out of my way to legally change my name; turns out that the tradition at least in my area is to christen the children using, as second name, the name of the godfather or godmother, depending on the gender of the child. At the same time, while this second name is not declared on any public document, so it’s not a valid legal name, it can be used as a reason to request a legal second name; I found the name overly long that way, so I ignored the fact I was christened that way and legally asked to use my grandfather’s name.
My family, while being officially Catholic, has always been far from being a “proper” Catholic family — both my sisters skipped Confirmation until one was going to marry, so they both went through with it, if I’m not mistaken an year or two before it was (supposedly, by usual Italian procedure) my turn. So while most of my classmates in school went almost every Sunday to Mass since before starting elementary school, I was only brought to the church once I started going to school, as I was supposed to go to Sunday School or, as we call it in Italy, catechism. I didn’t like it, to begin with, because I did not fit: I could never learn the prayers by heart – this is true for poetry as well – and I was generally not very interested. Saying that I was skeptical already is probably an exaggeration, but I can give you that as a base excuse.
The priest of my local church at the time was a missionary – last I knew, some seven years ago, he was back in Kenya, from where he had to get away after catching malaria – and I think that was the reason why my mother did not just let me ignore church altogether at the time: he was (and still is, I hope) a good person, although I don’t think that priesthood is what made him such a good person. he did not force anybody to do anything they didn’t care about, so I ended up sticking around, even if I tried hard to miss most of the lessons — I wanted to sleep, on the Sunday!
Even if my parents let me skip on the confirmation (thank you!), I did have to go through with the first communion, not to be shunned even more by the rest of my classmates, all of which went to mass every week, and one of them at least was an altar boy for a different church. I honestly forgot if any more of my classmates were altar boys, I really did not care that much. To go through with it, I had to have a first confession as well, even though I really didn’t have much to say (I really did not have much to say, at ten years of age). That’s my first and last confession.
Christmas probably is worth mentioning directly, not only for the time of the year. I think I went to Christmas Mass only twice with my father, and only one time my mother was there as well – we went to a different church because that one is actually architecturally interesting, rather than the small and shabby in our town – and then a handful more times with either of my sisters and their boyfriends (one of which is my brother in law now). Funnily enough, almost all their boyfriends ended up being much more Catholic than our family could ever be. At our house we almost always had one or more Christmas trees, and on alternate years or so, a nativity scene. I guess that thinking of it right now makes me wonder, about all those shepherds having problems with the snow, in Bethlehem.
But beside this, in my home it was always Santa bringing the gifts, never Baby Jesus. It was slightly different with school, but that’s a different story. The school was sitting right next to the church — I say “was” because it closed a few years after I completed elementary school; my class was composed of nine children, the class in front and behind me were five and four respectively, you can guess there was no real reason to keep the school running with so few students. That probably tells you that it was not really neutral. At the time there were very few non-Catholic people around the area; I know of one guy my age, who was on the sister-school of mine who is/was a Jehova’s Witness, and that was curious enough at the time. A classmate of mine, in Junior High, was the only other one in the school, as far as I know, to opt-out of the religious studies (an hour per week).
I did not skip that hour, ever. The results have been mixed. In elementary school the teacher was one of the few who would listen to my complaints about not fitting in with the rest of the class – a curious note here, one of my teacher reprimanded my parents, telling them that I shouldn’t waste my time with computers, and that they wouldn’t have any future for me, I’ve been tempted a few times to go say hi to her… – and in class, even though we were told about the creationist myth, it was well clear to everybody that it was just that, a myth, and that science says well something else.
In junior high things got even better. The teacher there consider the class to be about religious studies, not Catholic studies, leaving the latter to Sunday School, so what she taught us about was about various religions and the differences between them, which was actually pretty interesting for the most part. Of course we had to endure quite a few lessons spent watching a dramatization of the bible, which to me was mostly a pain because we had a very cool projector, but it would be all miscalibrated and nobody ever let me fix that.
Let me open a half parenthesis here: when my class was around 12-13 years old, we were almost going to skip on sex-ed, and we ended up having the class split by gender, and collapsed with the same year’s class on a different section — openly against the advise of both our math and gym teachers, who noted how our female classmates spoke in class of their cycles like it was the most natural thing in the world, which obstensively it is. On the other hand, nobody had an issue with us watching a non-visual, but very explicit dramatization of the rape of Tamar. I guess it was fine because it was in the bible. It honestly shocked me at the time, and it’s likely a major reason why I mistrusted the bible from there on.
By junior high, I really did not go to church, ever. The missionary priest left, he went back to Kenya – where I know he still was, as of seven years ago, as a friend of mine, from a different town and a different school, went there as well for a while and met him – the substitute was not as compelling. My mother especially has been not really moved by the first time he came to do the yearly house blessing. You have to know that my mother is a bit… out there. She used to do card readings, trust(ed) horoscopes, and all the kind of newagey stuff. It probably explains why she never insisted for me to go to church. That time when the new priest came for the blessing, my mother had just put on some new curtains in the kitchen: a blue field with bright yellow suns, stars and moons smiling. The priest started telling my mother how horoscopes and the like are Satan’s doing. That was enough for her to stop caring. Funnily enough, she did call me downstairs to greet the new priest, then let me go back to the game Blood which I was playing. killing enemies within what looked and sounded like a church. You can guess by then I was quite disenchanted with the church already.
While I did not go to mass anymore by junior high, during those three years I went to church exactly three times. Two were due to my sister’s wedding, and, as I said earlier, to both my sisters’ confirmation. The third time was a funeral, for the father of a classmate of mine; the whole class went. It was my first funeral – before that, I only lost one grandfather, Elio, who died when I was six, and I was not brought to the funeral – and I was wondering what I was doing there. Yes, of course it was a way to show my classmate that us classmates were not going to leave her behind — but I already felt the ceremony to be quite useless. I had this confirmed when I went to my other grandfather’s funeral a few years later. I haven’t been to a single funeral since, I still think that the only people who need comfort when someone dies are those that are still alive.
It was in high school that I started actually thinking of myself as an atheist. I had three different teachers for religious studies. The first was a waste of space, he would just enter the room, check who was there, and start reading the sports newspaper. Since I had even less interest in sports than I had about catholicism, I found that year’s lessons extremely boring. The second teacher was the most interesting teacher I had in my school history. He used to be a friar, but he gave up life at the monastery to get married. He taught both religious studies and basic law – it used to be common in tech high schools to have a few hours a week of basic low and basic economy, which I think were very well worth it – but the latter at a different school. He taught religion as if it was philosophy. I still remember one lesson he pointed out in very politically incorrect words how many people who would call themselves Catholic and go to mass every Sunday would still be “sinning” all the time.
The last three years were a bit more boring, but fully tested the idea that I was an atheist. The teacher was – and at least I hope, is – a good person and not a bigot, but at the same time he was most definitely Catholic-centric. He was also in love with modern art – which I really can’t stand – starting with Burri. But at least he was happy to have discussion in class. Of course, by this age, half the class opted out for the hour, simply because it meant they could get out of school earlier, or spend an hour smoking outside, or whatever. The remaining half class either was taking the hour to just do nothing, or would try to show off with the teacher hoping that he’d help with them passing at the end of the year – admittedly that’s one of the reasons why I did not opt-out – and would take by default whatever position the teacher showed to be his.
One particular episode that stuck in my head was I think in my fourth year; this was after the faith-based initiative of 9/11 (yes I stole the phrase, I think it summarises well my opinion here), and in Italy the media were paying much more attention to Muslims. One of the reports that they ran was of a small town I don’t in which part of Italy, after some Muslim children went to school with their faith’s attire, a group of parents got a huge cross installed (okay, your call), in the main town’s square (not cool…), with the city’s money (that’s not okay with me). We ended up talking about this in school and you can see my points already. I don’t have a particular problem with Muslims, no more than I have with Christians, so if schools’ principals are allowed to choose to keep the cross in the classrooms, I have no problem with Muslims showing their faith symbols. You can most likely also see what most of the other class ended up arguing: “they came here so they have to follow what we do”. Sigh. And these are the people who are not really trying to be Catholic, those at least have a little more respect.
I have met quite a few good Catholics, to be honest. Two were in my class, one is the guy who went to Kenya and met my first priest over there, the other has been a close friend of mine, and I’m still not sure why she’s that much into the Church’s partial teachings, but she’s happy with that, so it’s not my place to judge. I’m sure it was not her family to bring her there, as I know her mother and we get quite well along, regarding Catholicism. I’m much less bothered by people who chose to be Catholic and considered their position, than by people who are Catholic because that’s how they grew up, and just assume it’s the way it’s supposed to be.
My Best Friend, my really best friend, who I’ve known for ever, or for at least as much as I can remember clearly, used to go to church every week, with the whole family. We had a few arguments over time as I pointed out my dislike for the Church and religions in general. He ended up meeting a very self-interested priest, who now run the parish of my hometown, and changed his mind at least regarding the Roman Catholic Church. He’s not an atheist, but I think he’s on the right road.
After junior high, I entered churches only for special occasions: my other grandfather’s funeral, as I said earlier, my other sister’s wedding and my nephew’s baptism. I would have preferred he wouldn’t be baptised, but it was not my call of course. That was the last time I went to a church. I was not invited to any more weddings, as most of my friends don’t seem to be in a financial position to marry, and most of them seem to not care about a church wedding – with a couple of friends of mine we were considering that for their civil wedding, me and another friend would be happy to be the witnesses, dressed as metalheads as we are – so he problem has been mostly solved itself right now.
I did get myself “un-baptised” — basically, I got it recorded on the registry of baptisms for my parish that I don’t want to be considered part of the Catholic church any more. It’s more of a formal practice than anything, but it solves exactly one practical problem: I’m no longer allowed to be given a funeral. While I have not (yet) given proper dispositions for what to do of me when I’ll die, – I have been coming near the idea of leaving a will before, but I never had anything but debt as inheritance – I have made it explicit to my mother and sister that I don’t want to have a funeral, or be buried. My mother has been happy to keep this in mind. – as happy as you can be about topics like this at least – because the same is true for her, even if for different reasons.
I have been toying with the idea of un-baptising for a few years before finally doing it. One of the reasons for which I did that was that I got fed up with the faithful while going through my personl health odyssey. Even though most of the people near me did everything they had a chance to, to help me, including small things like lending me their iPod so I would not get bored in the ICU (thanks, Andrea!), or spending the night looking after me when I was back in gastroenterology, a few went along the lines of “praying for me” — I had to keep a bronze face, which is not my usual behaviour, for the time after the event, but I found it a bit bothersome. Even more so when my mother actually suggested I wanted to go somewhere in Italy to turn up a candle for whatever saint or something.
No, it was not prayers, or thoughts, or energy, or whatever else came out of someone’s mind that saved me. It was science and medicine – no thanks to some of the doctors – that saved my ass. It was a family friend knowing a guy who knew one of the best pancreatic surgeons in Europe, who happened to be Italian and working a few hours from where I lived. It was friends doing research for me in JSTOR to look for possible reasons of what happened to me. It was my best friend picking my sister up at the station so that she could look for the disk with my CT scans, and OsiriX being able to read those CT scans from my MacBook Pro (Free software helped save my life!).
I’m not the kind of atheist that puts pressure on people to leave their faith behind, I’m the kind that’s there to help if somebody wants help doing that, though. A friend of mine told me just a few months ago that he’s sometimes envious of believers because they have a reason to behave in certain ways. I honestly feel sorry for them for about the same reason: because they need something to behave. I have morals without the need for an external entity -declaration-.
I need neither the ten commandments or Penn’s ten suggestions to tell me not to lie or kill, and to not mistreat my mother — I reserve the right to not care about my father. I don’t want to piss off all the believers out there, but I just can’t get myself to care about so much about people’s faith when some seem convinced I’m a monster because I find my way alone. Gets to the extreme of being ironic – possibly in Alanis Morissette’s idea of irony – when you think I might be a better Catholic than some of the Catholics I know, reaching as of yesterday (or two days ago by the time you’ll read this) the age of 28 as a virgin.
There, one less weight on my stomach. Feel free to comment if you want to argue some point or another of this post. Just remember that hatemail is going to be dropped without notice, and possibly the same could go for obvious trolls by “anonymouses”. I’m happy to debate with people, with pseudonyms or real names, but I find discussing with anonymouses just being a waste of time.