What’s That Cross on The Wall For?


Earlier this month, the European Court of Human Rights decreed that the crucifix should no longer be hung in state schools in Italy. They found in favour of Soile Lautsi, a Finnish-born atheist living in Padua, who objected to her children being taught in classrooms that prominently displayed a Christian symbol. The judges ruled that its presence could “disturb” children of other faiths or none, and that it violated pupils’ rights. The ruling wasn’t just for Soile Lautsi’s children’s school, but applied to state schools across the whole of Italy.

I’m very much a supporter of seperation between church and state, and believe secular states (of which Italy, perhaps surprisingly, is one) are a progressive way forward into a less ideologically narrow world future. Coming from that viewpoint, this seems to be a reasonable judgement. One which will cause consternation to a large number of people (which I’ll come to later), but a rational and wise judgement none-the-less. At the same time, whenever I hear about rulings of this kind, I feel slightly uneasy. I suspect it’s the language used by the judges when they give their verdicts. For example:

“Its presence [the crucifix] could disturb children.”

‘Disturb’ implies an air of threat or unease, something which constantly distracts and worries. Now, a naked dead man in a torture pose probably isn’t the greatest image to expose your nation’s children to, but is it really going to disturb them? Children aren’t that easily disturbed when it comes to graphic violence (remember watching Robocop as a kid and loving it?), and in the home country of the Vatican, Catholicism’s particular brand of torture porn is everywhere anyway. You can’t walk down a street in Italy without seeing a crucifix. In fact it’s more likely to engender indifference or annoyance than anything else. I’m not sure ‘disturb’ is an accurate word in this regard.

Of course, saying a crucifix might mildly annoy non-Christians is not going to sound very impressive in a court ruling. The judges need to show they have strong reasons for their judgements, and their language has to be sturdy. A certain aggression is needed: your icon is disturbing us, therefore we will remove it. The same goes for the comment that “it violates pupils’ rights”. In everyday usage, your rights are things like being able to walk down the street without being stabbed, or going the toilet without a crowd watching and laughing. Things which affect you directly. ‘Violate’ seems too strong a word to use for ‘rights’ regarding a pupils’ eyeline in a classroom. The judges, however, need to show due cause for their verdict. The verdict is based on a legal case of infringement of rights, and they need to show this clearly and forcefully.

Nevertheless, I still find the language somehow… well, ‘disturbing’. It feels like an attack by one group against another. Which is a shame, because that’s not what is happening. Unfortunately, that’s how it looks: it looks like atheists bashing Christians, and it has generated the usual knee-jerk responses. There has been a lot of rants (guess the newspapers which printed them) about unaccountable officials showing no respect for individual cultures, despite the fact that you could very easily interpret the presence of a crucifix in a multicultural classroom as doing that exact thing. There has also been the usual complaint that Christianity’s rights are being trampled on, as if they are the only people whose rights matter. This is a weighing up of the rights of different people of different faiths. You can’t expect one faith to have more rights than the others. It’s about respecting as many people as possible, and concessions have to be made. To top things off,  bishops have denounced the ruling as another sign of Europe’s ‘degeneration’ into secularism. It’s all so familiar.

Ignoring the contentious notion that secularism is somehow a ‘degeneration’ and not a step forward, these arguments are bogus anyway. Church and state were formally seperated in Italy in 1984, so classrooms have no special right to display a crucifix. All this ruling effectively does, is take away Catholicism’s special privilege. You could, if you wanted, even view the hanging of crucifixes in classrooms as a leftover from the days of fascism under Mussolini, who made Catholicism the state religion. In that light, the notion of continuing the practise feels much less noble.

Personally, I find it misleading to link this issue to fascism. It is also a little close to Reductio ad Hitlerium for my liking. There are cultural factors to consider here, too. Italy may be a secular state, but it is one with a long history of religion. (Though not the first country to have Christianity as its official religion, as I mistakenly implied on ‘Skeptics With a K’ recently. That honour goes to Armenia). Religion has been central to Italian life for centuries: it is inextricably bound up with the culture. Its myths, ideas, images and tropes are in the language, the architecture, the literature, in Italian life in general. You could easily consider crucifixes as simple cultural decoration, like china teacups in England, or cowboy hats in the USA. If that is the way you see it, then this ban could genuinely be interpreted as an attack of some sort.

Besides, if you take the ideology of Christianity away, and view the crucifix as simply an object, is anyone truly offended by it? I don’t think I would be. I was never offended when my primary school made me sing hymns; I was just bored shitless.

But that’s me. Maybe a lot of people are offended by it. Presumably, that is why this went to court in the first place.

At the very least, the ruling doesn’t seem to have had the desired effect. Italy’s government is appealing against it. Local mayors are pressing schools to hang crucifixes regardless. The same is happening in civil servants’ offices and high street stores. Even the Greek Orthodox Church, who don’t agree with the Catholics over the specifics of all this iconography business anyway, are calling on Christians of all sects to unite in protest. All this over a naked dead man wearing a convenient scrap of cloth over his genitals. What would Jesus think? Apart from ‘ow’.

So, how to sum up this hokum? I was struck by the opinion of a bishop from the Greek Orthodox Church, Bishop Nicholas, who apparently lamented that “at this rate youngsters will not have any worthy symbols at all to inspire and protect them”. This irked me. Jesus is not the only inspirational mythical figure ever to inspire people, and won’t be the last. His removal from a classroom wall isn’t going to remove his religion from the culture either.  If he’s so inspirational, you don’t need to keep reminding people of his existence. Also, what about the the currently alive role models? The politicians, thinkers, artists, philanthropists, charity workers… there’s no shortage. Christianity does not have a monopoly on inspiration.

What exactly is the crucifix supposed to inspire anyway? Martyrdom? Is that truly a worthy idea? What about getting someone else to absorb all your sins by proxy, who then gets mutilated and killed for things that you have done? Is that something you want your kids to be inspired by?

Maybe this ban was the right decision.

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