Mimma Meets an Atheist

I have never been much of a housekeeper, nor cared to be. I grew up in times and places where many people (not just wealthy ones) had live-in servants. My parents both had jobs, and someone else was paid to take care of cleaning, cooking, gardening, etc.

When we lived in the US during my late childhood/early adolescence, I learned how to wash dishes and clean a home – tasks that I was perfectly happy to relinquish to someone else when we later moved back to Asia. In college, again, I did for myself, and as a young wife and mother while my husband was in graduate school and then became a university professor, I continued to do most of the household tasks, with “help” from him. Help which I tried, unsuccessfully but unceasingly, to reframe in his mind as “doing his share”.

A few years after we moved to Milan, my own career got busy and I began traveling for work. Enrico did the cooking, childcare, and some cleaning during the times I was out of town, but my struggle for housework equality continued to cause stress in our marriage.

Eventually I was earning enough that I could take the solution that seemed obvious to me: hire someone else to do the housework, someone whose hourly wage was less than either of us could earn in an hour (as a contractor for a US tech company during the dot com boom, I was also paid by the hour – highly).

We had a succession of Sri Lankan immigrants to clean our place in Milan. Perhaps it seemed absurd to hire in someone to clean a three-room apartment (one that I was in all day, too – I worked from home when not traveling), but we ended up with a cleaner home, and one less thing to argue about.

Then we moved to a much bigger apartment in Lecco. I wasn’t working as much around the time that we moved (not by my choice!), but I hoped to return to full-time work, and had no desire to increase the hours I spent on cleaning.

We asked colleagues of Enrico’s and other acquaintances in Lecco for leads on cleaning help. Immigrants were far fewer than in Milan, but there weren’t many Italians willing to clean other people’s houses, either. Eventually, someone introduced us to Mimma.

Mimma (short for Domenica) and her husband Domenico were part of the south-to-north migration that had taken place in Italy in the 1970s. With just elementary schooling, they moved from Sicily to Lecco, where he worked all his career in a paper mill, and she cleaned and ironed for a living. Their children grew up in the north, but, like all Italians, the family kept close ties to its roots, returning to visit the extended family in Sicily every summer.

By the time we met, Domenico had retired from decades of physically gruelling work, and Mimma also wanted to slow down: rather than cleaning houses, she wanted only to do ironing (which she considered relaxing!). But she agreed to do a deep clean of the new rented apartment we were moving into – it had stood vacant for some time and was grimy.

I helped out a bit with that, but, as Mimma was horrified to learn, I really don’t know much about cleaning.

“Didn’t your mother teach you how to clean a house?” she asked indignantly.

I explained that, when I was small, we had servants in Thailand, then I hadn’t lived with my mother anymore, then I was in India… so, no, I had not had much opportunity to learn cleaning techniques, not up to Mimma’s standards. I didn’t mind her telling me (and said so), but I was never likely to be an enthusiastic house cleaner. After that first big clean was done, I begged Mimma to help me find someone who could come in and clean once or twice a week. She agreed that, until such a person could be found, she would do it.

After a few weeks of this, Mimma came in one day and said, in tones of mingled affection and exasperation: “I can’t find anyone else, so I’ve decided that – only for you – I will clean as well as iron.”

I was flattered, and pleased. Mimma was a fantastic housekeeper, but I also enjoyed talking with her, and she with me.

Which may have been unusual in Mimma’s experience of employers in Lecco. Although the factories of northern Italy had needed the labor of the southern migrants back in the 70’s, the northerners never liked the southerners, calling them terroni (“people of the earth” – peasants). Mimma told me that some of her employers over the years had been downright rude. I treated her as an equal, with respect and friendship – because I liked her, and because that’s how I treat people. It would not occur to me to be condescending to someone who’s working for me.

So, Mimma came in twice a week to clean and iron, and each day when she was ready for a break from cleaning, we’d have coffee and chat. Over the years to come, she invited us to coffees and meals at her own spotlessly clean home (she is a fantastic cook), and she and Domenico joined us at family gatherings such as this one (you can see them in the video).

I was open with her as I am with most people, and she felt free to ask personal questions about my life, America, and other places I had lived in. Although we were profoundly different in character and experience, we shared values in being honest, kind, and caring, about working hard and doing good things.

But there was one difference between us that Mimma didn’t expect.

One day early in our relationship, as we sat in the kitchen over coffee, Mimma said casually: “You’re Protestant, right?” As opposed to Catholic. Italians have little experience or knowledge of the variety of non-Catholic Christianity.

“I was baptized Catholic, to please my grandmother, but I’m atheist,” I said simply.

Mimma looked stunned. Clearly, it had never occurred to her that a white, western person could be non-Christian, let alone a non-believer. She was briefly silent, then left the kitchen to get on with cleaning.

After a few minutes, she popped her head back in the door.

“So you don’t believe in God? Any god?”

“No. I never have.”

She disappeared again.

She came back.

“But if you’re invited to a christening or a wedding in a church, would you go?”

“Yes, of course. Those are happy occasions that I want to celebrate with my friends.”

“Oh, ok.” She left again.

I was wryly amused. I’m not sure Mimma herself was a regular churchgoer, but, like many Italians, she considered being Catholic a fundamental part of her identity. She knew that others might have other brands of religion – Italy was seeing enough immigration by then to have daily exposure to many cultures and belief systems – but being completely without a religion was harder for her to fathom.

She soon got over the shock, and I’m not sure we ever discussed it again one way or another, but I never will forget that look of revelation on her face. Yes, there are people in the world who don’t believe in any god at all – and we’re just fine.

The Humanist Symposium

To my regular readers: Not too long ago, I (and thousands of others) stumbled across an article titled Atheists and Anger, an articulate, well-thought-out piece which I highly recommend. It had the welcome side effect of introducing me to the wonderful writing of Greta Christina. (Whose themes range far beyond atheism and are not for everybody… read at your own risk. In case you end up wondering: no, I am not into spanking.)

It was on Greta Christina’s blog that I learned about a new way to share love and traffic among like-minded blogs, called a BlogCarnival. My own piece on Raising a Non-Believer was hosted soon thereafter by The Humanist Symposium, and now I’m doing my bit in return.

The themes of the articles below may include (according to the guidelines):

  • The happiness and freedom of life as an atheist, or other positive aspects to living a life without religious belief
  • Efforts to evangelize for atheism, and stories of people who have recently deconverted from religion
  • How to find meaning and purpose in a godless life
  • How non-religious people deal with weddings, child-raising, deaths, and other significant life events
  • Posts that stir up the human sense of awe and wonder
  • The ethics and moral philosophy of the non-religious
  • How nonbelievers can foster and nourish a sense of community

Here, without further ado, are the articles. The quotes below each are their authors’ descriptions, where such were provided.

Greta Christina presents The Meaning of Death, Part 2 of Many: Motivation and Mid-Life Crises posted at Greta Christina’s Blog:

“In a world with no God and no afterlife, death — like life — doesn’t have any purpose or meaning except the meaning we create. So what meaning can we create for it? Here is one idea: death as a deadline, for those of us who are deadline-driven.”

Phil for Humanity presents The Blame Game << Phil for Humanity posted at Phil for Humanity:

“Recently, I heard a racial slur against Jews because of what they
supposedly did to Jesus Christ. This insult was not against the Jews
that were alive two thousand years ago but against the Jews living

Samuel Bryson presents The Meaning of life (and other trivial concerns!)- An Existentialist Approach: posted at Total Wellbeing.

Alonzo Fyfe presents E2.0: David Sloan Wilson: New Atheism a Stealth Religion posted at Atheist Ethicist.

KC presents Speak now, speak loudly and speak often posted at Bligbi.

Chris Hallquist presents Review: On Truth posted at The Uncredible Hallq.

Albert Foong presents The life that has gone on before: The Perils of Compassion, Part 2 posted at Urban Monk.

The Sacred Slut presents Beside the Point, posted at A Whore in the Temple of Reason.

Ron Brown presents Finding meaning in wonder and well-being: An ex-fundamentalist’s tale « The Frame Problem posted at The Frame Problem.

vjack presents Atheist Spirituality posted at Atheist Revolution:

Can an atheist be a spiritual person, and if so, in what sense? Is it meaningful to talk of atheist spirituality, or should the term be reserved for religious believers?

Mike White presents How much Freedom do we Have? posted at Life According to Mike White.

An adventure into how much freedom as humans we actually have. How does religion affect our freedom, how morality is affected through our choices and attention taken to our inner self. I think this might be a long one!

plonkee presents violence and incompetence posted at the religious atheist:

It’s funny, but I’ve always heard that you get more conservative, traditional and right wing as you get older, whereas I seem to be getting more pacifist.

John Remy presents For Atheists and Agnostics Who Go To Church | Mind on Fire. posted at Mind on Fire..

From D: I haven’t had time to write anything new myself this week that fits the theme, but those who are new to my site can check out the links on the left for some older musings of mine on atheism.

Though it hasn’t been submitted as part of the Symposium, I strongly recommend that anyone interested in questions of morality and religion read Steven Pinker’s recent NYT article on The Moral Instinct.

The next Humanist Symposium will be Feb. 17 at Cafe Philos.

your thoughts?

Religious Belief vs. Health Care – Tolerating the Intolerable in Italy

Britain’s Telegraph carries an opinion piece titled If Muslim doctors are intolerant, let them go, according to which a few young Muslim medical trainees have been allowed to refuse to see female bodies or to treat alcohol-related problems, on religious grounds. Sainsbury’s, a UK grocery chain, allows its checkout staff to refuse to scan alcohol if they have religious objections, and there have apparently been cases of taxi drivers refusing passengers who were carrying alcohol.

The opinion piece decries all this – if you’re hired to do a job involving the public, you should not be allowed to discriminate among that public for any reason – and I agree.

The medical question is the most important: to what extent do doctors have a right to refuse treatment that they personally disagree with? The American fundamentalist Christian pharmacists who refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control pills are not carrying out their duty to serve the public; they are conveyors of a necessary public good, and have no right to impose their beliefs on their customers. If you can’t stand the birth control, get out of the pharmacy.

At least in America and Britain there is resistance to these attitudes and attempted practices. In Italy, we have silent acquiescence in similarly unethical behavior by Catholic medical personnel.

When my daughter’s class had (two short sessions of) sex education during her second year of high school here in Lecco, they were warned by the local family health doctor who came to teach them that, while abortion is legal in Italy (and their parents don’t even have to be involved), they would have trouble obtaining an abortion in Lecco (a very Catholic town).

Several of her friends learned the hard way that even obtaining the morning-after pill (also perfectly legal in Italy, but requiring a prescription) can be difficult. One friend went to the hospital (accompanied by her boyfriend) immediately after a condom accident to request it. The doctors and nurses in the ob/gyn department jeered at her and refused. Wandering, crying, through the halls, she eventually ran into a sympathetic doctor who exclaimed furiously “They have no right!” and wrote her the prescription. Othere friends have told Ross similar stories.

An American friend living in Tuscany (fully grown with a teenage daughter) was refused an IUD by her family doctor, on the grounds that this doctor believed the device to be an abortifacient.

The other day I had a routine gynecological exam and pap test. I’ve been thinking about the problem of long-term birth control, so I asked the doctor how one goes about getting sterilized in Italy, and how much it costs. He told me that a sterlization operation is free and easily obtained in Italy (for both sexes), but that I would not be able to do it in Lecco.

To say I was astonished is to put it mildly.

“So I’m supposed to have all the babies god sends me?” I demanded.

“No comment,” he said drily (and in English).

He said I could easily get it done in the nearby hospital of Merate: “What does it matter when you can do it just 20 km down the road?”

How about the principle of the thing? And the law? In a worst-case scenario, what if the Catholic fundamentalist attitude prevalent in Lecco were to spread? Suppose someone found herself in Lecco’s hospital in some serious condition requiring a therapeutic abortion – would they still refuse? Could they, legally? Would anyone bother to enforce the law, whatever it is? Or do we, as usual, just put up with it because “that’s the way it’s always been” and find a workaround? And who are these goddamned Catholics to tell me what to do with my body?

Some of this was old news – Pierangelo Bertoli wrote a song about it decades ago: Certi Momenti.

Oct 29, 2007: Benedict appeals to pharmacists
“They shouldn’t have to sell ‘immoral drugs’, pope says” – And do you know what I say to the Pope? I’m sure you can figure it out…

Pope’s “morning after pill” speech criticized

The God Delusion

Richard Dawkins is laughing up his sleeve.

I wasn’t in any hurry to buy this book. I had already read and admired every other book of Dawkins’, and had read enough in the press to have a good idea of what this book contained, and to know that I would agree with it, as I had with Dennet’s “Breaking the Spell”.

But I saw it in the bookstore at Luton airport, and couldn’t resist buying it for Enrico – and myself. We both read through it quickly, enjoying Dawkins’ elegant prose and wry wit brought to bear on some of our favorite targets.

It’s amusing to watch all the mudslinging by religious commentators (and even some atheists), shrilly accusing Dawkins of being strident and dogmatic in his non-belief. Apparently they don’t know about the Streisand Effect, an Internet phenomenon whereby raising a fuss about something brings it more attention than it would otherwise have enjoyed.

Not that I think the world would have ignored Dawkins, but surely some of the book’s sales (23 weeks on the NYT bestseller list so far) have been due to the huge amounts of publicity he has gotten from people anxious to vilify him.

Will this book succeed in Dawkins’ aim of “converting” people to unbelief? I’m doubtful. But, judging by some of the comments on Dawkins’ website and elsewhere, he has at least made many atheists feel more comfortable with acknowledging publicly what they have long felt privately – they are indeed “coming out of the closet.”

I don’t think Dawkins deserves the label of “strident” that so many, even on his own side, have applied to him. In the interviews I’ve seen and read, he’s remarkably polite, especially considering what’s being said about and to him.

At any rate, if you think he’s strident, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. I’m now reading Perché Non Possiamo Essere Cristiani (e Meno Che Mai Cattolici) – “Why We Can’t be Christian, and Less Than Never Catholic” – by Piergiorgio Odifreddi. If this ever gets translated into English, Dr Odifreddi will probably find a fundamentalist Christian/Catholic fatwa raised against him. (Italian Catholics are generally more relaxed about such things.)

Immigration and Identity in Europe

(originally published in 2002)

The assassination of Pim Fortuyn, a Dutch politician, provides food for thought. Fortuyn was “a politician who rejected multiculturalism, called for an end to immigration and excoriated Islam as a ‘backward culture’ for its intolerance of homosexuals, attitude to women and more” and “argue[d] fiercely that immigrants should integrate more wholeheartedly with the host nation.” (The Economist, May 9 and April 25, 2002). Fortuyn raised valid questions about immigration and cultural identity, questions that European countries urgently need to answer.

Due to low birthrates, there is a shortage of “native” European babies, and Europe faces a demographic decline which will lead to a disproportion between the number of people being paid state pensions, and the number of people in the workforce paying the taxes to pay those pensions. Europe needs an inflow of young people to fill the demographic gap, and to do the menial jobs that native Europeans consider beneath them. There is demand for labor, and it is supplied, both legally and il-, by economic migration from poorer countries.
Yet immigration worries many Europeans. The ugly side of these fears is expressed in support for extremists like Le Pen in France. Balanced thinkers like Fortuyn, however, deserve a hearing. He posed important questions about the mutual rights and obligations of immigrants and their new home countries.

The big question is integration: How much should immigrants be expected to adopt the values and mores of their new countries? The issues are thorny when people from more repressive cultures immigrate to liberal ones (and the Netherlands’ is one of the most liberal in the world!). Which practices can or should be defended on the grounds of culture and tradition?

Some obvious lines are drawn. Clitoridectomy (“female genital mutilation“) is illegal in European countries; some women have successfully bid for political asylum to avoid being sent back to countries where they would be forced to undergo it. But other cultural conundrums run the gamut from arranged marriage, to Muslim girls covering their heads in school.

There are even culture clashes between first- and second-generation immigrants, sadly illustrated by the case of Fadime Sahindal. She moved with her Kurdish family to Sweden when she was seven, and attended Swedish schools. So she grew up between cultures, a third-culture kid, neither wholly Swedish nor wholly Kurdish. Her parents nonetheless expected that she would behave as Kurdish girls traditionally do, e.g. submit to a marriage arranged by them, with a Kurdish man. She defied them by falling in love with a Swedish man, and was murdered by her own father for “dishonoring” her family. (More)

“European populations are aging, and cannot maintain their welfare states without massive immigration; immigration from Islamic countries threatens to change European values inalterably.” (Rod Dreher, National Review Online)

Pim Fortuyn had reason to fear such changes. He was flamboyantly gay – not a problem for most Dutch, but anathema to many conservative Muslims, even those living in Holland. His murder just before the elections may already have changed the Dutch political mindset: “Mr Balkenende [expected to be the next prime minister] repudiated the country’s multicultural approach to immigration and said newcomers should assimilate with Dutch culture.” (The Economist, May 16, 2002)

Jan 28, 2007 – Revisiting this article nearly five years later, it’s hard to say that much has changed for the better. The Netherlands is having an identity crisis, spurred on the one hand by a tradition of tolerance, on the other by events like the religiously-inspired murder of director Theo van Gogh.

Italy has had its own “honor” killing. Last summer a twenty-year-old woman of Pakistani descent, raised mostly in Italy, was murdered by her father and uncle for dishonoring the family by refusing an arranged marriage and living with an Italian man. Her relatives slit her throat and buried her in the garden.

A colleague told me of a friend of hers, a north African woman in her 30s who has been in Italy for many years and lives with her Italian boyfriend. But now that her family is coming to visit from the home country (yes, I am being deliberately vague), she is going through an elaborate ruse to hide the real facts of her life, for fear that her family would literally kill her were they to find out that she is living in sin. This woman must either submit to the will of her family (marry a Muslim man of their choosing) or live in subterfuge and danger forever. Or renounce her family, but it’s possible that this would not save her life, should the family consider itself dishonored by her behavior. How is an open, tolerant society like Italy’s supposed to deal with this? What can we do to help her and others like her?

Your thoughts?

see also Integration of Muslim Students in Italian Schools