It has often been asked of high profile “New” Atheists (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, the late Hitchens – take your pick) why, despite being the only country to enshrine, in the First Amendment to its constitution, a separation between church and state, the United States has become an almost unique site of freewheeling religious fervour.
Concrete answers to this question appear hard to come by, but a plausible (and ironic) one is that the Constitution’s relegation of religion to the private sphere has allowed it to grow in much the same way as free market industry. It has also, and I think this is key, prevented religion from being forced down people’s throats (there may be disputes about teaching evolution in grammar schools but a state religion there has never been). Freedom of religion has arguably made the United States more immune to the tyrannical elements of faith that can turn people away from the church (or mosque, or temple) altogether.
Our trip recently brought us to one of the world’s truly great cities. Rome is a veritable outdoor museum. Not a corner is turned without confronting an architectural masterpiece or ancient remnant of a legendary civilization. And at the centre of all the grandeur (actually a little to the Northwest) lies the greatest draw of them all, the richest city in the world – in possession of observer status at the UN – and the home of His Holiness, the Pope: Vatican City. Each day, this most powerful and secretive of institutions attracts tourists by the thousands, many arriving at its gates before the sun in the hopes of escaping the hellish mid-morning heat.
Our first stop was the impressive, and free, St. Peter’s Basilica (one of the largest churches in the world) located at the head of a square of the same name. The building’s majestic exterior is surpassed only by the unabashed decadence found inside. The building’s interior covers some 15,000 square meters, with a staggering amount of gold, silver, and bronze intricacies, countless statues and paintings, and 150-foot ceilings – all the faith-inspired glamour you could possibly wish for. But what struck me more than the extravagance, which can be found to a lesser but still impressive degree in countless cathedrals in Europe, was the distinct feeling that I was not merely visiting another Christian historical site. The prevalence of nuns and other church people pushing their way through the hordes of tourists, and the intense security at every turn, served to remind me that, far from visiting a relic of the past, I was at the gates of a thriving and immensely powerful political machine.
By the time we left the basilica I was starting to feel something a little like nausea, but there was still more to see. The other part of the Vatican open to the lay consumer is the Vatican Museum, which connects visitors to the celebrated Sistine Chapel. Anyone who has been to Rome will know that to call the midday line-up for the museum and chapel “long” would be like calling Mount Everest “a bit of a hike.” Basically, it’s really long. But for me, the line became a secondary deterrent. My real problem ultimately lay with the fifteen euro entrance fee that would surely be heading straight into papal pockets (insert laundry list of potential money-misuses, from propagating hatred of Jews and homosexuals, to preventing condom use in AIDS-stricken countries, to covering up child rape).
On the way into town that morning I had had every intention of seeing Michelangelo’s masterful ceiling, even saying to Kat that the money (not a small amount on a budget like ours) was insignificant given the chance to see such an iconic piece of work. But when the time came to get in line, the hype of the Vatican – and, admittedly, the insecurity about “missing” one of Europe’s great attractions – had been replaced by a not-so-mild form of disgust. With an estimated 15 billion dollar net worth (much of it tax free) and the ability to deliver planes full of gold to foreign leaders like most of us give Christmas cards, the Vatican will hardly lose sleep over our fifteen-euro dissent. Still, we were determined not to make ourselves accomplices in what amounts to a rather contemptible mix of extravagance, piety, and power politics. Whatever your thoughts about God(s), the Vatican betrays the man-made nature of religion with all the subtlety of a punch in the face.
I will assume that my leanings on this subject are by now plain to see, but even if one were not the unbelieving type, a visit to the Vatican ought to at least make you wonder whether this is what God, wherever he or she may be, had in mind. For this reason if none other, Americans would perhaps do well to visit the holy headquarters. Although many belong to non-Catholic Christian denominations, the Vatican serves both as a reminder of how the Church operated when it was “in charge”, before it was beaten back by years of secular and scientific inquiry, and as a present-day warning of what happens when any one church is permitted access to the public (and political) realm. To my mind, the Vatican is, rather paradoxically, providing the conditions under which the seeds of a different kind of conversion may be sown. Maybe I should have spent the money after all.