Interview with Dr. Giovanni Gaetani — Growth and Development Officer, IHEU

Image: Giovanni Gaetani.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was family background — geography, culture, language, religion/irreligion, and education?

Dr. Giovanni Gaetani: That’s a huge subject! Making a long story short, I can say what follows. Raised as a Catholic, I started questioning my faith at the age of 15. My “conversion” to atheism has been a slow, long, and gradual process, in at least 4 stages.

The first stage was the anti-clerical Christian one: without putting in doubt the existence of God, I started harshly criticizing the authority of Church, which I used to think betrayed the Christian message.

It was to better defend this message that I decided to read the Bible alone, without any intermediate, as an autodidact theist. What a bad idea it was! Indeed, this apologetic attempt ended up being the end of my faith in God. Why?

Because I found it impossible to keep together every contradictory message in the Bible — turning the other cheek with the fire-rain of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Plagues of Egypt with Jesus’s miracles, the commandment of stoning adulterous women with the ethics of forgiveness, and so on. “If this is the Word of God,” I thought, “I’d rather live without it…”

At the age of 18, I became an agnostic deist; that is, I still believed in a universal, superior principle whilst criticizing every revealed religion in the world. Anyway, this was short transitory phase.

When I went to the university to study philosophy, I realized that I could not believe in God, whatever I defined it. From that moment, I became an atheist; even though, today, I prefer to say, “I am a Humanist.” The difference is important for me. The problem in Italy is nobody knows nor uses this term. That’s a real pity! I hope things will change soon.

One last thing, it’s worth to be reported here about my bio. At the age of 25, I officially left the Catholic Church through a formal and legal procedure named “sbattezzo” — literally the act of “de-baptising”.

I’ve done it for many reasons, but one, in particular, I think it’s the most important: many people in the world can’t freely and publicly say that they don’t believe in God as I myself can do practically everywhere in Europe and in the UK.

My “sbattezzo” is a way to vindicate the freedom of belief and of expression many atheists and humanists in the world are deprived of. My plain reasoning is the following: if they can’t, I must.

Jacobsen: You joined IHEU in January, 2017. What have been some of the more startling developments in the IHEU community, even in your short time there What have you found out about the community and the things that we are dealing with?

Gaetani: Now, I had a closer insight into it. I can reasonably say that the international humanist community is a prism with hundreds of different faces. Every Member Organization has its own history, its own challenges, as well as its own way to carry on those challenges. However, we share the same roots and values, and have a common vision of life.

Concerning the progress we made, in these first five months, we have already launched two new amazing projects (the Café Humaniste and the ¿Qué pasa Humanista?). Also, we are preparing to launch other projects, while doing our best to help our 138 Member Organizations all over the world.

Jacobsen: How do you build the relationships for the rapid growth of new ties and strengthening of the existing ties in your new position? Also, as the growth and development officer, what tasks and responsibilities come with this position?

Gaetani: We are trying to let the IHEU speak in as many languages as possible, because we must be proactive in our efforts to globalize and reach potential humanists wherever they are in the world. That’s why we have already organised three events in Spanish, one in Italian, and soon other events in other languages.

My professional task is to implement IHEU’s Growth and Development Plan, a three-year plan that targets three regional priorities (Latin America, Africa, and Asia), and includes many different, interesting projects. As an example among the others, we are developing an “How to start a Humanist organization” guide, which is part of a bigger four-section guide — coming soon…

Jacobsen: How does the mainstream religion in America historically view and treat women, especially in the light of modern rights such as general women’s rights and reproductive rights?

Gaetani: You say America, but this is valid worldwide.

I am a feminist, so I cannot but be drastic on this precise point. I could literally spend hours discussing how sexist all religions are in themselves. Even so, rather than focusing on this, I prefer to work with women and men to build together a Humanist alternative, where all human beings are respected in and of themselves, regardless of their gender identity, sexual orientation, nationality, ethnicity, beliefs, and so on.

Indeed, both the feminist struggle for women’s right and the LGBTQIA movement are part of the bigger, thrilling Humanist challenge.

Jacobsen: Women’s rights, especially reproductive rights, in the world are under direct, and indirect, attack. How can grassroots activists, legal professionals, and educational professionals, and outreach officers fight to maintain those new and fragile rights from the historic norm of religious violations of women’s bodies?

Gaetani: That’s a complicated question, which nonetheless demands an urgent, unavoidable answer. First of all, all activists need to understand (and spread) the idea that today no one can sit down and wait for the world to change.

Those who do it, claiming that they are doing “nothing wrong,” are automatically standing on the regressive side of the struggle. It’s like an enormous tug-of-war. Many nihilists or “indifferentists” sit innocently on their hands, claiming that every progressive effort is impossible or useless.

They don’t understand that in this way they are rowing against progress — and that, yes, they are actually doing “something wrong.” Neutrality is impossible today. Everyone has to understand that nihilism is an enemy of Humanism at the same level of religion, as I stressed in a short article for Humanist voices named “Stay Human, go Humanist. Sketches for a Humanist manifesto.”

Concerning the feminist cause, it’s all about education and reeducation. We need to educate the new generations to respect women, but, at the same time, we need also to extirpate in our own souls all sexist behaviours, often hidden in our daily routine behind a facade of innocence.

Jacobsen: In April, 2016, you earned a PhD in Philosophy from the Rome “Tor Vergata” University. The thesis: “If you want to be a philosopher, write novels. The philosophy of Albert Camus.” What was the research question? What were the findings? Why did you pick Camus? He is, after all, a little depressing.

Gaetani: A little depressing? That’s simply wrong — one of the many persistent commonplaces on Camus! My thesis was simply an attempt to debunk all these myths about Camus “the existentialist” (false), Camus “the nihilist” (false), Camus “philosopher for high school” (false too), Camus “crypto-Christian” (outrageously false), etc.

If you want to read something funny that I wrote on the subject, have a look at “The noble art of misquoting Camus — from its origins to the Internet era”, an essay where I listed and debunked the most absurd internet misquotes attributed to Camus.

Going back to the “depressing” Camus, my advice is to read Nuptials, or the incomplete novel The first man, or simply the last chapter of The myth of Sisyphus, who is a truly humanist hero by the way. Then you will understand why I picked up Camus — why I was and I still am fascinated by the “invincible summer” at the hearth of his works.

Jacobsen: You have a substantial academic background with publications in English, French, and Italian — once more on the delightful subject matter of Camus, though depressing extremely fascinating as a philosophy — on not only Camus but Nietzsche too. Why Nietzsche too?

Gaetani: As atheists and as humanists, we owe so much to Nietzsche, even though we turned our back to him. What I just said about Camus equally applies to Nietzsche, his philosophical master; in fact, many stupid commonplaces ruined and still ruin Nietzsche’s image — first and foremost, the absurd story that wants to classify him as a “precursor of Nazism.”

On the contrary, I think that Nietzsche is one of the most lucid and visionary philosophers ever. The proof is that today one cannot philosophize without taking into account his philosophy. It’s either with him or against him, but not without him.

Jacobsen: Some other academic subject matter focuses on liberalism, pluralism, and secularism. Why these topics? What are some of the main ideas within these topics explored? What are the arguments put forth? What one most interest you?

Gaetani: Oh well, this could be enough for a whole lesson! Last year, I wrote an article in Italian named “Atheist, Secular, and Liberal: three definitions for a vocabulary of moderation.” Luckily, I have translated the paragraph where I resumed in few words my “personal definition of liberalism”.

I think this could be a good starting point to understand my position. There is also a more specific article where I discuss the relationship between secularism, liberalism, and pluralism, but I still haven’t translated it.

Jacobsen: Who is a personal hero for you?

Gaetani: I won’t say Camus because the risk is that readers would think that I am a maniac — which is true in some ways.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Gaetani: So, to avoid this accusation, I would say Bernard Rieux, the protagonist of Camus’ The Plague [Laughing].

Jacobsen: You worked for the Italian Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics (UAAR). What did you do? Why work for them? How did this benefit the rationalist community and you?

Gaetani: I volunteered for UAAR from 2013 and I still do it, even now that I moved to London to work for the IHEU. I volunteer for UAAR because I cannot sit on my hands and whine while Italy collapses, as practically everyone in my country loves to do.

I once wrote an ironical but serious article on my blog about these mythological figures — “Where is UAAR going? The perfectible atheism and the impossible innocence” — but unfortunately it’s still untranslated.

Everything started in 2013 when I won the UAAR best thesis prize with my work on “Nihilism and responsibility at the age of God’s death in Nietzsche and Camus.” After this prize, I have done many things during the years.

I wrote some articles on philosophy, atheism, and secularism for UAAR’s blog “A Ragion veduta” and for UAAR’s revue “L’Ateo.” I have been involved in first person in the youth section of UAAR, representing it in two IHEYO events — once in 2016 in Oslo for IHEYO’s General Assembly, then in 2017 in Utrecht for the European Youth Humanist Days.

I created a series of philosophical pills on atheism, named “Ateo ergo sum”. I conceived the contest “The devil wears UAAR”, where I am also participating in the improvised guise of graphic designer with this artwork. I also wrote an anthology on “philosophical atheism for non-philosophers” which soon will be published by “Nessun Dogma,” the editorial project of UAAR.

Jacobsen: What is your main concern for IHEU moving forward into 2017–2020? How about into the next decades?

Gaetani: Next decades is too far to make any reasonable forecast. From my humble point of view, the only appropriate horizon is the constant effort we are daily making to ensure the fastest and fullest growth and development of Humanism worldwide.

Still, if you insist, I can tell you that my small utopia is that in the next decades the word “Humanism” will be recognized worldwide, so that there won’t be anymore the need to explain to everyone what “Humanism” is and what does it mean to be a humanist.

Jacobsen: What are the future prospects for the fight for the most vulnerable among us and their rights being implemented, such as women and children (globally speaking), because — as we both know — there are some powerful and well-financed people and groups who hold rights in contempt of the advancement of their theocratic endeavours?

Gaetani: All Humanist organizations have to understand that, against these regressive and theocratic “colossuses” you alluded to, the mere self-financed volunteering is not enough, and that it is necessary to have a more structured, well-organized, strategic approach.

Money counts, especially in the charities world I would say, where every dollar counts twice given the scarceness and the instability of resources. That is why the IHEU has just launched a crowdfunding campaign named “Help us protect humanists at risk.”

Think about it: in 13 countries in the world the apostasy is still punished with death penalty. To help those humanists in danger, the IHEU and its Member Organizations cannot simply rely on goodwill: we need to be efficient and to act decisively, but without resources this would be simply impossible.

Jacobsen: Any feelings or thoughts in conclusion?

Gaetani: As you can see I am a quite prolix person, especially when I talk about these kinds of subjects. But I need self-control, so I will just thank you for this interview. It was all my pleasure.

Jacobsen: Thank you for your time today, Giovanni, was an absolute pleasure.