This morning I considered whether or not to turn on my television and tune in to what passes for news on the cable networks in this country. Having nothing better to do while I prepared my breakfast I grabbed the remote and punched in the buttons for MSNBC, fully expecting the usual obsessive coverage of President Trump’s train wreck du jour. I was wrong. Notre Dame Cathedral was burning in Paris. During Holy Week.
When I realized that one of the world’s most important churches was burning to the ground during the most important week in Catholicism, I’ll confess that the first thought from my atheist brain was a predictable “where’s your God now?” But knowing that “He” works in mysterious ways, more important thoughts soon followed, of the real-world variety. Mostly they involved what the US corporate mainstream media chooses to cover — and more importantly, what not to cover.
As I write this, it’s been over two hours since news of the blaze broke and all of the Big Three cable news networks — Fox News, MSNBC and CNN — haven’t stopped covering the story. Then I remembered my first Notre Dame experience. I first visited Paris back in 1994 and instantly fell in love with the place. I spent much of the following summer there, and visited Notre Dame for the first time. It was a spectacular edifice full of breathtaking architectural detail, resplendent works of art and some of the most impressive stained glass windows I’ve ever seen.
However, I knew it was also the French heart and home of the Roman Catholic Church, one of the most murderous, exploitive and unrepentant organizations in human history. Whenever the latest inevitable clergy sex abuse news breaks, my response is always the same: After telling people to watch this brilliant scene from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, I assert that if any other organization were as infested with child rapists and pedophile protectors and enablers, it would be shut down, its leaders would be arrested, tried and convicted for their crimes and its assets would be liquidated to compensate its victims. As I watched Notre Dame burn, I couldn’t help but think of all the boys and girls who must have been abused over all those centuries between those cold stone walls in the name of “God’s love.” This is no novel scourge, after all; the Marquis de Sade could no doubt gaze out his window at Notre Dame as he wrote of such horrific crimes over 200 years ago.
I watched as a cavalcade of cable commentators waxed near teary-eyed over all the religious and artistic treasures that were going up in flames in real-time. As I pondered the cathedral’s sheer external grandeur and interior opulence, the word exploitation grew louder in my head. The Catholic Church was largely built on a foundation of worldwide suffering, which included the mass murder, enslavement and conquest of countless millions of peoples on every inhabited continent on the planet. I wondered how much of Notre Dame’s copious treasure was ill-begotten.
Now it’s been more than three hours since the fire started and all three news channels are still in 24/7 coverage mode. The number three suddenly reminds me of the three African-American churches allegedly torched by the white supremacist son of a Louisiana sheriff’s deputy earlier this month, an American arson spree that hasn’t received a fraction of the coverage of that famous cathedral halfway around the world.
My mind then wandered back from comparing church fires to comparing wider media priorities. As the social media commenteratti flooded news feeds with sad-faced and broken-hearted emojis lamenting the loss of what we’re told is one of the world’s most historically and architecturally significant structures, I felt it was my humanist duty to inform some of these folks that far older treasures in ancient but now ruined cities have been destroyed during America’s never-ending war on terrorism, and with barely any public or media attention. And while thankfully nobody died at Notre Dame, the same can’t be said for the millions of men, women and children who are dead, disabled and displaced as a result of US wars. These thoughts were drowned out by some MSNBC reporter saying that “some of the most remarkable spiritual achievements in Western history happened” at Notre Dame.
Spiritual achievements? What does that even mean?
And then I remembered one real achievement that occurred at Notre Dame that every atheist can celebrate. During the tumult and upheaval of the French Revolution, a state-sponsored atheistic “religion” called the Cult of Reason took over the place, holding a “Festival of Reason” during which the Catholic altar was replaced with a monument to liberty, and “to philosophy” was carved in stone above the main entrance. A “Goddess of Reason” presided over the affair. It gets even better — by order of the then-ruling Paris Commune, all Parisian churches were converted to temples of reason. Within a year, however, atheist leaders were being guillotined and the Cult of the Supreme Being reigned supreme in Paris.
It’s now the fifth straight hour of cable news coverage. French President Emmanuel Macron has just declared that “the worst has been avoided.” Notre Dame’s main structure has been “saved and preserved.” Nobody has died. It is not the first time that this mighty monument to Christendom has endured a severe blow; it has been rebuilt before and it will be rebuilt again. What I fear that is damaged beyond repair — and has been for quite some time now — is the relevance and reliability of the US corporate mainstream media, as well as the ability of too many Americans to see any but Christian or Western tragedies as truly tragic.
Update: Did you know that a fire also broke out today at the al-Aqsa mosque in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem, the third-holiest site in the Islamic world? Neither did I, until after I published this post.