Notre Dame: I May Be Godless, But She’s My Lady, Too

Notre Dame: I May Be Godless, But She’s My Lady, Too April 16, 2019

It leaves you a little breathless when you lean over the edge of the cenote sagrado at Chichen Itza and consider how many human bones are collected beneath the water. There’s a large slab of rock where people, sometimes children, would be slaughtered and tossed into the dark waters of the sinkhole in order to please Chaac, the Mayan god of rain. I’ve been there twice and both times, I found I’d forgotten to breathe.

The pyramids at Chichen Itza and the Great Ball Court where Mayans once played Pitz and participated in other spectator sports are awe-inspiring, to say the least. It’s really easy to walk around the entire ancient grounds and feel like this was a happy, bustling centre at one point a long, long time ago. Chichen Itza was, however, home to much brutality in the name of the gods. Slaves were traded. Families were destroyed. Innocents were murdered.

Despite the horror that went on there, and in ancient Mayan culture in general, you’re going to be hard-pressed to find a human being who is upset the pyramids still stand. You won’t have the easiest time finding someone who wished we took a wrecking ball to the Great Ball Court because such strife was rampant inside these city walls. Sure, some people don’t have feelings towards it either way because it doesn’t flash or beep or have buttons, or maybe they feel (erroneously) that it is irrelevant to their lives, but I don’t think there are many people out there who wish it would be destroyed or who would enjoy seeing it in ruin.

There are so many places like this across our world, from the Pyramids in Egypt built for the Pharaohs who sacrificed their slaves so they could serve them in the afterlife to the Colosseum in Rome where slaves battled to the death for the entertainment of onlookers. Even in more contemporary times, we have gone out of our way to preserve the sites of the many horrors that took place during the second world war.

There’s a reason for this. There’s a reason we still see value in preserving a place in which such horror took place. There’s a reason we’ve never razed it in anger. It’s because the place itself is not the horror. It’s because the buildings are not just a reminder of dark moments in history, they are also monuments to incredible human achievement. They are markers on our timeline that remind us of where we came from and light the way to where we’re going.

Another such marker is the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris. If you’ve been a reader here long or followed along on my podcast, you’d know I have a deep, unchanging distaste for the Catholic church. You’d know I think anyone who calls themselves a Catholic and donates to that organization is complicit in the strategic protection of child abusers. You’d know that I am not afraid to talk about how much I loathe every cog in that entire organization from top to bottom.

As atheists, though, we all know that the structure and the art and historical significance it contains has little to do with the belief. We will eagerly argue with religious apologists who suggest that more art and architecture has been created in the name of religion than anything else. Our argument is often that the art is commissioned by the church and that had a natural museum or a university commissioned the work, the art would have been just as beautiful. We know how to separate the belief from the work in order to be able to appreciate its fruits. We can find the beauty in frescoes and murals and paintings that depict Christ and Mary and any other biblical character.

Notre Dame is precisely the same thing. It may have been built for god, but it was built, mind-blowingly, by human hands in a way in which we will never see anything built again. It took 200 years to complete. Two. Hundred. Years.

The building meant something profound to the men who began construction on it, knowing they would never see it to completion. The building meant something to the people who designed it, funded it and passed the project on to successors after they died. The building meant something to each human being who crossed its threshold and admired the artistry and the achievement it is a monument to. This building means something to Catholics and protestants and Baptists. I saw a tweet yesterday from a Muslim girl who lights a candle there every year for her father because she met him there once before he died. This building means something to the French people and it means something to archaeologists and historians and anthropologists. It means something to artists who have been inspired by its tremendous beauty every single day for the last 900 years. There are people who have yet to be born to whom this structure will mean so much.

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris means something to me, too. An atheist who has never and will never believe in a god for a day in my life.

A monument this precious transcends denominations. A work this profound reaches far beyond faith. It is collectively ours. It is just as much yours as it is a Catholic’s.

To look on as this beacon of history and art and architecture and human achievement burns, knowing how much it means to so many people; to witness that and then suggest it’s a good thing, is simply petty. I don’t like what goes on in the Catholic church either, but to openly enjoy the pain and sadness of others is not the answer.

Chichen Itza still stands, deep in the humid jungle of Mexico. The human sacrifice in the name of Chaac has long since ceased.

The pyramids at Gaza still stand. Retainer sacrifice has been gone for a long time.

Concentration camps in Germany and Poland and Latvia and Austria still stand. Hitler’s final solution, however, ended with the war.

These are evidence of the fact that whether the structure stands or not, we can end the horrible practices that go on inside.

We could have, quite easily, decided to destroy these sites of anguish and that might have briefly quenched an angry thirst for vengeance, karma and just desserts, but even if we had, the pain would still have happened. Removing the structure doesn’t erase the suffering. Destroying the art doesn’t cancel out the harm done.

My father used to tell me all the time, “you must learn from history in order not to repeat it”. Along with, “question everything” and “honesty is the best policy” this was probably the lesson I heard the most.

We have lost so much of our history already. Both world wars destroyed a great deal across Europe, the wars in Iraq threaten our knowledge of the very cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia. Natural Disasters, time and erosion are working hard to help destroy what our wars haven’t. We must hang on to what we’ve got left. Our understanding of each other and of ourselves depends on it.

There is a reason we go to great lengths to unearth antiquities without destroying them. There is a reason we try to preserve these sites. Because we are bound to repeat history if we don’t learn from it. Because that’s how we know where we came from and that’s how we know where to go.

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  • Cozmo the Magician

    I never would advocate for arson against the RCC (or ANY church) but OTOH, I’m not shedding a single a damn tear over this fire. On the gripping hand… what really sucks is how much money and effort AGAIN will be used to re-build this monument to an international crime ring of pedophiles, money launderers, smugglers, thieves, and mass murderers.

  • Brian Davis

    I could not care less about the saints on the building or the rituals carried out in it. But I did shed a tear over this fire. To me it is a monument to the craftsmen who created it. I loved admiring the afternoon sun coming in through the stained glass of the western window. I loved admiring the stone carvings. I loved touching the stones at the bottoms of the columns, and feeling a connection to people who shaped them at the very beginning of the construction. The Louvre got all pissy if I wanted to touch things there.

  • Cozmo the Magician

    Somebody else in this blogland talked about visits to places where children got sacrificed to a god. MANY MANY years ago.

    Sure, religion makes people build amazing works. Whether it is STONE piled on STONE. It mostly come down to a monument to DEATH.

    Every damn monument has all been a worship of DEATH.

    OTOH, Few people ‘WORSHIP’ the capsule of Appolo I. Explorers that gave their lives. Fuck that.

    Eventually 10 missions latter HUMANS landed on the Moon. Built on the know how and and brilliance of HUMANS we did something.

    On the gripping hand. it the cost was fewer than as many the number of deaths needed to make a monument that hated science.

  • Raging Bee

    None of that makes such buildings less awesome or less worth a look.

  • Raging Bee

    Yes, but the investment will at least pay off for the Parisians in the form of tourist money. And places like that do improve the quality of life in the cities where they’re kept up. So it will benefit the people, and the nation, regardless of the unsavory bits of its history.

  • Jim Jones

    I’m sad that so much skill and effort was spent on it, all based on silly myths.

    The Henry Ford museum is vastly more important and useful, not to mention sane and true.

  • Keith Taylor

    I reckon the most appalling thing about that fire is the way axe-grinding conspiracy theorists (right wing. because naturally they are) began trying to use it before the blaze was even out. They are howling that Muslims did it and the French government is staging a cover-up. Nothing will convince them otherwise. They’ll believe it forever and scream it forever, like Uranium One and Barack Obama being born in Kenya..

  • Glandu

    Being in France(though at the other side of the country), I already suffer from those morons, who insult me as I tell them to wait for the result of police examination.

  • Glandu

    I’m shared on this. I feel like you, and at the same time, this insanely brilliant piece of artwork is visited 13 million times a year. By a majority of non-believers. Most of the profit goes to the local hotel industry, not to the catholic church. And as concert rooms for organ music, those old churches are unequaled.

    That is a real loss I am mourning.

  • Cozmo the Magician

    BRB, im gonna google concert hall fire…

    over 100,000 results.. here is just ONE

    96 die in concert hall fire – Chicago Tribune

    Did THAT make as much news for Jesus freaks? I don’t remember it making even 2/10th as many headlines.

  • Cozmo the Magician

    Aint been to Scranton PA in ages… But last time I was there they had a Museum devoted to Harry Houdini. Not a big place, was kinda hard to find. But was awesome.

    And afaik, nobody died making it happen.

  • Glandu

    Link unavailable in my country, so I’ll just speak about what you say.

    And comparison is not reason. We human beings are longing for symbols. Notre Dame is a symbol of eternity, something so old and looking so strong that it seems obvious it’s gonna last forever.

    Yet, it does not.

    No stone in Notre Dame is older than the XVIIth century, by the way, everything has been replaced at least once. Everything – bar the wooden pillars that were destroyed on monday evening. There is no more oak tree in the world big enough to replace them. Think about what it means.

  • Cozmo the Magician

    For reals? the old ‘If you build it they will come’?

    Yankee Stadium seats thousands. Central Park hosts millions. The Smithsonian museums gathers knowledge and joy. Thatcher’s Park has one of the best views of Albany I have ever seen.

    No pedophiles needed to make those happen. (yeah, who knows.. there may have been some involved, but the RCC has been known to be FILLED with pedos)

  • Cozmo the Magician

    I think you miss the point.

    That so called ‘church’ to this day is making oodles of dollars for an organized crime ring.

    I don’t care how ‘awesome’ it looks. It is STILL a monument to torture and crime.

  • Raging Bee

    Well, as long as they don’t hire any pedophiles for the rebuilding, there shouldn’t be a problem with that.

  • Cozmo the Magician

    CraftsMEN? There are a few problems with that word. A) many of the laborers where CHILDREN. B) it was the WOMEN who did all the work to make sure those ‘MEN’ could do their work.

    And EVERY single piece of currency spent was to make sure that MORE currency went to a bunch of pedophiles.

  • Cozmo the Magician

    MILLIONS of dollars that could be going to help their victims will instead go to rebuild more pain.

  • Cozmo the Magician

    God is so damn perfect. He had to fuck with the RCC. YAY GOD!

  • Raging Bee

    “Rebuild more pain?” What, you think it’ll become a torture chamber? You really need to step back and chill for awhile.

    Also, this is being crowdfunded, so it won’t mean that much less money left over for helping victims of abuse.

  • Dom Saunders
  • P. Leslie

    And of course, like the relics of the past, created by or for human exploitation, Notre Dame was built with blood money!

  • huzonfurst

    Oh please, the actions of Muslim extremists ever since 9/11 and before make them very likely suspects to everyone except you hand-wringing, politically-correct bed-wetters! I do not belong to that group of conspiracy nuts that you mentioned because I know that most Muslims are perfectly good people (especially living in San Diego for many years and even having them as roommates at times), but a significant percentage are NOT, and it’s foolish to ignore this.

    Must I remind everyone, by the way, that all religions including Islam are *ideas* and are fair game for criticism, whereas Muslims are people and it’s unfair to attack them for things they can’t change, such as their ethnicity or gender. To those who don’t hesitate to rightly point out the horrors of Christianity but call criticism of Islam a form of “racism,” what is wrong with your brains?? Islam is not a race and a phobia is an *irrational* fear, so stop using that bullshit “Islamophobia” word that was intentionally created to confuse people, which unfortunately seems to work on the less intelligent among you. Jesus Effing Christ, listen to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Maajid Nawaz and Douglas Murray for some honest information about Islam!