God or the Engineers
Sad, in its immediate results, as is the recent eruption of Mount Etna, it is still more distressing to learn how great is the hold of religious superstition, and the ignorance of the most elementary facts of natural science it signifies, upon the minds of the people. For although the volcanic overflow only actually affects some few thousand wretched Sicilian peasants, the newspapers convey the tidings to their readers in the outside world in a manner most acceptable and understandable by them, and we have, therefore, in our daily newspapers practically no reference in a scientific manner to what, of course, is a natural phenomenon, but are entertained by stories of protecting’ patron saints, praying peasants, and priests appealing to God to stop the flow. Thus the Westminster Gazette (21/6/23) reports:—
“The eruption of the Mount Etna volcano continues, but by a miracle the town of Linguaglossa, with its 15,000 inhabitants, appears to have been saved from destruction.
” ‘A mountain spur just outside the town has diverted the flow of boiling lava away from the town, where ever since the eruption started the people have been in a state bordering upon madness owing to the fear of destruction and the terrible heat.
“The stream of lava runs to a depth of 20 feet and to a breadth of 500 feet, and in its course has demolished the village of Casozza and fifty houses.
“The statue of the patron saint of Linguaglossa, St. Egidio, stands close to the mountain spur which has diverted the flow from the town, and yesterday priests and people knelt before this statue praying for their town’s salvation.— ‘ Central News.’
“They had carried the saint’s staff, which is kept in a richly decorated coffer, through the streets in procession to the spot reached by the lava. Afterwards, fearing that the staff might be stolen by the inhabitants of the neighbouring district of Castiglione, they handed it over to the Bishop, and it is now being zealously watched over by several citizens. It was formerly stolen by the people of Catania, for its supposed miraculous powers.—’ Reuter.’
“A Naples message says that Professor Ottorino Fiore, teacher of volcanology and a lifelong student of Mount Etna, states that the eruption will last probably a fortnight.—’Exchange.’ ”
Although the mountain spur was there before the statue of the saint, the latter gentleman has collared all the credit, and although Professor Ottorino Fiore may prove to be correct, the priests will doubtless see to it that God and the Roman Catholic Church share the honours between them when it is a fait accompli.
We learn, however, from an evening paper of the same day that the volcano, after slowing clown a bit, had resumed its former fury, and that in spite of St. Egidio the mountain spur was no longer proving a barrier to the ever-increasing stream of burning lava. Engineers were then set to work to dig trenches to divert its course, with the result that the town of Linguaglossa was saved for the time being. Did the saint then fall from popular favour? Not a bit of it ! He became more of a hero than ever, as witness the Daily Sketch (22/6/23) :—
“A rumour spread yesterday that the neighbouring town of Castiglione intended to steal the St. Egidius statue and crozier from the people of Linguaglossa, its legitimate possessors.
“Men, women and children seized whatever weapons came to hand, and rushed to the spot where the protecting statue faced the now almost quiescent lava,
“Finding there some innocent inhabitants of Castiglione who had never dreamed of stealing the sacred image, they attacked them with wild fury, and but for the timely intervention of a body of Fascisti the visitors would have been killed.”
Apparently, then, although appeals to God were useless, and it was left to the spades of the engineers to save the situation, in the minds of the poor peasants no doubt exists that the former method did the trick. And for this no one who has read Zola’s “Verité” will deny the priests the credit. We can imagine them playing upon the, fears of a terror-stricken mob, distraught by apprehension and suffering, and taking every advantage of the circumstances to regain the hold that the gradual unfolding of the book of science is wresting from them day by day. These rural priests and parsons are the outposts of capitalism no less in Sicilian villages than in the villages of England. It may seem supererogatory to declaim against the foolishness of a priest-ridden Italian mob, but to the Socialist it is just as important a manifestation of the slave position of the international working class, as the shooting down of strikers in Featherstone or Chicago. The destiny of the Catanian peasant is that of the mill-worker of Wigan. Slavery is their common lot. Their emancipation must be the same way.
And we in England, who were rather pre-occupied at the time in praying that the sun would shine down upon Ascot, will doubtless be asked to attend thanksgiving services, to offer up thanks to God for stopping the eruption (and presumably for starting it), just as we were asked to return thanks for the cessation of the late war—although we could blame the starting of that on to the Kaiser. The pity of it is that lots of us will do it without question. Not because we have never been able to question. Never before in the whole history of the human race was knowledge so accessible to the multitude. What is it binds us in our present position? Fear? We have nothing to fear, nothing to lose but our chains. We have the weapon wherewith to free ourselves from economic serfdom and intellectual repression in the Socialist Party of Great Britain. WE ARE THE SOCIAL ENGINEERS !
S. H. S.
(Socialist Standard¸ August 1923)