Raising thinking children

It should be no surprise to anyone who reads this blog that I am obsessing over children now; that just kind of happens unexpectedly when you become a parent. Of course, it’s a bit early to start obsessing over what kind of education to provide my daughter with, but I’ve been giving it a thought or two anyway. One is never too young to begin learning.

Whyevolutionistrue pointed me to a recent television special by Richard Dawkins on the rise of faith schools in Great Britain. The first three parts are good – especially when he gets a Muslim-school science teacher to admit she doesn’t know squat about evolution – but I was most moved by this last part where the Prof rhapsodizes on the virtues of curiosity and wonder and how we, as parents, ought to be wary of anything which threatens to close our children’s minds to the beauty of asking too many questions.

In Case You Thought Bats Were Birds

They’re not. And they’re not kosher, either, which is odd because we find them among other non-kosher birds: storks, cormorants, owls, herons, the hoopoe (Israel’s democratically elected national bird) and the ever-abominable falcon in Leviticus 11:13-20 (JPS Version, for you citers out there). Of course, I crosschecked other versions of the Bible and they all say the same thing. This is no mistranslation. The authors of the Bible really thought bats were birds. Of course, we know they’re mammals–like us.

Thanks to Richard Dawkins for pointing this out in his recent book The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution.

The Case Against Creationism

Richard Dawkins has a new book out, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. An excerpt from it graced the Timesonline the other day, and Jonah Lehrer’s enthuisiastic review of it is here.

The elegance of evolution
The elegance of evolution

Dawkins writes:

Imagine that you are a teacher of Roman history and the Latin language, anxious to impart your enthusiasm for the ancient world — for the elegiacs of Ovid and the odes of Horace, the sinewy economy of Latin grammar as exhibited in the oratory of Cicero, the strategic niceties of the Punic Wars, the generalship of Julius Caesar and the voluptuous excesses of the later emperors. That’s a big undertaking and it takes time, concentration, dedication. Yet you find your precious time continually preyed upon, and your class’s attention distracted, by a baying pack of ignoramuses (as a Latin scholar you would know better than to say ignorami) who, with strong political and especially financial support, scurry about tirelessly attempting to persuade your unfortunate pupils that the Romans never existed. There never was a Roman Empire. The entire world came into existence only just beyond living memory. Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, Catalan, Occitan, Romansh: all these languages and their constituent dialects sprang spontaneously and separately into being, and owe nothing to any predecessor such as Latin.

Instead of devoting your full attention to the noble vocation of classical scholar and teacher, you are forced to divert your time and energy to a rearguard defence of the proposition that the Romans existed at all: a defence against an exhibition of ignorant prejudice that would make you weep if you weren’t too busy fighting it.

If my fantasy of the Latin teacher seems too wayward, here’s a more realistic example. Imagine you are a teacher of more recent history, and your lessons on 20th-century Europe are boycotted, heckled or otherwise disrupted by well-organised, well-financed and politically muscular groups of Holocaust-deniers. Unlike my hypothetical Rome-deniers, Holocaustdeniers really exist. They are vocal, superficially plausible and adept at seeming learned. They are supported by the president of at least one currently powerful state, and they include at least one bishop of the Roman Catholic Church. Imagine that, as a teacher of European history, you are continually faced with belligerent demands to “teach the controversy”, and to give “equal time” to the “alternative theory” that the Holocaust never happened but was invented by a bunch of Zionist fabricators.

Dawkins is bound to come under scrutiny for daring to suggest that creationists are as intellectually dishonest–and downright dangerous–as Holocaust-deniers. Dawkins even coins a new term, history-deniers, to define them. After all, nearly everyone who insists upon a creationist reading of the universe (IDers included) does so for religious reasons, just as the Holocaust-deniers deny the irrefutable mountains of evidence stacked up against their claims for ideological reasons. Well, the bad news is that Holocaust-denial has gone international, while history-denial just won’t go away.

Richard Dawkins Misreads the Mortara Affair

Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, uses the “Mortara affair” to make a point he could have made perfectly well without misreading the historical context of this sordid episode. Perhaps the affair is better known by the title of David Kertzer’s book The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. The general background, for those of you who don’t recognize the name Edgardo Mortara, is the following:

Edgardo, a Jewish boy from Bologna, was taken from his mother’s arms by the papal police in the year 1858. Why? As a baby, he had been secretly “baptized” by an illiterate Christian servant-girl. Word of the baptism spread across town and, eventually, reached Pope Pius IX in Rome. In those days the pope was also king and his subjects were subject to his every papal whim. Bologna was part of his receding empire, and the Mortara family was powerless to stop the legalized kidnapping of their child. The Mortaras were never to be reunited with Edgardo again.

Dawkins rightly criticizes this horrible incident as a travesty of the religious worldview. This is perhaps a minor incident in the catalog of papal crimes against the Jewish people in the name of supersessionism. That canon law could dictate the fate of a Jewish child, tearing him away from his biological family only to be coddled as the pope’s protege in an endless campaign to convert the Jews (for this is what is was in no uncertain terms), is  terribe enough. Dawkins doesn’t stop there, however, which is where I want to begin.

Edgardo was taken to the House of Catechumens in Rome, a building created for the conversion of Jews (and, incidentally, Muslims) to the “true” faith. It was one of the jewels in the pope’s crown. They immediately went to work on Edgardo in order to break his Jewishness down. Essentially, they brainwashed the child until he cracked under pressure (he had nobody to consult but the priests) and accept that he was now a Christian. (Note that for the Catholic Church, Edgardo’s soul had been transformed at the moment of baptism. He was property of the Church. He could not be left in the care of those infidels, his parents.)

Of course the greater strategy was to convince the Mortaras to convert en masse. If they ever wanted to see Edgardo again, there was no other way. They refused, and Dawkins chalks up their refusal to another brand of theological hotheadedness. The Mortaras, he notes, could have had Edgardo back in a second “if only they had accepted the priests’ entreaties and agreed to be baptized themselves.” A few sprinkles on the head, an itsy-bitsy prayer, and it was back to normal. They could have faked the whole rite in ten minutes, but they instead chose to forfeit their son and remain faithful Jews.

What is wrong with this reasoning, I wondered? On the surface it almost makes sense. To understand the Mortaras’ refusal, we need to take a closer look at the reality that they were up against in the Kingdom of the Cross (to borrow a phrase from Uri Zvi Greenberg).

Another book by David Kertzer, The Popes Against the Jews, places the Mortara affair in its context. By no means was this an isolated incident. It was an epidemic. Forced baptisms had been common in Rome for centuries, sometimes occurring in the middle of the street using rainwater scooped up from the gutter. All that mattered was that a Jewish child was “baptized” by a Christian. Then papal police would come–always at night–into the Roman ghetto and steal the child from its parents’ arms, taking it to the Catechumens.

At other times, (usually poor) Jews would volunteer themselves for conversion, usually seeking a better life–a “passport to Europe,” in Heinrich Heine’s phrase. If these men happened to be married, their wives were sent for. Some of the women proved “stubborn” and were put in solitary confinement for days, weeks, even months, where they were worked on around the clock by Catholic priests. They were given religious literature (assuming they could read it) and told that Judaism was the path to hell, etc…some of the women caved, while others were sent back to the ghetto traumatized and single.

One particularly cruel incident is that of Salvatore Tivoli. He spent the first year of his (voluntary) conversion in the Catechumens as a cook. Then, one day, he disappeared. Apparently he had had second thoughts about his decision. He went first to Turkey, then settled in Livorno. Livorno, in Tuscany, was outside the papal realm and was known for its liberal attitude towards Jews, who lived in relative comfort there and even had rights. (Later in the 19th century, the painter Amedeo Modigliani would be born in this community).

Anyway, the pope’s men never forgot about Salvatore Tivoli. As a convert, he was their property. They eventually tracked him down in Livorno, where he was living with his young, pregnant wife Rebecca. His crime, naturally, was apostasy.

They arrested Rebecca, her crime being complicity with apostasy. She was also pregnant with the child of an apostate. Rebecca was brought to a hospital, where she refused to eat non-kosher food. The Church authorities promptly stopped her family members from bringing her meals, accusing them of wanting to poison both Rebecca and the newborn (better dead than Christians, it is understood). This sort of accusation was common at the time.

The families of both Tivoli and Rebecca were arrested as well: parents, brothers and sisters. Their crime? Abetting apostasy. Tivoli himself was nowhere to be found. He was a wanted man. Finally the Tuscan authorities stepped up to all this papal bullying. They ruled that Tivoli, when found, was to be arrested and turned over to the Vatican authorities. The newborn girl would be taken from her mother and sent to the House of Catechumens in Livorno, where she would be entrusted to the Holy See. Everyone else was free to go. The child was baptized, renamed Fortunata, and sent to Rome to be raised as a Christian orphan. To add insult to injury, she was listed as “illegitimate” on her baptismal certificate.

This was the reality behind the Mortara case. To accuse the Mortaras of Jewish theological stubbornness is to play cards with the pope’s deck. They risked much more than a few drops of water and a bogus baptismal certificate. They would have been ripped, like Edgardo, from the womb of their community, their biological  families (which appears to have been Dawkins’ original point) and their history as Jews, which is much more than a simple article of faith, as everyone knows. It is surprising that all this seems to have eluded Richard Dawkins; in an attempt to undermine religious faith, he misconstrued the nature of Jewish identity and did a posthumous injustice to the Mortaras themselves.

But their story does not end here. Kertzer narrates a further episode in the Mortara odyssey. In 1870, the year Porta Pia was breached and the Italian army entered Rome, one of the soldiers was Riccardo Mortara, Edgardo’s brother. Riccardo made his way directly to the church of San Pietro in Vincoli (where Michelangelo’s statue of Moses can be seen today) to find his brother. Twelve years of failed international diplomacy had passed, and finally the pope’s fortress had fallen and his temporal power had ended. Certainly now Edgardo would come back to his family and all would be righted? Wrong. The damage had been done.  As soon as Edgardo, the youthful priest, saw his brother in uniform, he screamed, “Vade retro, Satana!” Riccardo answered that he was his brother, that now Edgardo was free. Edgardo’s reply was, “Before you get any closer, take off that assassin’s uniform.”

Edgardo would try to convert his own mother on her deathbed in the last hours of her life. She would die an infidel.

Edgardo himself died in Belgium on the eve of the Nazi invasion. He was eighty-eight years old. It goes without saying that–had he lived a few months more–he would have been murdered by Hitler’s hounds for the irreversible “crime” of being Jewish.

Žižek Trumps All

Slavoj Žižek
Slavoj Žižek

Here is a little taste of the publisher’s marketing for Slavoj Žižek’s new book, “The Monstrosity of Christ.”

“What matters is not so much that Žižek is endorsing a demythologized, disenchanted Christianity without transcendence, as that he is offering in the end (despite what he sometimes claims) a heterodox version of Christian belief.” –John Milbank

“To put it even more bluntly, my claim is that it is Milbank who is effectively guilty of heterodoxy, ultimately of a regression to paganism: in my atheism, I am more Christian than Milbank.” –Slavoj Žižek

In this corner, philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who represents the critical-materialist stance against religion’s illusions; in the other corner, “radical orthodox” theologian John Milbank, an influential and provocative thinker who argues that theology is the only foundation upon which knowledge, politics, and ethics can stand. In The Monstrosity of Christ, Žižek and Milbank go head to head for three rounds, employing an impressive arsenal of moves to advance their positions and press their respective advantages.

By the closing bell, they have proven themselves worthy adversaries–and have also shown that faith and reason are not simply and intractably opposed. Žižek has long been interested in the emancipatory potential offered by Christian theology. And Milbank, seeing global capitalism as the new century’s greatest ethical challenge, has pushed his own ontology in more political and materialist directions. Their debate in “The Monstrosity of Christ” concerns nothing less than the future of religion, secularity, and political hope in light of a monsterful event–God becoming human.

For the first time since Žižek’s turn toward theology, we have a true debate between an atheist and a theologian about the very meaning of theology, Christ, the Church, the Holy Ghost, universality, and the foundations of logic. The result goes far beyond the popularized atheist/theist point/counterpoint of recent books by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and others. Žižek begins, and Milbank answers, countering dialectics with “paradox.” The debate centers on the nature of and relation between paradox and parallax, between analogy and dialectics, between transcendent glory and liberation.

I mean, how can you be more of an atheist than Richard Dawkins (the key word is paradox)?

Žižek–as always–trumps all. (If you don’t believe me, ask Adam Kirsch.)

Isn’t it all so sweetly paradoxical?