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.

22 thoughts on “Richard Dawkins Misreads the Mortara Affair

  1. Amazing post.

    Tomorrow I’m going to put a link directly to this on my blog. I’d never heard of these cases before so thank you, this was a moving read.

    I think that both Dawkins and Hitchens tend to demonise all faiths unfairly. Your comments on Dawkins’ misinterpretation of these people’s actions is spot on.

    1. Well, I was careful to limit my criticism of Dawkins to what I felt was a misreading of a historical situation. In a general sense I agree with much of what he wrote in The God Delusion. One of the things that peeves me, however, about the atheist movement is its tendency to lump Jews into the faith pool, together with Christians and Muslims (and, for good measure, Buddhists and Hindus). Being Jewish, as you recently discussed on your blog, has nothing to do with faith or belief–though that is often a part of one’s Jewishness. Jews are Jews with or without it, as even the most orthodox rabbi (or Steven Weinberg) will tell you.
      Dawkins, for all his ingenuity, fell into that trap.

  2. I’ve just put a link to this post on my blog, at the top on the left; I really hope people click on it, this is a really amazing post and deserves to be read :)

    I haven’t read the The G-d Delusion, though I’ve just finished reading ‘G-d Is Not Great’ by Christopher Hitchens. I think it was over hyped somewhat and he makes some errors when discussing various faiths. I prefer…. I always forget his name – Sam Harris. His latest book has a particularly good chapter on Islam.

    I agree with you that Dawkins (and Hitchens) do tend to assume that the three Abrahamic faiths, in particular, are very similar. It shows a lack of perception on their part but that said, I find that the majority of Atheists are pretty fair folk. And I can imagine that to any Atheist, all faiths must seem insane!

  3. *One of the things that peeves me, however, about the atheist movement is its tendency to lump Jews into the faith pool, together with Christians and Muslims (and, for good measure, Buddhists and Hindus)*

    Do Jews have some sort of special, extra-religious culture that people living in other faiths don’t? I presume you’re not saying that, but you seem to be saying that. And saying that would be bafflingly simplistic. Please explain.

    1. Greg,

      It wouldn’t be the first time you thought I was being “bafflingly simplistic,” would it? I do, however, see a difference in being Jewish from being an identifying Christian or Muslim. There is no faith requirement, first of all. Jewishness does have a kind of particularism in that there is the ethnic-religious duality. Perhaps because Judaism never spread to conquered peoples like Islam and Christianity, Jews have always been few in number.

      A Jewish atheist is not a contradiction (in fact, up to 1/4 of all Israelis are atheists according to a study by Phil Zuckerman); but a Muslim atheist? When we speak of “Jewish writers”, we mean Philip Roth and Gary Shteyngart, not Maimonides and Soloveitchik. If we mean the latter we must specify, “Jewish religious writers.” Whereas if we speak of “Christian writers” what comes to mind? The author of The Shack, Teresa of Avila, St. Augustine. We don’t really call John Updike a Christian writer, or Stephen King, though they undoubtedly grew up in more or less Christian families.

      Anyway, I think if you read my post I explain why I took Dawkins’ argument up in the first place. It is because of his comment that the Mortaras were being just as stubborn as the pope – !! – by NOT converting. By that logic there would surely have been a second round of the Inquisition to root out the false converts, etc…it falls flat. God is not central to the meaning of Jewishness.

      1. This is a whiteness/blackness distinction — Christianity as a dominant religion achieves normative status so doesn’t have to add the adjective to the noun — as whiteness is “invisible” to white people. Ok. But you’re making a largely empty semantic distinction. Jewish does double duty as a religion and an ethnicity — again, due to the majoritarian status of the speakers who cause it to do such a thing. If you really think growing up as a nominal christian in a christian-normative culture is monolithic I’m seriously disappointed. For that matter, your mention of buddhist is equally off — we can speak of “buddhist poets” (gary snyder, say) or “buddhist academics” (robert thurman) or “buddhist activists” and mean entirely different buddhist traditions, practices, etc. without harm to the word buddhist. I agree, for the record, that the normative nature of christianity in english means that attaching it to a noun implies a more distinctive sense than Jewish might (although Shteyngart and Roth are NOT my first thoughts — Benjamin and Arendt are who comes to mind, whatever that means) — but the way that you describe your theory of Jewish exceptionalism is simplistically monolithic. Jewish means ethnicity because no one Xtian ever cared to draw a distinction, but neither of those traditions is in any way as monolithic or uniform as all that — Jewish writers include Kafka and Bruno Schulz as well as Freud and Singer. Just like xtian writers whose xtianity mattered to them are as varied as eliot and updike or dylan and lawrence. Any identification of a writer (or other figure) with a particular religion(s) is because of both their work and where they put it on display — and of course who wanted them read or not read. Atheists lump Jews in the faith pool because there are plenty of faithful Jews, and there’s no other word to use, except to add the adjective “orthodox” or “reform” or whatever. jewish, muslim, xtian all came from the same basic ethnic bunch — so even if you and plenty of others are faithless, jewish identity is as much religious in its origins as any of the others. Just because you don’t like it doesn’t really mean you’ve persuasively disposed of the category or the logic that created it.

      2. OK that’s a lot to chew on, Greg. I never meant to “persuasively dispose” of any one category for another; I was attempting to draw a distinction – in the context of Dawkins’ argument – between religion and culture, and that the Mortaras’ intransigence was perhaps rooted in something larger than merely not wanting to fake a conversion in order to appease a criminal pope.

        I realize religion and culture are porous notions and not easily separable. I do not pretent to have solved the riddle, either. But there was something wrong with Dawkins’ argument in my mind, and I tried to put my finger on what bothered me. You might conclude that my tribal instincts were stirred (“Defend the Jews!”), but it does seem to me there is a healthy distinction to be made here. That you cite Benjamin and Arendt gives me a small window into your reasoning, but even here we are dealing with thoroughly non-religious people with a complex sense of their own Jewishness. They did not become ex-Jews simply because they were not observant. I doubt Richard Dawkins calls himself a Christian, and perhaps this example provides an analogous situation. Try saying it: “Richard Dawkins has a complex sense of his own Christianity.” See? It’s meaningless once we establish that Dawkins is an atheist. He is no longer a Christian.

        Or more likely you will conclude that I’m just squaring the circle in order to have everything my way.

  4. I don’t conclude that you’re squaring the circle; I think I understand what you’re getting at. But I disagree that the Dawkins sentence you wrote makes no sense. Dawkins’ sense of his own Xtianity is that he doesn’t have any. Well sensing an absence requires the measure of the gap doesn’t it? How else can he be sure he isn’t an Xtian? Which is to say that refuting the belief system doesn’t remove every assumption to which it has given rise. Socrates is great for this — or I should say Plato’s one moment of greatness came in inventing Socrates — his whole purpose in the dialogues is to force some sap (like me!) into claiming that some hand-me-down assumption based usually in orthodoxy is real and authoritative, and then removing the rug, so to speak, thread by thread.

    Or, to put it another way, as someone who went to an Episcopalian K-8 school (for reasons that were not religious), Catholics and Jews are equally other for me. Which is not to say that either is some faceless horde! I just mean that the difference between mild mannered protestantism and Catholicism, which appears slight, is quite substantial. Catholicism does not seem like the same faith as protestantism when you’re in the one or the other. Which, regrettably, is why the Klan and other gap-toothed hillbilly motherfuckers lump Catholics in with Jews and the non-white. From their very limited perspective they’re all the same level of otherness. The way that the Episcopal church espouses its doctrine, promotes its worldview, and generally behaves (see gay bishop) is radically different from the way the Catholic Church does. And this isn’t even reaching the Southern Baptist and Pentecostal end of the spectrum. Similarly, Jewishness is, from the perspective of xtianity, meaningful not as an ethnicity but as a religious tradition, as in the “we’re all the same underneath but we have different ways of expressing ourselves” school of secular tolerance. In that context, bringing up Jewishness can only logically be done to emphasize the (very minor! really!) religious distinction that is all xtianity makes. You’re “in” Jewishness so you see it as more complex and nuanced than that. So do xtians, and so should atheists.

    Dawkins lumps Jews together with the faithful because his rather uncomplex view of xtianity analogically fits Jewishness too. He actually HASN’T measured the size of the gap, because ideologically, he confused HIS xtianity with ALL xtianity. (I don’t mean that he can’t reject religion without going through every doctrinal split and hair!) In other words, the tradition that he rejects is as much a cultural one as it is a religious one. I assure you that the atheists produced by the Southern Baptists are very different from the ones produced by the Anglican church. That’s why I objected to your original comment — yes, due to the ideological backdrop of our language, Jewish does work that xtian doesn’t but the actual content you claimed for Jewish is just as real for xtian, buddhist, or the like. I think you just fell into the Dawkins trap from the opposite direction, and that the Dawkins trap you’ve identified is a big part of my boredom with Hitchens and Harris and the rest. (by which I do not include you, as OUGHT to be obvious from the length of the comments) The necessary generalization about “religion” fails to actually understand how every religion’s culture is both a product of and the creator of said religion, and you end up with a deplorably unself-conscious tossing of the baby with the bathwater. Your atheism is a product of Jewishness as mine is not. Which is why the saw about “a” requiring a “theism” does not strike me as mere linguistic sleight of hand as you would prefer. An ideology created in reaction to another ideology is still an ideology, with all the problems of orthodoxy and apostasy of the first, even if you don’t like calling them that.

    1. Greg,

      There’s too much to reply to with a baby in the house, so I’ll just thank you for the length and depth of your comment and promise I’ll try to get to some of the issues you raised in due time. For now, “Jewish atheist or Christian atheist?” One of the finer points of atheism is its wholesale rejection of theism, gods and godlings all. Whatever is left over afterwards is culture. Did you notice this post has a hyperactive troll?

  5. Can atheists think on their own without naming their new deity all the time as “perfect authority” in that question?

    As old agnostic willing to EXPERIENCE life in al his possibilities, I observe the “head ego trip”(or maybe lower, as this insistence of absolute superiority reminds me the boys toilettes) going on in affirming to own the unique possible “truth” in both side of these pious absolutist coin, religion on one side, atheism on the other.

    Why do I miss the curiosity of senses making sense in those BOTH believer “churches” of the perfect view.Could it be a Oedipal fixation mistrusting the “wildness” of nature in both cases? How much need for abstract “safety” is in lack of open mindfulness and stubborn insistence to be those select sect who rules the show.

  6. Funny also, that those both groups have their favourite adversary to hit their heads against each other and mostly don’t even touch my argument beside rarely with disdainful pointy fingers.

    I probably don’t fit into the black&white scheme.

  7. Why am I not surprised? (Dunno.)

    If YOU don’t understand, it must be ME making no sense, right? (Uh, not exactly.)
    Or could it be that I talk from “outside the boat” and to those used to the unique possible view as passenger of the boat, all have to talk inside this agreement of perception. (Yeah, that.)

    If you have a specific criticism of a post or this blog in general, please do your best to state it clearly and I will try to respond in my best plain English. Otherwise, you will be ignored. If trolling persists, you will be dealt with accordingly.

  8. Marc…you just confirm what I thought about the need to be considered as an unquestionable authority disdaining those without this paradox omnipotence participation inflating their own ego to a non existing deity by those assuming atheism is the unique possible truth.

    Sometimes I wished I was not right in my assumption.

    Bruised macho ego fighting big daddy, saying “shut up woman” when serious males talks, is that all to it?

    This patronising posturing seems even less than the minimum I hoped for!

  9. Suggestion: you guys can go on pretending I don’t exist!
    what would be very insightful about all your considerations what exist or doesn’t!.

    troll: therm used by territory markers to discredit each contradicting their absolutism.
    Sorry, thoughts are free to be thought, with or without your own limitations.

  10. Wow. Very interesting bit of irony at the end there, thankyou. Dawkins’ point still stands though. His argument was that if not for their own religiosity the Mortaras would have taken actions which would have resulted in a more favorable outcome. If not religious, the Mortaras would have renounced their faith, converted to Catholicism, and yes, left their community; but they would have been with their son, to act as guardians and carers, and essentially, to impede his impending psychological orphanage. Does anyone really think that this is a less favorable outcome than the Mortaras being allowed to remain in their community at the expense of their son Eduardo, ‘ripped from the heart of his community’ without parental love to accompany him? The Mortara’s tale is a sad and woeful one, if in the situation, I myself could not imagine the trauma and injustice, however I certainly do know how I would act. When religious conviction is taken out of the equation, the actions of the Mortaras are tantamount to abandonment, selfishness, and a vulgar display of parental neglect.

  11. If the Mortara’s converted they would have subjected themselves to indoctrination in the House of the Catechumens. Maybe they would have maintained a relationship with Eduardo, but he would have still been encouraged to become a priest & his parents would have been accused of apostacy (with all the temporal punishments included) if they counseled him against this. They would have also exposed their other children to indoctrination & recruitment into total-institutions of convents & seminaries. They could not have protected Eduardo even if they had been with him. To say so is to misunderstand how total-institutions work. They would have also abandoned older family members in a ghetto with limited resources & provided the Church with yet more conversion stories for their propaganda and prosthletising.

    Divorcing this episode from its religious, social, economic and legal contexts is unjust. The Mortara’s were victims of horrendous structural violence–they maintained their right to follow their own traditions despite deep coercion to change. Please do not label this as ‘a vulgar display of parental neglect’.

    PS. Addressing the conversation between Greg & Marc: you are both making very good points from your respective P.O.V.s. Marc’s perspective is however not just due to his personal proximity to Judaism. There is a fundamental split in classifying religions. Religions like Judaism & Hinduism are considered Pre-Axial Age Religions. They have moral systems & mythology but they do not have a call to convert non-adherents. They do not have a founder one must believe in and not question. You are born into the religion–conversion to the religion is usually for marriage, is not advocated & often not recognized. A lack of faith in the mythology does not exclude you from the community or alienate you from a previous self-identity. Therefore, Pre-Axial Religions have an ethnic/national quality that goes beyond the ‘cultural’ quality of Axial-Age Religions (Islam, Christianity, Bahai, etc.). A Jew who is an Atheist can stand and proclaim “I am a Jew”. A Catholic who is an Atheist has a moral dilemma in saying, “I’m Catholic.”
    [There is of course so much diversity within religious traditions that this classification is not a concrete one. For example, Hassidism (Jewish) behaves like a blend of Axial & Pre-Axial (due to protective mechanisms it developed to preserve its minority culture in the context of a voracious Axial Age Religion–Christianity). Hare Krishna (Hindu) is a sect which is even more in line with the Axial-Age definition. This highlights Greg’s point that religious experience is extremely diverse.]

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