On. Giovanna Melandri, a deputy with Italy’s Democratic Party, has recently proposed a law to introduce even more religion into public schools. She has courageously published it on her blog. I’ve commented on it, but my comment has not yet been approved, perhaps due to strong words like “superstition”. I figure the next best thing is to take up the matter on my own blog.
The thrust of her proposal is this: God is alive and well in the world; belief in Him heavily influences the lives of millions and “entire communities;” a sense of the sacred is central to the lives of human beings; we must find a way to live in a multicultural, pluralistic society (presumably without fighting over whose version of God represents the truth); we must engage the “other,” etc…it sounds like she’s been reading Karen Armstrong.
This brings her to the realization that it’s time “to rethink education.” My first thought would be, “Let’s get Catholic religious education out of the schools and increase secular studies like science and foreign languages.”
Melandri’s proposal is – brace yourselves – to introduce comparative religion. She even suggests a “scientific, not a dogmatic approach.” Which sounds nice and fuzzy at first, as if to imply that all religions are part of the fabric of humanity, and none of them have any exclusive claim to truth. But then she adds that “particular attention must be paid to monotheism,” and that “adequate space should be reserved for Eastern religions.” So, Jainism and Islam will share space on the blackboard with Catholicism?
But Melandri admits there might be some difficulty in finding impartial teachers to teach the vast smorgasbord of human belief. Not to worry, though, for “incompatibility between teachers will only be temporary.” How does she know this? It seems to me that in her mind she would like disagreement to simply dissolve before the comforting flames of multiculturalism.
This isn’t realistic. More likely teachers will be at each other’s throats. Supposing there are more than a handful of teachers who aren’t nominally Catholic – already improbable in Italy – and as Catholic religious education is already part of the State curriculum, she will have to convince those lovable, infinitely pliable gentlemen over at the Vatican to loosen their stranglehold on the young. Since no Italian politician is likely to ever go against them, this rings hollow. There is not greater obstacle to comparative religious education in Italy than the Catholic Church.
Further on, Melandri assures us such a multicultural approach won’t infringe upon the Vatican’s right – according to the 1929 Lateran Treaty – to impose its own religious teachings in Italian public schools. She continues: “We believe that the discovery of the transcendental dimension, and how humanity in all its stages has dealt with this experience, is a fundamental component of personal development.” Here the text reads much more like a homily by Benedict XVI than a proposal to teach religion in a “scientific” sense (whatever that means).
In my comment I asked On. Melandri why students receiving a public education should have to study religion – the “catalogue of the world’s superstitions,” as I phrased it. Of what use is it, really? The impracticability of such an endeavor, the fragility of people’s sensibilities about religion, the mutual exclusivity that religion fosters and the utter nonsense of religious belief all point in one direction: less, not more, religion in public schools.
If Melandri wishes to do something radical, she should work on abolishing the Lateran Treaty and minimizing the influence of the Catholic Church, pulling crucifixes of the walls of classrooms and making Italian public schools more secular in nature. That is the only fair way to deal with students of multiple cultural backgrounds: by leveling the playing field once and for all.
There is a great article in this week’s New Yorker (subscribers only) about a New Age guru named Benjamin Creme, “the most delicious-sounding religious leader since Pope Nougat V,” according to Stephen Colbert. An eighty-seven-year-old oil painter, he is tracking the movements of the elusive Maitreya, who it turns out is the final prophet of God (yes, another one). One of the Maitreya’s followers makes the following equation, which would make even a charismatic rabbi blush with shame: “God + Adam + Noah + Abraham + Jesus + Moses + Muhammad + 12 = 19.” This is meant to illustrate an obscure piece of gematriya he had read in the Qur’an, where the weighty number nineteen makes and appearance in a verse about Hell-Fire (a typical Qur’anic threat to unbelievers. We’re quaking!)
The twist in the story is that the Maitreya has been identified. His name is Raj Patel. Apparently some of Patel’s biographical details chimed with those of the mysterious Maitreya, which probably isn’t hard if your messiah is, in Creme’s words, “tall, broad-shouldered, six feet three. But he might not look quite like that. He can change his clothes and expression in such a way that it would be hard to think it was the same person.” Creme refers to the Maitreya, predictably, as Master.
It’s too interesting an article to pass up, and I’ve only outlined it here. I suggest anyone interested in the way religions appear in the world give it a read. What is asserted by Creme is at once so specific (“six foot three”) and vague (he’s apparently a wily shapeshifter) that it could be applied to anyone, even a reluctant prophet like Mr. Patel, whose verdict on Creme’s ideas is, “Bonkers.”
The moral of the story is that every religion starts in a similar way. Just look at the history of Mormonism if you don’t believe me. It’s not particularly off the wall if one considers the central claims of all other religions. The whole point being that any old sci-fi garbage can become a religious movement if it has adherents. Look at Scientology. Study a thousand different religions and behind every prophet you will find a charlatan like Joseph Smith or Benjamin Creme, making up nonsense about invisible beings who are out to save us from our destructive ways. They all have secret literature, receive instructions from voices in their heads, and declare once and for all that they have the skeleton key to unlock Truth.
Don’t think for a second that your religion – if you profess one – is any different. Truth is not to be found in such places, but from patient and honest inquiry into the natural world. All prophets are full of shit. But you knew that, right?
Being Jewish is odd at times. For instance, one can be a BuJew (Buddhist-Jew), but a Jew for Jesus is out. Once there were Muslim Jews, but they were anomalous and eventually absorbed by Islam. The first Christians were all Jews, but then there was the decisive split and they went their separate ways.
But can one be a Muslim Christian, or a Hindu Muslim? I think as far as Abrahamic faiths go, at least, you can’t be two things at once. How about a Jewish-Christian-Muslim? “Y’know, I think they all had it right!” What a felicitous thought.
One factor that appears unique to Jewishness is the Jews-as-a-people/ Jews-as-a-faith paradigm. This is confusing not least of all to Jews. I don’t believe in YHWH, God, or supernatural authority in any guise, yet I am still Jewish. I find no contradiction there, though perhaps if all Jews were atheists Jews would eventually disappear. But one cannot force oneself to believe what one doesn’t believe simply because it may be a “historically conscious” choice. What to do?
Each must in the end follow his or her own conscience. The memes will take care of the rest.