Let them eat fake

Editor's Introduction -- Schoolbooks are important instruments for transferring ignorance and gullibility from one generation to the next, because schoolbook-writers often affirm and promote vulgar superstitions. They do this, presumably, in the hope of making their books attractive to superstitious schoolteachers.

Here is an article which accompanied a review of Prentice Hall's high-school textbook World Cultures: A Global Mosaic (1993). It describes how Prentice Hall's writers endorsed the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a religious folktale that is popular in Mexico and in the southwestern United States. The writers presented this legend as if it were an account of history, and they refused to tell that an artifact linked with the legend had been shown to be bogus.

from The Textbook Letter, March-April 1994

The Miracle-Mongers

William J. Bennetta

Among the Western World's phony religious artifacts, the most famous is probably the Shroud of Turin. This piece of linen, bearing two strange images of a dead man, has long been venerated by many Roman Catholics as the cloth in which Jesus's corpse was wrapped for burial; but in fact, the Shroud was fashioned by an artist in the 13th or the 14th century.

Some other fakes seem nearly as famous as the Shroud, and one of these is a cloak that resides in a Roman Catholic church at Mexico City. The cloak bears the celebrated Image of Guadalupe -- a figure of the Virgin Mary, the legendary mother of Jesus. Church officials promote the belief that the image was formed supernaturally, but this has been well debunked. (See Joe Nickell and John F. Fischer's analytical article in the Spring 1985 issue of The Skeptical Inquirer.) The image evidently was painted by an artist who sought to manufacture material support for a popular Mexican religious story, the tale of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

That tale shows up on page 456 of World Cultures, where Prentice Hall's writers try to present it as fact. Their exertions yield one of the book's funniest passages, a transparent and silly attempt at miracle-mongering:

In the pale light of dawn, the story begins, an Aztec peasant named Juan Diego hurried along a dusty trail toward Mexico City. Suddenly, he heard a voice. Looking up, he saw the image of the Virgin Mary - a dark- skinned Native American woman - on Tepeyac Hill. "Go to the bishop of Mexico," the vision said, "and tell him that I wish a church to be built on this spot." Startled, Juan Diego did as he was told.

The year was 1531, only 10 years after Cortés had conquered Mexico. As word of the vision spread, Indians flocked to Tepeyac Hill. It was well known to them because a temple to the Aztec goddess Tonantsi had once stood there. The appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe led thousands of Aztecs to become Christians. Yet, when they prayed to her, they kept alive the spirit of their old religion. Some even called her Tonantsi.

The story of the Virgin of Guadalupe continues to inspire Christians. Each year thousands of pilgrims visit the shrine.

So those Indians heard "word of the vision," and they then embraced Christianity because of "the appearance" of the Virgin. What "vision"? What "appearance"? Juan Diego may have made a claim about a vision, but nobody will ever know why he did so. Maybe he really thought that he'd had a vision, or maybe he invented his claim in hope of gaining fame, favor or wealth.

Be that as it may, a vision is (by definition) something that exists only in the visionary's own mind. Prentice Hall's writers, however, try to trick students by treating Juan Diego's "vision" and the Virgin's supernatural "appearance" as if these things had some verified existence in the real world. In other words, the writers depict the "vision" and the "appearance" as matters of fact. Honest writers would never do this; nor would they write about the veneration of the Virgin of Guadalupe without telling about the bogus cloak.

Maybe the next edition of World Cultures will try to promote Mexican faith healing or necromancy.

William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes frequently about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.


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