Umberto Eco

January 5

Umberto Eco (1932)

It was on this date, January 5, 1932, that Italian philologist and writer Umberto Eco was born in Alessandria, in the Italian province of Piedmont. He works as a professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, teaching the study of signs and their interpretation, and their function in syntax, semantics and literary theory. Eco is best known for his novel The Name of the Rose (1983), which was made into a 1986 film. The novel is a medieval murder-mystery in which one prominent character argues that God abhors laughter.

Eco claimed he wrote The Name of the Rose because "I felt like poisoning a monk." What does he think of religion? After publishing, Belief or Nonbelief? A Confrontation (2000), Eco was interviewed by Nora Gallagher for a Los Angeles Times review.

Gallagher wrote, "Eco is the nonbeliever, an agnostic intellectual who left the church when he was 22, but he is neither angry nor anti-religious. He thinks that a person may not believe in God but 'one should not have the arrogance to declare that God does not exist.'" It should be noted that no Freethinker needs arrogance to "declare that God does not exist": no Freethinker needs to make any such declaration!

Elsewhere, Eco has written, "Fear prophets and those prepared to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them, often before them, at times instead of them." And, "A dream is a scripture, and many scriptures are nothing but dreams." And, "But now I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth." And finally what may be true of even the Christian Bible, "Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry."

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Felix Manz

Anabaptist Felix Manz
Executed by "Baptism" (1527)

It was also on this date, January 5, 1527, that Swiss Anabaptist reformer Felix Manz was drowned in punishment for preaching adult baptism — as opposed to the infant baptism most Protestant sects approved. That he was drowned in punishment seems somehow poetic, if not just. Manz was a co-founder of the original Swiss Brethren Anabaptist congregation in Zürich, Switzerland. The term "Anabaptist" was coined by their detractors and means Protestants who "baptized again."

By all accounts, Felix Manz was well educated in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin and became a follower of Hulrich Zwingli after he (Manz) relocated to Zürich in 1519. But Manz began questioning the mass, the nature of church and state connections, and infant baptism, eventually breaking with Zwingli over this. Manz formed the first church of the Radical Reformation and the movement spread rapidly, although he was arrested on a number of occasions between 1525 and 1527.

On 7 March 1526, an edict of the Zürich council had made adult baptism punishable by drowning. Manz was arrested. He protested that he wanted only "to bring together those who were willing to accept Christ, obey the Word, and follow in His footsteps, to unite with these by baptism, and to leave the rest in their present conviction," but Zwingli and the council were unpersuaded. That and the little-known fact that the Anabaptists were semi-Rationalistic, and many followers of Manz rejected the Trinity and developed advanced (for the time) ideas of social reform.

Manz's death by "baptism" made him not only the first victim of the new Zürich law that dictates the drowning of heretics, but Manz's death also made him the first Protestant in history to be martyred at the hands of other Protestants. Catholics, of course, were quick to exterminate Anabaptists wherever they could find them.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance writer.
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