The Meming of Life: on secular parenting and other natural wonders

Joe Klein apologizes (Genre: Fantasy)

Joe_Klein_2011_ShankboneIn his recent cover story for TIME magazine titled “Can Service Save Us?“, Joe Klein got something wrong.

Hey, it happens.

I happened to be in Oklahoma City when I saw the article. I had the privilege of meeting with some secular humanists there who organized volunteers, resources, and blood drives, teamed with local businesses to feed relief volunteers, and drove bulk donations around the city to distribution centers after the tornadoes. They drove backhoes into neighborhoods to clear rubble and get the rebuilding started, took people into their own homes, fed them and clothed them.

I told them about the efforts of the secular humanist organization I direct, including partnering with the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma to put 100,000 meals in the hands of the survivors of the storms. Foundation Beyond Belief, Atheists Giving Aid, Oklahoma Atheists, the Atheist Community of Tulsa, the Lawton Area Secular Society, the Norman Naturalism Group, FreeOK, the Oklahoma State Secular Organization — the response from the secular humanist and atheist community was overwhelming. Some gave money (nearly a quarter million dollars in ten days), and others gave untold time and energy.

But Joe didn’t describe our efforts in his article.

That’s fine. I mean my goodness, you can’t name every single group that helped out, be reasonable. But unlike other organizations that he didn’t name, Joe went out of his way to specifically say that our organizations were not there:

But there was an occupying army of relief workers, led by local first responders, exhausted but still humping it a week after the storm, church groups from all over the country — funny how you don’t see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals

I’d say it’s funny how you don’t see what you don’t look for.

These atheist and humanist contributions to the disaster relief effort were not hard to find. A five-second Google search turns up almost every one of them. But Klein checked only his assumptions and biases, and in so doing reinforced the assumptions and biases of his readers — just about the most shameful thing a journalist can do. Even the time-honored test of substituting another subgroup (“funny how you don’t see any organized groups of Jews/blacks/women handing out meals” etc.) should have been enough to slap the sleeping journalist awake in Klein’s head, pushing his cursor the scant few inches needed to open the browser of his choice and see whether that thing he assumed was true was actually true.

After being flooded with indignant emails for a few days, Joe posted what he must have seen as a clarification under the darkly snarky title “Secular Humanist Watch.” He didn’t say there weren’t any secular humanists in the relief effort, you see. He said there weren’t organized groups of secular humanists. He then tangents into an irrelevant discourse on his own beliefs and mis-defines atheism and secular humanism before restating the whopper:

[I]t is certainly true, as my critics point out, that secular humanists, including atheists, can be incredibly generous. I never meant to imply they weren’t. But they are not organized.

This is the jump from carelessness to the lie. He had just been flooded with proof that there was a large, organized secular humanist and atheist presence in the relief effort. Instead of apologizing for a careless error, he opted for an outrageous doubling down. And now, instead of focusing on the good work we’re trying to do, we have to complain, something that further reinforces stereotypes. I hate that.

Here’s the apology that a person of character and integrity might have made:

Dear Readers:

In my recent TIME cover story on service, I said that you don’t see organized groups of secular humanists giving out meals after a disaster. Apparently this is not at all true. To be honest, it’s something I thought was true. I am accustomed to seeing religious organizations on the scene, as well as non-sectarian NGOs, but I was not aware that secular humanist organizations have also been present — not just as individuals, but as part of the organized, collective effort to diminish suffering and heal a broken community. This was news to me, and good news at that. With a little more care, I could have brought that news to my readers and enhanced the story.

As it turns out, it would have been quite easy to discover this fact. I simply didn’t think this particular claim needed checking. I was wrong about that, and for that I am sorry.

I’m particularly troubled to realize that my claim disregarded the hard work and dedication of real people who opened their hearts to the victims of the tragedy in Oklahoma, just as their religious friends and neighbors had opened their hearts. I erased these folks, and worse still, reinforced the popular mistrust that exists against them. That is simply not okay.

I briefly considered writing a follow-up that defended my statement on technical grounds, noting that I said there were no organized secular humanist groups, or something to that effect. But I quickly realized that this was just as untrue as the original statement, and that it was more important at any rate to reverse the harm done than to defend my own work.

So thanks to those of you who corrected me on this. I’m always glad to learn something new. It keeps me growing as a journalist and as a human being.

Much better.

“I thought it over and believed it by myself”

Scrambling to finish the complicated manuscript for Voices of Unbelief: Documents from Atheists and Agnostics by the December 1 deadline. Rather than go to complete radio silence on the blog, I’ll share some of the more unusual bits with you.

In order to make this book something more than just another freethought anthology, I set two goals for myself: (1) to include disbelief in cultures beyond Europe and the US, and (2) to fill in the usual 1400-year gap between Ancient Rome and the Renaissance. After nearly a year of careful digging, I managed to do both.

During the initial research, I came across references to Jacques Fournier, a 14th century bishop who was instructed by Rome to undertake local interrogations to root out adherents of Catharism, an unorthodox sect that had been spreading through the south of France. Fournier took the unusual step of having each of his hundreds of individual interrogations transcribed in detail.

Nonbelievers were not the main concern of the late medieval Inquisitions, which were primarily designed to root out heretical Christian sects whose beliefs were not entirely in keeping with Roman Catholic doctrine. Such sects often spread rapidly and were perceived to be a threat to Catholic religious and political power on the continent. But once in a blue moon, an inquisitor came across not a heretic but an outright unbeliever, or at least someone who would cop to being an unbeliever at some recent time.

Sometimes it’s hard to be sure from what was said in the interrogation whether a person’s actual views constituted heresy or unbelief. One such subject, identified as “Guillemette, widow of Bernard Benet of Ornolac,” testified that she had come to believe that the soul was nothing but blood, that nothing survives of ourselves after death, and that Jesus was no exception. Let’s listen in to the end of the interrogation, 16 July 1320, in the village of Montaillou:

BISHOP JACQUES FOURNIER: From the moment that you believed that human souls die with the body, did you believe that men would be resurrected or would live again after death?

GUILLEMETTE: I did not believe in the resurrection of human bodies, for I believed that just as the body is buried, the soul is also buried with it. And as I saw the human body rot, I believed that it could never live again.

JF: Did you have someone who taught this to you, did you learn it from someone?

G: No. I thought it over and believed it by myself.

That’s the lovely sound of free inquiry echoing down through the centuries.

Her neighbors testified to her empirical bent as well, including one who described Guillemette’s response to a child dying in her arms. “When she saw nothing but breath go out of his mouth, she said, ‘Take notice, when a person dies, one sees nothing leave his mouth except air. If I saw something else come out, I would believe that the soul is something. But now because only air has come out, I do not believe that the soul is anything.'”

Back to Jacques and Guillemette:

JF: Did you believe that the soul of Jesus Christ, who died on the cross, is dead or with his body?

G: Yes, for, although God cannot die, Jesus Christ died, all the same. Therefore, although I believed that God has always been, I did not believe that Christ’s soul lived and subsisted after his death.

JF: Do you now believe then that Christ was resurrected?

G: Yes, and it is God who did that.

JF: Do you currently believe that the human soul is anything other than blood, that it does not die at the death of the body, that it is not buried with the body, that there is a hell and a heaven, where souls are punished or rewarded, and there will be a resurrection of all men, and that the soul of Christ did not die with his body?

G: Yes, and I have believed it since the last holiday of the Ascension of the Lord because at that time I heard tell that My Lord the Bishop of Pamiers wanted to carry out an investigation against me about it. I was afraid of My Lord Bishop because of that, and I changed my opinion after that time.

(“Officer, I stopped speeding the moment I saw you.”)

Of the 578 individuals interrogated by Fournier, five heretics were burned at the stake. Most of the remainder were imprisoned or sentenced to wear a yellow cross on their backs for the remainder of their lives as a mark of shame. Guillemette was sentenced to wear the cross.

Jacques Fournier went on to become Pope Benedict XII.

Ten years of Calling Bernadette’s Bluff

My 500th post goes back ten years to the beginning of my public freethought life, before Parenting Beyond Belief, before Foundation Beyond Belief

Spring 2001. I’m a mostly closeted secular humanist on the faculty of a Catholic women’s college in Minnesota. It’s Friday afternoon, so I’m sitting with a small, sad knot of St. Kate’s faculty men at The Dubliner, a pub in St. Paul. Guinness in and bile out.

A sociology prof and good friend named Brian Fogarty tells about seeing two students on the quad earlier that day, having a pitched argument. No contact, but plenty of heat. As Brian slunk by the two, another student leapt out from behind a column and thrust a slip of paper at him:

You were just a witness to lesbian domestic abuse.
WHAT DID YOU DO ABOUT IT??

“You know,” he sighed after describing it, “if I did stick my nose in, it would have been ‘a male thing to do.’ You just can’t win.”

He was right about that. The campus was laced with these double-binds. “Somebody has to write a satirical novel about this place,” I said.

“Yeah yeah, you always say that. So write it.”

“Wha…me? I was actually thinking of a writer.”

“Write one scene,” he said. “See what happens.”

That night I wrote an eight-page scene in which a faculty committee discusses what to do about the school song. The meeting is called to order by Jack Kassel, who is, by the most extraordinary coincidence, a closeted secular humanist male professor at a Catholic women’s college:

Well then, we meet again to discuss changes to the college fight song.” Audible gasps around the table. Jack’s eyes inflate as he realizes his mistake. “I mean, the college song,” he sputters in a rush. “The song. The Hymn to Saint Bernadette.”

Oh goody, he thinks. Now I get to start in a hole. Shit on a stick.

The next day I laid out the storyline. Jack is already at the end of his rope when his oldest partner in disbelief shows up — as the campus priest, no less — and he finally plunges over the edge when his ex-wife enrolls their brilliant young son in a Lutheran school and the boy begins quoting Scripture in response to Jack’s questions. Back against the wall, Jack starts to come out as a nonbeliever at what turns out to be the worst possible time — as visions of the Virgin Mary begin appearing on campus.

I wrote for ten weeks straight, a fun and feverish thing, finishing up ten years ago this month. After months of refining, I published it through Xlibris, and in January 2002, just seven months after Brian’s taunt, Calling Bernadette’s Bluff went public.

The book was stocked in the college bookstore and sold out repeatedly. The local paper did a nice feature, and reviews have been good. The resemblance of “St. Bernie’s” to St. Kate’s (and the presence of characters said to resemble actual carbon-based people on campus, including the president, the dean of faculty, and half a dozen profs) was duly noted. The dean of faculty even asked for a signed copy. What fun.

The next year…not so much. That’s when my slow-burning conflict with the administration began over free expression on campus, leading eventually to my disgusted resignation in ’06.

Hard to believe how much has happened in ten years. Along the way, in addition to the parenting books, I wrote Good Thunder, which picks up three days after Bernadette ends. But I didn’t release that one until last year for various reasons, then didn’t announce the release to anyone until now. There’s just been too much going on.

And even now, I’m mentioning it only in the context of Bernadette’s Bluff because Good Thunder would be incomprehensible without reading Bernadette first. Don’t even think about trying.

I’m really surprised at how well both books hold up for me as a reader after all these years. I usually hate who I was and what I did over nine minutes ago, but these still say what I wanted to say.

It helped that so many characters are based on real people. The deeply nutty aspects of Catholicism are on display, but (as several reviewers have noted) the strongest and most likable character is Genevieve Martin, the Catholic dean, who was based on the actual dean at the time. So when Dean Martin butts heads with spineless Jack, it’s hard even for nontheists to entirely know who to root for. Likewise Leslie, the militant feminist with the blinding Grin, manages to make sense and nonsense and to convince and infuriate at the same time. I don’t think I could have written that character convincingly from scratch. Fortunately I’d known her in person, and been convinced and infuriated by her for years. She was one of several people at St. Kate’s who helped turn me from a passive feminist to a deeply committed one. But she also showed me, quite unintentionally, just how silly it could get at times, resting as it does in human hands.

The weirdest thing about Bernadette is the fact that several things in the story ended up happening on campus the next year. My favorite: A construction project on the fictional St. Bernie’s campus unearthed bones, and the Lakota Sioux claimed they were sacred and halted the project. A year after publication, a construction project on the non-fictional St. Kate’s campus unearthed an underground spring. The Lakota Sioux claimed it was sacred and halted the project.

Like they say, you can’t make this stuff up.

Calling Bernadette’s Bluff on Amazon
Good Thunder on Amazon

Dash of cynicism, pinch of hope

Many thanks to those of you who contacted the Fulton County School Board regarding the proposed rescission of the district’s church/state policy and procedure. As expected, the Board voted to rescind anyway. But read on — after a dash of nauseating cynicism, there’s a metric pinch of hope.

Thanks to a well-connected friend, I finally learned why the rescission was proposed in the first place. This friend cares as much about the district and this issue as I do but has a much better idea where the bodies are buried. So she picked up the phone, called the right person, and got a straight answer. It turns out that attorneys for the district advised the school board to rescind the policies so the district can sidestep culpability in the event of a church/state lawsuit.

Read that again. Feel like taking a shower? Me too. But that is apparently the (unstated) reason. If the district has a clear church/state policy and allows it to be violated, they can be held liable. If there is no clear policy, they can shrug and point upstream to state law.

Never mind that no one, including the Board, seems able to find any clear state law on this important issue.

As I said last time, church/state separation is a complicated subject that teachers and principals are constantly stepping in. If that cynical explanation is true, instead of helping teachers and principals make their way through the minefield by educating and informing and supporting them, it seems the Board is choosing to turn out the light entirely and walk away whistling.

Or, if the email from my board member this morning is accurate, things might not be quite that bad. Even though the policy itself is being scotched, she said, “the School District plans to provide staff helpful training and guidelines during the 2011-2012 school year to assist schools in handling religious issues appropriately.”

Now that could actually be good news. Active, mandatory teacher training is likely to be more effective than a static policy that employees may or may not ever see. I’d rather have both, but actual in-service training could be the best option of all.

In the coming months, I plan to make myself as persistent as necessary to see that this promise is kept. I began by sending each board member and the new district superintendent a pdf copy of Americans United’s outstanding booklet Religion in the Public Schools: A Roadmap for Avoiding Lawsuits and Respecting Parents’ Legal Rights. Equally important going forward, the Board is now aware that an awful lot of people are paying very close attention to the church/state issue.

Special thanks to Jeff Selman, Ryan Hale, and Beth Corbin of AU, each of whom offered helpful advice. Onward.

“To hell with this goddamn freethought parenting!”

[It’s back to the vault for some golden oldies during this busy time. This one first appeared June 12, 2007.]

To hell with this goddamn freethought parenting! — REBEKAH McGOWAN, June 11, 2007

latte heart

That shocking phrase came hurtling from between the tender lips of the mother of my children as we sat nursing our morning lattés yesterday.

Turns out Becca had spent the end of the previous evening fencing with our nearly 12-year-old son over the appropriate bedtime for a nearly 12-year-old son now that summer has arrived. She was proposing 10 pm. He was pretty much proposing dealer’s choice, but willing to settle for midnight, maybe 11:30. With occasional extensions to dawn.

I descended into my latté foam. When I surfaced, she was still there.

“Well?”

I set down my mug and made a conscious decision to leave the little beige mustache where it was, figuring it lent me a certain gravitas. I could feel it fizzing, not unpleasantly. “And this has something to do with freethought parenting, I’m guessing.”

“Yes. He asked why. Why, why, why. Why do I have to go to bed earlier, he said.”

“Mm. And you said?”

“I said it’s not healthy to stay up late and sleep late. And he asked why not, if you’re getting the same amount of sleep? And I said I read that somewhere. It isn’t good for kids.”

Pfft. Where did you read that? I thought.

“And then he said, ‘Pfft. Where did you read that?'”

“No!”

“Yes! And I said it’s a known thing. And he said he wants to see it!”

The sweater-vested professor in me grinned. Before he gives full credit, my boy wants to see Mom’s citation page. Visible Guy remained carefully grinless.

I paused, licking off the foam in case I needed the energy for my next move. “So it’s about what’s healthy? I mean, that’s the real reason you…I mean we …want him in bed at ten?”

“Yes! It’s not healthy for a kid to stay up until midnight every night!”

“Okay. So are you going to look it up and show him?”

“No! No, I am not.”

“No, of course not.” I explored the java reef a bit, surfaced again. “And, uh…why is that?”

“Because…well, for one thing, what if it turns out not to be true?”

Let me here confess the crashing unfairness of telling this story. In our marriage, the conversational shoe is almost ALWAYS on the other foot. For all my puffed up blathering about critical thinking and having confidence in reason, Becca’s usually the one talking parental sense into my head. So for me to take one of her rare lapses and sing about it in my blog is just outrageous. It’s just wrong.

Where was I.

Oh yeah: She said, “What if it turns out not to be true?”

“Well, if it’s not unhealthy, and that was your real concern, then you’d have nothing to worry about anymore. What a relief, eh?”

She sat in silence for a moment, then executed a twisting jackknife into her own mug. When she returned, she looked like I usually do in these discussions — moded and corroded. Plus a little fizzy mustache.

I did a strutting endzone dance. In my head.

Turns out we both want him in bed with lights out at 10, and that neither of us really finds argument by proverb the least bit compelling. Becca has vaguely moralistic reasons — it just seems somehow wicked to stay up late and sleep in late. I agree, for some reason, though I tend to think that’s Cotton Mather speaking through us. I’d also like sex more than twice a year (probably not Mather speaking). And we both like to read in bed uninterruptedly. Plus it throws off the family rhythm to have one person waking at 11:15 am demanding breakfast. Those reasons are more than sufficient. So we agreed. At that point, if there are no further witnesses, the gavel comes down.

And that’s the part that’s so often misunderstood when other parents hear that we want our kids to question authority, even our own. Questioning authority doesn’t mean they have permission to DISREGARD our decisions and our rules. It means they are invited to challenge our decisions, to ask for the reasons behind them, even to try to change our minds. But at the end of the process, while they are children, we’re gonna win. And if they disregard a decision, there are consequences. Just like in life.

It isn’t a choice between anarchy and fascism. Giving our kids permission to know the (real) reasons behind our decisions and even to question those decisions (1) shows them respect; (2) helps them develop their own reasoning abilities; (3) keeps us honest by ensuring our reasons are indeed defensible; and (4) further defeats and diminishes the ability of later authorities to make them into compliant, unquestioning automatons, voting and spending and acting and thinking as they are told and waving the flags they are handed.

Sometimes there isn’t time to explain. Sometimes I don’t CARE to explain. Sometimes we say, “Because I said so.” The trick is to make these rare enough to actually sound funny to kid and parent alike when they happen, and to know when I do it that it’s not going on my parental highlight reel.

Once we’ve made a decision, our kids can file a minority opinion or even appeal, if they come up with an even stronger proverb than Mom is using. Sometimes they change our minds. Happens quite a bit. But they know it only works if their reasoning is strong. Whining or raging is a quick ticket to a summary decision by the judge.

Like bedtime at 8.

Amazon.com(ments)

(I posted this last week, then realized I hadn’t asked my correspondent below for permission to quote her email, something I generally try to do. She gave the thumbs-up, so here it is. Thanks Jan, you’re a good sport!)

One of the funniest recurring topics in my inbox concerns the reader reviews for Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers.

The reviews are 95 percent good, a gratifying thing. Surprising, too — given the sensitive topic, I was ready for a barrage of negatives from certain quarters when each book came out. It just hasn’t happened, which is awfully nice. Who needs the distraction?

But negative reviews do appear, including some I think are entirely fair. But when they do appear, fair or not, somebody somewhere ALWAYS drops me an outraged note. Some even suggest that I ought to (somehow) get the offending thought deleted.

Really.

A few weeks ago I got a note that appalled me more than a one-star review ever could:

Mr. McGowan,
I’m wondering if you watch the Amazon.com pages for your books. About two years ago I almost bought Parenting Beyond Belief but was convinced not to after I read the top comment, which said it was a book for angry athiests [sic]. I didn’t want anything like that. My son had serious trouble when his grandmother died last year, and I didn’t know what to tell him. Finally I broke down and got the book last month. And it was terrific! But I really needed it two years ago! Can’t you erase that terrible review so people aren’t misinformed??

I suddenly felt really, really tired.

I replied, explaining that I have no power to delete Amazon reviews, and (short of something clearly libelous) wouldn’t want it. I sketched out the timeless principle of caveat lector, stopping short of advising that she stay clear of the wilds of cyberspace unless accompanied by a parent or guardian. The xkcd cartoon above immediately came to mind.

I do appreciate it when people take the time to review my books, no matter what they think. If there’s an existing review you want to vote up or down, or even comment on, Amazon makes it easy. Go on, have fun. You don’t need me.

In fact, I feel another Latin phrase coming on. Vox populi!

Screwing with…His Holiness?!

jpiiI’m in the research phase for some really engaging writing projects right now. That’s good except for one thing: while I’m overturning cool rocks, I always find some fantastic tangent wriggling underneath. I chase after it, giggling like a wee lass, and forget all about the original task.

It’s an actual problem.

Exhibit A: I’m under contract for a fun anthology project I’ll tell you about later. In the course of that, I uncovered the way Darwin’s agnosticism and critiques of religion were hidden from view by his own family as they edited his Autobiography. That led to my “Screwing with…” blog series, which I knew needed to start with Sam Pepys.

As I finally got to Darwin in that series, I needed the date on which Pope John Paul II made the strongest-yet Vatican acknowledgement of evolution as established fact.

And you won’t believe what was wriggling under THAT rock.

First some background: The Vatican came to accept evolution the same way it agreed that Galileo deserved an apology — glacially and partially. This isn’t entirely a strike against Rome. I’ve always at least given the Catholics credit for seeing something that is too often denied by others: that evolution, properly understood, presents a very serious problem for some of the most fundamental assumptions of their religion. More on that another time. (See what I mean? Even tangents birth tangents.)

Since Darwin, a few popes had skated at the margins of the question. They rarely mentioned evolution in the last few decades of the 19th century but repeatedly affirmed “the special creation of man” — one of the above-mentioned fundamental assumptions that evolution severely guts.

In Providentissimus Deus (1893), Leo XIII decried “the unrestrained freedom of thought” — yes, his actual words — that he saw running rampant as the 20th century approached, and warned that religion and science should stay out of each other’s sandboxes.

Whatever sharpens your hat, I guess.

In Humani generis (1950), Pius XII said “the Church does not forbid” research and discussion related to biological evolution. But the encyclical contains a self-cancelling message typical of papal pronouncements: “Men experienced in both fields” (science and theology) are free to study the issue, so long as their conclusions do not contradict assumptions x, y, and z. Included in that list: that “souls are immediately created by God,” and that humans cannot have ultimately come from non-living matter.

Excluding possibilities a priori is, of course, one of the best ways to get things entirely wrong. But that’s not the wriggle I’m chasing at the moment. And before we jeer too much at the Vatican for taking 91 years, we need to recognize that much of the scientific community had only fully accepted evolutionary theory in the previous decade. It was the modern synthesis with genetics, articulated by (among others) Ernst Mayr in 1942, that answered the most serious remaining questions and cemented the scientific consensus on evolution.

In an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1996, John Paul II improved on Pius XII. “Today,” he said, “more than a half-century after the appearance of [Pius XII’s] encyclical, some new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than an hypothesis.”

Ignoring the (shall we say) fallible math, here’s where it gets interesting. The speech was in French, with the above sentence rendered thus:

Aujourd’hui, près d’un demi-siècle après la parution de l’encyclique, de nouvelles connaissances conduisent à reconnaître dans la théorie de l’évolution plus qu’une hypothèse.

Like all major papal holdings-forth, the October 22 address was translated into several other languages. The English language edition of L’Osservatore Romano, the papal paper, translated it like so:

Today, more than a half-century after the appearance of that encyclical, some new findings lead us toward the recognition of more than one hypothesis within the theory of evolution.

Somebody diddled with the Pope!

The difference is huge. If the pope says “[there is] more than one hypothesis within the theory of evolution,” that’s a yawn. If he says “Evolution [is] more than an hypothesis,” that’s an earthquake.

A correction appeared three weeks later. But you know how that is. The faithful worldwide jumped on whichever translation they preferred. Some major media stories even got it backwards, claiming that “more than an hypothesis” was the original error, and that “more than one hypothesis” was the correction. Answers in Genesis and other creationist organizations accepted the correct translation as evidence against the Catholic church. That’s all the expected gum flapping, none of it as interesting as the initial act of mistranslation.

In the correction, the English edition editor explained that they had taken an “overly literal” translation of the French text. But one enterprising media outlet ran the text by four French language experts, none of whom saw any possible reading other than “evolution [is] more than an hypothesis.”

Whether the switch was intentional is the fascinating question here. And it’s always safe and fun to play the cynic and assume the conspiracy. But it’s pretty hard to picture anyone in the Vatican having sufficiently well-developed cojones to intentionally scramble the Pope’s words, something that was easily discovered. The fact that the editor in question was transferred from Rome to a parish in Illinois seems at first to suggest retribution, but that was five years after the bungle. And he was returning home.

Now to find my way back to whatever the hell I was working on before this shiny object caught my eye.

“This just isn’t going to happen”

RBB Poster 01_smLate last week, as I sat down to write a post about Rock Beyond Belief, I received notice that it had been cancelled.

Quick summary for those who haven’t followed this:

Last September, an evangelical Christian rock concert called “Rock the Fort” was held at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Sponsored by the Fort Bragg chaplains, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and 20 area churches, the event was promoted as an opportunity to win souls by “[bringing] the Christian message to all of Fort Bragg and the surrounding community.” Ft. Bragg chaplain Col. David Hillis made it clear in a letter to local churches that “Rock the Fort is evangelical in nature…The concert will conclude with a clear gospel message.”

It worked. Event organizers claimed 700 on-stage conversions of soldiers and civilians.

Rob Boston at Americans United for Separation of Church and State correctly stated that “the military has no business sponsoring a rally that is clearly designed to convert people to evangelical Christianity – or any other religion, for that matter.” The Freedom From Religion Foundation and Military Religious Freedom Foundation likewise weighed in with constitutional concerns. “Churches have the right to reach out to anyone to spread their religious messages,” Boston said, “but the government is not allowed to help them do it.”

The Staff Judge Advocate soothed worried brows with a letter promising equal treatment:

Bragg1-550x204

This was echoed in a letter from the base commander.

One soldier at Fort Bragg, Sgt. Justin Griffith, decided to take the base commander at his word. If the military is going to sponsor events of this kind, they must do so for other perspectives as well. Thus was born ROCK BEYOND BELIEF, a day of fun and entertainment featuring secular bands and speakers including Richard Dawkins, Dan Barker, Hemant Mehta, and Eugenie Scott (and me).

Justin was a class act from the beginning. He was determined to make the event a positive expression, not a poke in the eye. Every time someone tried to paint RBB as an anti-religious event or an attempt to “spread the atheist message,” Justin slapped it down. This would be a positive celebration of secular values, but never an attempt to recruit, convince, or attack. No de-conversion or de-baptism ceremonies. High road all the way.

He pulled together a volunteer staff and began the long approval process in November. Funding was a serious concern. But a Freedom of Information Act request by FFRF revealed that Billy Graham’s Rock the Fort event had received over $54,000 in direct support from the Dept. of Defense.

The next step was simple: the base commander had promised “the same level of support to comparable events,” so a request was made for a similar level of financial support for Rock Beyond Belief.

The approval was a no-brainer, and the base legal staff recommended that Rock Beyond Belief receive the same support Rock the Fort had received.

The last step would be the signature of the garrison commander. He “approved” the event per se, but added what Justin rightly called “crippling restrictions.” Instead of the outdoor post-parade ground that Rock the Fort had used, Rock Beyond Belief would be confined to an indoor theatre that holds 700. There would be no financial support of any kind. And unlike Rock the Fort, he required that all advertising carry a disclaimer that the event carried “no endorsement by Fort Bragg, the US Army, or the Department of Defense.”

Justin had no choice but to cancel.

The whole thing rang loud bells for me. Justin was attempting to hold the Army to its own stated principles, not to mention the US Constitution. And instead of progressing straight to court over Rock the Fort, he had chosen to request equal treatment. A promise of equal treatment was made, then withdrawn.

Eight years ago I tried something similar, albeit on a smaller scale. I was on the faculty of a Catholic women’s college that trumpeted an atmosphere of open inquiry and critical thinking in all of its public statements and recruitment materials. All points of view were said to be welcome in this vibrant marketplace of ideas.

The college also considers itself a feminist institution, but the fact that the overwhelming majority of feminist pioneers have been atheists or agnostics was never mentioned. So when an informal student humanist group I advised wanted to bring Annie Laurie Gaylor on campus to talk about feminism and freethought, I thought it a perfect fit with the college’s stated values. Annie Laurie wrote Women Without Superstition, the definitive book on the topic.

We reserved the room, clearly stating the nature of the event, paid the required fee, and received an approved contract. We advertised openly on campus and in the papers for four weeks. But 45 minutes before the event, a security guard arrived and locked the hall, “By order of the president.”

I called Sister Anita for an explanation and was told that I had not reserved the hall. When I replied that I had the reservation in hand, she was silent for several seconds.

“Look Dale,” she finally said, “this just isn’t going to happen.”

The next day, as word of the lockout spread, she sent a campus-wide email claiming that I had intentionally misrepresented the nature of the event. The day after that, the first student protest in the history of the college took place on the quad. Major media stories ensued, and I received some blistering hate mail.

I managed to stay three more years, trying to improve the climate of inquiry on campus, before nausea led me to resign and pursue my current work.

Though religion is in play in both of these situations, the principle applies to countless others as well. If a minority point of view is on the verge of gaining a fair hearing within the rules, someone in the majority will simply change the rules. The women’s movement struggled against the same kind of goalpost-moving, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 essentially said, “Okay, from now on we will follow our own rules.” The majority party in Congress regularly changes procedures to hogtie the minority. Rules are useful, goes the reasoning of the powerful, until they aren’t. At which point etc.

Some defenders of the garrison commander will surely point out that he didn’t cancel the event, Justin did. A bit like saying, “Sure, I shot you, but you’re the one that fell over.”

Eight years ago I was heartbroken that what could have been a simple, positive expression of the important place of religious doubt in our history instead yielded a melee of angry protests, accusations, and hate mail because someone decided their own rules were meant to be broken as needed. Now Justin’s attempt to create something positive is instead devolving into ugliness and lawsuits for the same reason.

The suit is justified and necessary (and, as the Military Religious Freedom Foundation’s Mikey Weinstein put it, “a one-inch putt”) — but once again I’m heartbroken at the duplicity and the lost opportunity.

I hope I’d behave better than the garrison commander and Sister Anita in a position of majority power. But if I were to do otherwise, I hope the minority voices I trample on would shame me into integrity.

The incredible shrinking woman

[Continued from Part 2, “The Empire Strikes Back“]

The day before the meeting with the principal and Ms. Warner, Becca made my year by insisting on going as well. She took a half day off work, on short notice and with difficulty. I was so grateful — helps me feel less like a lone loon.

After talking with hundreds of parents over the years in dozens of different situations, I’ve worked up a few guidelines for approaching this kind of thing. It works not just for church-state issues, but any similar conflict:

1. Know your main objective and keep it in focus. It would have been easy, and gratifying, to focus on the first three of our objectives (abject apology, school-wide statement, head on platter). But if it came right down to it (and it often does), the last two were most important: damage control for Delaney, and a greatly-reduced chance of this kind of thing happening to another student in the school. Ever.

2. Frame in terms as broad as possible. It’s almost never just about my child or our family’s rights. If a teacher leads students in a Christian prayer, for example, and I respond as an offended atheist, I’ve drawn this tiny circle around my offended little feet. If instead I defend the constitutional right of all kids and families to freedom of religious belief, I’ve drawn a much larger circle with a much firmer foundation.

3. Don’t let your tone become an issue. This keeps a laser-like focus on the real issue.

4. Find allies with common goals. They’re almost always there. If we treat them as co-perpetrators, we’ve robbed ourselves of powerful leverage.

5. Position yourself as a resource, not a problem to be avoided or contained. When it comes to the issues at hand, as well as district policy and legal precedent, make yourself the most knowledgeable one in the room, then offer your help in navigating that maze, now and in the future.

becca3The meeting began with the obligatory chit chat, then Becca took the floor — not as a parent, but as an appalled educator. For five minutes, in a voice laced with emotion but entirely under control, she explained why Warner’s action violated the central responsibility of educators to their students. She ended by quoting the framing concept in the elementary curriculum. They are the Habits of Mind — four characteristics all Georgia educators are expected to engender in their students. “A CONTENT STANDARD IS NOT MET,” says the science standards document in bold caps, “UNLESS APPLICABLE CHARACTERISTICS OF SCIENCE ARE ALSO ADDRESSED AT THE SAME TIME.”

The four principal characteristics:

Students will be aware of the importance of curiosity, honesty, openness, and skepticism in science and will exhibit these traits in their own efforts to understand how the world works.

In a single ill-considered sentence, Ms. Warner had managed to violate all four. Then there’s this further down — hard to beat for spot-on relevance:

Scientists use a common language with precise definitions of terms to make it easier to communicate their observations to each other.

I made a mental note to marry Becca all over again.

warner1skinner1Ms. Warner responded with an apology of the “I’m sorry if you were offended” variety. “If I had known you felt this way, I would certainly not have said what I said.” It was all about a wacky breakdown in communication. If the principal hadn’t dropped the ball, went the implication, we wouldn’t be in this pickle. Lucy, you got some splainin’ to do. Cue laugh track.

I’d expected that. “Yes, I do wish we’d been able to intercept this extremely bad idea you had,” I said. “But that’s irrelevant. I want to know why you had the bad idea in the first place to censor Delaney’s accomplishment.

“You claimed evolution wasn’t in the curriculum, when in fact it’s deeply embedded in our curriculum from seventh grade on. And if a third grader were to master calculus and win a national contest, I doubt we’d say, ‘Well shoot, I wish we could celebrate that, but it isn’t in the elementary curriculum.’ So let’s agree that’s silly and not the reason anyway. Now I’d like to know the real reason.”

She nodded and shrugged. “I wanted to avoid conflict.

To paraphrase what Huxley supposedly said before he gutted Wilberforce, the Lord had delivered her into my hands. I produced a summary of that deeply depressing Penn State study showing that conflict-avoiders “may play a far more important role in hindering scientific literacy in the United States than the smaller number of explicit creationists.”

But there’s an even more interesting context for this in Georgia, I said — a specific history of removing the word “evolution.”

“Yes, there is!” said Mr. Robinson, nodding enthusiastically and leaning forward. Principals tend to know what’s going on in the educational world outside of their own skulls. Even better, he clearly cared. Warner’s blank smile showed that she neither knew nor cared. She was counting the minutes until this annoyance was over.

warner2skinner2It was at this point that Ms. Warner began to shrink from view, and Mr. Robinson began to grow. We could exhaust ourselves trying to get a genuine apology from this person, trying to get her to understand that she was an embarrassment to her profession and why, trying to let the school community know exactly what had happened so they could take sides and put Laney in the uncomfortable middle.

Or we could turn the focus toward this nodding, well-informed, well-placed ally.

I gave a five-minute capsule history of the issue in Georgia, complete with handouts, starting with the D grade the state science curriculum had earned from Fordham in 1998. Why the low grade? Largely because in the interest of conflict avoidance, the word evolution had been removed:

Like many Southern states, Georgia has problems with the politics, if not the science, of evolution. In the biology course, the euphemism “organic variation” is used for evolution, yielding such delectable bits as the following:

“[The learner will] describe historical and current theories of organic variation . . . describe how current geological evidences [sic] support current theories of organic variation . . . explain that a successful change in a species is most apt to occur when a niche is available.”

The purpose of this approach, of course, is to insulate the study of science from the inroads of politics. But for all its good intent, it makes it difficult or impossible for all but the most gifted students to understand the profound importance of evolution as the basis of the biological sciences. It also isolates biology from the other historical sciences, geology and astronomy, and thus wounds the student’s understanding of the unity of the sciences. [Lerner 1998]

Fast-forward to 2004. State Superintendent of Education Kathy Cox is reviewing Georgia’s new and greatly improved proposed science standards, which include an impressively straightforward approach to evolution. And what does she do? She red-lines every occurrence of the word “evolution,” changing it to “biological changes over time,” which does NOT mean the same thing.

Why did she do that? Conflict avoidance, she said later.

There was an impressive public backlash. Jimmy Carter lashed out in the press: “As a Christian, a trained engineer and scientist, and a professor at Emory University, I am embarrassed by Superintendent Kathy Cox’s attempt to censor and distort the education of Georgia’s students.”

Cox reversed herself. In an interview last year on the occasion of her retirement, she remembered the issue as the biggest mistake of her career:

It was a great lesson for me….The standards are more than a classroom teacher. They represent something to the larger public [and the] entity of the nation. And that was a great lesson for me, that I needed to step out of my shoes as a teacher sometimes and see the bigger picture. And even though I was trying to make it so that our science standards could be such that a teacher anywhere in the state could teach what they needed to teach, it wasn’t the right decision from the bigger picture. And, boy, did I learn that in a hurry – and kind of had it handed to me in a hurry.

Robinson continued nodding. None of this was new to him.

The standards went on to full approval, unbuggered, earning Georgia a B for science overall in the next Fordham review and the highest ranking possible for evolution education.

“So we’ve learned this lesson already, over and over,” I said. “But it just doesn’t get through. And the messages we as parents and educators send these students, both inside and outside of the classroom, affect the way kids will encounter concepts and content later in the curriculum.”

warner3skinner3Mr. Robinson was continuing to exhibit not just agreement, but enthusiastic engagement. Warner at this point was too small to be seen clearly.

“We have these extraordinary standards, but because of ten thousand things like this” — I gestured toward Warner’s last known location — “they aren’t finding their way into the actual education of our students, especially in science. I’d like to help get a larger conversation going in the district. We need to help parents, teachers, and administrators get more comfortable with the great standards we already have.”

Mr. Robinson was nearly out of his chair. “Yes. This is great. I would love to see this happen.” He began scribbling notes. “I want to put you in touch with Samantha Burnett, the director of science curriculum for the district. I know she’d love to connect with you and get this going. This would be a very positive thing.”

He added that he wanted to be sure Delaney was taken care of as well. “I want her to know that this school encourages all of her ideas and accomplishments.”

Becca then shared Laney’s heartbreaking response to Mr. Hamilton, her beloved first grade teacher, and his expression of interest (“I don’t know what I should tell him and what I shouldn’t.”)

“Well there’s an opportunity,” said Mr. Robinson. “I’ll get in touch with Mike and see what we can work out. Maybe instead of just explaining it to him, she could give a presentation to his whole class about the contest.”

That would help a lot. She would be over the moon.

That night we learned from Delaney that Mr. Robinson visited her classroom later that day to congratulate her again on her achievement in the “Evolution & Art contest.”

In terms of vengeance, the meeting was mostly unsatisfying. But in terms of positive progress, it was immensely satisfying. We’re working our way toward two conversations, one large and one small. By being reasonable and well-informed, by leaning forward instead of back, it looks like some lasting good could come out of this.

I’ll keep you in the loop as we go.

The Empire Strikes Back

[Continued from When science goes south]

monkeylukeDelaney was all butterflies the morning of the broadcast. I assured her she’d be just fine.

“But I’m talking to THE PRINCIPAL!” she said in mock horror. “In front of the whole school!”

She was secretly adoring the whole idea, we both knew that, but the nerves were no less real. She’d never done anything like this before.

I drove her to school early, then sat in the front office to watch the show on the monitor. After the Pledge of Allegiance (No, Luke — stay on target!), the camera panned to my daughter and the principal.

“I’m here with Delaney McGowan today who won first place in a national contest,” said Mr. Robinson. “This is amazing, Delaney! Tell us all about it.”

“Well,” she said, “I won an art contest.”

Hmm.

I grinned and shook my head. After all that, she called it an art contest. That’s fine, of course — she can call it whatever she wants. But I did think it was a bit odd. She’d never called it that before, for one thing. And I never mentioned Ms. Warner’s phone call to her. What an odd coincidence.

She went on to describe the contest with the kind of engaging, articulate poise she’s always had, but somehow got all the way through without ever saying any form of the word “evolution.” Extremely hard to do, given the nature of the contest. The closest she came was the word “adapted,” which she used once or twice. Again, it’s a non-issue…if she’s choosing her own words.

When she ran off the school bus as she always does, I engulfed her in a hug. “You…were…AWESOME,” I said. “I could never have been so clear and calm when I was nine! Did you think of all that yourself, or did anybody help you with what to say?”

(Subtle bastard.)

“Well, there was one kind of weird thing,” she said. “About two minutes before the interview, Ms. Warner told me I shouldn’t say the word ‘evolution.'”

“…”

“…”

“…”

“Dad?”

“Well…huh. You uh…you did an amazing job, that’s all I can say.”

(I think that’s what I said. It may not have included any actual human sounds.)

“What’s wrong? Something’s wrong.”

“No, nothing, I…well, I’m, I’m, I’m…I’m kind of just wondering why Ms. Warner would say such a silly thing, is all. Why not say ‘evolution’? That just seems weird.”

“Yeah, it does.”
eaglenews2
“Didn’t Mr. Robinson say anything to her when she said that?”

“He was out in the hall right then.” Her face knotted up. “But it made me so nervous! During the whole interview, I kept worrying that I was going to say the Word.”

The Word.

Despite my silly graphics in this post — an attempt to keep things from getting too dark — this hit me like a ton of bricks. I’d gone out of my way to keep Laney from getting a negative message about her accomplishment. I’d been low-key and reasonable, and the thing had happened anyway as if I’d never left my chair.

What really hurt was hearing Delaney’s sudden anxiety. My fearless thinker, the one who loves nothing more than a good-spirited tête-à-tête over a plate of theology in the school cafeteria or politics on the playground or current events at the dinner table, who chose freedom of speech as one of the things she’s most grateful for at Thanksgiving, this amazing and unique girl had heard from an educator in her school that one of the great concepts in science was in fact a word she should not use, and by implication, a thought she should not think. Evolution, a perpetual source of wonder to her, had become The Word, a thing to avoid, something vaguely dirty.

Even worse, this woman chose Laney’s moment of excited triumph — of scientific triumph — to display her own likely ignorance of the concept that Laney understands better than most adults in any given room.

Now to fully grasp the complex challenge of that moment for Delaney, a thought experiment: Imagine you’re nine years old. You’ve won the Pillsbury Bake-Off. You are invited to speak to your school principal about it on camera in front of 1,000 of your peers. You’ve practiced what you want to say, over and over. You’re nervous and excited. Then two minutes before you go on, an Authority Figure leans over and says, “By the way: don’t mention baking.”

(Only because the confectionery arts aren’t in the elementary curriculum, you understand.)

At bedtime that night, Laney told her mom something that simply broke our hearts. Mr. Hamilton, Laney’s dynamic and gifted teacher from first grade, a HUGE favorite of hers, had popped into her classroom late in the day. “He said he saw me on the Eagle News,” she said, “but his class was too loud and he couldn’t hear what I was saying. So he wants me to come by his room and tell him all about it some time.” Her eyes watered. “But…I don’t know what I should tell him and what I shouldn’t.”

I hope we’re agreed that this is a very big deal.

I gave myself an hour to calm down, then wrote an email to the principal, still careful with my word choice. For one thing, I was “surprised and disappointed” that this had happened. Why? Because I do not want to waste a milligram of effort defending my tone. “Disappointed” is the go-to word in these situations. If you’re “furious,” the other person stops listening and starts defending. Disappointment says, “I expected more from you, and you let me down.” When someone expresses disappointment in me, I’m mortified and immediately begin trying to make it right. It’s an action word.

I also amended my desire to see Warner slowly strangled with the strings of a thousand Steinways (in the email, if not in the darkest corner of my heart). I made it clear that I was very unhappy and asked to meet with them both, very soon.

As I expected, Mr. Robinson was completely mortified when he heard what had happened. He had not spoken to Warner after our meeting, he said in his reply, “because I assumed that I would be the only staff member discussing the broadcast content with Delaney.” A reasonable assumption. Instead, he had used my input to be sure his interview questions gave Delaney the maximum ability to openly express her ideas. He simply hadn’t counted on Warner taking advantage of the two minutes he stepped into the hallway to push her agenda. There was still only one real perp in this and one clear ally.

No matter how the meeting went, I knew this would make a serious mark on her next performance evaluation. Of course we wanted a whole lot more than that.

We wanted an abject, unequivocal apology from Ms. Warner.

We wanted a school-wide statement explaining what happened and describing the real nature of Laney’s accomplishment.

We wanted Ms. Warner’s head on a platter.

We wanted damage control for Delaney.

We wanted a greatly-reduced chance of this kind of thing happening to another student in the school.

But wants are not the same as needs, and that’s where we sometimes go off the rails. Focusing too much on punishment of the perp shifts attention away from getting changes made and repairing damage. It’s a mistake I have made. It can also put your child in the middle of a struggle between adults in which the original point is completely lost.

Those first three wants would be so satisfying, but we knew we couldn’t allow them to get in the way of the last two.

It was going to be a challenge to keep our heads where they belong — especially when we had such a firm idea of where HERS belonged.

Next time, the meeting. (SPOILER ALERT: it goes well.)