Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

Screwing with Darwin

Charles Darwin wrote a terrific book. Loved it the first time I read it, then read it twice more. And the more I read it, the more I liked it. Just super.

Not everyone feels the same about this book. Some were so disturbed by what he wrote that they cut whole passages out before its publication. Most people didn’t get to read the book in its complete and original form until 1958, when the excised passages were restored.

What? No no, not that Darwin book. I’m talking about his Autobiography.

Darwin sat down to write his autobiography in May 1876, “as if I were a dead man in another world looking back at my own life. Nor have I found this difficult,” he added, “for life is nearly over with me.” He apparently knew this from a line on the title page he had just written: Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Chills.

The idea to write a sketch of his life came from Julius Victor Carus, a zoologist in Leipzig who had translated the Origin into German and needed some bio-bits from Darwin for an encyclopedia entry. Ten years later, Darwin decided to write “recollections of the development of my mind and character,” driven in part by realizing “that it would have interested me greatly to have read even so short and dull a sketch of the mind of my grandfather [Erasmus Darwin] written by himself, and what he though and did and how he worked.”

He also said he thought the attempt at such a thing “would amuse me, and might possibly interest my children or their children.” Ironic, since it was one of his children who was to serve as the slicer-dicer of Charles’s recollections, and one of his children’s children who made it whole again.

The Autobiography first appeared publicly as part of Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, edited by his son Francis, a.k.a. Frank, and published in 1887.

Dear Frank is our villain in this tale, his father’s own Lord Braybrooke. But the more you learn about why Francis Darwin did what he did, the harder it is to fault him too thoroughly. Unlike Braybrooke’s flaying of Pepys’ Diary, Frank acted out of primary concern for the reputation of the author, his father, and the strongly expressed wishes of his mother Emma. Usually an author’s desires are plenty clear — he or she wrote the words he wanted included. But there was some disagreement about whether Darwin ever intended to publish his Autobiography, which does complicate the sorting of intent.

It got nasty. In the five years between Darwin’s death and the publication of the Autobiography, the Darwin family tore itself up over what should appear and not appear in the book. At one point, one wing of the family considered suing the other.

So Frank did his best. Then 71 years later, with the principals in the original fight all safely dead, his niece did better.

In its original unbuggered form, the Autobiography was a genuine page-turner, full of the kind of keen observation that made Darwin Darwin. Instead of the natural world, Darwin’s eye and mind are turned on himself and those around him, as well as the sometimes agonizing and deeply honest development of his own opinions. He says both flattering and unflattering things about people living and dead and expresses opinions both kosher and heretical.

In its buggered form, Darwin is an undiscerning dodderer. He likes everybody and everything just fine, especially those alive at the time of publication. (That’s right — in an interesting reversal, the dead are the only ones of whom Frank allows his dad to speak ill.) And the wonderfully complicated ebb and flow of his opinions on religion is reduced to a hazy, misleading mumble in favor of the status quo.

Fortunately for me, it was Nora’s edition that reached me first, which is probably why I read it more than once. But I wasn’t fully aware of its tortuous history until much more recently.

Portrait of a Book-Buggering

1573928348An incredible ability to pay attention may have been Darwin’s defining characteristic. This was the guy who found it possible to study barnacles for eight years straight. That superhuman ability to observe and notice was surely the reason he was able to figure out the puzzle of natural selection. And as a result of this well-honed ability, the original Autobiography is just bursting with sharp observations of the people around him.

Sir Frank’s version? Eh, nassomush.

I’ll focus on four of my favorite passages from the original. First there’s Darwin on himself, a childhood memory:

About this time [age eight], or as I hope at a somewhat earlier age, I sometimes stole fruit for the sake of eating it; & one of my schemes was ingenious. The kitchen garden was kept locked in the evening, & was surrounded by a high wall, but by the aid of neighbouring trees I could easily get on the coping. I then fixed a long stick into the hole at the bottom of a rather large flower-pot, & by dragging this upwards pulled off peaches & plums, which fell into the pot & the prizes were thus secured. When a very little boy I remember stealing apples from the orchard, for the sake of giving them away to some boys & young men who lived in a cottage not far off, but before I gave them the fruit I showed off how quickly I could run & it is wonderful that I did not perceive that the surprise & admiration which they expressed at my powers of running, was given for the sake of the apples. But I well remember that I was delighted at them declaring that they had never seen a boy run so fast!

That fun bit of Charlie candor was entirely cut, lest the world learn that he picked fruit that wasn’t his when he was eight.

He had this to say about Charles Lyell, one of his greatest influences:

Charles_Lyell2

Charles Lyell

On my return from the voyage of the Beagle, I explained to him my views on coral-reefs, which differed compared to his, and I was greatly surprised and encouraged by the vivid interest which he showed. On such occasions, while absorbed in thought, he would throw himself into the strangest attitudes, often resting his head on the seat of a chair, while standing up. His delight in science was ardent, and he felt the keenest interest in the future progress of mankind.

Frank removed the best part of that one – Lyell’s quirk with the chair. See how it reads without that:

On my return from the voyage of the Beagle, I explained to him my views on coral-reefs, which differed compared to his, and I was greatly surprised and encouraged by the vivid interest which he showed. His delight in science was ardent, and he felt the keenest interest in the future progress of mankind.

Zzzzzzzzzzzzngk.

In one long passage, Charles offers incisive character sketches of a half dozen colleagues and friends:

brown

Robert Brown

[Scottish botanist Robert Brown] was capable of the most generous actions. When old, much out of health, and quite unfit for any exertion, he daily visited (as Hooker told me) an old man-servant, who lived at a distance (and whom he supported), and read aloud to him. This is enough to make up for any degree of scientific penuriousness or jealousy. He was rather given to sneering at anyone who wrote about what he did not fully understand: I remember praising Whewell’s History of the Inductive Sciences to him, and he answered, “Yes, I suppose that he has read the prefaces of very many books.”

Oh, snap!

owen

Richard Owen

I often saw Owen, whilst living in London, and admired him greatly, but was never able to understand his character and never became intimate with him. After the publication of the Origin of Species he became my bitter enemy, not owing to any quarrel between us, but as far as I could judge out of jealousy at its success. Poor dear Falconer, who was a charming man, had a very bad opinion of him, being convinced that he was not only ambitious, very envious and arrogant, but untruthful and dishonest. His power of hatred was certainly unsurpassed. When in former days I used to defend Owen, Falconer often said, “You will find him out some day,” and so it has proved.

hooker

Joseph Hooker

At a somewhat later period I became very intimate with [botanist Joseph Dalton] Hooker, who has been one of my best friends throughout life. He is a delightfully pleasant companion & most kind-hearted. One can see at once that he is honourable to the back-bone. His intellect is very acute, & he has great power of generalisation. He is the most untirable worker that I have ever seen, & will sit the whole day working with the microscope, & be in the evening as fresh & pleasant as ever. He is in all ways very impulsive & somewhat peppery in temper; but the clouds pass away almost immediately. He once sent me an almost savage letter for a reason which will appear ludicrously small to an outsider, viz. because I maintained for a time the silly notion that our coal-plants had lived in shallow water in the sea. His indignation was all the greater because he could not pretend that he should ever have suspected that the Mangrove (and a few other marine plants which I named) had lived in the sea, if they had been found only in a fossil state. On another occasion he was almost equally indignant because I rejected with scorn the notion that a continent had formerly extended between Australia & S. America. I have known hardly any man more lovable than Hooker.

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TH Huxley

A little later I became intimate with Huxley. His mind is as quick as a flash of lightning & as sharp as a razor. He is the best talker whom I have known. He never writes & never says anything flat. Given his conversation no one would suppose that he could cut up his opponents in so trenchant a manner as he can do & does do. He has been a most kind friend to me & would always take any trouble for me. He has been the mainstay in England of the principle of the gradual evolution of organic beings. Much splendid work as he has done in Zoology, he would have done far more, if his time had not been so largely consumed by official & literary work, & by his efforts to improve the education of the country.

He would allow me to say anything to him: many years ago I thought that it was a pity that he attacked so many scientific men, although I believe that he was right in each particular case, & I said so to him. He denied the charge indignantly, & I answered that I was very glad to hear that I was mistaken. We had been talking about his well-deserved attacks on Owen, so I said after a time, “How well you have exposed Ehrenberg’s blunders;” he agreed and added that it was necessary for science that such mistakes should be exposed. Again after a time, I added: “Poor Agassiz has fared ill under your hands.” Again I added another name, & now his bright eyes flashed on me, & he burst out laughing, anathematising me in some manner. He is a splendid man & has worked well for the good of mankind.

herschel

Sir John Herschel

I may here mention a few other eminent men whom I have occasionally seen, but I have little to say about them worth saying. I felt a high reverence for Sir J. Herschel & was delighted to dine with him at his charming house at the C[ape] of Good Hope & afterwards at his London house. I saw him, also, on a few other occasions. He never talked much, but every word which he uttered was worth listening to. He was very shy & he often had a distressed expression. Lady Caroline Bell, at whose house I dined at the C. of Good Hope, admired Herschel much, but said that he always came into a room as if he knew that his hands were dirty, & that he knew that his wife knew that they were dirty.

That priceless passage, including some of the best available portraits of these guys, was reduced by Frank Darwin to this yawny blob of paste:

[Robert Brown] was capable of the most generous actions. When old, much out of health, and quite unfit for any exertion, he daily visited (as Hooker told me) an old man-servant, who lived at a distance (and whom he supported), and read aloud to him. This is enough to make up for any degree of scientific penuriousness or jealousy.

I may here mention a few other eminent men whom I have occasionally seen, but I have little to say about them worth saying. I felt a high reverence for Sir J. Herschel & was delighted to dine with him at his charming house at the C[ape] of Good Hope & afterwards at his London house. I saw him, also, on a few other occasions. He never talked much, but every word which he uttered was worth listening to.

Gah!

Finally, a passage that captured the personality of two major figures of the time and illustrated one of the human foibles Darwin disliked most — the craving for status and glory:

buckland

Rev. Wm Buckland

All the leading geologists were more or less known by me, at the time when geology was advancing with triumphant steps. I liked most of them, with the exception of [geologist and minister The Very Rev. William] Buckland who though very good-humoured & good-natured seemed to me a vulgar & almost coarse man. He was incited more by a craving for notoriety, which sometimes made him act like a buffoon, than by a love of science. He was not, however, selfish in his desire for notoriety; for Lyell, when a very young man, consulted him about communicating a poor paper to the Geol. Soc. which had been sent him by a stranger, & Buckland answered — “You had better do so, for it will be headed, ‘Communicated by Charles Lyell’, & thus your name will be brought before the public.

murchThe services rendered to geology by Murchison by his classification of the older formations cannot be over-estimated; but he did not possess a philosophical mind. He was very kind-hearted & would exert himself to the utmost to oblige anyone. The degree to which he valued rank was ludicrous, & he displayed this feeling & his vanity with the simplicity of a child. He related with the utmost glee to a large circle, including many mere acquaintances, in the rooms of the Geolog. Soc. how the Czar Nicholas, when in London, had patted him on the shoulder & had said, alluding to his geological work — “Mon ami, Russia is grateful to you,” & then Murchison added rubbing his hands together, “The best of it was that Prince Albert heard it all.” He announced one day to the Council of the Geolog. Soc. that his great work on the Silurian system was at last published; & he then looked at all who were present & said, “You will every one of you find your name in the Index,” as if this was the height of glory.

The whole passage was cut. Everything.

I could go on and on. Over two dozen passages like these were cut out of the Autobiography, draining much of the color and humanity out of Darwin’s self-portrait.

The reason we know what was cut is that granddaughter Nora Barlow painstakingly listed the formerly excised passages in the back of her 1958 edition, about which more shortly. I do understand Frank’s impulse, even though all of these people were dead at the time of publication except Huxley. But I am terribly grateful for Barlow’s work.

It wasn’t the character sketches that put the Darwins at each other’s throats, though. It was the question of whether Charles Darwin’s description of the development of his own religious doubt should see the light of day.

Hiding Darwin’s Religious Opinions

I had a passing knowledge of evolution in high school. Better than the average bear, but still sketchy. I majored in physical anthropology at Berkeley not for the dazzling job prospects but to fill in that sketch.

In addition to changing and deepening my understanding of what it means to be human, a fuller grasp of human evolution led me to wonder how traditional religion could in any significant way be made to fit with what we now know. (See earlier post.) And I remember wondering what Darwin thought about that.

He was seriously religious as a young man, even trained for ministry and annoyed his Beagle shipmates with fundamentalist pronouncements. If, after the Galapagos and the Origin and The Descent of Man, Darwin was still a conventionally religious man, I knew I must have really missed something. So I picked up Darwin’s Autobiography in my senior year to find out.

Nora Barlow

If I’d picked up the 1887 edition by his son Francis, published five years after Charles died and reissued many times since, I’d have been puzzled but chastened. He doesn’t get into religion much at all in that one, and when he does, he seems to mostly affirm his ongoing conventional beliefs. And I would almost certainly have never looked further.

Fortunately it was the 1958 edition by Charles’s granddaughter Nora that found me. As mentioned above, Nora restored the bits that the earlier edition had expunged under pressure from Charles’s wife Emma. Nora was able to do this because all of the family members who’d nearly come to blows over what to leave in and what to leave out were now demised.

If I’d read the first edition, I might have imagined a man with religious convictions essentially intact. Some side-by-side passages, with cut passages in red:

FIRST EDITION (1887)
I liked the thought of being a country clergyman. Accordingly I read with care Pearson on the Creed and a few other books on divinity; and as I did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible, I soon persuaded myself that our creed must be fully accepted.

RESTORED EDITION (1958)
I liked the thought of being a country clergyman. Accordingly I read with care Pearson on the Creed and a few other books on divinity; and as I did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible, I soon persuaded myself that our creed must be fully accepted. [It never struck me how illogical it was to say that I believed in what I could not understand and what is in fact unintelligible.]

A 12-page section titled “Religious Beliefs” underwent the most vigorous edits. The bracketed red text was omitted from the first edition:

During these two years I was led to think much about religion. Whilst on board the Beagle I was quite orthodox, and I remember being heartily laughed at by several of the officers (though themselves orthodox) for quoting the Bible as an unanswerable authority on some point of morality. I suppose it was the novelty of the argument that amused them. [But I had gradually come, by this time, to see that the Old Testament from its manifestly false history of the world, with the Tower of Babel, the rainbow at sign, etc., etc., and from its attributing to God the feelings of a revengeful tyrant, was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindoos, or the beliefs of any barbarian.]

It’s sometimes fascinating to see what Emma insisted be struck out and what she allowed in. She bracketed a portion of the following passage for deletion — the red below — but allowed the admission of disbelief in the first part:

I found it more and more difficult, with free scope given to my imagination, to invent evidence which would suffice to convince me. Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress [and have never since doubted for a single second that my conclusion was correct. I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all of my friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.]

It’s not even his conclusion but the strength of his confidence that apparently unnerved his wife. As for the damnation, she wrote in the margin

I should dislike the passage in brackets to be published. It seems to me raw. Nothing can be said too severe upon the doctrine of everlasting punishment for disbelief–but very few now wd. call that ‘Christianity,’ (tho’ the words are there).

Tho’ the words are there. And 130 years later, the damnable words in the Bible are still there. Some books dodge the red pen more easily than others.

Francis oversaw an even more abbreviated 1892 American edition in which the entire 12 pages exploring Charles’s religious beliefs are replaced with a single bracketed fib:

[After speaking of his happy married life, and of his children, he continues:]

Jaysus. That Ninth Commandment is always the hardest.

Yet if you look hard enough, in all but the God-Bless-America edition, you can find one quiet sentence in which Darwin was allowed to clearly state his actual theological conclusions. Like Huxley, he utterly rejected belief in the claims and doctrines of Christianity, but said

The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.

The distortion of Darwin’s views continued for years. One of the most galling attempts was by Lady Elizabeth Hope, an evangelist who published a fabricated story in 1915 claiming to have heard Darwin renounce evolution and embrace Jesus on his deathbed. Francis redeemed his editorial self brilliantly. “Lady Hope’s account of my father’s views on religion is quite untrue. I have publicly accused her of falsehood, but have not seen any reply. My father’s agnostic point of view is given in my Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. I., pp. 304–317,” he wrote to a publisher in 1918. “I was present at his deathbed,” said Charles’s daughter Etty. “Lady Hope was not present during his last illness, or any illness. I believe he never even saw her, but in any case she had no influence over him in any department of thought or belief. He never recanted any of his scientific views, either then or earlier. We think the story of his conversion was fabricated in the U.S.A. …The whole story has no foundation what-so-ever.”

Etty’s niece Nora eventually put the pieces back together, but the genie never goes all the way back in. Several of the bestselling versions of Darwin’s Autobiography on Amazon are still the Francis Darwin edition.

Thanks for trying, Nora.

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!”

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.