The first time I was interviewed for a radio station was 15 years ago. The BBC called me to talk about a political convention I had been covering. I was so nervous and exhausted from a long day. And they threw a question at me that I wasn't prepared to answer. I don't remember what I said, but I was apparently just terrible because the host thanked me for my time about seven seconds into the interview and then hung up on me. Nothing more humbling than being hung up on by the BBC, people. Anyway, this morning, I was interviewed again — this time on the Barry Morgan Show, which airs on a Montreal radio station called CJAD. We talked for, like, five whole minutes about girls and science. They plugged the book twice, unprompted. AND they didn't hang up on me even one time. Care to listen? Click here.
Jezebel, the deliciously snarky feminist blog, today wrote a response to my PBS NewsHour column ("Skip the fairy tales, and tell your daughter science bedtime stories.") The Jezebel response ("Should You Ditch FairyTales and Teach Your Daughter Science Instead?") was great. Mostly. The writer certainly agreed with the notion that we should be giving our daughters more exposure to science and mathematics, but then said:
"Where I disagree with Russell is on the idea that you have to 'skip the fairytales.' I think you can cultivate a spirit of independence in young girls without totally ditching fairytales, which are helpful in their own way. They are cultural artifacts, they exist in nearly every language in some form or another; they are cautionary tales, can be as gross and weird as spiders, and sometimes work as really good examples of what not to do."
The thing is, I never suggested that we trade in fairy tales for science stories. In fact, Maxine was a HUGE princess freak growing up — and still adores all fairy tales. She has a mountain of Barbies and a closet-full of pink dresses. Mine was never an either/or piece. I do see how the headline could have been seen as a tad misleading, but the folks who wrote it never meant that ALL fairy tales should be trashed or that ONLY science stories should be told at bedtime.
Still, a good essay — and there's no such thing as bad press, right?
After the rather surprising (and surprisingly controversial) success of my last parenting column for the PBS NewsHour's website — which garnered more than 700,000 page views and and was featured briefly at the tail end of the TV broadcast (!!) — the NewsHour has been kind enough to publish another of my columns. This one is about the joys of watching Charlie give Maxine a true and abiding appreciation for science, the kind I never had myself as a child. I hope you'll check it out. Here's the link.
If Guru Nanak were alive today, the Sihk leader would be turning 544 years old — a mere child compared to Islam's 1,400-year-old Muhammad, Christianity's 2,000-year old Jesus, and Buddhism's 2,500-year-old Buddha. Still, as Guru Nanak would undoubtedly be keen to point out, he still has more than 300 years on Bahá'u'lláh, the founder of Baha'i. Whenever a religious leader's birthday rolls around, I try to think about them in human terms. About who they were during their lives, whether they were out for any glory or money, or whether they were surprised when their innermost passion brought them fame. All these men had something remarkable to offer the world; they wouldn't have gathered so much momentum if they hadn't. Nanak was devoted to providing an environment of inclusiveness — regardless of race, color or creed — and emphasized that there was but one God who dwells in all people.
One of the great recurring ironies of religion, of course, is that each time one of these visionary spiritual types waves off religious leaders and institutions of the past and discovers a new, purer version of truth, he later find himself in the role of religious leader and his ideas the basis for a religious institution. As a young boy, Nanak was quite taken with spirituality and was encouraged to pursue his "divine" path. Around the year 1500, when he was 30 years old, he reportedly gave a speech, in which he said:
Five hundred years later, and the path that Sikhs follow is Nanak's.
I wonder how many families have pictures of religious leaders in their homes — a reminder, perhaps, to act according to the values they hold dear and give thanks for the opportunity to hold such values at all. Born in a different culture at a different time, the religious influences, and thus the pictures, would undoubtedly be different. But the importance of such physical reminders of devotion would probably remain. It's the same reason humans possess Bibles and create shrines and visit places of worship, I suppose — so they can more easily "access" the universal element that allows them to breathe and love and be.
I'm an aesthetic minimalist, so I don't have a lot of photographs hanging in my home — religious or otherwise — but I have occasionally thought of creating a space for pictures of the people to whom I'm devoted. The people who remind me to be the person I want to be, and who are, quite literally, responsible for my existence. The people who help shape my thoughts and lead me in the direction I want to be going.
There would be my parents and grandparents and great grandparents as far as I could trace them. There would be my sister and brother and their families. My husband and in-laws. My daughter. There would be my friends and mentors and godparents (who did a very poor job at helping make me godly but a very good job of helping make me happy.) And there would be people I don't know but who have helped me think more deeply about who I am, how I am, and why I'm here. People like Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Kierkegaard, Neizsche, Sartre, Freud, Darwin, Piaget, Einstein, Lincoln, MLK Jr., Twain, Hawking, Sagan, Goodall, Friedan, Steinem, Colbert, Oprah, E.T., the Buddha, The Beatles... Looks like I'm going to need a bigger house.
How about you? If not Nanak, who's on your wall?
Evolution, or the process by which living organisms change over time, was not discovered by Charles Darwin. But he certainly gave the theory its street cred.
By introducing natural selection — the idea that organisms best suited to survive in their particular circumstances have a greater chance of passing their traits on to the next generation — Darwin gave us a plausible mechanism by which evolution could take place. And that made all the difference. Darwin's 1859 book On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection was the most groundbreaking biological theory the world had ever seen. And it remains an idea so powerful that it's still banned today in some schools.
Tomorrow — Feb. 12 — would be Charles Darwin's 204th birthday. And it's practically the only secular holiday we've got. So let's celebrate!
1. Watch this seven-minute video of cool-as-hell Carl Sagan explaining Natural Selection in a delightful and simply way.
2. Make a toast. Darwin's name is one we want our kids to know and respect, so even if they're too young to grasp the process of natural selection, at least get his name out there. At dinner tomorrow, raise a glass of something bubbly to Charles Darwin, a famous and important scientist whose life we celebrate.
3. Drop the "theory." As Sagan says in the video above, evolution is a fact. The reason we hear the phrase "theory of evolution" so often is because, during Darwin's day, evolution was a theory. But DNA has since proven what Darwin had theorized. Calling evolution a theory today is both confusing and misleading.
4. Check out this little guy. The LA Times had a great little story that ran yesterday on a creature known as the "hypothetical placental mammal ancestor." It's a small, furry-tailed creature believed to be the common ancestor of more than 5,000 living species — including whales, elephants, bats, rodents and humans. Check it out. They even have a full-color rendering of the darn thing.
5. Watch this six-minute clip of Richard Attenborough explaining the Tree of Life. It's a quick but extremely effective snapshot of how humans and every other life form on Earth evolved from the same pool of bacteria some 300 million years ago. And note how the rodent they feature, as the first mammal, looks pretty much exactly like the one in the LA Times article above. The clip was taken from "Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life," a BBC Production made to mark Darwin's 200th birthday.
6. Check out Leonard Eisenberg's website evogeneao.com — a shortened version of evolutionary genealogy. It's a great site for parents and teachers, and has a link to this amazing Tree of Life graphic that is awfully fun to contemplate. (Click on the site to get a bigger version.)
7. Visit a natural history museum.
8. Find a Darwin Day event going on in your region.
9. Go on a nature hike. Everything you see, whether it's a slug, cat or a bird, do what Eisenberg would do and talk about how that creature is literally, our cousin — 275th million cousin, perhaps, but a cousin nonetheless.
10. Read one of these books:
Charles Darwin by Diane Cook
One Beetle Too Many: The Extraordinary Adventures of Charles Darwin by Kathryn Lasky
Life on Earth: The Story of Evolution by Steven Jenkins
Bang! How We Came to Be by Michael Rubino
Billions of Years, Amazing Changes: The Story of Evolution by Lawrence Pringle
Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth by Jay Hosler
Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story by Lisa Westberg Peters and Lauren Stringer
Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be by Daniel Loxton
It was with great interest yesterday that I read about a new study revealing that 17 percent of 275 scientists who self-identified as atheist or agnostic had attended religious services at least once during the previous year — and that many had done so for their kids. Published in the December issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, the paper was based on interviews with scientists from 21 leading research universities in the country and co-authored by Elaine Howard Ecklund, a Rice University sociologist and the author of "Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think."
The research paper cites three reasons that nonreligious scientists accompany their families to religious services. The first, and most obvious: They have religious spouses. The second: They like the sense of community. And the third: They want to expose their children to different types of religions so as not to indoctrinate their children into any one belief system. In these instances, the scientists felt it important for their children to "make their own choices about religious identity."
In a press release issued Dec. 1 by Rice University — which, incidentally read word-for-word like a Huffington Post column that ran yesterday under Ecklund's byline (Ariana, honey, where did your standards go?) — a big deal was made about the desire to give children choices, even though the most common reason cited in the study was the presence of religious spouses. (In fairness, they are probably one in the same. People in mixed marriages often opt to let their children choose.)
"We thought that these individuals might be less inclined to introduce their children to religious traditions, but we found the exact opposite to be true," Ecklund said in the press release and also, ahem, the Huffington Post column. "They want their children to have choices, and it is more consistent with their science identity to expose their children to all sources of knowledge."
In the video, Ecklund talks about how this means there are sometimes nonbelievers sitting alongside believers in church. And I can see why this might be interesting, especially for those who see atheism as being synonyous with Satanism.
But let's be clear: Exposing kids to religion, making sure they know what's going on in the world around them and valuing religious literacy has nothing to do with integrating religion into one's life, adopting religious beliefs or being open to religious conversion. Celebrating Christmas doesn't mean Jesus is my savior. Visiting Notre Dame doesn't mean I'm open to the possibility of a higher power. And believing that religion is a beautiful fantasy doesn't mean I want to deprive my child from exporing the meaning of life on her own.
In my opinion, the only people who might deem this study truly newsworthy are those who assume all atheists are — what's that word again? Oh yeah. Assholes.
I mean, did Ecklund and her co-author, Kristen Schultz Lee of the University at Buffalo, really expect all nonreligious scientists to be rabidly anti-religious? Did she think that these highly educated, intelligent people would rather douse themselves in weird chemical compounds than to talk about the Bible with their kids? Or take them to a mosque? Or celebrate Hanukkah? Did she assume they would simply ignore the huge influence religious faith has in our world?
I'm sorry, but come the heck on.
Add on top of that all the misleading statements, loaded words, and heavy interpretation involved in the study and related stories (But don't take my word for it — look for yourself!), I can't help but come away realizing that, as it says in Ecclesiastes 1:9, "there is nothing new under the sun."
It's funny to think that in the span of 24 hours, I went from being fascinated by this study to astonished it was ever published at all.