Note: When letter writers sign with their first name instead of a pseudonym, I randomly change their name to give them another layer of privacy.
I’m writing in because of a bit of a family happening I came upon this weekend while at my grandma’s 90th birthday celebration. To give you a bit of background, my grandma and my evangelical aunt and uncle don’t KNOW I’m an atheist, only that I’m not particularly religious and I “might be questioning my faith.” Even this small knowledge has prompted guilt-ridden birthday cards and my aunt even sent me evangelical DVDs (from the 1980’s; OMG they make the best drinking games). This I can deal with. What I discovered this weekend is what is really bothering me.
My uncle is a ridiculous man, hysterical in fact. sitting at a dinner table with him is like having a stand-up comedian in the room. He rants about everything from how tall my brother is to the joys of cruise control and no one can get a word in edgewise. He is a bearded, loud old man who I could listen to for hours — until he starts talking about religion, then I just get uncomfortable.
What I heard this weekend that bothered me so much, was what he was doing with his 5th grade Sunday school class — apparently his favorite topic is that “evolution is a crock.” This did not surprise me, what I was surprised about was how much it upset me. Here he is with young kids who haven’t even had a real biology class in school, telling them that the unifying theory of biology is something they should dismiss outright.
I am a biologist and I know that evolution is a beautiful and complex concept that biologists use as a frame for just about everything we learn about biology. My uncle is a mechanic, and has zero knowledge of biology — I doubt he even knows that dolphins are not fish. And yet these kids look up to him and are going to listen to what he says and not even TRY to understand evolution when their teachers get to it — if they even do.
I thought this was so unethical I wanted to scream, but, not wanting to upset the delicate family balance, I bit the inside of my cheek so hard I bled before the subject was changed. I knew it would be pointless to try and argue with the man anyway, he would have no interest in being corrected and more than likely it would have opened the bigger can of worms about faith and my lack-thereof. On top of that, there is a good chance that he is not the only person these kids hear talk about how “evolution is a crock,” I doubt it is even taught in the remote area where he lives. I was just so upset that he considered what he was doing to be not only right, but that it was him being a positive influence on these kids.
I don’t know that I did the right thing, but I don’t think there’s much to do about it now — I probably won’t see him again for another couple of years. I could email my aunt but I doubt that would accomplish anything — other than again bringing up my lack of faith. and now that I’ve ranted of course, I feel a little bit better, but I’d like other’s thoughts on this.
This is the common ethical dilemma that so many of us face. Do we speak out against destructive ignorance and face the consequence of personal attacks, or do we remain silent? In choosing between these, do we follow principles or pragmatism? If we follow principles, we might loudly oppose destructive ignorance every time we encounter it, regardless of the consequences. If we follow pragmatism, we would weigh whatever benefit might come from speaking out, versus whatever negative consequence might come to us or others. This is what is meant by “picking your battles.”
There are admirable qualities in both approaches. Our literature and history are filled with heroes who make a brave stand in a hopeless battle that even if won, will bring little benefit. They take the hits, suffer and die, and if they aren’t completely forgotten, they become icons of inspiration to the masses of not-quite-as-heroic men and women who make not-quite-as-brave stands in not-quite-as-hopeless battles, but who eventually accomplish great benefit.
Anyone who has read Don Quixote knows that tilting at windmills is a lesson in inspiration and a lesson in prudence all rolled up together. Heroism and foolishness are usually found together, and without them, little would change for the better.On the other hand, people who choose to not fight windmills or other hopeless or pointless battles do not necessarily have to sheepishly resign themselves to always passively accepting the destructive ignorance they see. By carefully picking their battles, they can actually win battles. By taking care of themselves, not exhausting themselves suffering personal attacks from family, friends, coworkers and the community, they can attain longer term goals. By not being tragic and inspiring heroes, they can live to fight another day, a day that may see victory. Any general knows that frontal assaults are not as useful as attacks from the flank, or even simply cutting off supply lines. Such less-than-heroic tactics may not win medals, but they do win wars.
Enough of the war analogies for now.
Leslie, you looked at the situation and weighed the cost versus the benefit of arguing with your uncle.
On the cost side, your family is already uncomfortable with their incomplete awareness of your lack of belief. As you said, they would probably all pounce on you, focusing on you as the problem rather than your uncle’s utter lack of qualifications for what he teaches children. Your oooh, terrible atheism would obliterate the topic of accurate education for children. The upset and tension started at your grandmother’s 90th birthday party would possibly last for years. Instead of just receiving guilt-ridden birthday cards, you’d be getting attractively designed Hallmark resentment cards year-round.
On the benefit side… well, uh… I guess you’d at least have that heroic streak in you satisfied. From your description of his domineering personality, I doubt that your uncle, secure and supported in his remote community, would decide to stop telling the Sunday school kids that “evolution is a crock” just because his smarty-pants niece has been seduced by Satan in that evil-utionist college she attended.
Your uncle is just one of countless millions who pretend to know what they’re talking about while they feed their superstitious nonsense to young people. This practice has been going on for quite some time. It’s called religion.
Because this incident bothered you to the extent it did, it seems that you have both the principled hero in you and the prudent pragmatist. I think we all have those in varying proportions. If your inner hero is bugging your conscience too much, you might be able to do “penance,” to make up for your silence by somehow using your knowledge of biology to promote accurate understanding of evolution for young people somewhere else.
To return briefly to the war analogies, this is a very widespread and long term conflict. You can spend yourself on this tiny battle in this remote corner of the world, and be an unsung hero lying broken at the base of an undamaged windmill, or your can contribute to the larger cause, and counteract your uncle’s destructive ignorance with your own constructive knowledge on a different battlefield.
Your education in biology gives you credibility as well as accurate information. Your experience of your uncle and the rest of your family gives you insight into how your opponents think. Combine those, and you could be an effective agent for positive change in the larger arena. Think creatively. Let the hero in you be the spark and the pragmatist in you be your guide. We all need a balance of both, and different situations require different mixtures of both.
Fight both bravely and wisely, comrade.