Stupendous Badassery -- Some Thoughts around International Darwin Day and Valentine's Day

In mid-February, Valentine’s Day and International Darwin Day arrive two days apart. Which makes this an auspicious time to remember that you and those you most love are all stupendous badasses.

Credit for that phrase goes to Neil Stephenson. “Like every other creature on the face of the earth,” he wrote, essentially everyone “[i]s, by birthright, a stupendous badass.. . . albeit in the somewhat narrow technical sense that [one can] trace [their] ancestry back up a long line of slightly less highly evolved stupendous badasses to that first self-replicating gizmo---which, given the number and variety of its descendants, might justifiably be described as the most stupendous badass of all time. Everyone and everything that wasn't a stupendous badass was dead.”

Recognition that all life on earth is related -- in a sense, is one family, connected deep in geologic time -- is staggering when you really consider the enormity of it.

So, on the occasion of Darwin Day and Valentine’s Day, I’d like to share something delivered to a Rotary Club in Michigan, back in 2014. Muskegon Michigan was a place I left in 1986 to attend the University of Houston. And that move, to me, was a liberation. Suddenly, I no longer had to pretend to be religious.

In late 2007, however, I went back home out of concern for my parents’ failing health and discovered little had changed in relation to mandatory public displays of religiosity. Atheists, and any non-Christians, were expected to stay quietly in their box, unseen and unacknowledged, while Christians spoke and made decisions for everyone else. Those of us who are nonreligious -- and in that county, polling shows that over 70% of the population belong to no religious congregation -- were expected silently to tolerate this nonsense, which amounted to tacit assent.

Public events, both governmental and non-governmental, still emphasized Christian supremacy. Prayer -- inevitably Christian prayer -- was offered at the beginning of city councils, the county board, the Rotary Club, Old Newsies, and all manner of public events. The local newspaper, when the subject of a National Day of Prayer came up, did not (as one might expect) take up the cause of the First Amendment, choosing instead to extol the perceived unqualified virtues of government-promoted Christian prayer -- again, to an audience who mostly had elected not to attend any church. Bizarre.

I was surprised by the amount of controversy that same newspaper attempted to manufacture in 2009, when as an elected city council member, I spoke up and gently suggested that the city ought to study whether an uninterrupted 30-year run of Christian prayer at official meetings really communicated the inclusive attitude we wanted to project to our constituents. Inasmuch as I had “outed” myself in local media, by asking that simple question in the presence of a reporter, I also took the time to speak up in other fora.

The same week I was inducted to the local Rotary Club, the Board announced that the club wanted to partner with benefactors to help fund an “All-Faiths Chapel” at the local criminal justice correctional facility. The whole point of the exercise was to leave out the disfavored -- those of no faith. So, I quietly offered to donate to the library of the All-Faiths Chapel, a few facsimiles of Thomas Jefferson’s personal version of the New Testament. Jefferson had painstakingly removed all miracles, all supernatural claims, and ended the book with the following: “There lay they Jesus, [and] rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulcher and departed.” Much to the credit of the club’s board, when the proponents of the “All Faiths Chapel” refused the gift of a book reflecting core principles of the man who penned the Declaration of Independence, the project was advised that it had to find a different source of supplemental funding.

Yet, in meeting after meeting, Christians in the club got up week after week to out-Jesus one another, uninterrupted by anyone speaking up for any other perspective. So, eventually, I had to make sure that some other point of view was not only present in the room, but had the courage speak. The unspoken message -- I’m you equal, not your subordinate, and I’m far from the only unbeliever in this room -- was even more important than the spoken message.

The following (condensed version) was far from the first of my public remarks, one that specifically reflected on a time of year we all can appreciate and find inspiring -- Christians and non-Christians, alike:

Celebrating human diversity enriches life.

How monotonous if everybody were to think alike, talk and act alike, look alike, have the same opinions, have the same experiences, and all believe the exact same things.

Instead, think of the rich carnival of cultures and traditions and ideas that human beings have produced all around the world. Yet, for all the differences we can observe, we each have vastly more in common with one another than anything that may be thought to set us apart.

Try this thought experiment: think of any two people in this room – the two who in your mind are most unalike, the most different from one another in every possible way.

At the molecular and cellular level, they are virtually identical – more than 99.9 %identical.

And they are blood relatives. If you go back only a relatively modest time, geologically speaking -- less than 200,000 years -- they not only have an ancestor in common, but many ancestors in common.

Go back even farther, and they each have hundreds of millions of ancestors in common. We all do.

Go back far enough (molecular biology confirms this) and we discover that each of us shares not just a common ancestor, but many of them, with every living thing on Earth.

That, to me, is at the core of what makes life -- the whole interconnected web of life -- sacred and precious. And each day we have something to be treasured.

Now think of the person who means most to you. Maybe you see them every day; or perhaps you are like me and living a continent apart, which reminds you to make the most of the time you do have together.

Human beings are social animals, and one thing that enriches our lives is to share ideas with one another. The next time you see that special person, remind them too of the ancient principle of how we are all connected -- in the most sacred, sublime, and indeed intimate, possible way -- to all life on earth.

February is a special month. We not only have a special day set aside, each of us, to appreciate the love of our lives, but a few other dates are worth remembering.

A week from today, February 12, is Darwin Day – the 206th anniversary of the birthday of the naturalist Charles Darwin. Yesterday, February 4, was the birthday of Rosa Parks; February 22 is the day that she and 79 other participants in the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956 surrendered themselves voluntarily for arrest. February 2 is the date, in 1990, in which South African President F.W. De Klerk lifted the ban on the African National Congress and promised to free Nelson Mandela. February 8 is the birthday of Sir Thomas More (A Man for All Seasons). February 19 is the birthday of the monk, astronomer, and heretic Nicolaus Copernicus, who had the temerity to publish the radical idea that the Earth orbits the Sun.

Happy February, everyone.