Beeing an Atheist

Yesterday afternoon, it was my privilege to teach a class about bees to a group of young after-school students at the Eagle Heights community center on the UW-Madison campus. Ariela and I taught the same class last year, and although she was not able to make it this time, it was just as fun as ever.

First, the kids sat down (give or take) for a half hour discussion about bees, as I showed them pictures of bees doing various things with a PowerPoint presentation. I taught them how to tell a bee from a wasp, I showed the three different bee castes and what they do, and talked about how important bees are and how they make honey. It was not only a visual presentation but also tactile and olfactory experience. When it came to talking about beeswax comb, I passed around a large piece of natural comb I pulled out of one of our hives. The kids got to smell some beeswax candles, and I showed them the tools we use out in the apiary and all about the frames that make up a hive.

When we were done with questions, we adjourned to the community center’s stainless steel (yes I am jealous) kitchen where my pressure-cooker-turned-steam-generator had already been warming up. The steam powers an uncapping knife to slice open the combs and release the honey. As the layer of wax cappings dripped off, the glowing, golden cells of sweetness awed the group – who lined up to take a turn at spinning the frames in the centrifuge. After showing the gathering pool of honey in the centrifuge, I lifted it up onto the counter to let the honey flow out through the filters and into the waiting bucket.

I kept some honey from the last harvest in the bucket, so it had already settled and lost its bubbles. And one by one the kids filled their little 1/2 cup jelly jars from the spigot, excited to have a treat to take home.

Many of the kids wanted to see the bees themselves, which wouldn’t have been possible this time around, but next year, we might be able to arrange that. Ariela and I look forward to doing more classes about bees for kids – it’s great to see and hear their excitement about something that we as beekeepers are perennially privileged to experience, and I always delight in sharing a little knowledge. We were almost going to have a second bee class this year. Almost. Which is what this post is about.

Ariela befriended a classmate, and everyone we know inevitably hears about our activities in the apiary. This person, however, was friends with a schoolteacher at a local private Christian school, and when word reached the teacher and when the friend heard that we do a class on bees for kids that includes honey harvesting and all that, the question came back to us if we would like to do a class for those kids as well? Of course!

The message was sent back through Ariela’s friend, who happily communicated the good news but the teacher never heard about it. This is because the friend and their sibling were worried about one issue – the beekeepers are Athiests. Ariela had a lot of spirited, friendly conversations about religion with this friend, an ardent Christian, so it wasn’t like we had to wear a scarlet letter for it to be known. But in none of those conversations was there a personal attack, hostile attitude, or anything. And when we heard from the very beginning that it was a religious school, we didn’t think much of it at all.

The kids could come from rick or poor families, be any color of the rainbow, able-bodied or disabled, and it wouldn’t matter to us. They could be Marxist children, Keynesian children, or Christian children – these are all equally invalid labels for kids that are too young to know what they believe about big issues anyway. And I have no desire not to teach kids from religious families, I mean, if you do the math – most of the kids I taught today probably come from religious families.

And I never thought that being an atheist disqualified me from teaching kids about bees. I recall the last discussion about the issue with the friend, over a pint of beer at a local burger bar. They were worried about something wrong going on during the bee class on account of us being atheists.

“What,” I joked, “It’s not like I’m going to go, See here are the worker bees, and this is the queen that lays all of the eggs. And by the way THERE’S NO GOD!” Frankly, I don’t see how religion has anything to do with teaching kids about bees, except one potential tiny thing. This:

This is a transitional fossil of a probable ancestor of both bees and wasps. It possesses characteristics of both groups, suggesting it is either an ancestor or closely related to it. It is 100 million years old. For people who believe in the literal six-day biblical creation approximately 6,000 years ago, mentioning that a fossil is 100 million years old presents a bit of a problem, doesn’t it?

I did mention that I had a slide in my presentation about this fossil and how long bees have been around. Their history is intimately tied to the origin of flowering plants, about 120 million years ago. The first time I did the class, I left out this slide, thinking that it would only interest older kids and adults. Yesterday, I tossed it back in after a new slide about how to tell the difference between bees and wasps. As soon as the picture came on the screen there was a simultaneous “coooool!” followed by questions about what that was. My initial hunch that the fossil bee/wasp ancestor slide would bore the kids was dead wrong. They were more interested in it than the next slide about the importance of bees. (I would have thought that $15 billion of work would wow them, but it bored them.) The fossil slide stays.

Although the friend expressed a potential issue with the fossil slide, it was not what they and the teacher their sibling were afraid of. They were afraid that if the teacher said something like “oh, look at what wonderful creatures God made” that it would plunge us atheists into a theological firefight with the kids caught in the middle.

This is patently absurd. The last thing on my mind is to go into a Christian school with my logical guns loaded in case someone utters anything religious-sounding. In fact, it would work against what I’m trying to do – as kids would easily side with their familiar teachers and doubt what I had to say.

It is absurd as expecting a Jew or Muslim beekeeper to sternly declare that, no, their god did not make the bees, My God did. Praise Allah! But such a religious litmus-test would be mostly unheard of. Indeed, only ‘out’ atheists suffer this particular brand of what can only politely be described as irrational fear and bigotry. Would a black beekeeper be denied out of the fear that they might suddenly start complaining about whitey always keepin’ him down? I fail to see the difference.

Despite any assurances that no such ‘atheist evangelism’ would occur, they dropped the bee class proposal. Ultimately, the kids lost because of an esoteric philosophical disagreement amongst adults that had nothing to do with the denied lesson, and the inability of some to see past outgroup fears and, ironically, live by the supposedly inclusive teachings of the very religion that is an organizing principle of the school itself.

Meanwhile roughly 10% of the U.S. population is unchurched, and the greatest proportion is found amongst the younger groups. Teenagers and young adults are particularly nonreligious.

It makes you wonder, though, what are the implications of this small, isolated example? Is the religious upbringing of kids so fragile that an atheist armed with honeycomb and an uncapping knife will crystallize their thoughts around doubts about the supernatural? In one sense I feel complimented that I could be so influential, while still having the social and political lower-hand. On the other hand, I should feel insulted that a mere label is more powerful and real to some people than any of the other facets of my life and personality that I freely express. Finally, I feel pity for those who cannot navigate this issue.

There is something that needs to be done to raise the public profile of atheists, agnostics, and other freethinkers. Or rather, many things. One of them is to show everyone just how many of us there are. Another is to show that we are just like everyone else, getting by and trying to make sense of this existence. There is a time and a place for sharp religious debate, but equally so there is a time for everyday expressions of humanistic commonalities. Although I have not yet added the scarlet letter A of the OUT Campaign to my blog, I have plans to do so soon, pending some meta-site restructuring. Although there is always the risk that someone could be instantly turned off by this and not read things I have to say, there is also the potential that someone could read something good first, and then see the letter and make the connection in the other direction.

You cannot shelter kids completely from the world. Ironically, the desire to keep them from being seduced by other ideas may just backfire when the kids grow up and start thinking on their own. When they find out that one or more things they were told are false… what else will they question? The inability of some belief systems to adapt to the modern world, as bees and wasps evolved in their separate ways ~100 million years ago will mean the difference between extant and extinct beliefs.

Update 9-16-2009: I just learned today that the teacher was never actually informed about our bee class. Apparently, the conversation took place between the friend and their sibling, and they decided not to mention it to the teacher at all. I have corrected my post.

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Karl Haro von Mogel

Karl Haro von Mogel serves as BFI’s Director of Science and Media and as Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. He has a PhD in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from UW-Madison with a minor in Life Sciences Communication. He is currently a Postdoctoral Scholar researching citrus genetics at UC Riverside.

4 thoughts on “Beeing an Atheist”

  1. I wanted to briefly relate a story to you. One of my deckhands declared to me that I am his new pet project. He is determined to turn me into a Christen. To put this into context, He complains constantly about his life, he recently had a restraining order lifted against him for shoving his wife, and he’s not allowed into Canada because of his criminal record. I believe most people would argue that I have a better, happier life than he does. Rather than fixing his own life, he is going to “fix” mine. Is his goal to make me as unhappy as he is? Perhaps his life will be better if mine is worse?

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  2. I have often said, maybe not enough, that you can often know less about a person by their religious affiliation than by their other characteristics. The deck hand sounds like a [sarcasm]dynamite individual,[/sarcasm] which shouldn’t be expected if his stated beliefs are true. In my pseudo-statistical experience, I have found that the behavioral variation within religious groups is greater than the variation between groups. Simply put, religious affiliation doesn’t predict what kind of person they really are.
    I would have told him that he’s my new pet project to turn him into a nonbeliever and see how he reacts. Then start leaving FFRF pamphlets and magazines from the American Humanist Association and statistics about lower divorce rates amongst nonbelievers. Maybe because we don’t shove our spouses around as much? 🙂

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  3. It’s hard for me to fathom the voluntary shutting down of certain centers of reason and logic in the human mind that necessarily takes place in order to perpetuate myths based on fear. It’s a kind of spiritual lobotomy taking place.

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  4. I’ve always wanted to know what it feels like to have to resolve cognitive dissonance as profound as what leads people to shut down some of their thoughts processes. When I’m pulled in two different directions, I resolve the difference. But some don’t.

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