“I am not apt to follow blindly the lead of other men.”
― Charles Darwin, The Life And Letter of Charles Darwin, 1887
In discussing the theme of this issue with my fifteen-year-old, he accused me of treating secularism as a type of religion itself. “Why do you even need secular celebrations? Isn’t that a continuation of the established religious model?” (Yes, he really talks like this.) Certainly, I’ve seen science treated that way: a total faith in the process as it stands now, combined with an unwillingness to consider ideas that haven’t been proven. Not having been raised religiously, though, I don’t see secularism that way at all. I don’t need a stand-in for religion; there’s no hole there for me to fill. Secular education for my kids was a no-brainer for me since we aren’t a religious family. Having been raised in the traditional public school system, secularism was the general default, though I was frustrated by the way that religious values crept into the learning we did at school. I thought it would be simple to prune those pieces away in educating my kids. However, as I started to look for specifically secular resources, I realized that we were more outside-the-box than I had initially thought. In a culture whose mainstream ideology is explicitly Christian, it can feel impossible to find curricula without those influences.
What Are Secular Values in Homeschooling?
The celebrations and traditions typical in the US have also taken on those religious values, or at least the flavor of them. This is true even if they’re celebrated without specifically religious intent. And while we can remove the religiosity from these celebrations, it feels important to provide rhythm and ritual that are just ours, too. We need events that celebrate secularity and all that it implies. I have come to understand secularity, especially as it relates to homeschooling my kids, as not just an absence of religious values and dogma in our teaching, but as a whole new set of principles. To choose secular education is to choose intellectual curiosity, skepticism, academic exploration, and a celebration of scientific discovery.
While I don’t believe in deifying specific scientists and innovators, we can celebrate individuals whose lives have exemplified this set of secular principles. An individual who has become an icon of these ideals is Charles Darwin, and he’s celebrated across the world on February 12th, the anniversary of his birth. Darwin enthusiasts have long been using this day as an opportunity to celebrate scientific inquiry, trusting evidence over dogma, and the concept of evolution as a whole. Awareness of Darwin’s birthday as a secular holiday has been spreading since 1995, and the tradition continues to grow.
No person or idea is perfect, and certainly, Charles Darwin was not. He published some problematic ideas regarding race, gender, and eugenics. This can not be explained away as just being “products of his time.” But when you look at his journey and his work, there’s a lot there to celebrate and even marvel at. If my path through secular education, as a life-long atheist living in the year 2020, has been a journey, it’s hard to imagine the intellectual road that Darwin had to traverse. He had a stubborn dedication to observation and intellectual risk-taking that benefits us all to this day. Darwin’s life can stand as a symbol for secular values in the face of cultural and religious pressure: Though his family was somewhat liberal for the time, Charles Darwin did at one point attend Christ’s College in Cambridge, with the intent to become a parson. Darwin, however, was a case study in interest-led learning: another value that unites many secular homeschooling families. Apparently disappointing as a medical student (his original field of study), Darwin was consistently “sidetracked” by his naturalistic interests, such as collecting beetles.
A Change in Scientific Understanding
As most of us know, this investigation of the natural world ended up defining his life and changing scientific understanding forever. His broad interest and expertise in topics regarding the natural world landed him the position aboard the HMS Beagle which famously influenced this change. On The Beagle’s voyage to the Galapagos, Darwin made observations regarding species specialization that informed his book On the Origin of Species. (Illustrated preschooler’s edition HERE. Rebecca Steffof’s young reader’s edition HERE.) Though he was not the lone academic exploring the topic of evolution during his time, this publication was the leading word on evolutionary theory, earning him the title “the father of the theory of evolution.” On the Origin of Species presented major claims which rocked the world at the time: mainly that varied groups of animals evolve from a common ancestor or common ancestors, and that this happens by a gradual process of inheritance and natural selection. The four key points of evolutionary theory that are still taught in biology classes today originate from Darwin’s work.
Because of all that he achieved, the life and discoveries of Charles Darwin are a compelling reason to celebrate. Again, not to fill a void left by religious celebrations, but to remind us of our own pursuit of the values his work exemplified. Celebrating the birth and work of Charles Darwin provides a wonderful introduction not only to the topic of evolution, which is a critical part of secular scientific education, but also to the ethos that his body of work represents. Though he didn’t get it all right (who does, on the first try?), many of his ideas were radical for their time and influenced our scientific understanding of genetics and evolution in lasting ways.
Celebrating the Work
If your family wants to celebrate the life and work of Charles Darwin, there are many options! You can eat unusual foods (Darwin is reported to have tasted every animal he discovered) while watching a documentary. You can play the Evolution board game! You could read a biography or his original works. There are many books on the topics of Charles Darwin and his discoveries. You can even investigate the various species of Galapagos Finches since these are the birds that fascinated Darwin on his journey so long ago! Since Darwin Day is an evolving tradition, I won’t link to any particular events or activities here, but a quick google search reveals a plethora of options! There may even be an established Darwin Day celebration happening in a scientific community near you, or you can organize your own. Hopefully whatever you choose to do, your family comes away with an enhanced appreciation for discovery and tenacity: ideals that are at the core of secular homeschooling.
DID YOU KNOW
Charles Darwin and another scientist named Alfred Russel Wallace both made the same discoveries in evolution separately and unknowingly. When Wallace reached out about his work, Darwin worried that he’d lose his sole credibility on this topic. Both of their work ended up being presented to the The Linnean Society, with Darwin’s work shared first and with Wallace being listed as a secondary author. Darwin published Origin of the Species a year later and his popularity exploded. The reason that Darwin was able to publish his findings more quickly than Wallace was that he had access to resources that Wallace, a member of the working class, didn’t.
This article was originally published in Secular Homeschooler's Home Educator's Journal | Issue #4 | Published Winter 2020