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Cracker Barrel: An awesome proposal

Digging through a box of yellowed papers in search of some long-lost photos, I came instead upon the following essay from 30 years ago, which strikes me as remaining pertinent.

Addressing the controversy about permitting organized prayer in public schools, Mark Davidson, science writer for the University of Southern California News Service, made the following proposal:

“Let us encourage our public schools to set aside some time for organized awe. Let us begin teaching our children that all existence is miraculous and that all life is sacred.”

In support of his proposal, Davidson made some salient arguments. “For very young children, everything commonplace is a miracle. You can confirm that by watching them at play, or listening to those rare grown-ups who refuse to grow old. Thoreau found all reality ‘fabulous.’ To Whitman, ‘every cubic inch of space is a miracle.’ To naturalist Loren Eiseley, ‘nature is one vast miracle, and each of us repeats that miracle.’ And to astronomer Howard Shapley, ‘it is a religious attitude to recognize the wonder of all things that exist.’”

But as biologist Rachel Carson sadly observed, the sense of wonder is outgrown by most adults. Partly, this is due to custom; we grow indifferent to those sights and sounds and smells we repeatedly encounter. Davidson, however, feels that the process of outgrowing wonder is abetted by many parents and teachers who show off to children by acting as if nature’s mysteries can be explained away by giving them labels.

For example, one of the most fantastic of all mysteries usually is identified to children as "just gravity," and the child is told the tired old story about the apple supposedly falling in the 17th century garden of Sir Issac Newton. But as Davidson points out, the child is almost never told that mathematician Newton was so much in awe of gravity and other forces of nature that he once wrote, "This most beautiful system of the sun, planets and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being."

A public school teacher who might thus inform the class about Newton’s feelings would not be violating our constitutional separation of church and state. Instead, the teacher simply would be recounting an important fact about an important human being. Teaching need not mean preaching.

“I propose that science teachers hold many of their lab sessions outdoors,” writes Davidson. “In the outside world, the teachers could help revive the spirituality of childhood — by adoring the sun for fathering all life; by adoring plants for magically transforming sunlight into food; by adoring the human body for magically transforming such trivial food as a peanut into the energy for two hours of human thought. If humanity is to regain its sense of wonder, our teachers must stop dismissing the above three miracles as ‘just the carbon cycle.’”

Davidson concludes his proposal with the reminder that, since the explosion of the first atomic bomb, the imaginary line between matter and what religious people choose to call spirit has forever been erased. Mass and energy are one. We are atoms that have time-lapsed into cells. We are sea-creatures that have crawled ashore to walk on land and fly into space. We are star dust that has become self-conscious.

“As we become conscious that ‘matter and spirit’ are one, that ‘the sensual and the sacred’ are one, that all religious inspirations are one, perhaps we will become aware that all humanity is one. And then perhaps we shall begin treating one another accordingly.”

Copyright 2013 by Craig Nagel