This is a guest post by Seráh Blain.
On this day last year, a friend of mine was finally getting a kidney transplant after years on dialysis. Visiting him in the hospital was a very emotional experience — especially the part where he signed the paperwork to officially begin his campaign for U.S. Congress. James Woods, a blind atheist progressive from one of the most conservative districts in the country, decided 2014 was going to be a year of going big, brave, and honest.
Working on the Woods campaign was both intensely intimate and brazenly public. James connected with his constituents and expressed his values through his own story — a story that included amputations, organ failure, poverty, loss, and incredibly vulnerable moments. The campaign team leveraged our own identities as well. James’ staff (Evan Clark, JP Martin, and myself) all had strong ties to the secular movement and our Humanism mattered to us. None of us wanted to shy away from atheism for political expedience. This meant that the ideals and experiences we held most dear served as our most powerful political capital, and were publicly scrutinized in every conceivable way.
One morning, as I was about to send out a press release detailing our Humanist political platform, I felt overwhelmingly anxious about taking angry calls or being publicly ridiculed. In addition to wanting Woods’ messaging to reflect positively on nontheists, my heart and soul were in that platform. I cared about every word of it. I was hesitating to click “send.”
Evan Clark, our Creative Director, walked passed me in a flurry of campaign activity and shot over his shoulder, “Send it! Stop worrying about what people say. I’ll be your Huxley!” Click. Sent. And we ran one hell of a beautiful campaign.
We learned a lot from James’ congressional bid, but most potent for me was this: putting controversial ideas out into the world for scrutiny, for debate, for improvement, or for the cutting room floor is necessary for progress. This necessary process can be brutal — and we have to do it anyway.
After the campaign, our team made a “burn-the-ships” decision to stick together and launch a brand and PR firm dedicated to championing and amplifying inspirational, innovative ideas and advocacy. When we were given the opportunity to work with the American Humanist Association on International Darwin Day, I immediately fell in love with the project. Darwin’s intellectual bravery, perpetual curiosity, and hunger for truth were so relevant to my own experience — and so urgently needed.
Charles Darwin’s discovery of natural selection as the mechanism by which biological evolution occurs continues to have monumental impact on countless areas of modern life. But as important as this discovery was, equally important was the strength of character displayed in the very act of asking forbidden questions that could unravel prevailing views of what was true. James Woods did this throughout his congressional campaign; from insisting on calling himself a feminist to questioning the efficacy of political yard signs, he wanted to do the right thing in the right way, and never wanted to be in a dishonest position simply because of convention.
James isn’t a scientist, but his campaign illuminated how scientific thinking is in itself a kind of advocacy: advocacy for knowing what is true regardless of how frightening, enlivening, awful, or wondrous the truth might be.
The courage to adopt scientific thinking and set aside bias is needed in the hard sciences. But it is also needed in our political process, our education system, our police force, our families, our arts, our military, our economy, and our entertainment. International Darwin Day provides an opportunity to encourage this kind of honest, courageous thinking in all areas of life. Our communities will thrive so much more fully when they are brimming with people who have a drive to learn and know; who have the humility to discard bad ideas when evidence points to better solutions; who have the courage to challenge convention and to take risks for what is right.
When I agreed to help James Woods run for Congress (or, as he tells it, when I talked James Woods into running for Congress) I felt like I was participating in something that inspired people to act both bravely and humbly for a better world. Darwin Day is an opportunity for people throughout the world to participate in world-changing bravery and humility, too. Charles Darwin’s discovery of natural selection underpins everything we know about biology; my hope is that this holiday will come to underpin the character of our culture as well.
With more than 15 years of political and nonprofit advocacy experience, Seráh Blain has dedicated her career to advancing social justice through public policy and grassroots community organizing. Notable positions including Executive Director of the Secular Coalition for Arizona and Director of Communications for James Woods for Congress. Seráh serves on the Board of Directors for the Arizona Interfaith Movement and the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix. She is currently the Senior Strategist for Spectrum Experience, LLC, a Humanist-oriented brand and PR firm.