There's a story in the life of the great humanist thinker Bertrand Russell that those who know him primarily as a philosopher may not have heard. His grandfather, Jack Russell, had been a popular prime minister of the British Empire under Queen Victoria, and his family name had Bertrand set to begin a promising political career if only he wanted it. He was recruited by the local Liberal Party Association, spoke at their meeting, and went into a closed strategy session with the organizers, fully expecting to be nominated for a seat in Parliament and there begin what was supposed to be a long and successful path to high office.
But first they had just one question. "We've heard rumors," they said, "that you're an agnostic. What are the odds of this getting out if you're our party's nominee?"
"Pretty good," Russell replied.
"Well, would you consider going to church occasionally to keep up appearances?"
"No, not really," be said.
That was the end of Russell's political career, and it freed up a nearly century-long lifespan to devote to reshaping human thought as we know it, writing the best-selling book of the twentieth century on the topic of philosophy, and founding the modern secular movement (to say nothing of his contributions to mathematics, logic, and cognitive science).
This story, for reasons I'll circle back to, always resonated with me.
I was homeschooled deep in the heart of Christian fundamentalism: young-Earth creationism, patriarchal theology, doomsday prepping, you name it. It was my whole identity, and my blossoming curiosity soaked it all up. I memorized books of the King James Bible and learned to preach as a teenager. And while I was considering a career in the ministry, I found my true love at the age of fifteen: politics.
In 2008 I traveled to California to volunteer for the Proposition 8 campaign, which amended the state constitution to define marriage as being between one man and one woman. It passed. When I was seventeen, I had made my rounds in conservative circles and started getting invited to speak at rallies and conferences as a sort of rising star for the new Tea Party movement that was sweeping the nation. They loved me because they loved a token young person who gave them hope for the next generation. At eighteen I moved to northern Virginia for my first full-time job at a consulting firm where I raised money for major Republican organizations and campaigns. At nineteen I earned my bachelor's degree and went to...