Unbelievable! Faith, Reason, & the Search for Truth

Joseph R. Haun will probably never be as familiar a name as Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins, yet his humanist philosophy is more consistent and grounded than that of the mercurial Hitch, and his contribution to science more specifically practical than that of the Oxford don. Haun’s memoir, Unbelievable! Faith, Reason, & the Search for Truth, is as earthy and workaday as the experiences of the tens of thousands of farmers whose lives he enriched as a plant physiologist, and it is replete with the joys of family, work, and charity.

Born in the hinterlands of the Shenandoah Valley in 1922, Haun belonged to a rather different sort of farm family. Both of his parents were college educated; his father graduated from Hartford Theological Seminary, his mother from Lynchburg College. They were quite traditional when it came to matters of faith, however, and were deeply pious Christians. His father moved between teaching and preaching as a Congregational minister, school principal, and college professor, while his mother raised their children and taught music.

Unbelievable! is the story of Haun’s journey from that very traditional Christian rural upbringing to atheism, humanism, and the cutting edge of modern agricultural research. As he recounts his growth out of a somewhat laissez-faire fundamentalist family, via horse-drawn wagon, into the discipline and discovery of a life in science and agronomy, the author’s abiding pleasure is evident everywhere.

Like many others in his generation, Haun served in the military during World War II and was able to advance his education via the G.I. Bill, eventually earning a PhD in plant physiology. He went on to work for DuPont, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Clemson University. Along the way he developed the Haun scale, a measure of plant development that’s used around the world to predict crop yields during the course of a farm season. While the unpretentious author doesn’t make much of his contribution to science, a quick Internet search turns up page after page of references to the scale in a multitude of studies and applications, such as for the growth and development of cereal crops. (If you’re going to fold your hands and thank anyone before a meal, you should probably thank Joe Haun.)

The imperative story Haun conveys in this memoir is that fundamentalist religion poses a threat to human survival because it substitutes faith in authority for trust in reason and science. The benefits of pharmaceuticals over beseeching gods, of explanations from astrophysics over reliance on Genesis origin myths seem quite clear. But the author goes further in demonstrating how he was able to traverse the path from traditional religious faith to Enlightenment principles of conjecture, experiment, and proof, and shows how others can too.

Haun’s low-key style and traditional dedication to family and community may very well speak to a wider swath of Americans than Dawkins’ erudition or Hitchens’ pretentious stylizing. Haun’s life is an everyman tale, his shining accomplishments cast as attainable by anyone with a desire to know and a willingness to do the work required. His might be an easier path to follow for many who are caught between the faith of their ancestors and the clarity of the scientific method.

If there’s a fault in this volume, it’s that it tends to be a bit too prosaic in places. Tales of house building reminded me of Helen and Scott Nearing, those back-to-the-land academics who somewhat overtold their homesteading story. And a final section suggesting nonprofits and activist groups for the reader to support felt somewhat tacked on. Yet, home construction and charity are part and parcel of Joe Haun’s life—the very practical responses of a secular humanist making his way in the world and making the world better along that way.