Friday, November 27, 2015

Chester County Ousts Christopher Hitchens, Carl Sagan and Darwin

The Freethought Society's Tree of Knowledge is covered on lamianted book jackets. Chester County won't include it in a multicultural display. Will Center City Philadelphia?

Chester County Ousts Christopher Hitchens, Carl Sagan and Darwin


Intriguing isn’t a word often associated with holiday decorations, but that’s the best way I can describe the Tree of Knowledge, created by Freethought Society founder Margaret Downey. Chester County commissioners have denied the society’s request to include it in a multi-cultural display alongside a Christmas tree, a menorah and other multicultural staples.

The tree’s current home is indoors at the Ethical Society near Rittenhouse Square.

At 9 feet tall, the Tree of Knowledge looks something like a Christmas tree, but it’s festooned with laminated jackets of books. It was impossible to resist walking around the tree to spot many books I'd loved and others I haven't read but should. Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” had a nice spot in the front. The tree included other evolution-themed books written by Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould. There were also books by Carl Sagan, Bertrand Russell, Victor Stenger, Daniel Dennett and the much-missed Christopher Hitchens, who died last week at the age of 62.

The books are all supposed to be nontheist. A good fraction were science books. As a bookish child I would have been tranfixed and delighted by a tree like this.

The Freethought Society is still collecting laminated book covers to add to next year’s tree. To me the most notable omissions were “Letters from Earth” by Mark Twain, “Farenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury, and anything by physicist Richard Feynman.

This is the second year that county commissioners told the Freethought Society to take their tree elsewhere. The society is also trying to get it displayed in Center City Philadelphia.

Downey said the tree was vandalized several times in West Chester. Perhaps the vandals and the Chester County commissioners were afraid of the more provocative titles, such as Hitchens’ “God is not Great.” If they disagree and believe God is great, then they surely have nothing to worry about.  Read more about the tree's saga of rejection here.


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About this blog
Faye Flam - writer
In pursuit of her stories, writer Faye Flam has weathered storms in Greenland, gotten frost nip at the South Pole, and floated weightless aboard NASA’s zero-g plane. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology and started her writing career with the Economist. She later took on the particle physics and cosmology beat at Science Magazine before coming to the Inquirer in 1995. Her previous science column, “Carnal Knowledge,” ran from 2005 to 2008. Her new column and blog, Planet of the Apes, explores the topic of evolution and runs here and in the Inquirer’s health section each Monday. Email Faye at Reach Planet of the at

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