Friday, May 1, 2009

Successful 4th Evolution Weekend!

by Michael Zimmerman

The fourth annual Evolution Weekend was a resounding success by any measure used to evaluate it. Evolution Weekend is sponsored by The Clergy Letter Project and it is designed to provide an opportunity for individual congregations around the world to discuss the compatibility of religion and science while elevating the quality of the discussion on this important topic. Although each congregation acts independently and designs its own activities, each is connected thematically to every other participating congregation. In this way, congregations around the world are linked together and, collectively, all make a unified and powerful statement about the compatibility of religion and science.

This year 1,049 congregations representing each of the 50 United States as well as 15 separate countries participated. In this, the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his seminal work, On the Origin of Species, participation soared by almost 30 percent over last year. Indeed, participation has increased every year by this impressive percentage!

Additionally, the media significantly increased its coverage of Evolution Weekend this year with reports, for example, both on NPR and on Fox News as well as in a host of other media outlets. You can scan some of the coverage on The Clergy Letter Project’s media page.

Many of the clergy members participating reported that attendance at their services was increased because of the topic. And the comments from congregants have been overwhelmingly positive. According to a report out of Maryland, “One woman came up to us afterwards and said, with tears in her eyes, that she’d been waiting 50 years to hear this message from her church.” A minister from Connecticut had a similar response, “This is the first year I have preached this, and in a church that sits enmeshed in Yale and has grad students and professors as members, the response was tremendous, with people saying they had waited many years to hear a pastor speak on this topic.” Another clergy member from Colorado commented about Evolution Weekend 2009 as follows, “The only complaint I received from the congregation was they wanted to make a bigger deal out of the event.  So in 2010 we’ll see what we can add to make it more of an event above and beyond just the worship service.”

Yet another clergy member, this one from Ohio, noted that “The response to our sermon was very positive.  As one of our members said to us today, ‘It's great to belong to a church where we are encouraged to think.’” And one from Oklahoma enthused, “My series on science and religion - and showing a movie on Darwin was a hit!  People thanked me for speaking out.  I guess I don't think of it as speaking ‘out’ rather it is what I passionately believe!  Make sure you put us on the list for next year!” A similar response was received from New Zealand, “We enjoyed hosting a special evening at which we showed the excellent movie Paradise Lost and had an invited speaker.  We drank some good wine together and enjoyed lively debate.  Some young people who attended were amazed that a church would host such an evening.”

In one Texas congregation where science education at the state level is under attack by religious fundamentalists, Evolution Weekend sparked quite a flurry of activity. “Friday night, we had a guest speaker, a young assistant professor from the University of Texas who helped everyone understand the issues of science, Darwin, creationism and intelligent design.  Sunday morning, we watched the video “Kansas v. Darwin” and then had an hour with our local member of the State Board of Education (who happens to be on the correct side of our state-wide debates).  That, in turn, led to a campaign to get members of the congregation to write their friends in districts where other members of the SBOE are iffy and to ask doctors, scientists and others to push these people to keep their votes in favor of high-quality science and not to give in to pressure from the rightwing.”

The Clergy Letter Project has become fully enmeshed in the battle for high quality science education and broad respect for religion in Texas.

Along with The Center for Inquiry, The Clergy Letter Project has sponsored an informative web page presenting a wealth of information about the controversy. The site has received rave reviews from many sources. Not everyone is so positive, however! Don McLeroy, chair of the Texas State Board of Education and the person most responsible for undermining the science standards proposed by a group empanelled by the Board, has recently endorsed a self-published book entitled Sowing Atheism: The National Academy of Sciences’ Sinister Scheme to Teach Our Children They’re Descended from Reptiles by Robert Bowie Johnson. In his book, Johnson attacks members of the clergy who have signed The Christian Clergy Letter and makes the following outlandish statement, “In my judgment, only morons—more than 11,500 morons in this case—could sign a letter maintaining that the ‘timeless truths of the Bible’ are compatible with the billions of unpredictable aberrations of evo-atheism. What do these apostate morons celebrate at their Sunday services, the lies about humanity’s origins told by Moses, Jesus, and Paul?”

How utterly appalling that supposedly reputable people would take a serious issue and devolve it into name-calling that would be out of place on an elementary school playground.  It is clear that the more than 12,000 clergy who have signed the Clergy Letters (there are now three such Letters: The Christian Clergy Letter; a Rabbi Letter; and a Unitarian Universalist Clergy Letter) are beginning to scare those whose world view demands that their narrow view of religion be considered the norm.  These folks seem to be lashing out out of fear and insecurity.  The members of The Clergy Letter Project obviously have far more respect for various religious traditions and proponents of those traditions than do those extremists who view their beliefs as the only appropriate beliefs.

If you would like to join this growing movement – a movement characterized by high quality dialogue, respect for science and respect for various religious traditions – and if you might be proud to be called a “moron” for your deeply held beliefs, please visit The Clergy Letter Project on the web or on Facebook. If you’re a clergy member who is either a US citizen or working within the United States and if you would like to add your name to one of The Clergy Letters, send a note to Michael Zimmerman and you’ll be added immediately. Similarly, if you and your congregation would like to participate in Evolution Weekend 2010, drop Michael Zimmerman a note and you’ll be added to that list.

Finally, The Clergy Letter Project has a list of more than 640 scientific consultants from 29 countries ready to help clergy members deal with scientific issues that might arise when discussions of the compatibility of religion and science. If you’re a scientist and if you would like to be added to that list, please contact Michael Zimmerman.

Michael Zimmerman is the founder and director of The Clergy Letter Project. Additionally, he is the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor of biology at Butler University in Indianapolis.

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