Evolution Sunday: Pastors Celebrate Darwin

I am just a preacher looking for a choir…
but baby my church is on fire.

“Church on Fire,” sung by Kev Russell of The Gourds

In the battle against creationism in schools, it’s an ongoing debate. Who is the most effective advocate for science? And what message is better at reaching evolution’s skeptics?

There are those who argue, like zoologist and writer Richard Dawkins, that evolutionary theory leads naturally to atheism, which is just fine. Superstitious beliefs, like belief in God, destroy critical thinking and interfere with scientific pursuits.

As Dawkins writes at the beginning of his 1986 book The Blind Watchmaker, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”

But there are others who believe the better strategy is to set aside the metaphysical debate and stress the fact that there are many scientists who have easily reconciled their belief in God with knowledge of evolutionary theory.

“I suspect no single method is best,” said Michael Zimmerman, the dean of Butler University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in Indiana and an evolutionary biologist by training. “Otherwise this issue would be over.”

And it’s nowhere near over.

It’s been 150 years since Charles Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species, putting forth the concept that natural selection is evolution’s driving force.

Few ideas have been so influential. The field of biology has been built upon Darwin’s theory, with famed geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky going so far as to write, in 1973, that “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

Yet, a century and a half after Origin, America is still arguing about whether man is descended from ape-like ancestors or that the Book of Genesis is life’s literal blueprint. While there is virtually no debate over the truth of evolution in the scientific community, fundamentalists remain unswayed and continue their assault on teaching evolution in science class.

Zimmerman thinks the best way to change this mindset is for scientists to step back from the debate and hand the reins over to religious leaders.

This Feb. 12 will be Darwin’s 200th birthday. Three days later, as part of Evolution Sunday, a holiday Zimmerman created, pastors around the world will be speaking from the pulpit about Darwin’s contribution to our understanding of the world.

Zimmerman is also the founder of The Clergy Letter Project. The letter in question, now signed by more than 11,000 religious leaders, states that those signing it accept evolution as a foundational scientific truth:

We believe that among God’s good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator. To argue that God’s loving plan of salvation for humanity precludes the full employment of the God-given faculty of reason is to attempt to limit God, an act of hubris.

The full text of the letter can be found here.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Here’s how it happened. In the fall of 2004, one of Wisconsin’s school boards in Grantsburg was rewriting its science curriculum to include creationist teachings. In protest of board members’ actions, Michael Zimmerman wrote a series of statements, signed by various academic and educational professors, in support of evolutionary teaching.

“I did what I do best, which isn’t much,” Zimmerman said. “I organized and wrote a letter on behalf of liberal arts deans.”

Spurred on by encouragement, he kept writing letters for different organizations, whose members then added their names to the statements.

He wrote another letter on behalf of biologists and religious studies professors, stressing that not only was creationism and intelligent design bad science, it was also bad theology.

He wrote a letter for anthropologists; another one for elementary school teachers.

He was comfortable writing in the voices of the different professions.

Then, he was asked to write one on behalf of area clergy. But this time, he knew he needed a pastor’s touch. “Frankly, I’m an atheist,” he said. “Certainly, I can’t fake a ministerial voice.”

He turned to a friend, who “wrote something so different than I could possibly have done,” Zimmerman said.

An excerpt:

…Many of the beloved stories found in the Bible—the Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the ark—convey timeless truths about God, human beings, and the proper relationship between Creator and creation expressed in the only form capable of transmitting these truths from generation to generation. Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts…

Two hundred local religious leaders signed their names to it. The letter, and its overwhelming support, convinced the school board to retract its policies.

The campaign’s success convinced Zimmerman that he was on to something.

At that time, the evolution battle in Dover, Pa. was just beginning to heat up. Alone in a hotel room, Zimmerman saw a Nightline segment on Dover’s first constitutional test of the teaching of intelligent design, the idea that life’s complexity demands a divine guiding hand.

Zimmerman was struck by the remarks of a conservative minister on the show, who said that if you believe in evolution you’re going to hell.

“All of a sudden, here it was,” Zimmerman said, “I realized, OK, I have this letter signed by 200 people in one state. I did the calculations, and figured I could come up with 10,000 signatures nationwide. I thought if I could get the signatures, I could put an end to this silliness.”

“It never crossed my mind how big 10,000 is.”

It took time, and what Zimmerman calls an anal-retentive commitment to personalizing each letter. So when he reached his goal, he expected a huge response.

“No one cared,” he said. “The Wall Street Journal did a story that 76 evangelicals signed a letter that we do have to care about global warming. But no one cared about this.

“So I decided to declare a national holiday.”

Since Charles Darwin’s birthday fell on a Sunday that year, Zimmerman reached out to the clergy who signed the letter and asked them to dedicate their sermon that day—Evolution Sunday 2006—to God’s evolutionary plan.

That first year, 467 congregations participated. Since then, the number has been growing. Evolution Sunday has grown to Evolution Weekend, in order to incorporate the services of Muslims and Jews.

As of Jan. 10, 745 congregations from 12 countries have signed on.

This year, Zimmerman has also put together something of a cross-cultural exchange program, pairing pastors working on sermons with scientists willing to answer questions about evolutionary theory. So far, 617 scientists from 29 countries have volunteered.

The letter project has gone beyond grassroots appeal. The United Methodist Church and the Southeast Diocese of the Episcopal Church have formally endorsed it.

Despite its success, Zimmerman is under no delusion that the Clergy Letter Project will end the attacks on evolutionary education by those of fundamentalist faiths.

But he’s not trying to reach them. He’s been asked many times what he’s doing to reach out to fundamentalists. But they’re not going to change their minds, he believes. Instead, he’s trying to reach out to people of more mainstream faiths, who are open-minded but scientifically illiterate.

As a nonbeliever, Zimmerman shares Richard Dawkins’ beliefs. And while he respects Dawkins, he believes his message—understanding of evolutionary processes inevitably leads to atheism—has done more harm than good for scientific literacy.

“He has a polarizing effect on the debate with his argument that science must lead you to atheism,” Zimmerman said. “He is a proselytizing atheist, who uses his position as a scientist to discuss atheism.”

With the Clergy Letter Project, religious leaders do most “of the talking for us, at least on this topic,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman’s great fear, he said, is that if one makes people feel they have to choose between religion and science, the vast majority will choose religion.

“I’m trying to change mainstream American belief with religion and science,” he said. “I’m hoping to recast the debate between science and religion into one between one religion and a lot of religions.”

But ending what he described as the “silliness?”

“I don’t think we’re ever going to bridge that divide,” he said. “They honestly believe that if their kids accept evolution, they’re going to hell. And they don’t want their kids going to hell.”

“That’s something that’s bigger than I can handle,” he said.

So, instead of reaching out to those with the most extremist positions and those most staunchly clinging to the notion that every word of the Bible must speak literal truth, they are making strides with the more moderate middle ground.

“There is some hope,” Zimmerman said. “More people are coming to the conclusion, ‘Why would we want that religious discussion in science class?’”

That’s essentially what St. Augustine, one of the founders of western Christianity, said about reconciling faith with science.

The great bishop spent much of his life wrestling with the proper interpretation of the Genesis creation narrative. As he ultimately concluded more than 1,500 years ago:

Usually even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens and the other elements of this world, about the motions of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience.

Now it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics… If they find a Christian mistaken in a field in which they themselves know well and hear him maintain his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books and matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learned from experience in the light of reason?