02/17/2014 06:14 pm ET | Updated Apr 19, 2014

Groundhog Day and Darwin Day: My Favorite Holidays

Several years ago, the math department at the College of Charleston, where I was a professor, hired a new administrative specialist in January. On February 2, Groundhog Day, I excitedly told her that Punxsutawney Phil had seen his shadow, which meant six more weeks of winter. When she laughed, I feigned surprise and said, "It's not nice to make fun of someone's religious beliefs. I'm from Pennsylvania, where some of us consider Groundhog Day the holiest day of the year." She then apologized profusely. Now that she knows me better, we annually joke about my "holy" day. This year, she even presented me with an autographed (paw print) picture of Phil on February 2.

I thought I had made up a new religion until learning that Groundhog Day is beginning to look a lot like Christmas, which was originally a December 25 pagan holiday. February 2 was also a pagan holiday, where people would light candles to banish dark spooks. Christians appropriated the date in the fifth century and named it Candlemas Day, where clergy would light and bless candles.

However, to my mind, February 12 is far more consequential. There is even a growing international movement to publicly celebrate February 12, Charles Darwin's birthday, as Darwin Day. With the encouragement of the American Humanist Association, Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) again this year introduced a resolution in Congress in support of Darwin Day. It recognized that Darwin's birthday is a "worthy symbol on which to celebrate the achievements of reason, science, and the advancement of human knowledge." The resolution also warned that the "teaching of creationism in some public schools compromises the scientific and academic integrity of the United States education system," and insisted that "advancement of science be protected from those unconcerned with the adverse impacts of global warming and climate change."

Though the resolution had a record number of 13 co-sponsors this year, it didn't pass. After all, the House Science Committee chair, Texas Republican Lamar Smith has publicly doubted the human origin of climate change, and Science Committee member Paul Broun (R-Ga.), has called " evolution and the big bang theory "lies straight from the pit of hell." Clearly a few Science Committee members are getting their "science" information from the Bible.

Because it's been unseasonably cold in the South, and I often hear comments about the "myth" of global warning, I've tired of explaining that the science behind climate change is more complex than what the weather is doing in South Carolina. So I now respond to faith-based global warning deniers that it's cold because Punxsutawney Phil told us we would have six more weeks of winter.

For a long time, religious forces throughout the country have been trying to water down science education in public schools, while atheists and scientifically minded theists have joined forces to promote evolution. Theistic evolutionists support the compatibility of evolution and religion, while encouraging religious people to accept science. Atheists, on the other hand, usually don't avoid describing how the evidence for evolution conflicts with literal interpretations of the Bible.

Dr. Rob Dillon at the College of Charleston is both an evolutionary biologist and a committed Christian who has done excellent work lobbying the legislature to maintain solid science standards in our South Carolina public school curriculum. He also organizes an annual Darwin Week in Charleston, usually with guest speakers who are theistic evolutionists. Two exceptions have been debates with open atheists. In 2011, I debated Dr. Karl Giberson, former President of the BioLogos Foundation, founded by Francis Collins to help Christians make peace with science. The topic was "Does Science Make Belief in God Harder or Easier?" In 2013, well-known atheist and evolutionary biologist Dr. Jerry Coyne debated Dr. Lea Schweitz from the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago on the topic "Are Science and Faith Compatible?" Coyne described the event on his blog.

When I was young, public schools were closed on Darwin's birthday, though the official reason was to commemorate the birth of Abraham Lincoln. Remarkably, both these giants of humanity were born on February 12, 1809. There is now a move to close public schools on Groundhog Day, though (so far) only by a little girl in the comic strip Non Sequitur.

I would not want schools to close for Darwin Day. Instead, I'd like to see it become a day for students to study and explore the great scientific discoveries that spring from Darwin's work.