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Michael Zimmerman, Ph.D. Headshot

Evolution Weekend: An Opportunity for Reasoned Debate

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Among many memorable lines in President Barack Obama's second inaugural address was the following: "We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate."

To a large extent, it is the last phrase of that sentence, "or treat name-calling as reasoned debate," that gave rise to The Clergy Letter Project. Simply put, when I became completely frustrated over the language used by a small but very vocal contingent of fundamentalist preachers to refer to those who understood and accepted evolutionary theory, I decided it was time to act. These preachers were (and, unfortunately, still are) asserting that if you "believe in evolution," you're going to hell. They were (and, unfortunately, still are) loud in their condemnation of the many deeply religious people who have no problem reconciling their faith with the best science has to offer. They were (and, unfortunately, still are) asserting that Christian religious leaders, in particular, who were fully comfortable with evolutionary theory can't be "true" Christians.

The Clergy Letter Project was formed to counter this extreme view, to demonstrate that those who were making such absurd claims were not speaking for thousands of religious leaders and to provide space for truly meaningful dialogue rather than name-calling. To date more than 13,600 American clergy members have signed one of our Clergy Letters (from Buddhist, Christian, Jewish and Unitarian Universalist Clergy). Each of these letters, well-grounded from the core of their respective faith traditions, urges that evolution be taught as a central component of public school science education.

Even as our Clergy Letters continue to acquire more signatures, they are static documents, letters to be read and considered but not, in and of themselves, opportunities for discussion. Eight years ago, to create just that sort of opportunity, to help raise the quality of discourse, indeed, to engage in "reasoned debate" rather than name-calling, The Clergy Letter Project created Evolution Weekend.

Evolution Weekend is an opportunity for congregations all over the world to set aside some time to reflect on and discuss what it means to balance a religious world view with the knowledge gained from scientific investigations. It's a time to move beyond sound bites and savor some intellectual substance. Because each congregation has its own culture and its own practices, each decides for itself how to best structure its Evolution Weekend event. What makes the most sense for a Southern Baptist congregation in Maryland might not be right for a Buddhist congregation in California, or the specific discussion embraced by a Jewish congregation in Israel might differ markedly from one taking place in an Anglican congregation in France. What's common to all, however, is the sincere desire to move forward and help us collectively stop attacking science in the name of religion.

This year, February 8th-10th, marks the eighth annual Evolution Weekend. More than 550 congregations representing 12 different countries are scheduled to participate. There is a communal hopefulness among participants that thoughtful discourse can dispel ignorance and that respect can replace name-calling.

But participants realize that there's a long way to go given the actions of those who are opposed to this message of reconciliation. Consider the comments made by Ken Ham, head of Answers in Genesis, the organization that is responsible for the theme park in Kentucky called The Creation Museum, in response to the first Evolution Weekend event in 2006. (Actually, Evolution Weekend for its first two years was called Evolution Sunday. It was renamed when people representing faiths that worshiped on Friday and Saturday wanted to be included.) He said that congregations "will participate in what could be called a 'Darwin praise service.'" Ham was apparently so taken with what he wrote in 2006 that he reprinted his article the following year.

Well, yes, Ham is correct, "it could be called" that, but calling it that doesn't make it so. Evolution Weekend is most assuredly not a "Darwin praise service" but calling it one is an easy way to dismiss it without dealing with its substance or import. Instead, it's a way of substituting name-calling for reasoned debate.

Of course, it's absolutely true that the date for Evolution Weekend was not selected randomly. It's always on the weekend closest to the anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin (12, February 1809) and the reason for that is simple; Darwin gave life to the modern theory of evolution and evolution is the flashpoint for those, like Ham, who demand that their religion should trump scientific knowledge. It's also the flashpoint for those, like Ham, who demand that their religion should trump all other religions.

For eight years now, clergy members have been engaging in heartfelt dialogue designed to explore the relationship between religion and science and to promote a deeper understanding of science by deeply religious individuals. If you want to participate in this "reasoned debate," take a look at the Evolution Weekend home page, find a congregation near you that's celebrating Evolution Weekend and pay them a visit. Stretch your mind - but, remember, no name-calling is permitted.