For the sixth time, hundreds of religious congregations on six continents will participate in an event designed to demonstrate that the most exciting scientific findings pose no threat to deeply held religious belief. Indeed, the leaders and members of these congregations recognize that as science teaches us more about how the natural world functions, their faith becomes stronger rather than weaker. And, although there are some who find it difficult to accept, participants are fully comfortable embracing the basic principles of science without having to forsake the most important aspects of their faith.
The weekend of Feb. 11-13 is the sixth annual Evolution Weekend, an event sponsored by The Clergy Letter Project, an organization of more than 14,000 clergy members and scientists. In addition to demonstrating that religion and science can comfortably coexist, the event was created to achieve a number of additional important goals.
Promoters of Evolution Weekend want to create a space to explore the relationship between religion and science. They want to elevate the "dialogue" on the subject that has devolved into sound bites with shouts claiming that people must choose between religion and science passing as "discourse." They also want to demonstrate that it is possible to truly discuss complex issues, issues that have divided many, with sincerity and respect. Finally, they want to prove to all who are willing to take notice, that those fundamentalists who claim to be speaking on behalf of religion are not speaking for thousands of clergy and the religions they represent.
Along these lines, it is well worth noting that Evolution Weekend participants come from across the full breadth of the religious and political spectrum. Some are from our largest cathedrals while others are from tiny rural parishes. A wide variety of races and ethnicities are represented. Males and females, old and young, conservatives and liberals are all taking part in Evolution Weekend. Christians from a host of denominations, as well as Jews and Muslims are all participating. Evolution Weekend has become an opportunity for such a diverse group of people to come together and celebrate what they have in common: love for their religion and respect for science.
The name and date of Evolution Weekend were selected to help achieve yet another goal of The Clergy Letter Project: to rehabilitate the "E" word -- Evolution.
Ever since the Scopes Trial in 1925, evolution has been under attack by those who think it is more important to promote their narrow religious perspective than to understand the natural world. In the immediate aftermath of the Scopes Trial, virtually all traces of evolution vanished from American science textbooks and evolution remained missing until the early 1960s, when Americans realized that Soviet science education was fast outpacing American science education.
Creationists, in the name of religion, first outlawed the teaching of human evolution and then, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that unconstitutional, they began to use a number of ruses to promote their religious doctrines by claiming they were in favor of freedom on inquiry. They pretended to turn their religion into science by calling it "creation science" and when that too was ruled unconstitutional they changed the name again and promoted "intelligent design." The U.S. courts also ruled that strategy unconstitutional. Despite all of these legal setbacks, creationists have kept up their relentless attack on evolution, the most important concept in all of biology. It has been termed a religion. It has been portrayed as nothing more than a "theory." And it has been characterized, by those with precious little biological background, as pseudoscientific claptrap.
Despite the lack of intellectual and scientific substance to the attacks on evolution, the constant refrain from creationists that evolution is responsible for virtually all of modern society's ills has largely shaped the public's perception of the issue. Large segments of the public, ignorant of both basic biology and common theology, reject evolution believing that it is bad science and contrary to their religious beliefs. Even as scientists, building upon the principles of evolutionary theory, make the most astounding breakthroughs in the understanding of the human genome, leading to medical advances previously only dreamed possible, creationists work tirelessly to keep evolution from being taught in our public schools. Most politicians are scared to endorse this basic biological principle fearing a backlash in the name of religion.
Evolution Weekend is attempting to change all of that. By being celebrated on the weekend closest to the birth of Charles Darwin (Feb. 12, 1809), the founder of the modern view of evolution, Evolution Weekend purposefully brings attention to the single issue that religious fundamentalists find most abhorrent. Participants are not looking to deify Darwin, however. Instead, they are simply attempting to demonstrate that his ideas, reshaped enormously in the 152 years since he published On the Origin of Species, are important to a modern worldview and are fully compatible with modern religious teachings. By doing this, they are proudly taking active steps to publicly define religion in a positive manner.
The clergy members who are celebrating Evolution Weekend recognize the critical role science education should play in our society -- and they recognize that religion plays a different, but, in their minds, no less important, role. Join these forward-looking individuals, celebrate Evolution Weekend and help create a population that better understands both religion and science.
Follow Michael Zimmerman, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mzclergyletter