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Michael Zimmerman, Ph.D.

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Evolution Weekend vs. An$wer$ in Gene$i$: Follow the Money

Posted: 02/24/2012 10:41 am

Now that the Seventh Annual Evolution Weekend has concluded, it's appropriate to ask whether the event was successful. Given that I'm the founder of The Clergy Letter Project, the group that runs Evolution Weekend, and the person who created Evolution Weekend, I recognize that my opinion might be somewhat biased. Nonetheless, I want to share my opinion with you.

My simple answer is that Evolution Weekend has been remarkably successful. Before I provide some reasons for drawing that conclusion let me remind you what Evolution Weekend is all about. Annually, on the weekend closest to the anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin (Feb. 12), hundreds of religious congregations all over the world take some action to promote a more robust understanding of the relationship between religion and science. Some congregations listen to a sermon while others have on-going adult education courses. Some invite a guest speaker to lead a discussion while others watch pertinent videos. Whatever the individual activities, collectively participating congregations demonstrate that it is possible to explore this contentious topic productively. Collectively they demonstrate that those who claim being religious means dismissing modern science are woefully mistaken. By bringing this message to a broader public, participants are promoting both science literacy and a respect for religious diversity.

So, what evidence do I have to conclude that Evolution Weekend 2012 was successful? There are a number of pieces of data that lead me to this conclusion. First, more than 550 congregations in 10 different countries opted to celebrate Evolution Weekend in some fashion. Second, in addition to the tens of thousands of congregants who heard Evolution Weekend messages in their home congregations, many hundreds of thousands more were reached by the news coverage of the weekend. (You can take a look at some of the coverage by scanning The Clergy Letter Project media web page.) Third, and perhaps most tellingly, every year creationist organizations spend an inordinate amount of time attempting to disparage Evolution Weekend. If Evolution Weekend were not an important event, creationist groups would ignore the celebration. Instead, they attack it -- and use it as a way to raise money from supporters.

This year was no different. Indeed, as The Christian Post pointed out, something called "Question Evolution Day" was created this year to combat the efforts of The Clergy Letter Project. Given all of the T-shirts, bumper stickers and related paraphernalia that sponsors were hawking, "Question Evolution Day" might well have been a boon to the economy, but there was no evidence that it promoted meaningful dialogue.

One of the loudest critics of Evolution Weekend this year, as in the past, was Ken Ham, head of Answers in Genesis, the organization which founded the creation museum-cum-theme-park in Kentucky. He devoted his Feb. 10 essay on the Answers in Genesis web page to Evolution Weekend and he spent something like an hour of radio time dismissing Evolution Weekend. What an odd thing to do if, as he claims, Evolution Weekend is insignificant.

Ham's essay offers a number of "interesting" points. Just the way he phrases the question of whether or not The Clergy Letter Project is successful is fascinating. He defines my goal as an "attempt to infiltrate the church with his anti-God beliefs." And he immediately goes on to complain that "an inordinate number of female pastors" have signed The Christian Clergy Letter. But his real "evidence" comes next. He argues that only a small percentage of the congregations in the United States actually participate in Evolution Weekend so the event can't be considered successful.

Of course, Ham is correct -- from one perspective. The Clergy Letter Project, even with almost 13,000 Christian clergy members having signed our Christian Clergy Letter, and even after having been formally endorsed by The United Methodist Church, the Southeast Florida Diocese of the Episcopal Church and the Southwestern Washington Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is not as well-known as I would like it to be. But what Ham forgets to mention is that The Clergy Letter Project is a very different kind of operation than his Answers in Genesis.

The Clergy Letter Project is a true grass roots organization with thousands of members all over the world. But it has no paid employees. Although I "run" the organization, I do so in my spare time since I have a full time job. The annual operating budget for The Clergy Letter Project is effectively zero and we solicit no money from anyone. And yet, every year, hundreds of congregations opt to participate in Evolution Weekend and our Clergy Letters are transforming the debate while marginalizing those, like Ken Ham, who argue you can't be religious and accept evolution.

Answers in Genesis, on the other hand, is very different. A quick look at the most recent tax return I could find for them (for fiscal year 2010), paints an interesting picture. In 2010 they had income totaling a bit more than $22 million, including more than $8 million in contributions and grants. They also employed 323 people. In addition to Ham himself, who earned more than $149,000, Answers in Genesis seems to be quite a family affair, employing three daughters, one son and one son-in-law.

In 2010, the tax form states that Answers in Genesis spent more than $1.7 million conducting 339 seminars. In that same year, The Clergy Letter Project had 861 congregations participating in Evolution Weekend, or 2.54 times as many congregations as they had seminars. This year, with reduced numbers of participants (largely because I started a new job and wasn't able to devote nearly as much time to the effort), The Clergy Letter Project had 564 congregations participating. Even that smaller number is 1.66 times as many congregations as they had seminars. And, I hasten to add, we spent far less than the $1.7 million Answers in Genesis spent. Remember, we didn't spend any money!

Go to the Answers in Genesis website and you'll be told how you can donate now, how you can donate later and how you can purchase almost any creationist material you can imagine. Interested in learning more about how dinosaurs coexisted with humans? Click the link to the Answers in Genesis store and you'll find books, puzzles, CDs, DVDs, bumper stickers and much, much more on dinosaurs alone.

Is this a successful operation? Absolutely! Answers in Genesis and Ken Ham are remarkably successful. They bring in a ton of money, they proselytize, they employ lots of people, including much of the Ham nuclear family. They also lobby the state remarkably well, having earned an incentive package of $40 million from Kentucky for their latest venture -- a Noah's Ark Theme Park.

But money isn't the only way to judge success. Granted, The Clergy Letter Project hasn't built a theme park that promotes a world view that is at odds with the perspective of most of the world's major religions and with virtually every major scientific organization on the face of the Earth. Granted, The Clergy Letter Project doesn't employ me and my family members, or anyone else to do this work full time. Granted, you can't make a tax deductible donation to The Clergy Letter Project and you can't purchase a single bumper sticker from us. But, for free, you can read hundreds of sermons delivered by members of The Clergy Letter Project. And, again for free, you can drop in on any of the hundreds of congregations that participate in Evolution Weekend. To do just that, you don't even have to travel to Kentucky; you can probably just go down the street. But, let me warn you, unlike the Answers in Genesis's theme park where you're told what to think, at an Evolution Weekend event, you'll likely be challenged to share your ideas with others. No, you won't find high tech, animatronic dinosaurs with saddles, but you will discover thoughtful friends.

Maybe the simplest way to put it is, we're about provocative ideas rather than millions of dollars.

 
 
 

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