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Michael Zimmerman, Ph.D.

Michael Zimmerman, Ph.D.

Posted: April 26, 2010 03:14 PM

When religion and science conflict in the public sphere, the results are often dramatic: millions of dollars can be spent on attorneys, and our airwaves are filled with competing claims. What's often lost in these large battles, though, are the consequences on individuals. At times some individuals step forward to take much needed action -- and often they do so at very large personal cost.

Al (he wants to remain anonymous to avoid further repercussions) is one such person, and he deserves our admiration for making an important difference. He saw a problem, took steps to rectify it, and is now suffering unreasonably and unfairly as a direct consequence of his actions.

It's my pleasure to share his story with you.

Al had a successful industrial career in applied physics. His original career plans didn't involve physics, though. When he was maturing and thinking about his future, he decided to go into the ministry in the church he loved. After a good deal of soul-searching in college, however, he felt he couldn't move forward with his plan.

As he describes it, the sticking point was that he didn't have an answer to a question that was deeply troubling him: "Which is right, the creation stories or evolution?" His appreciation of science kept running into the dogma some in religion were expressing: the stories in the Bible needed to be taken literally, and such a literal interpretation must always trump science when the two were seen to be in conflict.

Al not only changed his career plans, going on to have a scientific rather than a ministerial career; he completely left the church for a decade and a half. Al returned to the church only after coming to the conclusion that "both the creation stories and evolution are correct. They cover different concepts -- different but compatible."

With his wife, Judy, serving as director of Christian Education for United Methodist Churches, Al came into contact with lots of kids, kids who increasingly were migrating away from formal religion. After discussing their decisions with them, he came to the conclusion that many were leaving for the same reason he did: they saw the church forcing them to choose between dogma and Darwin. He was, and continues to be, confident that the church would be far healthier if it formally acknowledged the compatibility of religion and science.

When a new minister assigned to his congregation began preaching a version of biblical literalism, and when that minister made it clear that he didn't accept evolution, Al decided that he needed to take action. Discussions with his minister proved fruitless, and he was only granted a meeting with his bishop after taking out a newspaper ad in which he ran an open letter to the bishop. This, too, accomplished nothing positive -- even when Al pointed out that the United Methodist "law book" made it clear that the church accepted the findings of science. The "teachings" of the church were dismissed as not being clear enough. So Al decided to make them clearer.

He authored two petitions to be presented to the 2008 General Conference of the United Methodist Church. Such an action was virtually unheard of by an individual, as almost all petitions come up through various committees. But Al's minister and bishop effectively shut him out of the normal process.

Al worked tirelessly on behalf of his two petitions, personally writing to each of the 1,400 United States delegates and alternates who would vote on the petitions, and calling each of the 86 delegates on the committee that had first crack at the petitions. His worked paid off handsomely. Both sailed through the committee with the petition explicitly accepting evolution passing with 80 percent of the votes of the full Conference; additionally, the petition endorsing The Clergy Letter Project passed with a 96-percent-favorable vote. Al modestly described his actions as having "quietly moved Methodism into the 21st century."

But back at home, Al has paid a very high price for his actions. His minister has stripped him from playing any role in his local congregation, not even permitting him to continue to sing in the choir or lead "hymn sings" at nursing homes. Because of the minister's actions, many fellow congregants now shun him. Al's wife, retired from a career in the United Methodist Church, moved to a church in a different denomination as a result. Al's son no longer permits Al to take his grandchildren to his church because he doesn't want them to see how poorly Al is being treated.

His wife regularly urges him to follow her to her new congregation, reminding him that her new church and its denomination think as he does. He responds simply but forcefully, "They don't need me, the United Methodist Church does!"

Unfortunately, there are some who assertively believe that religion and science must be in conflict. Al is certainly not one of those people, and he makes the case for compatibility simply and eloquently: "Because I have witnessed the wonderful things science can accomplish for humanity, I almost cry when some in religion shortsightedly ignore those humanitarian accomplishments by misinterpreting various portions of the greatest directive to exercise humanitarian goals -- the Bible."

I've gotten to know Al reasonably well over the past five years, and I've seen the pain he's experienced for taking a principled stand for something about which he feels so strongly. His commitment and perseverance has impressed me deeply, and I'm proud to be able to call Al my friend.

In my mind, Al is an American hero, and he deserves far better treatment than he has received from his church. Please join me in thanking Al for all he's accomplished.

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This is the second in the "Profiles in (Evolutionary) Courage" series. The first focused on Denise, a high school biology teacher who stood up for her students. What's so very sad is that both Denise and Al felt that I could only tell their stories if they remained anonymous. It is a shame that the cost of promoting modern science can be so high. If you know of someone who you think deserves to be profiled, please let me know.

 
 
 

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