In a polarized society, it's never easy taking a position that isn't at one end of the spectrum. And yet, often at significant personal risk, that's exactly what thousands of clergy members all across the United States, as members of The Clergy Letter Project, have opted to do. They've chosen to stand together, respecting their faith while making it clear that they also appreciate, understand and value science.
Theirs isn't an easy position to be in because they're being attacked from all sides. Studies have shown, for instance, that, on average, clergy members have a more sophisticated understanding of science than do their parishioners. And those same studies have indicated that parishioners are likely to reject science when they feel it comes into conflict with their religious beliefs. Nonetheless, clergy are coming forward to educate their parishioners about theology while demonstrating that modern evolutionary theory can be perfectly compatible with their deeply held faith.
Passions are inflamed when fundamentalist leaders demand a literal interpretation of religious texts -- and condemn anyone who is not a literalist. Those same fundamentalists seem to conveniently ignore the fact that some literalists often read passages differently than do other literalists. But those fundamentalists traffic in fear rather than reason, encouraging people to believe that their very way of life is at stake if they accept evolutionary concepts.
Even in "moderate" congregations this sort of vitriolic language can have an effect. Consider, for example, that Reverend Ron Francey, a Clergy Letter Project member from Michigan, was fired by his United Church of Christ church for preaching the compatibility of religion and science.
Oddly enough, although these Clergy Letter Project members are often among the first to fight for all forms of creationism to be removed from our public schools and for evolution to be taught, they have also been relentlessly attacked by "New Atheists." The crux of these attacks seems to take two forms. In the first, clergy members are ridiculed simply for having religious faith. In the second, supposedly intelligent people pretend they are unable to distinguish these clergy members from the fundamentalists with whom they share very little theologically and they are then tarred with the brush of unthinking literalism.
Yes, the Christian Clergy Letter affirms the importance of religion in the lives of the clergy who have signed it. But it also says, clearly, succinctly and powerfully:
We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as "one theory among others" is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children.... We urge school board members to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge.
Simply put, it astounds me that anyone could possibly read this statement as anything other than the call for improved science education that it is.
The Clergy Letter Project has begun a new initiative in an attempt to clarify matters and to give voice to individual clergy members. The Faces of the Clergy Letter Project permits members to explain, in their own words, how they have no trouble navigating the disciplines of religion and science. Their statements are moving and deserve our attention.
Consider the following from a pastor working in rural Ohio:
I had to remove my child from the "science" class of a creationist and argue before our local school board to prevent that teacher from inserting intelligent design into district standards. It especially struck me, as I attended seminary, that this teacher and his supporters lied about what he taught, and even the sources of their materials. In the United Church of Christ, we clergy are likely to have an informed view of science as well as the Bible. We have a responsibility both to our congregants and our community's children to share that informed view. Otherwise, the outspoken will continue to stifle good teachers. To allow our children to take both their faith and their learning seriously, we must keep them compatible.
Or this, from a clergy member in Florida:
I first encountered creationism as a sophomore biology major interested in the science-religion dialog. Even with a very basic knowledge of science I could see creationist arguments were either false or misleading and I was intrigued. How could they effectively make it a widespread truism that one of the best confirmed theories in science is "full of holes" or "discredited?" How could such a miniscule slice of Christianity dominate the discussion? Mostly I was bothered because Jesus says that lying is the native language of the devil (John 8:44). Getting well intentioned Christians to believe and defend demonstrably false things is the devil's greatest triumph.
A Southern Baptist pastor from Maryland wrote:
Real science is the only thing that belongs in a science classroom, not religious agendas and that goes for the atheists too! The question of God, something that cannot be proven one way or the other scientifically, should be off limits in the teaching of science. Don't be fooled by religious or political leaders who are either ignorant of the facts or intentionally deceptive in pushing a personal or political agenda.
And a Presbyterian pastor from Kentucky explained:
People use the word 'Christian' like a bludgeon sometimes. To smack down things they disagree with, to crush evil opponents, to de-Christianize anything that contradicts their views. And I for one, want to show people a different kind of Christian. There are lots of Christians out there who want 'Christian' to be something different. Who are hungry for ways to make sense of faith in a world that is science and technology. Who want to see the church address things humbly and honestly, not arrogantly. I want the world to have an example of Christians who don't carry bludgeons. I want my scientist friends to say, "Hey, those Christian people are interested in truth, not just dogma. And they are interested in what I have to say."
These clergy members, and the thousands of others who have joined them in The Clergy Letter Project, understand the complexities of both religion and science. Equally important, in the face of animosity from all sides, they feel compelled to speak out for what they believe - with the hope that it will improve society for all of us. They truly represent profiles in evolutionary courage and I am proud to be associated with each of them.
This is the third in the "Profiles in (Evolutionary) Courage" series. The first focused on Denise, a high school biology teacher who stood up for her students. The second told Al's story, the personal cost he paid for helping to have the United Methodist Church endorse evolution. If you know of someone who you think deserves to be profiled, please let me know.
Follow Michael Zimmerman, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mzclergyletter