What Has Changed Since the First Evolution Weekend?

As the world prepares to celebrate the sixth annual Evolution Weekend, some things have remained unchanged from the situation six years ago, while others have changed significantly.

As with the first celebration in 2006, hundreds of congregations around the globe are planning to take steps to elevate the quality of the dialogue about the compatibility of religion and science. Participants are making it clear that their deeply held faith in no way forces them to make compromises about the basic principles of science. Participants from a host of religions and denominations are demonstrating that scientific discoveries can deepen their religious faith rather than threaten it and, via their actions, they are demonstrating that they reject the terribly limiting perspective embodied by a “God of the gaps” philosophy. Indeed, as we learn more about the natural world, as the gaps in our knowledge are filled in, the role of religion is no less important than when we were far more ignorant.

Finally, Evolution Weekend this year, as it has every year, provides an opportunity for religious leaders to show that those who assert that people must choose between their religion and evolutionary science are not speaking for a huge number of clergy from a wide range of religious traditions. When religious leaders and scientists come together in this fashion, the world begins to recognize that the battle that has been portrayed as being between religion and science is actually a struggle between one narrow religious perspective and all other religious traditions.

Even with so much remaining the same over these six years, some things have changed. On the positive side, Evolution Weekend has actually become a welcome tradition in many congregations. Consider just the few following comments from participating clergy:

* A Presbyterian minister from Tennessee said, “Evolution Sunday has proven to be one of the biggest Sundays of the year for us.”

* A minister from Maryland noted, “One woman came up to us afterward and said, with tears in her eyes, that she’d been waiting 50 years to hear this message from her church.”

* A minister from Connecticut had a similar response, “This is the first year I have preached this, and in a church that sits enmeshed in Yale and has grad students and professors as members, the response was tremendous, with people saying they had waited many years to hear a pastor speak on this topic.”

* A clergy member from Colorado commented, “The only complaint I received from the congregation was they wanted to make a bigger deal out of the event. So next year, we’ll see what we can add to make it more of an event above and beyond just the worship service.”

* Yet another clergy member, this one from Ohio, noted that, “The response to our sermon was very positive. As one of our members said to us today, ‘It’s great to belong to a church where we are encouraged to think.’”

* One from Oklahoma enthused, “My series on science and religion—and showing a movie on Darwin—was a hit! People thanked me for speaking out. I guess I don’t think of it as speaking ‘out’; rather, it is what I passionately believe! Make sure you put us on the list for next year!”

* A similar response was received from New Zealand, “We enjoyed hosting a special evening at which we showed the excellent movie Paradise Lost and had an invited speaker. We drank some good wine together and enjoyed lively debate. Some young people who attended were amazed that a church would host such an evening.”

On the negative side, something that has changed over the past six years is the nature of the criticism of Evolution Weekend and the clergy who are participating in it. When Evolution Weekend first began, criticism largely arose from fundamentalists who attacked participating clergy for their supposed apostasy. While those attacks continue and while they occasionally have become more extreme, a big difference is that participating clergy have now begun to be attacked by some who describe themselves as “new atheists.” Many of these people seem unable or unwilling to differentiate between the clergy of The Clergy Letter Project and the most extreme fundamentalists, opting instead to lump all religious leaders together and to attack them for their (supposed) anti-science views. The fact that Evolution Weekend has been designed to be the antithesis of an anti-science event seems not to faze these critics a bit.

A fascinating outgrowth of these attacks is that some of the “new atheists” have decided to comment negatively on some of the sermons delivered on past Evolution Weekends and posted on The Clergy Letter Project website. These comments occasionally are bizarre, with critics often failing to recognize the value of metaphor in public discourse. The sermons delivered over the years are not intended to be scientific theses; rather, they’ve been designed to demonstrate that acceptance of scientific findings and principles do not detract from faith. And because they were written to be delivered in places of worship rather than academic lecture halls, they are overtly religious. How could it be otherwise! When some of the moving metaphors adopted by participating clergy are attacked on a crassly literal level, critics are demonstrating their bias rather than their scientific acumen.

It is not surprising that as Evolution Weekend continues to expand and reach an ever growing number of people, the criticism of participants has expanded as well.

Six years of Evolution Weekend has helped people from across the religious spectrum recognize that most clergy and most scientists are not enemies. Six years of Evolution Weekend programs have helped people recognize that it is time to redefine the controversy in a way that makes more sense than the simplistic view of religion pitted against science. The clergy of The Clergy Letter Project have a far more nuanced view of religion than do many of their critics, and they have a far more sophisticated view of science than many of their critics want to believe.

Michael Zimmerman is a professor of biology at Butler University and the founder and executive director of The Clergy Letter Project.

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