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The Evolution ‘Battle’ Isn’t What You Think It Is

By Michael Zimmerman 


We all know a battle is being waged between religion and science – and that it has been going on for a very long time. There isn’t the space here to argue that our historical sense of the battle is largely misconceived and mistaken. Take a look at Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (2009), by Ron Numbers, and decide for yourself. My concern here is the current state of affairs.

The main front of the current conflict is the issue of evolution, and stereotypes abound. Religious adherents dismiss evolution, we hear, in favor of their faith, while scientists promote evolution in an attempt to further an atheistic worldview. So the story goes, often fed by mainline media. There is just enough truth in the stereotypes to make them dangerous, not true. Some religious leaders condemn evolution, and some scientists are atheists. The larger picture, though, is radically different.

The Clergy Letter logo

The Clergy Letter logo

Most mainstream religions have issued doctrinal statements in favor of evolution. As MIT physicist Max Tegmark points out in this issue, “Only 11 percent of Americans belong to religions openly rejecting evolution.” Despite this amazing statistic, a large and remarkably stable percentage of the American public accepts creationism – mostly on religious grounds!

Two simple points help explain this remarkable contradiction. First, members of many if not most religious denominations are more religiously conservative and theologically naïve than their leaders, much less their denominational leaders. Second, a host of very loud, well-organized, and media-savvy fundamentalist ministers regularly assert the impossibility of accepting evolutionary theory while retaining authentic religious beliefs.

Clergy Taking a Stand

The Clergy Letter Project, an international, grassroots organization I founded, works hard to upend and expose this misinformation. We go a step further, though, generating programs that demonstrate how embracing evolution can help bring scientifically minded individuals back into the pews without compromising anyone’s faith.

Three separate but related facets of The Clergy Letter Project are worth noting.

  • First, more than 15,500 religious leaders in the United States have signed one of four Clergy Letters making it clear that evolution does not conflict with deeply held religious belief. Letters signed by Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, and Unitarian Universalist clergy all make the same point.

Consider a few sentences from these letters:

Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts … 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 ... We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.”
  • The Project also has a list of more than 1,000 scientists from 31 countries who have agreed to work with clergy to answer scientific questions in an attempt to help clarify any confusion. These scientists span the spectrum from devoutly religious to firmly atheist, but all believe that promoting a better understanding of scientific principles will help people recognize that they don’t have to choose between religion and science.
  • Finally, the Project holds an annual event entitled Evolution Weekend. On that weekend participating congregations actively promote a more robust understanding of the relationship between religion and science. Each congregation decides how best to reach this goal – collectively they send a very strong message of compatibility to our global culture. In the eight years Evolution Weekend has been celebrated, thousands of congregations in 20 countries have participated.

Why the Project Keeps Growing

Testimonials from clergy participating in Evolution Weekend events are the best way to tell the rest of the story.

A minister from Maryland wrote, ‘‘One woman came up to us afterwards and said, with tears in her eyes, that she’d been waiting 50 years to hear this message from her church.’’

A pastor from Connecticut told a similar story: ‘‘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.’’

From Colorado: ‘‘The only complaint I received from the congregation was they wanted to make a bigger deal out of the event.”

From Ohio: ‘One of our members said today, ‘It’s great to belong to a church where we are encouraged to think.’’’

From Oklahoma: ‘‘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!’’

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.’’

Finally, a participating pastor received the following letter from a parishioner:

I have never in my life felt the need to share my thoughts and feelings on a sermon ... until yesterday. For the whole of my Christian life I have always believed, yet felt like somewhat of a fraud. I may not be of the “millennial” generation (missed it by 3 years), but I am exactly what you described. The only belief I have ever had a problem with are the ideas behind “creation vs. evolution”. When I was younger I just followed along with what everyone around me told me to believe. By the time I got to college my best friend (who still is my best friend by the way) and I had one of the worst arguments we have ever had and it was regarding evolution.
To this day I have never brought it up again. I also never discussed my thoughts with anyone else ever again. I could not understand how someone so intelligent could not believe in concrete scientific evidence. In my mind God and evolution were and are always working together. Though at that point I kept my thoughts to myself ... I didn’t want to be thought of as the atheist.
I sat in church year after year for many reasons, but always had an awkward guilty feeling ... I believed, but did I really? Was I a true Christian? Science has many mysteries, but also concrete proof. Would someone notice and call me out on it? Until yesterday ...
To hear a Pastor, my own Pastor, basically pull thoughts right from my head was amazing and enlightening. It made me want to stand up and shout “HALLELUJAH! PRAISE THE LORD!” Like an old Baptist woman in the Deep South. I turned to my husband and whispered “finally.” He looked confused. I explained later that just knowing it is okay to think that God and evolution can coexist has lifted an enormous guilt that I have had for years. It was finally okay to feel what I feel when my very own Pastor expresses the same beliefs.
So thank you!

Clearly for some, embracing science can strengthen personal religious beliefs.

Equally important, of course, is taking an active public stand. In Texas, where evolution is regularly under political attack by the State Board of Education (SBOE), Evolution Weekend has helped congregations fight for educational policy that respects modern science. A Texas minister wrote me about making the case in the public square:

Friday night we had a guest speaker, a young assistant professor from the University of Texas, who helped everyone understand the issues of science, Darwin, creationism, and intelligent design. Sunday morning, we watched the video Kansas v. Darwin and then had an hour with our local member of the State Board of Education (who happens to be on the correct side of our statewide debates). That, in turn, led to a campaign to get members of the congregation to write their friends in districts where other members of the SBOE are iffy, and to ask doctors, scientists, and others to push these people to keep their votes in favor of high-quality science and not to give in to pressure from the right wing.

The story clearly demonstrates how the notion that religion and science are necessarily at war with one another is an urban myth perpetrated by those who find it in their dogmatic self-interest to persuade people to believe in an intrinsic conflict. Reality is far more interesting!