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Religion and science: avoiding false choices

By Michael Zimmerman - posted Thursday, 18 February 2010


Even though we are now well into the 21st century, some are working relentlessly to make it impossible to reconcile a scientific world view with a religious perspective. It is certainly not an accident that this non-productive battle usually focuses on the theory of evolution. Some of the loudest voices, after all, repeatedly claim that people must choose between religion and evolution, arguing that it’s impossible to embrace both.

A growing movement, The Clergy Letter Project, is working to put an end to this false choice and should help us get beyond the name calling that is so common when this issue arises.

The Clergy Letter Project consists of many thousands of religious leaders and scientists who understand that continuing to allow the promotion of an artificial battle between religion and science is bad for both - and is unnecessary.

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From a scientific perspective, evolution is as well established and non-controversial a topic as any. Indeed, the scientific support for evolution is overwhelming and far too voluminous to discuss in this setting. What’s worth pointing out, however, is that virtually every major, professional scientific organisation in the world has endorsed the teaching of evolution.

There probably aren’t all that many things upon which the Islamic Republic of Iran and Israel agree. Throw in Australia, Cuba, Indonesia, Tajikistan, the United States and Zimbabwe and the list gets even smaller. However, the national academies of science in each of these countries, as well as 60 other such academies, have all endorsed a statement on the teaching of evolution (PDF 104KB).

Similarly, The Clergy Letter Project has amassed a list of almost 900 scientists from 29 countries who have agreed to work with clergy members to improve their understanding of evolution and the nature of scientific investigation.

Thousands of clergy members are also stepping forward to help people appreciate the relationship possible between religion and science. Through the auspices of The Clergy Letter Project, religious congregations from a wide array of faiths have agreed to celebrate Evolution Weekend annually, the weekend closest to the anniversary of Darwin’s birth, February 12.

The goals of this event are as simple as they are important. First, clergy members are using Evolution Weekend to raise the quality of the dialogue on this important topic. They’re moving beyond sound bites into meaningful discussion. Second, they’re demonstrating that those who are attempting to define religion in their own narrow image would, if successful, exclude a huge number of religious individuals. Congregations from all over the world have participated in these events with sermons, guest speakers, classes, lunch time discussions and videos.

Because the attacks on evolution have been most pronounced in the United States, The Clergy Letter Project began by asking Christian clergy members in the US to sign a powerful two-paragraph letter promoting a shared understanding and acceptance of evolution and Christianity. To date, more than 12,400 have done so. The purpose wasn’t to take a vote on evolution, as some have attempted to argue. Rather, the goal was to make it clear that religious leaders understand that people need not choose between their faith and modern science.

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What could be clearer than these sentences from The Christian Clergy Letter?

“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.”

Soon after the Christian Clergy Letter became public, American rabbis and Unitarian Universalists ministers in the United States expressed a desire for similar letters. Hence The Rabbi Letter and The UU Clergy Letter were born and both have been attracting large numbers of signatures.

All of these activities should conclusively demonstrate that the battle over evolution that seems not to go away is not a battle between religion and science. Rather it is largely a fight between those who have a very narrow view of religion and religious leaders who think a good deal more broadly. When fundamentalism trumps science, all of us lose.

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About the Author

Michael Zimmerman is the founder and executive director of The Clergy Letter Project.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Michael Zimmerman

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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