In July of 1925, The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes was argued in the small town of Dayton, Tennessee. Better known as the Scopes Monkey trial, the state sued substitute teacher John T. Scopes for violating the recently-enacted Butler Act, which banned teaching human evolution in public schools. To most onlookers, the case seemed to spark a war between religion and science, but the truth of the dispute is much more nuanced. The dispute had little to do with school, and more to do with how, and if, religion is compatible with evolution.
For the most part, the dichotomy persisted after Scopes. Discussion of evolution in schools has often been met with religious counter-teachings. The issue is posited as though the two sides are fundamentally incompatible: religious faith means that you cannot believe in climate change or that the earth is billions of years old, or any number of modern scientific understandings.
The Clergy Letter Project aims to change this.
Bringing together members of both faith and science communities to discuss the compatibility between the two, and how to best work together to better the world, the Clergy Project has a focus on the teaching of evolution.
It was founded in 2004 by Michael Zimmerman, who orchestrated the first letter on December 16, 2004, in response to a dispute about teaching evolution at a public school in Grantsburg, Wisconsin. Over 200 clergy members signed onto this first campaign. The letters, sent to the Grantsburg School Board and to the superintendent, were ultimately successful in changing the policies about teaching evolution.
The initiative quickly snowballed into something larger than a school board dispute. From this humble beginning, the Clergy Letter Project has spearheaded an important dialog on compatibility of science within communities of faith. Numerous congregational community leaders, educators, and scientists beyond that initial circle of clergy now stand together for evolutionary science and try to clarify how religion doesn’t have to be seen as an antagonist to science.
In the project description, Zimmerman notes that “numerous clergy from most denominations have tremendous respect for evolutionary theory and have embraced it as a core component of human knowledge, fully harmonious with religious faith.”
In fact, the group’s consortium of scientific consultants go a long way toward validating this mission. Consisting of over 1,000 academics from all fifty US states, along with DC, Puerto Rico, and thirty-one other countries, these scientists serve as a resource for faith leaders to better their understanding of evolutionary science and bring that understanding to their congregation.
Jason Wiles, an associate professor of biology at Syracuse University, is one of the scientific consultants whose place at the Clergy Letter Project offers a direct connection to those curious clergy. He is optimistic that the project will have a positive impact on defining the future relationship and dialogue between religion and science. “We hope to engage people of faith, with the help of clergy, in discussions that de-escalate perceived tension between science and religion” Wiles explains.
We would like to diminish the politicization and the disparagement or neglect of the teaching of evolution in public schools, protect the separation of church and state, and promote well-informed discussion of evolution in religious congregations who wish to engage with scientists and educators who are willing to help.
For people like Wiles, the letters serve as a useful catalyst to the dialogue around evolution. He believes that the letters will help individuals to “overcome the mistaken notion that one needs necessarily to abandon religious faith in order to understand and accept evolution, and, further, to demonstrate that teaching evolution in schools is actually supported by religious leaders across many traditions.”
Wiles’s role in coordinating the voices of humanist participants is an especially important one. As he notes, “in matters where various traditions are in dialogue, it is important that humanist voices are represented. Although there are, of course, differences in what people of various faiths believe, they generally agree on many fundamental truths. Humanists share far more beliefs with people from other traditions than they might understand, and that is worth communicating.” By working with this diverse, interfaith community, humanists can play a large part in reducing the stigma against atheists in America, as well as advance the national understanding of evolution science.
“[O]pponents of teaching evolution have often claimed that doing so in public schools is tantamount to an improper endorsement of what they construe as the religion of secular humanism,” notes Wiles, asserting that the Humanist Clergy Letter refutes this claim. “And, honestly, just as a Baptist pastor, for example, probably wouldn’t really want to have religious education turned over to a public school biology teacher untrained in their particular theology, neither would humanists want their philosophical tenets being explained in the science classroom by someone similarly unqualified and in this inappropriate context.”
Each year in early February, the Clergy Letter Project organizes an Evolution Weekend, packed with events for a community of religious leaders and scientists to come together and create a more positive cooperative environment. Learn more at theclergyletterproject.org.