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Further Reading

Department: Surveillance

Churches of Darwin

Or Is Michael Zimmerman's Clergy Letter Project Busted?

by Terrell Clemmons

Background:

In 2004, the Grantsville, Wisconsin school board proposed a policy of teaching alternative theories of origins in its district schools. After debate, the policy was amended to stipulate that "students shall be able to explain the scientific strengths and weaknesses of evolutionary theory," but it did not mandate that creationism or intelligent design be taught. Despite this, academics from across the state rained down sharply worded letters of protest to the board and superintendent. In concert with the academic letter campaign, Michael Zimmerman, who worked at the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh, prepared and submitted a statement of objection signed by nearly 200 Wisconsin clergy. Thus was born the Clergy Letter Project.

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 39

The following year, with the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial in the news, Zimmerman went national and collected signatures from 10,000 clergy who agreed with him that religious truth and scientific truth are "of a different order" and that "evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests."

Eager to do still more, Zimmerman declared February 12, 2006, Darwin's next birthday, the first annual Evolution Sunday, and some 500 congregations across America participated in its observance. In 2008, the festival was renamed Evolution Weekend, and it has been celebrated ever since.

It's an odd incongruity that Zimmerman, an atheist for fifty years running, should have started the Clergy Letter Project, but in addition to dabbling in clergy--related lobbying, he holds a Ph.D. in ecology, is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and was named a "Friend of Darwin" by the National Center for Science Education. Since 2010 he has also blogged at the Huffington Post.

Reason for Surveillance:

According to its website, the Clergy Letter Project's objectives are "to demonstrate that religion and science can be compatible" and "to elevate the quality of the debate of this issue." For reasonable people, though, the first is unnecessary (we get that already), and the second is exactly what Zimmerman does not do.

Far from elevating the debate, he degrades it. Where he ought to draw clear lines, he blurs boundaries—by, for example, failing to provide definitions for such highly elastic terms as "religion," "science," and "evolution"—and when he does draw lines, he misplaces them, most egregiously by miscategorizing intelligent-design science as religious creationism and then summarily dismissing its theorists as "fundamentalists." For a scientist, this is glaringly sloppy thinking.

But his error runs even deeper than that. All thinkers worth their salt know that truth is comprehensive and holistic. Truth may be studied from different perspectives, but to elevate one's personal perspective over all others as he does—as if his is the ultimate lens through which all other perspectives must be filtered—is either bald intellectual imperialism or willful epistemological blindness.

Most Degrading Stand:

Alas, those who suppress the truth may end up entangled in contradictions. According to Zimmerman, "fundamentalists" comprise, ironically, both a "danger" that we ignore to our peril and a "charade" in its "final days." They are simultaneously "frightening" and "utter garbage." Figure that out.

Fortunately, as far as churches are concerned, the Clergy Letter Project can probably be considered a bust. In 2016, only 368 congregations worldwide celebrated Evolution Weekend, about a third fewer than the inaugural year's 500.

But then there's the wider outlet of the Huffington Post, where Zimmerman pounds the pop culture pulpit over the biggest fly in his ointment—the Discovery Institute. Why does it oppose him? Why does it do what it does? "It all comes down to religion and money," he says. No word on whether that's a scientific or religious truth.

Obviously, it's neither. It's base demagoguery, and it debases both science and religion. Better to dismiss it as "his truth," and look elsewhere for reliable science and religion. •


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