Scientists and Christian clergy ally for science, but is it a bond made in heaven?

clergyletter.jpg Credit Tray Butler

On February 20th, the infamously pro-intelligent design Discovery Institute released news that over 500 doctoral scientists had signed its statement “publicly expressing their skepticism about the contemporary theory of Darwinian evolution.”

A day earlier, a newly launched coalition of scientists, educators and clergy members called the Alliance for Science revealed a converse document at the annual meeting of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The Clergy Letter Project snagged the signatures of 10,000 clerics on a document that in part states, “We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests.”

A February 21st article in The New York Times outed most of the signers of the Discovery Institute statement as evangelical non-biologists, stripping the Institute’s claims of whatever credibility the scientists had lent them.

The fight over evolution is so often portrayed as a war between science and religion. The participating clergy members in the Clergy Letter are varied in terms of both geography and denomination, and their signatures seem to indicate that science and faith can be fully compatible. However, that may not actually be the case, as guerilla interviewing of some of the signers revealed the clerics aren’t all on the same page, namely the one that says, “We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth.”

Michael Zimmerman, dean of the College of Letters and Science at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, began the Clergy Letter Project after seeing a “Nightline” broadcast, in which fundamentalist ministers from Dover, Pennsylvania, presented the debate on evolution as a choice between heaven and hell.

“The option that these ministers were presenting to the American public was that you have to choose religion or science,” Zimmerman said. “And that, to me, was just such a false dichotomy that it made no sense to sit back and let that be what was being said in the name of Christianity.”

Zimmerman recognized the potential power of pro-science clergy to appeal to non-fundamentalist Christians who may favor evolution but fear God’s disapproval. So, via an electronic “spread the word” campaign, he collected over 10,000 signatures by the beginning of December 2005. And in February the Alliance for Science adopted Zimmerman’s list.

“Even before we found [Zimmerman], we understood that the key to this whole thing was, in fact, to find the clergy—and there are many of them around in this area—who are sympathetic to science and see no contradiction between science and religion,” said Alliance for Science Chairman Irv Wainer.

The man who wrote the letter itself, Rev. John McFadden, pastor of the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Appleton, Wisconsin, whose wife works for Zimmerman, fully believes in the synergy of science and religion. He quotes theologian Karl Barth when describing his relationship to the Bible, saying, “I take the Bible far too seriously to take it literally.”

“There are many scientists who do not particularly want to welcome religion, in any form, to their table, even as there are many religious folks in this day and age who will not welcome science or reason to their table,” McFadden said. “I have equal difficulty with both perspectives.”

While most of the signing clergy interviewed espoused the common theme that their religion is pro-science, many others were mistaken about the science they apparently supported.

Lenny Eugene Black, high priest of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Qualicum Beach, British Columbia—one of only two Mormons to sign the letter—said he believes that God works through science, and he would believe anything that good science “proved” but would have a very hard time accepting that man evolved from another species. Furthermore, Black said he believes Darwinian evolution hasn’t yet met the burden of proof.

“We believe in creation, and we can also believe in some of the aspects of Darwinism, but not all of them,” he said. “We don’t necessarily believe that the stages of man are actually what science is saying they are, because there hasn’t been a proof yet to substantiate them.”

Several other clergymen interviewed echoed this notion. The responses of these clergy members—while hardly a statistically significant sub-population—cast some doubt as to whether the 10,000 Clergy Letter signers are all the whole-hearted supporters of science, as the Alliance for Science claims.

In a country where over 80% of the population identifies as Christian and over half of the population rejects evolution, sending the message that a person can be science-positive and a good Christian is a noble tactic. These organizations will have to rely on the few vocal supporters who are truly devoted to this cause—because they may not have the army of eager clergy backing them up. The fundamentalists have well-honed battle skills and a strike-first mentality.

“Clergy, like those that have signed the Clergy Letter Project—those that have given away a portion of the truth in order to defend the rest of it—are no real friends of true religion or the Bible,” Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, said via e-mail. “God is…the one who established all scientific laws, and good science will point to Him. That’s why we needn’t fear that there will ever be a discovery of some scientific fact that contradicts the Bible properly interpreted.”

Zimmerman had no intention of trying to turn the hearts and minds of the 30 million American fundamentalists towards science with the Clergy Letter. Fundamentalist leaders, he said, are actively guiding their substantial herds away from non-literalist, pro-science thought.

“We are not trying to convince fundamentalists to change their beliefs,” Zimmerman said. “If somebody believes the literal interpretation of the King James Version of the Bible, that is their right, and I am not in a position nor do I want to convince them otherwise.”

Originally published March 23, 2006

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