A national group -- organized by a dean in Wisconsin -- is seeking to spread the word: Many members of the clergy see no conflict between their faith and the teaching of evolution.
The Clergy Letter Project -- which now has 10,000 signatories from Christian clergy, including many theologians or others who work at religious colleges -- announced at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that it would be joining with groups of scientists to back the Alliance for Science, which will oppose attempts to teach creationism and intelligent design, and will push for more federal spending on science and technology.
The letter and the new group are part of an expanding effort by scientists to go on the offensive against groups that challenge evolution using arguments that have been widely discredited by researchers. The statement that the clergy signed is a strongly worded defense of evolution -- and in particular of the idea that there is any conflict between belief in God and study of evolution.
"We the undersigned, Christian clergy from many different traditions, believe that the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist," the letter says. "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. To reject this truth or to treat it as 'one theory among others' is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children. We believe that among God’s good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator."
The letter was organized by Michael Zimmerman, an evolutionary biologist who is dean of the College of Letters and Science at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh.
The idea behind the letter, he said in an interview Monday, is to confront head on the way anti-evolution groups and people are trying to gain support. Zimmerman said he was watching a news show one night and realized that the argument being put forth by some fundamentalist leaders was: "You have to choose. You can choose evolution and go to hell or you can choose faith."
Of that idea, Zimmerman said, "it's a ridiculous position," but it is also influential. "Americans are a religious people," he said. "That was a false dichotomy, but if you give Americans that choice, they will pick religion."
At the time, Zimmerman was in the middle of a fight -- ultimately successful -- against a Wisconsin school district's attempts to change its curriculum to favor intelligent design over evolution. Zimmerman had been involved in similar fights in Ohio in the 1980s, when he taught at Oberlin College, and said that was where he first came to believe in the importance of clergy in defending science. And not just clergy, but Christian clergy. "That's where the attacks are coming from," he said, explaining that he politely turned down requests from Jewish and Muslim clergy to sign his letter because he feared that their inclusion might undercut the argument that scientists need to make.
Toward that end, he also doesn't discuss his own religious views or those of scientists, except to say that there are researchers of all faiths and no faith.
There isn't any real debate in science about evolution, Zimmerman said. But religious people are bombarded with "shrill false attacks" on evolution and need to know that so many people of faith endorse evolution. "We're trying to elevate the quality of debate in this country," he said.
"The focus is that 10,000 Christian clergy are confident that modern science and particularly evolutionary biology has nothing to scare them and they are fully comfortable with the principles of modern science," he said. Opponents of evolution, he added "are incredibly dangerous to higher education and American society."
Rob Crowther, director of communications for the Discovery Institute, the group that has organized much of the intelligent design movement, scoffed at the new campaign on behalf of evolution. Crowther said that intelligent design supporters see the issue as "purely a scientific debate" so the views of clergy members are irrelevant. "Can you imagine if the Discovery Institute issued a list of clergy opposing Darwinism?" he asked.
The views of clergy "don't make any difference," he said. "We don't think there is anything religious at all to the theory of intelligent design."
Zimmerman said that argument is part of the problem -- and why scientists need the clout of clergy to fight back. "They are trying to extend science from an explanation of the natural world to something beyond that -- by including the supernatural. If you include everything in science, you have included nothing in science."