How the Clergy Letter Project Brings Together Different Voices

How the Clergy Letter Project Brings Together Different Voices

This is the text of a presentation given by Dr. Zimmerman at the Scientists in Synagogues workshop on June 28th, 2023.
Thank you, Geoff, both for that introduction and for all of the wonderful work you’ve done to make the Scientists in Synagogues program a reality. It’s both a pleasure and an honor to be here with all of you today.
I’m going to speak about some of the consequences, both intended and unintended, that can occur when religious leaders and scientists come together. Although there are many examples I could use to make my point, and to encourage you to be aggressive in implementing the plans you’ve laid out, I’m going to focus on the situation I know best: the efforts of The Clergy Letter Project.
In case the details I’m going to relate are boring or too specific, I’m going to begin with my conclusions.
First, and most importantly, finding ways to bring religious leaders and scientists together yields positive results for both religion and science.
I’ll mention some of the benefits to religion first.
At the level of congregations, we’ve found that setting aside time to discuss the compatibility of religion and science often yields increases in attendance at services. No, attendance doesn’t reach High Holy Day levels, but the increase has often been significant.
At the community level, articulating the perspective that religion and science need not be in conflict helps offset the unfortunate perspective that all religion is indistinguishable from radical fundamentalism, or these days, Christian nationalism. Too many, too often, define religion by those representing its most extreme forms. Publicly promoting the compatibility between religion and science demonstrates just how absurd this characterization is and helps people recognize that the “problem” isn’t with religion but with extremists.
But don’t think that this is a one-way street. Promoting the compatibility of religion and science also has benefits for science and scientists.
When science is under attack in our schools, as it certainly has been with respect to the teaching of evolution and climate change, the voices that carry the most weight with school boards are not scientists but rather local clergy members. When clergy members speak out to promote a scientific perspective, to make it clear that scientific conclusions do not threaten their religious beliefs, and to demonstrate that those attacking science on religious grounds are doing so in a way that runs counter to the religious beliefs of many in the community, school boards have been more likely to take notice.
Similarly, when congregations have robust discussions about scientific issues, congregants are more likely to defend science against fundamentalist attacks in discussions with neighbors, in letters to the editor, and in public settings such as school board meetings.
And, just as too many characterize religion by its most extreme versions, too many draw conclusions about scientists by the actions of a small but vocal minority. Scientists are often portrayed as being aggressively anti-religious – and some are. But when scientists are seen to be working with religious leaders, that stereotype falls to the wayside. Scientists working with clergy members, regardless of their personal beliefs, are seen as open-minded and their advice on scientific issues is more likely to be heeded.
The work you are undertaking in your congregations via the Scientists in Synagogues program, therefore, fits into a rich and broad tradition and will likely enhance the intellectual discourse within your congregations and, if you promote your programming more broadly, help advance a robust understanding of the relationship between religion and science in your community beyond the walls of your synagogues.
Let me now turn to The Clergy Letter Project to provide some specifics to flesh out the conclusions I’ve outlined.
When The Clergy Letter Project was founded almost 20 years ago, it was focused on bringing Christian clergy members together to combat the threat posed by public schools attempting to teach so-called “creation science” alongside evolution – or instead of evolution. (As an aside, given a ruling by the US Supreme Court last year, a ruling which largely throws out what has been known as the Lemon test, from Lemon v. Kurtzman, which provides guidance on how to determine if an action falls afoul of the establishment clause in the first amendment to the US Constitution, creationism may well, once again be permitted to be taught in public school science classes).
The initial efforts by The Clergy Letter Project consisted of collecting signatures from Christian clergy members across the United States on a letter promoting the teaching of evolution in public schools and making the case that evolution poses no threat to deeply held religious beliefs.
The two-paragraph Christian Clergy Letter, written by a United Church of Christ minister, includes the following three sentences: “Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts… . We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.”
The goal of that initiative was threefold:
  • To demonstrate that religion and evolutionary biology are compatible;
  • To demonstrate that Fundamentalist ministers who demand that people choose between religion and modern science are not speaking for all religious leaders; and
  • To raise the quality of the discourse on this important topic, to move beyond sound bites.
Were we successful? Absolutely. One of the immediate results was that scores of clergy members who signed The Christian Clergy Letter told me how relieved they were to discover that they were not alone; that there were so many others who shared their beliefs. To date, the Christian Clergy Letter has now amassed over 15,600 signatures from clergy representing every US state.
But clergy wanted to do more, so we created Evolution Sunday. On the Sunday closest to the anniversary of Darwin’s birth, 12 February, congregations agreed to do something to promote the compatibility of religion and science. Some clergy members delivered a sermon, some hosted a speaker, some led a book discussion, some offered a Sunday school class while still others created unique opportunities for their congregations to engage with this topic.
When we began, we focused on Christian clergy members because the most vocal attacks on the teaching of evolution came from Christian fundamentalists. But rabbis felt left out, so The Clergy Letter Project evolved. A rabbi wrote The Rabbi Letter, a missive parallel in structure to The Christian Clergy Letter, and it has collected 840 signatures – and I hope a couple more after today! You should all have received a copy of The Rabbi Letter in your materials for today’s session.
Rabbis also wanted to engage with their congregations, so we renamed Evolution Sunday Evolution Weekend to accommodate their wishes. To date, we’ve now reached well over one million congregants via our annual Evolution Weekend events and untold millions via news reports discussing those events. My belief that we’ve been doing something worthwhile was supported when, on the Evolution Weekend commemorating Darwin’s 200 birthday and the 150’th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, both NPR and Fox News featured positive reports on our efforts. Imagine that — NPR and Fox News agreeing on something, and on something controversial.
We didn’t stop there. To date, in addition to our original Christian Clergy Letter and the Rabbi Letter, we have companion pieces signed by Unitarian Universalist clergy members, Buddhist clergy members and American Humanist clergy members.
And last year, the membership of The Clergy Letter Project voted to rename Evolution Weekend yet again. This time, recognizing increasingly that the relationship between religion and science extends well beyond evolution, and that science itself has become politicized in a manner that is unhealthy, membership decided that Evolution Weekend will henceforth be known as Religion and Science Weekend.
This change, as I just said, was voted on by the group’s membership and reflects stances that the group has taken over the years and the changing times in which we’re living.
A couple of examples will make this point:
  • On both religious and scientific grounds, The Clergy Letter Project has spoken out forcefully against the policy of separating immigrant children from their parents;
  • At the peak of the pandemic, members of The Clergy Letter Project resisted ill-founded calls to prematurely open congregations for face-to-face worship, making it clear that they would follow the lead of epidemiologists rather than raucous politicians and media personalities;
  • On both religious and scientific grounds, The Clergy Letter Project has made it clear that all people are closely related and that racial discrimination makes no sense; and
  • On both religious and scientific grounds, The Clergy Letter Project has urged that immediate action be taken to combat climate change.
This last point deserves a bit more attention. A team of clergy members and scientists drafted a letter entitled The Climate Crisis: A Clergy Call to Action. This note carefully articulates why the climate crisis is both a scientific and a theological crisis and calls for immediate action. The letter concludes with this powerful sentiment: “Our religious communities should lead in asking a simple question: How can we be good ancestors? A powerful question. A spiritual practice. A call to action.”
The Climate Crisis letter already has been signed by over 1,100 clergy members representing 15 countries – and, perhaps a few more will be added today! Again, you should all have received a copy of the Climate Crisis Letter.
What’s most important about all of this is that The Clergy Letter Project has grown and evolved because of the interest clergy members have had in demonstrating how their embrace of science is supported by their faith and in their belief that religion and science working together can help make the world a better place.
Three final points need to be made. First, the supposed controversy between religion and science has been succinctly and wonderfully summed up by the Dalai Lama in a quotation that introduces the Buddhist Clergy Letter. The Dalia Lama said, “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims or adopt them as metaphor.”
I suspect that most of you here today would be comfortable with that sentiment with respect to Judaism. Besides, too often we seem not to recognize the power of metaphor and its ability to teach us much about the world around us.
One more point about metaphor. Humans have forever been asking what sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. At one point, it was posited that we were the only animals able to make tools, but we’ve discovered that many others, from monkeys to crows, can do just that. Then it was the ability to converse but that, too, fell by the wayside when we taught some gorillas and chimps sign language. Some argued that it was the ability of one generation to teach the next generation learned skills, but we’ve discovered that a fairly wide variety of species actually engage in teaching. So, it’s just possible that the one thing that sets humans apart from other animals is our ability to make use of metaphor. At least, so far, we’ve not yet discovered any species other than humans able do so. To me, therefore, metaphor is something to celebrate.
My second of three final points concerns the nature of the supposed war between religion and science. I believe that such a war, in fact, exists. However, the participants are very different than many would have us believe. Rather than clergy being on one side and scientists being on the other, fundamentalists are on one side while the opposition consists of both scientists and the vast majority of clergy representing most of the world’s religions. It’s critically important to point this out to the general public because it will counter the pressure they feel to choose between religion and science. People feel a sense of liberation once they realize that they don’t have to give up either science or their faith.
My final point is that in this issue, as in so many others, it’s important for us to push back against fundamentalism because fundamentalism is anti-intellectual and disrespectful of difference. I hasten to add that fundamentalism comes in many forms. This morning I’ve been referring to right-wing religious fundamentalists but there are far-left fundamentalists who are equally dangerous. One example are the proselytizing New Atheists who attack anything associated with religion. We need to be aware of and counter the threat of fundamentalism whether it comes from the right or the left.
The projects you are undertaking are important in so many ways and fit into a robust tradition of attempting to bridge a gulf that many have thought to be too deep a divide.
A critical aspect of all of this work, something that goes well beyond the relationship between religion and science, is the idea of communicating across differences. To do this well, it is imperative that we learn to listen as well as to talk. Yes, we all certainly believe that we have something important to teach others but we need to realize that, if we listen carefully, especially to those with whom we disagree, we will likely learn something important as well. And, even more importantly, by interacting respectfully, we can develop trust, trust that might just lead us to some common ground.
Thanks for providing me the opportunity to speak with you this morning.


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