August 2014 Newsletter

            In this Clergy Letter Project update, you’ll find the following five items:

  1. A free book for Evolution Weekend 2015;
  2. Astrobiology News for August 2014:  Rosetta: Deciphering the Origin of Our Solar System;
  3. Sinai and Synapses Event on Tape;
  4. Speakers for Evolution Weekend or Any Other Time; and
  5. Evolution Challenged in Ohio and South Carolina.

1. A free book for Evolution Weekend 2015

Two good friends of The Clergy Letter Project, Thomas McFaul and Al Brunsting, recently had an exciting new book released by Wipf and Stock.  The book is entitled God Is Here to Stay:  Science, Evolution, and Belief in God, and, as the cover indicates, they “approach the question of god’s existence from an entirely fresh perspective.”  They go on to “show how science, evolution, and belief in God have become increasingly integrated and mutually supportive.”

The book has been widely and positively endorsed.  For instance, Owen Gingerich, Emeritus Professor of Astronomy and History of Science at Harvard, has said, “The authors take an unusual approach in ranking the probabilities of various arguments being convincing for the existence of God.”  Francisco Ayala, 2010 Templeton Prize winner and Professor of Biology at University of California, Irvine, noted that “The manuscript is well written and well argued; surely it will be an important addition to the God-and-science literature.”  And Gordon Leidner, author of Of God and Dice, enthused that “This book includes some of the hottest topics in science today, such as the relationship of the brain to spirituality, how inanimate matter became life, and the evolution of conscious, self-aware life.”

If you want to learn more about the book and its underlying premise, take a look at two videos featuring Tom McFaul.  The first briefly summarizes the contents of the book while the second consists of Tom’s conversation with Dr. Alyce McKenzie, Professor of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology.
Given the book’s focus, I can well imagine it helping many of you prepare for Evolution Weekend 2015.  And I can imagine some of you creating a book group within your congregation to read and discuss the text.  To help facilitate these activities, the publisher has generously donated 20 free copies for Clergy Letter Project members who feel that the book might be of use to them for Evolution Weekend 2015.  I’ll award a free copy to every fourth person who requests one, until all copies are claimed. 

_____ Yes, I would like a free copy of Tom McFaul and Al Brunsting’s book God is Here to Stay:  Science, Evolution, and Belief in God.  If I’m awarded a free copy, I agree to pay $5 for postage and handling.

            _____ Please add me to the list of those participating in Evolution Weekend 2015 (13-15 February 2015).

City and State (Country, if not USA):
Your name:

           _____ My congregation is already listed as participating in Evolution Weekend 2015.

If you aren’t lucky enough to win a free copy, through the additional generosity of the publisher, you can purchase copies of the book and receive a 40 percent discount (through the end of September).  Simply go to the book’s web site and enter the code word “BELIEF” when prompted at checkout.     

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2.  Astrobiology News for August 2014:  Rosetta: Deciphering the Origin of Our Solar System

In this month’s Astrobiology News, Clergy Letter Project consultant and Adler Planetarium astronomer Grace Wolf-Chase discusses an amazingly exciting space mission – one that has caught my fancy!  As she explains, the work will likely go a long way to enable us to understand much about the origins of the Solar System.

Launched 10 years ago in March 2004, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta became the first spacecraft to orbit a comet on August 6, 2014(1).  Rosetta will remain with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko as the comet orbits the Sun, and will deploy a lander to the surface in November. This mission is an international endeavor – NASA has provided three of its 11 instruments, and U.S. scientists are partnering on several non-U.S. instruments.  The spacecraft is named after the famous Rosetta Stone, which was key to sorting out the civilization of ancient Egypt.  In a similar fashion, Rosetta is envisioned to shed light on the oldest building blocks of our Solar System, namely comets.  The probe’s lander is aptly named Philae, for the island on which an obelisk with a bilingual inscription that enabled the hieroglyphs of the Rosetta Stone to be deciphered was discovered.  Appropriately, the spacecraft carries a micro-etched nickel disk donated by the Long Now Foundation that is inscribed with over 13,000 pages of text in over 1,500 different languages(2).

Once considered omens of disaster (“bad star”) by many ancient civilizations, comets are now best described as “dirty snowballs” (or “icy mudballs”) that have spent most of the 4.6-billion-year history of the Solar System in its frozen outer reaches, thus preserving a more or less pristine record of the earliest composition of our Solar System.  In antiquity, many believed comets foretold the future; today, we think they can help us understand the past.  Comets are thought to have helped deliver water, and perhaps the ingredients for life, to the Earth during a period of catastrophic collisions of asteroids and comets with larger Solar System bodies about 4 billion years ago.

As comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko approaches closer to the Sun in its orbit, the lander will provide information on the chemical and physical properties of a selected area of the comet’s surface, while the main spacecraft will analyze the dust grains and gas flowing from the comet’s nucleus as it is heated by the Sun. The planned experiments will provide insight into the origin and history of comets, as well as the origin of the Earth’s oceans and atmosphere.  By measuring in great detail the nature of organic compounds (molecules rich in carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen), including complex organics, Rosetta is also expected to shed light on the early path to life on Earth.  Beyond the insights comets provide into our origins, there is a very practical aspect to the study of comets – someday we may need to divert or destroy a comet that is headed toward Earth, and the more we know about a comet’s structure and operation, the better our chances of protecting life on our planet!

Grace Wolf-Chase, Ph.D. (

1.  See and
2.  See


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3.  Sinai and Synapses Event on Tape

In late May, I had the good fortune to participate in a panel discussion at Central Synagogue in New York City.  The discussion was hosted by Sinai and Synapses, a new organization whose mission “is to offer people a worldview that is both scientifically grounded and spiritually uplifting.”  (Quick disclaimer:  I serve on the Advisory Board for the organization.)  The panel was centered on the question Can Science and Religion Co-Exist?  Clergy Letter Project member Rabbi Geoff Mitelman, founder of Sinai and Synapses, moderated the panel.  The panel consisted of Clergy Letter Project member Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, President of Clal:  The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, Dr. Hank Davis, professor of psychology at the University of Guelph, and me.

I’m delighted to say that the 90 minute event was captured on tape and it can be viewed by going to the Sinai and Synapses site.   I hope you find the discussion interesting.


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4.  Speakers for Evolution Weekend or Any Other Time

The Clergy Letter Project has again made arrangements with Ovation Agency for Clergy Letter Project members to receive reduced rates for speakers.  If you contact the good folks at Ovation and tell them you’re part of The Clergy Letter Project, you’ll be able to invite some wonderful speakers to your venue for a very good price.  For instance, Ovation represents Grace Wolf-Chase, author of our monthly Astrobiology News piece, Bron Taylor, author of Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future, and Jeff Schloss, editor of The Believing Primate: Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Perspectives on the Origin of Religion.  Ovation also represents me.  Take a look at their web site and invite someone to come and talk!


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5.  Evolution Challenged in Ohio and South Carolina

Recent actions in both Ohio and South Carolina present threats to both the teaching of evolution and respect for religion.  In both states, actions taken in the name of open inquiry run the risk of promoting a single religious perspective while undermining scientific education.  

As explained in an article in the Cincinnati Enquirer, a bill introduced in the Ohio House includes language that some might see as innocuous:  "The standards in science shall be based in core existing disciplines of biology, chemistry, and physics; incorporate grade-level mathematics and be referenced to the mathematics standards; focus on academic and scientific knowledge rather than scientific processes; and prohibit political or religious interpretation of scientific facts in favor of another."  Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, was quoted as explaining the problems with the bill:  "It's a hugely bad idea.  It wouldn't require districts to teach (creationism) but would allow them to. That puts districts in a very difficult position, especially if there are a lot of groups in that area that are supportive of teaching creationism. Some will be tempted to push the limits and teach creationism.”

An article in the Washington Post discussed a motion introduced at the South Carolina Board of Education and Education Oversight Committee.  The proposal singles out evolution as being a topic that should be viewed as particularly open to alternative views.  The article notes, “Sen. Mike Fair (R), who in 2005 proposed changes to how evolution was taught, characterized the new proposal as giving teachers, ‘more elbow room to stimulate critical thinking.’” 

Both of these initiatives are designed for only one purpose:  to call the science of evolution into question and to promote one very narrow view of religion.


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As summer winds down, at least in the northern hemisphere, I hope you are all thriving.  While I recognize that there are many critically important issues claiming your time, I very much appreciate the fact that promoting a healthy relationship between religion and science continues to garner some of your attention.  Thank you for that!  Please forward this month’s newsletter to one or more colleagues and ask them to drop me a note at to join our movement.  And, if you haven’t yet done so, please sign up for Evolution Weekend 2015.  Together we are making a difference.


Michael Zimmerman
Founder and Executive Director
The Clergy Letter Project