August 2016 Newsletter

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

  1. Evolution Weekend 2017 and a Free Book Offer;
  2. Astrobiology News for August 2017:  Astrobiology Primer v2.0;
  3. A Petition Concerning Pierre Teilhard de Chardin;
  4. Ark Encounter Opens; and
  5. Annual Membership Drive.

1.  Evolution Weekend 2017 and a Free Book Offer

I’m delighted to say that the organizers of the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the publication of The Universe Story by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry have donated 20 copies of the book to help Clergy Letter Project members prepare for Evolution Weekend 2017.

Library Journal offered a glowing review of the book when it first appeared: “Physicist Swimme and cultural historian Berry here examine and synthesize a vast body of knowledge and hypothesis from the fields of astronomy, physics, biology, anthropology, and history. They seek to provide a concise but comprehensive story of the development and evolution of the universe, the earth, and humanity. The authors incorporate what they consider to be the most convincing hypothesis and take an inclusive perspective that views the entire universe as a continually developing, interconnected community. Their book presents a fascinating exploration of the earth's history and, in richly evocative language, paints a picture of the evolution of the universe as a tremendous, ongoing creative activity. The final chapter explores the growing human influence on the condition of the planet and pleads for ecological responsibility. This is an engaging presentation written in nontechnical language.”

If you think that The Universe Story will help you prepare for Evolution Weekend, let me know. I’ll award a free copy to every fourth respondent until all copies have been claimed.

_____ Yes, I would like to receive a free copy of The Universe Story. I agree to pay $5 for postage and handling if I’m selected to receive a copy and I agree to participate in Evolution Weekend 2017 (10-12 February 2017).

Name of Congregation:
City, State, Country:
Your Name:

        _____ My congregation is already listed as participating in Evolution Weekend 2017.

Whether you want a copy of this book or not, if you’re not yet listed as being scheduled to participate in Evolution Weekend 2017, I hope you take this opportunity to sign up now. Please look at the list to see if you’re present on it. If you are, you don’t need to do anything more. If you’re not, simply respond to this note asking to be listed and I’ll do the rest.

At this early time, a little less than six months before Evolution Weekend, we already have more than 140 participating congregations signed up representing 38 US states and five countries. Help us grow our list of participants by signing up now. Remember, if you can’t participate on the exact weekend of Evolution Weekend (10-12 February 2017), you can participate any time in the vicinity. And remember that participation can take any form you deem most appropriate for your congregation. Our goal is to improve the quality of the discussion about the relationship between religion and science – how you accomplish that goal is up to you!

I plan to make the Evolution Weekend 2017 website live next month, so it would be great to have a significant influx of additional participants by that time. Please sign up now.


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2.  Astrobiology News for August 2017:  Astrobiology Primer v2.0

In this month’s Astrobiology News, Clergy Letter Project consultant and Adler Planetarium astronomer Grace Wolf-Chase provides a fascinating look into the basics of astrobiology.

As many of you know, I’ve been writing short news articles on astrobiology for the monthly CLP e-newsletter for over 3 years. You may also have noticed that these pieces span a very broad range of topics. This is because astrobiology seeks to understand the full story of the evolution of life in the Universe – a huge task, indeed, so I don’t worry much about running out of subject matter! More than a collection of different disciplines, astrobiology transcends diverse subjects and explores major existential questions that human beings have pondered for millennia. Moreover, it raises numerous ethical issues that could affect the way we human beings see and conduct ourselves as a species.

The first NASA Astrobiology Workshop was held at NASA Ames Research Center in in 1996. It involved over 250 scientists from a broad range of the Earth, space, and life sciences. The workshop produced an ambitious roadmap defining the essential questions that would bring together many seemingly disparate fields of study; fields such as physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, geology, planetary science, microbiology, atmospheric science, oceanography, each of which has its own emphases and employs its own specialized jargon. The necessity of collaborating across these diverse disciplines eventually led to the production of a general overview of the exciting research areas and how they interrelate, including both the present state of knowledge as well as fundamental questions that astrobiologists are currently pursuing. The Astrobiology Primer was crafted ten years ago to address these needs.(1) Written by early-career astrobiologists, graduate students new to the field were the principal intended audience, but the community hoped the document would also be useful to a broader range of people for both personal study and teaching.

Since our knowledge and understanding of the Universe evolve continuously, the journal Astrobiology has just published Astrobiology Primer v2.0. This long-awaited second edition takes stock of what we’ve learned during the past ten years and highlights cutting-edge research efforts.(2) Among its contents is the ongoing quest to answer the elusive question, what is life?,(3,4) as well as many advances in our understanding of the origin and evolution of planetary systems (including our own), the evolution and interactions of life on Earth, and the search for potential biosignatures that might be indicators of life on remote worlds.

Of course the new primer wouldn’t be complete if it didn’t devote a chapter to discussing the relevance of astrobiology to the future of life on Earth. Some of the cited applications to solving real-world problems include understanding chlorine’s critical role in the depletion of the ozone layer in Earth’s stratosphere; the creation of satellites that have enabled tracking of weather, climate, and surfaces changes on the Earth; improved understanding of where earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis are likely to occur and how to better prepare for such events; new laboratory methods that have revolutionized molecular biology and directly impacted medical research, including the process of sequencing the human genome; and the development of communication technology leading to grid, cloud, and massively parallelized computing.

While pondering how to end this month’s news, I received a particularly appropriate email from a colleague announcing that the John W. Kluge Center is now accepting applications for the Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/ Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology, a one-year research appointment supporting the pursuit of a wide range of issues that could include social, theological, ethical, legal, and cultural concerns that arise from astrobiology. If you know anyone who might be interested in applying, please direct them to the website!(5)

Until next month,


Grace Wolf-Chase, Ph.D. (

3.  A popular and widely used “working definition” defines life as a “self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution.”
4.  Joyce, G. F. (1994) Foreward. In Origins of Life: The Central Concepts, ed. By D. W. Deamer and and G. R. Fleischaker, Jones & Bartlett, Boston, pp. xi-xii.

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3.  A Petition Concerning Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Dr. Daryl Domning, Professor of Anatomy at Howard University and member of The Clergy Letter Project’s List of Scientific Consultants, brought a petition asking Pope Francis to declare Teilhard de Chardin a Doctor of the Roman Catholic Church to my attention. As the petition notes, “Teilhard created a pioneering synthesis of religious and scientific thought that many have found to be profoundly fruitful…. Teilhard’s synthesis continues to stimulate theological thought, inside the Catholic Church and beyond, including notably the development in recent decades of vigorous scholarly and popular movements of evolutionary theology and creation spirituality.”

The petition goes on to explain that “Doctors of the Church comprise about three dozen ecclesiastical writers, from early Christian to modern times, who have been honored posthumously by popes or general councils with that title due to the integrity of their faith, eminent learning, and personal holiness.”

You can read more and add your signature by going to the petition’s web page.



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4.  Ark Encounter Opens

Answers in Genesis, the creationist organization run by Ken Ham and the owner of the Creation Museum cum-theme park in Kentucky, just opened Ark Encounter, also in Kentucky. Billed as a life-size replica of Noah’s Ark and built for an estimated $102 million, and $18 million in state tax subsidies, this latest creationist theme park is passing itself off as an accurate version of history.

Why is any of this important? There are a host of reasons. First, the tax subsidies means that the government is supporting what is clearly a religious endeavor – a religious endeavor that is at odds with what most religions profess. Second, Ham is actively recruiting public school classes to his shrine, offering steep discounts to students and teachers if they attend as a class. Third, the history, biology, geology and so much more that visitors “learn” are completely at odds with what specialists in those fields believe to be accurate. But that doesn’t keep visitors from accepting Ham’s alternative version of reality. CBS News included the following in a report they did on Ark Encounter:

“Rachael Cross, who brought her five children, told CBS News that for her, the theme park depicts what actually happened in history.

“‘The truth. The absolute truth,’ Cross said. ‘God's word is the Bible and it's the absolute truth. I totally believe that.’”

How weird is the ark? Pretty weird when you consider that:

*The ark doesn’t have any animals on board! Instead, there’s a petting zoo alongside the ark and about 30 pairs of stuffed animals inside. Although Ham was quoted as claiming that Noah brought about 8,000 pairs of animals onto his ship, Ham's replica omits 99.63 percent of those animals. The New York Times offers an explanation by quoting Tim Chaffey, an Answers in Genesis employee. “[T]here will be only about 30 pairs of stuffed animals on the Ark Encounter because there just isn’t enough space. ‘We have to have dozens and dozens of bathrooms for visitors. Noah didn’t have to have that,’ Mr. Chaffey said.” I don’t think that the missing 7,970 pairs of animals would fit into the "dozens and dozens" of bathrooms on the ark;

*Happily, Answers in Genesis did make room for a pair of stuffed unicorns, according to a report by NPR; and

*Josh Rosenau, a good friend of The Clergy Letter Project and the programs and policy director for the National Center for Science Education, noted in an essay published by New Scientist that the ark is “a boat so unwieldy that it surely would have twisted apart in the roiling waters of a biblical flood.”

It is this cartoonish view of both religion and science that The Clergy Letter Project is designed to counter. Although we don’t have millions of dollars or any tax subsidies, and even though we don’t charge admission to our Evolution Weekend events (entering the ark will cost adults $40), we have thousands of religious leaders and scientists on our side, as well as science, theology, history and so much more. All we have to do is continue the discussion.



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5.  Annual Membership Drive

I’m interrupting this month’s newsletter to announce our annual membership drive. The Clergy Letter Project continues to be an effective voice recognizing the compatibility of religion and science because of the efforts of our members. But we need your help. And, unlike most other membership drives, we’re not looking for your monetary contributions! Rather, we’re simply looking for you to ask a friend, a colleague or a relative to join our efforts – and we’re not looking for their money either! We want their voices, we want their participation, we want their signatures instead. Please reach out and ask a member of the clergy to sign one of our Clergy Letters. Please reach out and ask a scientist to join our list of scientific consultants. Please ask interested members of the public to add their names to our mailing list. That’s it! It’s that simple. Help us grow and watch the veil of ignorance get pushed back.

And with that, I’ll return you to our monthly newsletter.


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As I mentioned last month, I’ll be traveling a bit in the upcoming months and I’d be delighted to visit with you, your congregation or your university if you’d like. There are still some openings in my schedule so if any of these dates and locations work for you, let’s see what we can make work:

26-28 October: Bennington, Vermont
29-31 October: New York City; Long Island
15-20 December: Phoenix, Arizona
24-28 January: San Francisco, California

If you’re interested, please drop a line to the good folks at Ovation Agency ( and they’ll get back to you quickly.

As always, I want to sincerely thank all of you for your continued efforts to help people understand the positive relationship possible between religion and science. And, as I do every month, I urge you to take two simple actions. First, share this Newsletter with a colleague or two and ask them to add their voices to those promoting a deep and meaningful understanding between religion and science. They can add their signatures to a Clergy Letter simply by dropping me a note at Second, if you’re in a position to do so, please sign up now to participate in Evolution Weekend 2017. Together we are making a difference.


Michael Zimmerman
Founder and Executive Director
The Clergy Letter Project