December 2016 Newsletter

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

  1. Evolution Weekend 2017;
  2. Astrobiology News for December 2016:  On Star Wars, Hope, and Imagining Earth’s Future;
  3. A Discounted Book for Evolution Weekend 2017;
  4. Recent Clergy Letter Project News;
  5. A Moving Essay Written by a Member; and
  6. The 2017 IRAS Conference on Climate.

1.   Evolution Weekend 2017

In last month's newsletter, I asked whether we should take the step of “refocusing Evolution Weekend 2017 into an event that celebrates all of humanity and all that we have learned” from evolutionary biology and in response to the growing number of “hate crimes directed at people of color, at women, at LGBT individuals, at immigrants and at members of certain religious groups.”

I’m pleased to say that the response has been overwhelming.  Everyone who wrote to me made it clear that the behavior we have been seeing is deeply troubling and well worth our attention.  However, opinions were split over whether or not we should refocus Evolution Weekend in this direction.  While a very significant majority of you thought we should, a remarkably articulate number felt otherwise.

Let me share just two examples.   In response to my comment that evolutionary biology teaches us that race is a social rather than a biological construct, one member wrote, “I would be cautious about making a connection between evolution and race.  As you know, others have misused the idea of evolution to assert that one race was more evolved than others.  This grim history may distract from the positive message you intend.  Also, although it is absolutely correct to say that race is a ‘social construct,’ people of color live within the social construct of our society and their experience can by erased by claims that we are all the same.  I know this isn’t your intent.”

Another member wrote, “I think what you are proposing would be a mistake….   In The Clergy Letter Project and Evolution Weekend, you have a focus on an important idea/principle, and an established track record of supporting it….  Racism, xenophobia, and homophobia are wrong – also misogyny, which you didn’t include in the list.  All should be resisted, and argued against, wherever they occur.   I’m reciting the obvious here….   Of course we should oppose bigotry, but we should also be on the look-out for our own forms of prejudice and self-righteousness.  Why trade an important, focused initiative for being in favor of ‘the unity of humanity?’  If you go that route, you might as well add being in favor of world peace as well.   My opinion is that you should keep putting out good information, and organizing an event that promotes dialogue about religion and science 'in as respectful a manner as possible.' Providing a way for religious people to talk about science, and scientific people to talk about religion – is this a division, or a unity? – is a sufficient, rarer and therefore more valuable, role to play.”

Because of comments of this sort, even though they were in the minority, I’ve opted not to formally refocus Evolution Weekend this year.  Please understand two critical points.  First, the passion to fight racism, xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny and intolerance for religious difference remains unabated in my mind and in the minds of members of The Clergy Letter Project.  Second, as has always been the case, individual congregations are welcome to focus their Evolution Weekend attention in any way they deem most appropriate. 

What is most important at this particular point in history is that together we demonstrate our strong belief that religion and science are compatible and that facts cannot be erased by opinion.  In this year more than any other, I hope you join with so many of your colleagues and provide a forum for these ideas to be heard.  Please sign up to participate in Evolution Weekend 2017 (10-12 February 2017) if you haven’t yet done so.  Our list of participants is growing very nicely and we’d love to be able to add you to it!

______ Yes!  I absolutely want my voice and the voice of my congregation to be heard.  Please add us to the list of participants in Evolution Weekend 2017.

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

And please remember, if 10-12 February 2017 poses logistical problems, you can participate any time in the vicinity that is convenient for you.  And, as I’ve said so many times before, you can participate in myriad ways, from a sermon to a note in your weekly bulletin, from a speaker to a lunch discussion.  We welcome whatever you opt to do – but please let your voice be heard.


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2.  Astrobiology News for December 2016:  On Star Wars, Hope, and Imagining Earth’s Future

In this month’s Astrobiology News, Clergy Letter Project consultant and Adler Planetarium astronomer Grace Wolf-Chase combines a medley of interesting ideas to explore how life might look elsewhere and to compare it to how it is portrayed in film.  In the small world department, I had the good fortune of writing the Publisher Weekly’s review of the book she recommends below.

I suspect at least some of you saw the latest movie in the ongoing Star Wars saga on opening day, as I did.  Rogue One is the prequel to the movie now appropriately known as A New Hope, which I first saw as an undergraduate at Cornell University when the original Star Wars classic was released in 1977.  If you’re a Star Wars fan, I encourage you to read my son’s review of Rogue One on tumblr.(1)  There are no “spoilers!”  Jason is a politics student at NYU, but he has a particular passion for screenwriting and this is his first attempt to write a film review.   As we close out 2016, I wanted to share a few of NASA’s reflections on imaginative worlds conceived for the “far, far away” galaxy of the Star Wars universe and diverse worlds in our own Galaxy.(2)

There are currently more than 3,400 confirmed exoplanets in NASA’s database of alien worlds.(3)   Some of these worlds are evocative of the icy, watery, and desert worlds depicted in Star Wars.  For example, there’s Kepler-16b, a Saturn-sized exoplanet orbiting two suns that has been affectionately dubbed “Tatooine,” after Luke Skywalker’s home planet, and OGLW 2005-BLG-390L, an icy “super-Earth” that’s been unofficially nicknamed “Hoth,” after the frigid planet depicted in The Empire Strikes Back.  Some exoplanets may be ocean worlds, reminiscent of the planet Kamino, envisioned in Attack of the Clones, or Scarif, in Rogue One.

The most intriguing exoplanet discovered in 2016 has to be Proxima Centauri b, a world orbiting in the habitable zone of a dim red star that happens to be our Sun’s nearest stellar neighbor.   Although the forest worlds of Star Wars (like Endor in Return of the Jedi, or Takodana in The Force Awakens) are green like our Earth, astrobiologists speculate that plant life on habitable worlds orbiting stars that emit mostly infrared light (like Proxima Centauri b) might be red, black, or even rainbow-colored.   Such worlds should be “tidally locked,” with the same side of a planet always facing its star.  Just as seaweed changes color from green to dark brown at greater depths in the ocean, the color of any photosynthetic life on such a planet would depend upon its location.

Of course, at the present time, Earth is the only world we know for sure harbors life, and one species in particular holds a great deal of power to shape the future of that life, so I’d like to draw your attention to a new book by a friend and colleague I’ve known since graduate school.  Astrobiologist David Grinspoon’s latest is titled, Earth in Human Hands:  Shaping Our Planet’s Future.  It’s a very recent release and I haven’t had time to read it yet, but I can affirm that David is both an excellent scientist and writer. I think you will find that he retains a hopeful outlook for our species and our world, without sugarcoating the challenges.  The book has received outstanding reviews and has been named a “Best Science Book of 2016” by NPR’s Science Friday.(4)  It is certainly on my own holiday reading list!

Peace and blessings to you all as you celebrate the holidays in your various traditions.  In case it’s still up when you read this, you might check out the Zooniverse Advent Calendar.(5)  As of today, 20 December 2016, the Zoo team reminds us that there are now 1,544,341 registered Zooniverse citizen scientists around the world, and if we all held hands in a line, we could reach from Paris to Istanbul!  Doesn’t that evoke a hopeful image?

May 2017 bring us all new hope,


Grace Wolf-Chase, Ph.D. (



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3.  A Discounted Book for Evolution Weekend 2017

Charles Wynn, a scientific consultant for The Clergy Letter Project, just had the second edition of his book entitled Quantum Leaps in the Wrong Direction:  Where Real Science Ends...and Pseudoscience Begins published by Oxford University Press. With Charlie’s help and the generosity of the publisher, I’m able to offer a 20 percent discount on the book to members of The Clergy Letter Project.  I hope some of you find the book helpful as you prepare for Evolution Weekend.  Here’s information about the book from Oxford:

Quantum Leaps in the Wrong Direction
Where Real Science Ends...and Pseudoscience Begins
Second Edition

Charles M. Wynn, Arthur W. Wiggins, and illustrated by Sidney Harris

Wynn and Wiggins carefully deconstruct five examples of pseudoscience – UFOs, out-of-body experiences, astrology, creationism, and ESP –  and give easy recipes to test other dubious notions so that the reader can ascertain what lies in the realm of real science and what more properly deserves the tag of pseudoscience.

Save 20% on your copy of Quantum Leaps in the Wrong Direction when ordering online from Oxford University Press.  Add promotional code ASPROMP8 to your shopping basket.  Discount valid until 28/02/2017.

With this book in mind, I hope you sign up now to participate in Evolution Weekend 2017 if you haven’t yet done so:

_____ Yes, absolutely!  I’m ready to sign up right now.  Please list us as participating in Evolution Weekend 2017 (10-12 February 2017).  (If you’re already listed on our 2017 web page, there’s no need to sign up again!)

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


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4.  Recent Clergy Letter Project News

Since our last newsletter appeared, I’ve published a number of items you might want to take a look at.  First, and probably most significantly, I published an open letter addressed to Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education Designate.  The piece calls on her to recognize and respect the wide diversity of religious ideas present in the United States rather than privileging one narrow perspective. 

Second, I wrote two pieces for The Huffington Post in response to an on-line petition calling for the federal government to ban the teaching of evolution.  The first piece makes it clear that while the petition is an amateurish publicity stunt, it does reinforce the mistaken belief that people have to choose between religion and modern science.

My second Huffington Post piece arises directly from the last one and was written in response to some odd statements made by David Klinghoffer, a staffer at the Discovery Institute.  Klinghoffer argued that the petition to ban the teaching of evolution was a false flag conspiracy by scientists to generate support for their science.  I hope you agree that I effectively dismantled Klinghoffer’s absurd argument.

Third, I’ve been trying out a new on-line platform and published two short pieces there further elaborating on the petition controversy.  The first one reports on the fact that Klinghoffer followed up his claim that the petition was a false flag conspiracy by writing another article saying he doesn’t believe in conspiracies!  The second one shares e-mail I received from the author of the petition explaining his intent.  As I say, we need to remain vigilant.

I hope you find some of these pieces interesting and that you share them with others.


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5.  A Moving Essay Written by a Member

The Rev. Dr. Amy Butler is the senior minister at The Riverside Church in New York City and a member of The Clergy Letter Project.  Late in October, she published an incredibly moving essay entitled “Church Pastor: The truth about my late-term abortion” in USA Today.  With her permission, I’m sharing her essay with you and hope that you find it as impressive and as important as I did.



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6.  The 2017 IRAS Conference on Climate

The Clergy Letter Project has again agreed to partner with IRAS (The Institute on Religion in an Age of Science) for its annual summer conference.  This year’s conference is entitled “The ‘Wicked Problem’ of Climate Change:  What it is doing to us and for us.”  The conference is scheduled from 24 June – 1 July 2017 at Star Island, Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  Because of The Clergy Letter Project’s partnership, members will receive a 30 percent discount on the registration fee as well as a 30 percent discount on room and board from Star Island for first time attendees.


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With Christmas behind us, Hanukah underway and the new year approaching, I want to take this moment to thank all of you for your continued support and to wish you a happy, healthy and productive new year.  Together we have built a large and strong organization, one that has used its voice to call for reasoned discourse and respect. 

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