February 2017 Newsletter

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

  1. Answers in Genesis Attacks Evolution Weekend 2017;
  2. Astrobiology News for February 2017:  Will Computers Decipher the Origin of Life?;
  3. Should The Clergy Letter Project Participate in the March For Science?;
  4. Religious Double Standards, Fake News and So Much More; and
  5. Is Creationist Legislation Coming to a State Near You?.

1.   Answers in Genesis Attacks Evolution Weekend 2017

According to reports that many of you sent in, Evolution Weekend events were a rousing success all around the globe.  We’ve now directly reached approximately one million people over our 12 years with our message of compatibility of religion and science and our call for improved dialogue.

Not everyone is happy with our success, however.  Ken Ham, the founder of Answers in Genesis, the creationist group responsible for two major creationist theme parks, the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter, attacked Evolution Weekend and our message.  As I discussed in an essay entitled “We Love Science – And We Built an Ark to Prove it!” Ham made two major points:  that science shouldn’t be based on naturalistic explanations and that evolution isn’t under attack from those who want to limit its appearance in public schools.  I think I dismantled both of those points effectively and I hope you agree.  Given the prominence of Ham and his organization, I hope you share my rebuttal widely.

I also hope that you send in any Evolution Weekend sermons you delivered this year.  I’ve already received a fair number and I’ve been posting them on our sermon page.  Finally, if you did participate in Evolution Weekend, or if you will soon, and if you’re not yet on our 2017 list, please let me know and I’ll get you added immediately.

Thank you to all of you who did participate!


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2.   Astrobiology News for February 2017:  Will Computers Decipher the Origin of Life?

In this month’s Astrobiology News, Clergy Letter Project consultant and Adler Planetarium astronomer Grace Wolf-Chase asks the provocative question posed in her title.  I’m certain you’ll find her essay as interesting as I did!


In the 1950s, biochemists Stanley Miller and Harold Urey conducted a famous experiment that showed organic compounds could be formed by simulating the conditions of Earth’s early atmosphere.(1)  Since then, many scientists have explored questions relating to life’s origins through laboratory experiments, but a recent approach uses cyberspace rather than the lab to investigate how biology may have arisen from geochemistry.  Computing the Origin of Life discusses how computational biology and computational astrobiology offer different approaches and additional tools for scientists researching how life may have arisen on Earth and possibly on alien worlds.(2) 

One example of how computational biology is being used is through artificial life software called Avida.(3)  Avida creates a virtual world in which programs compete for processing time and memory access similar to the way organisms compete for resources in the real world.  The software is based on a controversial but potentially revolutionary idea that life can be defined as “information that self-replicates,” and that selection of useful molecular systems for life is governed by the laws of probability.  Understandably, this approach has its skeptics, but the idea is not to identify how life specifically originated and evolved on Earth, but rather to test general principles and then explore how those principles may operate in actual biochemical systems.

Avida could also provide a unique approach to exploring potential pathways to life on alien worlds, by investigating diverse processes that might operate on other planets with different environments and geochemistry.  This is much easier said than done, of course!  Computing the Origin of Life uses an analogy comparing the motions of a slinky with those of a snake to make the point that a pattern resembling life in a computer program doesn’t necessarily represent the real deal.  Nevertheless, as computing power increases, computational biology may offer new ways of thinking about life.

Computing the Origin of Life ends with the provocative statement, “The mystery of life’s origins could one day be solved thanks to that modern antithesis of life – the computer.”  But is the computer really the “antithesis of life?”  In the spirit of The Clergy Letter Project’s commitment to deepening dialog between science and religion, I offer these thoughtful reflections ofAntje Jackelén, the current Lutheran Archbishop of Uppsala in Sweden, who wrote, “[Furthermore,] the definition of life itself, in relation to its biological basis, should be open to reconsideration.  We are already used to speaking of the life of nonbiological entities such as stories, books, and musical works. This could prepare the ground for an understanding of postbiological life as life.”(4)

Until next month,

Grace Wolf-Chase, Ph.D. (gwolfchase@adlerplanetarium.org)


1.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NNijmxsKGbc
2.  https://astrobiology.nasa.gov/news/computing-the-origin-of-life/
3.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15107231
4.  Antje Jackelén 2002, The Image of God as Techno Sapiens, Zygon, Vol. 37, No. 2, pp.289-302


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3.  Should The Clergy Letter Project Participate in the March For Science?

As many of you likely know, a March for Science has been planned for 22 April 2017 in Washington, DC, with satellite marches occurring all over the world.  Members of The Clergy Letter Project have asked whether or not The Clergy Letter Project will be officially participating in the March.  My response has been that the decision is up to members rather than to me so I’m asking for your opinion.

The issue is not a simple one, with some arguing that such a march might do more damage than good.  I wrote a short essay entitled “Is a March for Science a Good Idea?” that addresses some of these points.  I hope you find it helpful.

Here’s my question for you:  Should The Clergy Letter Project officially participate in the March for Science?  Our official participation would include sending our press releases and encouraging members members who opt to march to do so with signs saying they represent The Clergy Letter Project.  Please let me know your thoughts within the next two weeks or so and I’ll report those results to everyone.

______  Yes, The Clergy Letter Project should formally participate in the March for Science

______  No, The Clergy Letter Project should not formally participate in the March for Science

Thanks for voting!


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4.  Religious Double Standards, Fake News and So Much More

There’s been so much going on in the world of late that both directly and indirectly impacts the message of The Clergy Letter Project that I’ve taken to writing about those issues more frequently than I have in the past.  My goal is to help influence public opinion and promote The Clergy Letter Project and our values.  I hope you find the tone and content of these pieces both useful and positive.  If you do, please share them widely.  And, regardless of what you think of them, I’d love to hear from you about them.

The latest pieces I wrote were on these topics:

If these pieces interest you, you might want to subscribe to be notified when I post new essays.  As far as I can tell, there’s no catch and there’s no cost, not even increased e-mail traffic from the site.


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5.  Is Creationist Legislation Coming to a State Near You?

It’s only February and creationist legislation and related activity has already appeared in numerous places around the country.  Take a look at these reports from The Clergy Letter Project’s good friends at the National Center for Science Education to read about efforts in Indiana, Oklahoma, and South Dakota.  And, as I discuss in a recent piece I wrote, the Texas State Board of Education again took steps to promote creationism.  After creating a panel of experts to review the state’s science standards, the Board rejected the recommendations of the experts and voted to ensure that Texas students could continue to experience creationism in public school science classroom and laboratories.

Additionally, the National Center for Science Education reports that evolution education is under attack in Turkey.

Clearly the work of The Clergy Letter Project is far from over!


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Thank you for all you’ve done, both collectively and individually, to make Evolution Weekend 2017 a success.  Please take a moment to weigh in on my question in item 3 above:  Should The Clergy Letter Project officially sponsor the March for Science?  I look forward to hearing from you.

Finally, as I do every month, I urge you to take one simple action.  Please 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 mz@theclergyletterproject.org.  Together we are making a difference.


Michael Zimmerman
Founder and Executive Director
The Clergy Letter Project