January 2016 Newsletter

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

  1. Evolution Weekend 2016: A Free Book Offer;
  2. Astrobiology News for January 2016:  Highlights from the Adler Planetarium;
  3. Discovery Institute Attacks The Clergy Letter Project and the UMC;
  4. Conference on Judaism and Evolution; and
  5. Big Growth in UU Ministers Signing Clergy Letter.

1.  Evolution Weekend 2016: A Free Book Offer

It’s not too late to join with hundreds of congregations all across the globe and demonstrate that it’s possible to have meaningful, civil conversations about complex issues. That’s the theme for this year’s Evolution Weekend events and by participating you can raise the quality of discourse; you can educate and illuminate rather than browbeat.

If you haven’t yet done so, sign up now to participate:

_____ YES! I plan to participate in Evolution Weekend (12-14 February 2016).

     Name of Congregation:
     City, State:
     My Name:

As I’ve said so often before, many of you will participate but will not have officially signed up and thus our collective global impact will be smaller than it should be. Please take a minute to check the current list of participants on our webpage. If you’re not yet listed, just let me know and I’ll get you added. And as I’ve said, you can participate on the weekend of 12-14 February or any other nearby weekend if another time best suits your congregation. But sign up now.

In case you’re not certain about the best way to participate, let me make two offers. First, our web pages list more than 200 sermons that Clergy Letter Project members have delivered over the years. I’m certain that you’ll find some fabulous ideas there.

Second, our good friends at the National Center for Science Education have donated 20 copies of Sahotra Sarkar’s book Doubting Darwin?: Creationist Designs on Evolution to help members prepare for Evolution Weekend. As the publisher explains, “Noted biologist and philosopher Sahotra Sarkar exposes the frauds and fallacies of Intelligent Design Theory, and its claim to be ‘good science’.”

If you believe that this book might help you prepare for Evolution Weekend 2016, please let me know. I’ll award a free copy to every fourth person who requests one, until all copies are claimed.

_____ Yes, I would like to receive a free copy of Sahotra Sarkar’s book Doubting Darwin?: Creationist Designs on Evolution to help me prepare for Evolution Weekend 2016. If I’m selected to receive a free copy, I agree to pay $5 to cover postage and handling.

     _____ Please sign my congregation up to participate in Evolution Weekend 2016 (12-14 February 2016).

     Name of Congregation:
     City, State:
     My Name:

     _____ My congregation is already listed as participating in Evolution Weekend 2016.

Whether you want a copy of this book or not, I hope you take this opportunity to sign up for Evolution Weekend 2016, if you haven’t yet done so. Remember, you can participate any way you deem appropriate. Big events and small events are all welcome. Our goal is simply to promote the position that religion and science can comfortably coexist; indeed that in many ways they can enhance one another.


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2.  Astrobiology News for January 2016:  Highlights from the Adler Planetarium

In this month’s Astrobiology News, Clergy Letter Project consultant and Adler Planetarium astronomer Grace Wolf-Chase discusses some exciting events at the Adler Planetarium, including the search for a new planet in our Solar System.

Those of you who “miss” Pluto may be interested to know that evidence for a real ninth planet in our Solar System was announced in a Caltech press release on January 20th!(1) On the same day, the Adler Planetarium announced a new show based on this discovery.(2) Of course, Pluto hasn’t gone anywhere – it was simply reclassified to dwarf planet status 10 years ago by the International Astronomical Union because it is not massive enough to clear its orbit of other objects.(3) At an estimated 10 times the mass of the Earth, the proposed new planet fits all the criteria to be considered a “true planet.” About 20 times further from the Sun on average than Neptune, it would take more than 10,000 years to complete one full orbit about the Sun!

Let’s be clear about one thing – the new planet has not yet been observed; rather, its properties have been theoretically predicted from the orbits of objects in the Kuiper Belt, a disc-shaped region of icy bodies beyond the orbit of Neptune.(4) Without going into the intricate details of orbital mechanics, suffice it to say that there are six parameters necessary to fully describe an orbit and six Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) show similarities between some of these parameters that have an extremely low probability (0.007 percent) of being random. The Caltech researchers (Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown) showed that the proposed planet could not only explain these alignments, it could also account for peculiarities in the orbits of other KBOs. The planet Neptune’s existence was also predicted mathematically prior to it being observed in 1846.(5)

The search is now on to find “Planet Nine” as Batygin and Brown continue to refine their simulations and learn more about the planet’s orbit and influence on the outer reaches of the Solar System. This discovery may actually make our Solar System more similar to exoplanetary systems. The most common planets orbiting other stars (exoplanets) have masses between those of Earth and the planets Uranus and Neptune, a range not represented in our Solar System, until now. Additionally, exoplanets can be found on orbits both extremely close and very distant from their stars, so the remoteness of the new planet is not unprecedented. The Adler Planetarium’s new show is being developed in collaboration with Mike Brown and his team at Caltech. It will open on May 28th, 2016, so be sure to come see it if you live nearby or visit Chicago!

On another topic, we will once again celebrate Evolution “Weekend” at the Adler Planetarium (aka “Clergy Day”), although this year it will not be a public event. Through a Lilly Endowment funded program at the University of Chicago Divinity School, on Monday, February 8th we will host a dozen early-career clergy identified as significant leaders in their constituencies. Named The Chicago Commons Project(6), the goal of this particular session is to equip the cohort with an understanding of religion and science that will empower them to speak intelligently and faithfully in public. Their Adler experience will include interactions with scientists, historians of science, and a special demonstration of citizen science with Zooniverse(7). I think this program will dovetail nicely with Michael’s 2016 focus! The hope is that this group will become ambassadors for “exploring ways to engage in complex discussions in a civil manner.”

Until next month,


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

1.  http://m.caltech.edu/news/caltech-researchers-find-evidence-real-ninth-planet-49523     
2.  http://www.adlerplanetarium.org/wp-content/uploads/Adler-Planetarium-Announces-New-Sky-Show1.pdf?e5bf72     
3.  http://missionscience.nasa.gov/nasascience/what_is_a_planet.html     
4.  http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/kbos     
5.  See, for e.g., http://coolcosmos.ipac.caltech.edu/ask/146--When-was-Neptune-discovered-
6.  http://divinity.uchicago.edu/chicago-commons-project-0     
7.  https://www.zooniverse.org/     

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3.  Discovery Institute Attacks The Clergy Letter Project and the UMC

In a two part series in the Discovery Institute’s blog “Faith and Science News,” Michael Flannery takes on both The Clergy Letter Project and the United Methodist Church. Flannery is upset that the UMC has officially endorsed The Clergy Letter Project along with evolution while making it abundantly clear that the concept of “intelligent design” does not belong in either science classrooms or church sanctuaries.

In part one, Flannery actually praises much of The Christian Clergy Letter saying that it “contains language no thoughtful Christian would oppose.” He parts company with our efforts, however, when The Christian Clergy Letter notes that "the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth." He disagrees and makes two arguments. First, he claims that intelligent design is about teaching the “controversies” surrounding evolution, thus there’s nothing foundational about evolution. Second, he argues that the “Darwinian version of evolution” runs counter to any reasonable biblical interpretation and thus must be at odds with Methodist theology.

In part two, Flannery goes even further and points to one major problem with the UMC. “I would argue, as a practicing Methodist, that the leadership has led us astray. The main problem? Idolatry. The fixation on Darwinism by some UMC leaders is a case in point.”

My interpretation of this is that our efforts are very clearly paying off!


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4.  Conference on Judaism and Evolution

Clergy Letter Project member Rabbi Carl Perkins brought information about an interesting upcoming conference to my attention. The conference, the Third Conference on Judaism and Evolution, is scheduled to take place in Jerusalem on the 28th-29th of December 2016. The conference is being co-sponsored by the Center for the Study of Bio-social Perspectives on Judaism at the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem in cooperation with Bina Yitzrit in Austin, Texas. The conference organizers note that “We have a particular interest in Jewish religious practice, but papers that address the practice of any religious tradition are welcome. You can read more about the conference including a call for papers by clicking here.


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5.  Big Growth in UU Ministers Signing Clergy Letter

I’m delighted to say that this past month has seen a big surge in signatures on our UU Clergy Letter. We’ve gained over 100 signatures in this period with many of our new members agreeing to spread word about The Clergy Letter Project to friends and colleagues. Just imagine what our numbers would look like if each of you reading this Newsletter were to ask one colleague to add her or his signature to one of our Clergy Letters. Please think about doing just that.


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The American presidential election begins in earnest next week with the caucuses in Iowa. What we’ve seen so far are all of the Republican candidates casting doubt on evolution in their search for religious voters and most of them promoting a virulent strain of Islamophobia. Clergy Letter Project members can demonstrate that deeply held religious beliefs need not push out the findings of modern science and that respect for the religious beliefs of others is a virtue. Thank you for sharing and promoting these values.

If you haven’t yet done so, please let me know that you plan to participate in Evolution Weekend and please reach out to a friend by forwarding this newsletter. Together we are making a difference.


Michael Zimmerman
Founder and Executive Director
The Clergy Letter Project