November 2017 Newsletter

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

  1. Evolution Weekend 2018 is Approaching;
  2. Astrobiology News for November 2017:  Earth-like Planets Orbiting the Nearest Stars?;
  3. March for Science Evolves;
  4. Ken Miller Describes Threats to Evolution Education;
  5. Darwin and the Modern Spiritual Path;
  6. Giving Tuesday is Upon Us, But The Clergy Letter Project Is NOT Asking for Funding; and
  7. The Latest Bizarre Creationist Ideas.

1.   Evolution Weekend 2018 is Approaching

Evolution Weekend 2018 (9-11 February) is only a bit more than two months away so if you haven’t yet signed up to participate, this would be a great time to do so.  Since we have so many new members, let me explain what the goals for the weekend are and what participating entails.

Participation occurs at the local level with each participating congregation opting to do something it believes will help enhance the dialogue between religion and science.  Some congregations hear a sermon, some have a discussion, some watch a video, some read and discuss a relevant book, some have an education program for children, some read a note in their weekly bulletin, while still others find other ways to celebrate.  Whatever each congregation decides is right for them is right for us!  And, for whatever reason, if this particular weekend is inconvenient, you can participate at any time in the temporal vicinity.  What’s important is that you participate – in the form you want, at the time you want.

The theme selected for this year’s Evolution Weekend, Our Shared Humanity, demonstrates how religion and science, each working through their specific lens, have come to the same conclusion:  racial divisions are neither meaningful nor productive.  Given the racial turmoil the world is experiencing, Evolution Weekend is a great way to use both religion and science to work toward healing and greater community cohesion.  Remember, though, that congregations do not have to focus their Evolution Weekend events on this particular theme.  Anything advancing the relationship between religion and science is perfect.

In case you have any doubts about the utility of participating, let me share a comment I received from a minister in Maryland after his congregation participated in Evolution Weekend:  “One woman came up to us afterwards and said, with tears in her eyes, that she’d been waiting 50 years to hear this message from her church.” 

Since Evolution Weekend began 13 years ago, we’ve reached approximately 1 million people directly and many times that number via media reports.  Given the assault on science we are seeing as well as the rise of a very narrow brand of religion, this would be a great year to join our effort. 

Our friends at the National Center for Science Education have made some excerpts from a recently released and very relevant book freely available.  The book is entitled “Paranoid Science:  The Christian Right’s War on Reality” and you might find it very helpful as you prepare for Evolution Weekend.

Please sign up now if you haven’t yet done so:

_______ Yes, by all means, please add me and my congregation (university) to the list of participants in Evolution Weekend 2018:

Name of Congregation:
Your Name:


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2.   Astrobiology News for November 2017:  Earth-like Planets Orbiting the Nearest Stars?

In this month’s Astrobiology News, Clergy Letter Project consultant and Adler Planetarium astronomer Grace Wolf-Chase discusses how close we are to discovering truly Earth-like planets and perhaps life on them.

Most of the stars you can see in the night sky aren’t the closest stars, but rather the most luminous – faraway beacons of light intrinsically thousands of times brighter than our Sun.  The brightest of these are also quite rare, comprising less than 1% of the stars in our Galaxy.  On the other hand, the dimmest stars (known as red dwarfs or M dwarfs) make up about 70% of all the stars in our Galaxy.  Of the 60 known main sequence(1) stars within a distance of about 5 parsecs(2) from the Sun, 50 are red dwarfs, although the vast majority of these are invisible to the unaided eye.  What makes red dwarfs particularly compelling targets to search for Earth-like planets is their proximity.  Five parsecs is close enough for the next generation of “Extremely Large Telescopes” (ELTs) to detect signs of certain molecules, such as oxygen, in the atmospheres of planets orbiting these stars.  The detection of such molecules would go a long way toward establishing habitable conditions on these worlds.

Several factors may negatively impact the prospects for life on planets orbiting red dwarfs.  For one thing, to have temperatures conducive to life as we know it, planets have to orbit very close to these stars – so close that they should be tidally locked, meaning the same side of the planet would continually face its star (like the Moon toward the Earth).  Although huge temperature differences might be expected between the day and night sides of such planets, this isn’t necessarily a showstopper, as life might inhabit various temperate niches.  Another potential challenge to life is the fact that most red dwarfs are prone to especially violent outbursts of radiation; however, a recently discovered planet orbiting a nearby red dwarf might not face this particular problem.

Ross 128 b is the 2nd closest “exo-Earth”(3) to our Solar System(4).  Its star, Ross 128, is a “mere” 3.4 parsecs distant, and appears to lack the intense outbursts of most red dwarfs(5).  At present, the term “exo-Earth” may be a bit misleading.  Unlike the TRAPPIST-1 planets(6), Ross 128 b doesn’t transit(7) its star, and the method by which it was discovered gives us only a lower limit to the planet’s mass.  Still, it’s a particularly promising target for future observations that could determine just what type of world Ross 128 b is!

It bears remembering that if signs of life were discovered on a world orbiting one of the nearest stars, it would suggest that life is ubiquitous in our Universe.  I don’t think it would be an overstatement to suggest that this would be the most significant discovery in the history of human civilization, and it is exciting to think that this question might be answered within the next decade!

Until next month,

Grace Wolf-Chase, Ph.D. (

1.  A main sequence star shines by fusing hydrogen to helium deep within its core.  A star’s mass determines how long it can do this – the most massive stars “only” a few million years; a star like the Sun, about 10 billion years; a red dwarf, about 10 trillion years.
2.  Five parsecs is about 16.3 light-years.  Astronomers use parsecs more often than light-years as a measure of distance to objects outside of our Solar System.
3.  “Exo-Earth” refers to an Earth-sized world orbiting in the habitable zone of a star other than our Sun; however, Earth-sized doesn’t imply that the world is anything like the Earth.  Further observations are required to determine just how “Earth-like” such a world may be!
4.  The closest exo-Earth orbits the star Proxima Centauri, 1.3 parsecs from the Sun.  See
6.  See and
7.  A transiting planet passes in front of its star (as seen from Earth) as it orbits.


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3.  March for Science Evolves

Early this year, the membership of The Clergy Letter Project voted overwhelmingly to endorse the efforts of the March for Science.  Given that vote, I promoted our sponsorship and many members marched around the country. 

In an attempt to capitalize on the energy generated by the March, the organization has taken a new step to advocate for high quality science.  They’ve created a program called Vote for Science with the goal of ensuring that elected officials both promote science and use it to inform their decisions.  The program is not politically partisan but it certainly does favor science over pseudoscience and facts over opinions.

One of their first endeavors has been to draft an open letter to legislators concerning their intent to tax graduate student tuition waivers.  This tax on money that goes directly to graduate schools rather than in the pockets of graduate students has the potential to decimate graduate science education with some students seeing their tax bills increasing by as much as 400 percent.  I’m proud to say that The Clergy Letter Project is one of the many organizations that have signed the open letter opposing this move.


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4.  Ken Miller Describes Threats to Evolution Education

Ken Miller, a member of The Clergy Letter Project’s List of Scientific Consultants, is featured in a new video hosted by the New York Times which examines the threats to evolution education posed by creationists.  The Times describes the video as showing “the enduring strength of the forces that embrace the biblical account of Creation or reasonable facsimiles of it."  The video clearly demonstrates why the efforts of The Clergy Letter Project are as important today as they’ve ever been. 

Think about using the video to spark an interesting discussion with your congregation as a way of celebrating Evolution Weekend.

And keep an eye out for Ken’s latest book, The Human Instinct:  How We Evolved to Have Reason, Consciousness, and Free Will, due out in April from Simon & Schuster.


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5.  Darwin and the Modern Spiritual Path

Clergy Letter Project member and the author of The Buddhist Clergy Letter Tony Stultz just published an essay that I suspect you’ll find interesting.  Entitled “How Darwin’s theory can strengthen the modern spiritual path, it explores the ways that Darwin’s ideas can help us make sense of our modern world and bring diverse people together in a positive and fulfilling manner.


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6.  Giving Tuesday is Upon Us, But The Clergy Letter Project Is NOT Asking for Funding

Giving Tuesday is scheduled for Tuesday, 27 November and lots of non-profits are hoping you’ll donate.  Supporting the cause of your choice is always a great thing to do.  I’m hoping that in addition to any other organization you support, you think about helping The Clergy Letter Project – but NOT with a monetary contribution.  Instead, please pass along the names and e-mail addresses of clergy member you know who haven’t yet signed one of our Clergy Letters.  I’ll follow-up with personal note inviting them to join our ranks.  Could anything be simpler?

_____ What a great idea!  Please contact the following clergy member and invite them to join The Clergy Letter Project

     e-mail address:


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7.  The Latest Bizarre Creationist Ideas

Given the impact that they have on educational policy, we really do need to take creationists seriously.  However, at times doing so becomes difficult given the ideas they’re promoting.  Two items just crossed my desk that I thought you’d enjoy.

The first professes to use jars of peanut butter to explain why evolution must be wrong.  I’m not going to say anything about the content and will leave it to you to decide what you think.  However, I couldn’t help but think about combining it with Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort’s exposition on the creationist banana to get an intelligently designed sandwich! 

The second item is, believe it or not, even stranger.  This coming week, Mike Hughes is planning to shoot himself 1,800 feet high “in a homemade scrap-metal rocket” to demonstrate that the Earth is flat.  Go figure!

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For those of you who celebrated Thanksgiving in the United States, I hope you had a wonderful holiday.  Finally, as always, I want to thank you for your continued support and as I do every month, I urge you to take one simple action.  Please share this month's 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  Together we are making a difference.


Michael Zimmerman
Founder and Executive Director
The Clergy Letter Project