October 2016 Newsletter

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

  1. More about CLP’s Presidential Endorsement;
  2. Astrobiology News for October 2016: Rosetta Mission Update:  The Building Blocks of Life;
  3. Evolution Weekend 2017;
  4. On the Origin of the Grand Canyon and Noah’s Flood; and
  5. Mandating Religious Leaders on School Boards.

1.  More about CLP’s Presidential Endorsement

As I hope you all have seen, The Clergy Letter Project, for the first time in its history, entered the realm of electoral politics and endorsed a candidate in the US presidential election. The response to this action has been overwhelmingly, but not uniformly, positive. I want to take this opportunity to explain the full process associated with the endorsement.

Let me begin by saying that I thought long and hard about whether moving in this direction was an appropriate thing to do. I also had conversations with a fair number of individuals associated with The Clergy Letter Project to gain their perspective. Ultimately, and with the help of others, I opted to move forward. The first step was to craft a short questionnaire that I could put before both major party candidates. I made it clear to both campaigns that The Clergy Letter Project might endorse a candidate based on the responses received. I also made it clear that all responses received would be made public in full. The plan, therefore, was to endorse both candidates if the responses from both were fully in keeping with the goals of The Clergy Letter Project, to endorse neither candidate if the responses from both were not in keeping with our goals, or to endorse only one if the responses differed. When only one campaign responded, and did so with answers that were fully congruent with our goals, I opted to go one step further and see what could be found in the public record about the position on our issues from the candidate who opted not to respond. At that point, we issued an endorsement, an endorsement based on our issues. By making an endorsement, our goals have been promoted broadly.

I want to be clear that by making this endorsement I was asserting that The Clergy Letter Project as an organization rather than any particular member of the organization was taking a position on the candidates. Again, our endorsement was focused entirely on the issues around which we were formed.

Some have raised a concern that our tax exempt status should preclude us from making any such endorsement. The response to this concern is simple: We have never been incorporated as a tax exempt organization! Since we don’t solicit donations, there has never been a reason to incorporate in that fashion.

This has been an interesting year for The Clergy Letter Project.  During this year we have taken three public positions that, in some ways, extend beyond our core mission.  We have taken a position condemning Islamophobia.  We have taken a position condemning homophobia.  And now we have endorsed a presidential candidate for her stance on issues relating to religion and science.  In all three cases, I tried very hard to tie those actions to our core mission, explaining why the decision to act arose from who we are and what we stand for.

I am deeply appreciative of all of the letters of support I received after each of these actions was taken. I am even more appreciative of the thoughtful criticisms I have received from a handful of you in response to our endorsement. I respect and fully understand your position and hope I have not lost your trust.


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2.  Astrobiology News for October 2016:  Rosetta Mission Update:  The Building Blocks of

In this month’s Astrobiology News, Clergy Letter Project consultant and Adler Planetarium astronomer Grace Wolf-Chase discusses some of the striking results from the Rosetta mission, including implications for the origin of life.

In 2014, I wrote two articles about the European Space Agency’s Rosetta Mission to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko for the CLP e-newsletter – one in August, when Rosetta became the first spacecraft to orbit a comet, and one in November, when Rosetta’s lander, Philae, performed the first touchdown on a comet.  (You may want to check these out in the Astrobiology News Archive on the CLP website for more background on this mission.(1))  This month, I wanted to share a couple of Rosetta’s critical discoveries, which were published earlier this year.(2)

More than 140 different molecules have been discovered in interstellar space.  Many of these discoveries were made at the 12-meter radio telescope on Kitt Peak(3), the instrument I’m pleased to have used for my doctoral dissertation at the University of Arizona over two decades ago.  Recent years have seen a rise in the discovery of increasingly complex organic molecules such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or “PAHs,” which permeate the Milky Way and provide some of the raw material that may be incorporated in new generations of planetary systems.  The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array’s (ALMA)(4) high resolution and sensitivity has provided many new discoveries, including isopropyl cyanide, which has a “branched” carbon backbone, a common feature of molecules needed for life, such as amino acids.

Rosetta has now provided the first unambiguous detection of the amino acid glycine in the thin atmosphere (coma) surrounding a comet. The detection of other organic molecules that can be precursors to glycine, and the fact that glycine is the only amino acid known to be able to form without liquid water, suggest it is formed within interstellar icy dust grains before becoming trapped and preserved in the pristine environments of comets for billions of years. Rosetta also detected a key element found in cell membranes and the structural framework of DNA - phosphorus. Phosphorus is present in all living organisms and plays an important role in metabolism, transporting chemical energy within cells.

These discoveries realize one of the key goals of the Rosetta mission - to determine whether comets could have delivered molecules essential for prebiotic chemistry to the primordial Earth. Of course, there is still a huge gap in our understanding of the evolution of life from life’s raw ingredients, but one thing is increasingly clear – the basic building blocks of life pervade the depths of interstellar space. If evidence for a second genesis of life is found elsewhere in our Solar System, whether on Mars or perhaps in a subsurface ocean on the Jovian satellite Europa or the Saturnian satellite Enceladus, the likelihood that life is ubiquitous in the cosmos will skyrocket!

Until next month,


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

P.S. A personal invitation: In April 2015, I wrote about the relevance of so-called “yellowballs,” discovered by citizen scientists working on the Milky Way Project (MWP), to understanding the origin of our Solar System.(6) The MWP(7) was just re-launched with incredible new images and better measuring tools to catalog signposts of star formation across our Galaxy. My colleague, Charles Kerton, and I are leading the yellowball study and need your help classifying the new images – please consider going to the website and joining us in this effort!

1.  http://theclergyletterproject.org/Resources/Astrobiology.html
2.  Altwegg, K. et al. 2016, “Prebiotic chemicals – amino acid and phosphorus – in the come of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko,” Science Advances, Vol.2, no.5, e1600285, DOI:10.1126/sciadv.1600285
3.  http://aro.as.arizona.edu/12m_docs/12_meter_description.htm
4.  https://almascience.nrao.edu/

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3.  Evolution Weekend 2017

Evolution Weekend 2017 is coming closer every day and our list of participating congregations is growing (almost) every day as well!  This would be a fabulous time to add your name to the list of participants if you’re not already there. 

One of the things that I am most proud about Evolution Weekend is the fact that it enables so many of us to engage in difficult conversations in a deep and civil manner.  At a time, at least in the United States, when civil discourse seems to have collapsed, it is truly refreshing for so many congregations to come together and have meaningful discussions.  You and your congregation can be a part of this movement simply by signing up to participate in Evolution Weekend 2017 (10-12 February 2017).  Although I’ve said this many times before, please remember that participation can take any form you believe is appropriate for your congregation – there is no wrong way to participate.  Our goal is a simple one:  engage each of our communities in some sort of thoughtful activity or discussion, big or small, that promotes a deeper understanding of the relationship between religion and science.  And please remember that if the weekend we’ve set aside doesn’t work for you, you can still participate by holding your Evolution Weekend event any time in the vicinity.  So, please sign up now 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.  On the Origin of the Grand Canyon and Noah’s Flood

Two months ago I wrote about the opening of Ark Encounter, the theme park in the shape of Noah’s Ark run by the creationist organization Answers in Genesis.  Answers in Genesis and other fundamentalist allies regularly push the scientifically absurd position that most of Earth’s geology was shaped by a world-wide flood that occurred around 2345 BCE. 

For those of you who would like to have a bit more background on actual geology, I’m pleased to present some information by Larry Collins, a retired geology professor at California State University Northridge and a member of The Clergy Letter Project’s list of scientific consultants.  Larry makes four major points:   “(1) the sedimentary rocks in the Grand Canyon were not deposited during Noah’s flood; (2) 5 to 6 million years were required to carve the canyon; (3) a global flood is absolutely absurd; and (4) a local Noah’s flood in Mesopotamia in biblical times, however, is possible.” 

Take a look at this powerpoint for details.  The information that Larry has extracted drew heavily from a 2016 book entitled The Grand Canyon Monument to an Ancient Earth - Can Noah's Flood Explain the Grand Canyon? written by  Gregg Davidson, Joel Duff, David Elliott, Tim Helble, Carol Hill, Stephen Moshier, Wayne Ranney, Ralph Stearley, Bryan Tapp, Roger Wiens, and Ken Wolgelmuth.  I hope you find the material useful.

Additionally, Larry has created a web site entitled “Articles in Opposition to Creationism” which has many very interesting links.





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5.  Mandating Religious Leaders on School Boards

Scottish law requires that three members of each local school board have religious affiliations.  One must be appointed by the Church of Scotland, one by the Catholic Church and one is to be determined by local religious preferences.  Given that some of these appointees, especially those falling into the last category, have a record of promoting extreme fundamentalist beliefs, including young-Earth creationism, this law can pose serious problems for the quality of science education in Scotland. 

This issue was brought to my attention by Paul Braterman, a member of The Clergy Letter Project’s list of scientific consultants.  He notes that a petition asking the Scottish Parliament to alter the law has been submitted and is currently open for public comment.  You can read the petition here and you can submit a comment here, if you are so inclined.

I just published an essay in The Huffington Post providing a bit more detail on the issue.  Please take a look at it and leave a comment there as well!


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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 mz@theclergyletterproject.org. 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