October 2017 Newsletter

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

  1. The Clergy Letter Project Reaches Two New Milestones;
  2. Astrobiology News for October 2017:  Protecting the Red Planet from the Green Planet;
  3. Reasonably Good News from Canada and Britain;
  4. A Free Book for Evolution Weekend 2018;
  5. Richard Rohr on Faith, Science and Evolution;
  6. A Clergy Letter Project Member Runs for Congress; and
  7. Jeff Schloss to Speak on Science and Religion.

1.   The Clergy Letter Project Reaches Two New Milestones

I’m delighted to report that The Clergy Letter Project has recently reached two new milestones.  As of this writing, more than 15,000 clergy members in the United States have signed one of our Clergy Letters with more than 14,000 signatures now appearing on our Christian Clergy Letter.  Simply put, these numbers represent phenomenal support for our two main premises:  religion and science need not be in conflict; and the concept of evolution is broadly supported by clergy members.  Thank you to all of you who have signed one of our Clergy Letters, whether you added your signature at the outset, over a decade ago, or earlier this morning!

Even as our numbers grow, I’m hoping we can reach more clergy members.  Will you help?  Will you ask a colleague to add his/her signature?  Imagine how quickly our ranks would swell if each of you asked just one colleague. 

Alternatively, if it makes you uncomfortable to ask, will you suggest a name of a colleague (along with an e-mail address) to me?  If you undertake that simple task, I’ll reach out and make contact.  It couldn’t be any simpler!  Just fill out the information below and hit reply.  I’ll do the rest:

____  Sure I’ll help!  Please ask the following individual(s) to join The Clergy Letter Project:

            e-mail address:

Thanks for your help!


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2.   Astrobiology News for October 2017:  Protecting the Red Planet from the Green Planet

In this month’s Astrobiology News, Clergy Letter Project consultant and Adler Planetarium astronomer Grace Wolf-Chase discusses ways to protect Mars from terrestrial biological contamination.

Late last month, Adler Planetarium Astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz temporarily left Chicago for a 1-year position at the Library of Congress.  There, she serves as Baruch S. Blumberg Chair in Astrobiology to work on a project titled, “Fear of a Green Planet:  Inclusive Systems of Thought for Human Exploration of Mars.”  One aspect of this project brings together diverse minds working at the intersection of space and society to forge paths to “becoming an interplanetary species that enhances access to space, rather than mirroring our Earthbound inequalities.”(1)

The Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) has guided exploration of the “Red Planet” for decades.  COSPAR meets regularly to put in place and update guidelines on planetary protection (see February 2016 Astrobiology News).  As plans ramp up both from international space agencies and the private sector to put humans on Mars during the 2030 decade, so debates about protecting Mars from terrestrial biological contamination are ramping up.

The current volume of the Journal Astrobiology includes two contrasting views on protection strategies.  “Searching for Life on Mars Before It Is Too Late”(2) argues that we need to relax present constraints that prevent robotic missions from exploring “Special Regions”(3) that are thought to be most likely to host indigenous life before human missions to Mars.  On the other hand, “Four Fallacies and an Oversight:  Searching for Martian Life”(4) argues that relaxing constraints would neither be in the best interest of protecting Mars nor future human residents on Mars.

Arguments for exploring Special Regions are based on reasoning that (1) concerns about contamination of Mars by robotic missions are moot, since either contamination has already occurred, or Earth microbes can’t survive and reproduce in the Martian environment; and (2) Martian life would differ significantly from modern Earth life, both genetically and structurally.  Counterarguments question whether (1) Special Regions are necessarily the best places to search for Martian life in the first place, and (2) Martian life would be sufficiently dissimilar to Earth life, considering the new groups of microorganisms that have been discovered on Earth only within the past several years.  The suggested “oversight” is particularly thought provoking:  contamination of Mars could cause damage both to Martian resources and possibly to future human explorers. If Martian life uses DNA/RNA like Earth life, lateral gene transfer could result in the production of new pathogens.

These ongoing conversations ensure that we consider foreseeable possibilities before taking actions that might irreversibly change another world.  The history of human activity on Earth certainly argues for a cautionary approach!  The principal question facing Mars exploration today is, what are the best methods to further astrobiology research, while protecting environments on both planets?  A different, but no less important, question, is how can we ensure future space exploration is equitable and beneficial to everyone?

Finally, although this doesn’t really qualify as “Astrobiology” news, I simply have to switch topics briefly to mention the exciting new gravitational wave discovery that was announced on October 16th.  Yes, this is a really big deal – it’s the first time an astronomical event was detected both through gravitational waves and through light at many different wavelengths, confirming that the signal came from merging neutron stars.(5)  This discovery also confirmed that these collisions are responsible for the production of elements heavier than iron, such as gold, platinum, and uranium. For more information and some beautiful visualizations, check out the video produced by astronomers at Northwestern University.(6)

Until next month,

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

1.  https://www.loc.gov/item/prn-17-094/walkowicz-named-astrobiology-chair-at-kluge-center/2017-07-10/
2.  Fairen et al. 2017, Astrobiology, Vol 17, No. 10 (DOI: 10.1089/ast.2017.1703)
3. COSPAR actually defines Mars Special Regions as locations in which Earth life could propagate.
4.  Rummel & Conley 2017, Astrobiology, Vol. 17, No. 10 (DOI: 10.1089/ast.2017.1749)
5.  Neutron stars are even denser than the nuclei of atoms, containing the mass of a star compacted to the size of a city.
6.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m1X-BFLnRIM


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3.  Reasonably Good News from Canada and Britain

Our good friends at the National Center for Science Education have reported on a poll conducted in both Canada and Britain examining respondents’ acceptance of evolution.  A majority in both countries indicated that they thought that “humans and other living things evolved over time” either through a process with God playing a guiding role or via natural causes.  These options were favored by 71 percent of the British respondents and 60 percent of the Canadians who responded.  Most encouragingly, only 9 percent and 15 percent of British and Canadian respondents, respectively, believed that “Humans and other living things were created by God and have always existed in their current form.”


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4.  A Free Book for Evolution Weekend 2018

Even at this early date, our list of participants for Evolution Weekend 2018 has begun to fill out very nicely.  As you’ll see, we already have over 120 congregations and institutions from 38 states and three countries committed to participating.  If you and your congregation are not yet on the list, please sign up now.  To do so, simply reply to this newsletter and tell me you plan to participate.  I’ll immediately get you added to our list. 

I’m pleased to say that I have copies of a wonderful classic book to distribute to those of you who think it might help with preparations for Evolution Weekend.  The Devil in Dover:  An Insider’s Story of Dogma V. Darwin in Small-Town America by Lauri Lebo is a striking account of the intelligent design trial that took place in Dover, Pennsylvania.  Howard Zinn described the book as a “brilliant account…by a first-rate journalist….Not since I read Mencken’s dispatches on the Scopes trial have I read a more delightfully written, yet sobering account of a courtroom duel.” 

Judge John E. Jones, III, the judge in the case, called the book a “deeply personal account of the legal and social controversy in Dover, Pa.  The combination of her compassion, unique perspective, and entertaining writing style makes The Devil in Dover a most compelling narrative that accurately describes this historic battle.”

Although the book was originally published in 2008, it remains critically important today.  Lebo explores her relationship with her fundamentalist Christian father and touches on the state of journalism in which all “sides” of issues are to be presented equally noting, “we are taught that journalism is simply airing the two sides in every disagreement.  All too often we are afraid to stand up for what we know to be true.”  How could anything be more pertinent today?

I’ll distribute free books, until all copies are claimed, so if you think this volume might help you and your congregation prepare for Evolution Weekend 2018, just let me know.

_____ Of course I’ll participate in Evolution Weekend 2018 (9-11 February 2018)!  (But I don’t need the book!)

Name of Congregation:
Your name:

_____ Yes, I plan to participate in Evolution Weekend 2018 (9-11 February 2018).  Please enter me in the free book sweepstakes.  If selected, I promise to pay $5 to cover postage and handling.

Name of Congregation:
Your name:

Either way, please sign up to participate in Evolution Weekend 2018 now.  Given all that is happening, it is more important than ever for religious leaders to demonstrate the compatibility of religion and science.


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5.  Richard Rohr on Faith, Science and Evolution

Father Richard Rohr offers interesting daily meditations.  Over the past several days he’s posted two in which I thought you all might be particularly interested.  The first was entitled “Faith and Science:  Open to Change” and the second was entitled “Faith and Science:  Evolution.”  I hope you enjoy reading them.


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6.  A Clergy Letter Project Member Runs for Congress

Long-term Clergy Letter Project member Rabbi Robert Barr has decided to run for a seat in the US House of Representatives.  Rabbi Barr, running as a Democrat in Ohio’s First Congressional District, is the founding rabbi of Congregation Beth Adam and of OurJewishCommunity.org, one of the largest online Jewish congregations.  If elected, he will be the first rabbi to serve in Congress. 

Rabbi Barr currently has two primary challengers for the democratic nomination with the winner likely to face incumbent Steve Chabot in November, 2018.  You can read more about his candidacy in a recent Huffington Post article and on his web page.

While it’s very early in the electoral process, do members think that The Clergy Letter Project should undertake some research to enable us to make an endorsement in the race?  If you have an opinion, please respond to the questions below:

______ Yes, The Clergy Letter Project should begin researching the positions of the candidates.

              These are the issues that are most important to me as a member of The Clergy Letter Project: 





______ No, The Clergy Letter Project should wait until after the primary to think about making an endorsement.

______ No, The Clergy Letter Project should not be making an endorsement in this race at all.

______ Other:


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7.  Jeff Schloss to Speak on Science and Religion

Jeff Schloss, member of The Clergy Letter Project’s list of scientific consultants, director of Westmont College’s Center of Faith, Ethics and Life Sciences, and T.B. Walker professor of biology at Westmont, will give a free talk on Thursday, 9 November at the University Club of Santa Barbara.  The free talk is scheduled to begin at 5:30 pm and is entitled “New Discoveries in Science and Religion: Are We Built to Flourish with Faith?”  You can read more about the event in this press release.

If you can’t make it to the talk but want to explore the possibility of inviting Jeff to speak at your congregation or campus, contact the good folks at Ovation Agency.  You can also contact them to see about inviting Grace Wolf-Chase or me to speak as well.  Be sure to mention your affiliation with The Clergy Letter Project to receive a significant discount in their already low prices.

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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 mz@theclergyletterproject.org.  Together we are making a difference.


Michael Zimmerman
Founder and Executive Director
The Clergy Letter Project