September 2017 Newsletter

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

  1. The Clergy Letter Project and the First Amendment;
  2. Astrobiology News for September 2017:  Taking the Plunge:  Cassini’s Final Act;
  3. The Theme Members Selected for Evolution Weekend 2018;
  4. A Free Book for Evolution Weekend 2018;
  5. Thoughts on the PC(USA)’s Affirmation of Creation; and
  6. Listening to Creationists.

1.   The Clergy Letter Project and the First Amendment

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution seems to be under attack of late.  On behalf of The Clergy Letter Project, I’ve published a statement strongly defending the important principles and rights enshrined in that document.  For those of us who care about religious liberty, the First Amendment is obviously of central importance. 

I conclude the essay by saying, “Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is a political argument, yet another disagreement between Democrats and Republicans. Rather this is an issue which should unite us. Simply put, we don’t get to choose when to protect our rights; they must always be protected or we’ll lose them completely.”

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2.   Astrobiology News for September 2017:  Taking the Plunge:  Cassini’s Final Act

In this month’s Astrobiology News, Clergy Letter Project consultant and Adler Planetarium astronomer Grace Wolf-Chase combines cutting edge science with her personal intellectual journey as she discusses the travels of Cassini.

I remember my first view of Saturn through the small telescope my mother purchased for my 16th birthday.  Although some celestial wonders may disappoint when viewed through a small telescope, Saturn is not one of them!  Several years later, while I was a student at Cornell University, Pioneer 11 brought us the first awesome images of Saturn’s F-ring, with its striking “braided” appearance, produced by a delicate interaction with two small shepherd satellites.(1)  At about the same time, I took an astronomy course from a pioneer in the field of radar studies of small Solar System bodies, who hired me to work with data from the Arecibo Observatory in order to explore the properties of Saturn’s remarkable rings.  Although he passed away far too early, I am forever indebted to Steve Ostro for his wonderful mentorship of a shy neophyte - a printout of the old Fortran program we used remains in my office to this day, over 35 years later.

In 2006, a quarter century after Pioneer’s visit to Saturn, I helped organize a “Pale Blue Dot” workshop at the Adler Planetarium.  This workshop, 3rd in a series of conferences named for Carl Sagan’s eloquent description of Voyager 1’s famous view of the Earth,(2) brought together scientists from diverse disciplines in the budding field of astrobiology to consider the challenges in finding habitable, and possibly inhabited, worlds.  During the workshop, we were treated to a hot-off-the-presses image of pale blue dot Earth seen through Saturn’s rings by the Cassini spacecraft.(3)  Since its insertion into orbit around Saturn in 2004, Cassini has revolutionized our understanding of this stunning planet, its rings, and moons, some of which may harbor environments conducive to life.

Cassini’s 13-year mission ended on September 15th, as it plunged into Saturn’s atmosphere.(4)  The spacecraft’s final act ensured that it wouldn’t impact and contaminate Saturnian moons that might support life.  First there’s Titan, whose active hydrologic cycle including rain, rivers and lakes, is based not on water, but liquid methane and ethane. Titan also harbors a liquid ocean beneath its surface, which is likely composed of water and ammonia.(5)  Then there’s Enceladus, with its geysers consisting of ice, water vapor, and organic compounds.  These geysers provide a unique access to the subsurface ocean under the icy crust of this remarkable world.(6)   Enceladus is a prime target to search for evidence of life in its icy plumes – its allure has motivated a Special Collection of free articles in the journal Astrobiology.(7)

Cassini’s many discoveries reignite the curiosity of my 16-year-old self, as I glimpsed this “Jewel of the Solar System” for the first time.  Cassini was the first spacecraft to visit Saturn since Voyager 2’s flyby when I began graduate school in 1981 – hopefully, the next mission will be forthcoming on a much shorter time frame, and will answer the fascinating question of life on one of Saturn’s astonishing moons.

Until next month,

Grace Wolf-Chase, Ph.D. (

4.  For a moving account of Cassini’s legacy, see


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3.  The Theme Members Selected for Evolution Weekend 2018

In last month’s newsletter, I issued an invitation to vote for a theme for Evolution Weekend 2018.  Three-quarters of those voting opted to endorse “Our Shared Humanity” as the theme.

Both religion and science, using different lenses, tell us the same thing about the human species:  we are all one.  Religion makes it clear that regardless of ethnicity, national origin or any other factor, we are all brothers and sisters, people who need to care for one another.  Science, via evolutionary biology and genetics, tells us that racial differences are a human construct rather than a natural construct.  Beyond superficial differences, we share virtually all of our genetic composition with our fellow humans and we all have the same ancestors. 

Focusing on Our Shared Humanity provides a powerful way to demonstrate the compatibility between religion and science while attempting to combat some of the very troubling racism that has permeated society. 

As has always been the case, participation in Evolution Weekend does not require that any congregation adopt our specific theme.  Rather, each participating congregation is asked to do something, big or small, to advance the understanding that religion and science can work productively together, that they need not be in conflict.  And, as always has been the case, participation can occur at any convenient time if the actual weekend (9-11 February 2018) doesn’t work for a particular congregation.  Again, the purpose is to improve dialogue and that can happen at any time.

More than 100 congregations representing 36 US states and three countries have already signed up to participate in Evolution Weekend 2018.  If you and your congregation are not listed, this would be a great time to sign up.  Please join us!

      _____ Yes, of course, I’ll be participating in Evolution Weekend 2018 (9-11 February 2018)!

Name of Congregation:
Your name:



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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 100 congregations and institutions from 36 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. 

Because some of you have requested resources to help plan an event for Evolution Weekend 2018, I’ve been gathering free books to distribute.  I’m pleased to say that thanks to the generosity of the publisher, I have multiple copies of Lloyd Geering’s book, From the Big Bang to God:  Our Awe-Inspiring Journey of Evolution, to give to those of you who think it will help with preparations for Evolution Weekend 2018.  The book has received amazing accolades from impressive individuals.  For example, Bishop John Shelby Spong wrote, “Lloyd Geering is one of the wonders of the theological world.  For the past fifty years he has been a voice calling organized religion to deal with reality.  This book brings theology and evolution together in a magnificent dialogue.” 

Similarly, Rev. Robin R. Meyers has said, “This clear and accessible book reminds us that we are obligated to find ‘our place’ in cosmic time and space.  Instead of religion and science in conflict, or the false dichotomy of evolution vs. faith, Lloyd Geering gives us something much more wondrous:  the truth.”

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.  Thoughts on the PC(USA)’s Affirmation of Creation

I’m delighted to share the following from Clergy Letter Project member Reverend Dr. Joseph Shook of Albany, New York.  I hope his thoughts spur some interesting reflections.

The General Assembly (national governing body) of the Presbyterian Church USA approved the statement “Affirmation of Creation” submitted by the Presbytery of Boston.  The statement acknowledges the scientific data that dates the formation of the universe and Earth, and when living creatures including Homo sapiens emerged.  The church is reminded that Augustine of Hippo (5th century) wrote of the need for the church to recognize the role of science in the conversations about creation. 

As a PCUSA minister, while I applaud the Presbytery of Boston for writing and submitting the document to the General Assembly, I admit my concern that this statement and similar ones from other denominational bodies may perpetuate the barriers to a productive dialogue between the theist faith community and those who are defined as atheists or non-believers.  The use of the phrase “God’s call” as the Cause of creation may stymie conversations about the Hows and Whys of the process of creation and its evolution.

Karen Armstrong, wrote in her book A History of God (1993) “There have been many theories about the origin of religion. Yet it seems that creating gods is something that human beings have always done.”  In some early cultures, the creation of gods satisfied the How questions and continues to meet the needs of some contemporary communities.  Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist wrote “What happened before the beginning? Astrophysicists have no idea. Or, rather, our most creative ideas have little or no grounding in experimental science. In response, some religious people assert, with a tinge of righteousness, that something must have started it all: a force greater than all others. A prime mover. In the mind of such a person, that something is, or course, God” (Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, 2017).  The conclusion of the theist probably does not resonate with the so-called non-believer leaving the questions of How unanswered.

I do not suggest that theist faith communities should abandon their theological tradition that God is the Creator but care should be exercised to avoid using a theological statement of faith as a final response in conversations about science. 


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6.  Listening to Creationists

Clergy Letter Project Scientific Consultant Paul Braterman recently published an essay explaining the value in listening to creationists.  He offers much that should be of great interest to many of you.


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To those of you who are celebrating the Jewish New Year I wish you a healthy, happy and productive 5778.  L’shana tova tikatevu!

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


p.s.  For those of you who are interested, I thought I’d provide a bit of additional information on the chaotic situation at The Evergreen State College.  As I reported recently in a Huffington Post article, the student protestors and their faculty allies seem to have gotten much of what they demanded as many of the employees they wanted to be removed from their positions no longer work at the College.  Unfortunately for students, the College is far weaker because of these departures.  Additionally, the Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed piece entitled “Inside the Madness at Evergreen State” which, using e-mails acquired via a freedom of information request, demonstrates just how dangerous the situation was.  Unfortunately, nothing seems to have been learned from all of this.