Evolution Weekend: An Example of Reasoned, Civil Discourse

Most people agree that the vitriolic nature of the Republican presidential primary is doing very little to advance meaningful understanding of complex policy. Similarly most people recognize that being rude and boorish is not likely to bring individuals holding diverse opinions together.

Combine heated politics with divisive views on religion and the results become truly incendiary with a frighteningly large percentage of potential voters endorsing bigoted ideas like banning Muslims from entering the United States and closing down mosques.

But it doesn't have to be like this. There is a better way and the organization for which I serve as executive director, The Clergy Letter Project, has been demonstrating exactly this point for eleven years. Over 14,000 clergy members from all corners of the United States have signed one of our four Clergy Letters promoting the teaching of evolution in public school science classrooms and laboratories as a "core component of human knowledge."

Thousands upon thousands of Christian clergy members, from Baptists to Quakers and from Methodists to Episcopalians, Lutherans, Roman Catholics and many more, have stated as clearly as possible that their religion and modern biology, including evolution, are fully compatible. They have been joined in this movement by Buddhist, Jewish and Unitarian Universalist clergy. These men and women of faith have come together, despite their theological differences, to embrace the knowledge and wisdom that humans have discovered over the years. And they have done so in a manner that is fully respectful of their religious diversity. Indeed, they welcome meaningful discussion and treasure learning about their differences.

Discussion, dialogue and discourse are so central to members of The Clergy Letter Project that each year on the anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, hundreds of religious congregations all around the globe celebrate Evolution Weekend. The purpose of this annual celebration is to move beyond sound bites and to delve deeply into a complicated, contentious topic.

The theme selected for Evolution Weekend 2016 (12-14 February 2016), "Exploring Ways to Engage in Complex Discussions in a Civil Manner," speaks directly to the idea that we are all richer when we join together in a community to learn from one another. Our theme makes it clear that civil discourse is both possible and preferred. The clergy members involved in Evolution Weekend understand that shouting at one another, calling each other names, and vilifying those whose beliefs differ from their own, even if politically beneficial in the short term, is antithetical to the principles of every civilized society and cannot lead either to understanding or progress.

For eleven years now, members of The Clergy Letter Project have engaged in the difficult but immensely satisfying work of educating one another about the compatibility of religion and science. Over this time period, well over three-quarters of a million people have participated in these discussions personally. Some have been brought to tears learning that, despite what they had been told, they don't have to abandon their faith if they accept the findings of modern science. Some have found their faith deepened by the complexity present in the natural world. All have been enriched in a host of ways by the discourse.

Over the past eleven years, many millions more, via media reports around the world, have learned about this work and have come to appreciate the position so well-articulated by clergy. They have seen how it is possible to reconcile what, on the surface, might appear to be divergent, irreconcilable views. Most importantly, they have been introduced to the power of education and they have seen its power to push back the veil of ignorance.

I encourage you to find an Evolution Weekend event near you. Regardless of your religious persuasion, I'm confident that you'll be intellectually stimulated. Beyond this weekend, though, perhaps we all might use the Evolution Weekend model to demand more from our politicians. We don't have to tolerate bigotry. We shouldn't settle for platitudes, slogans and scapegoating. Together let's call for respect and civility and, together, let's learn from one another.