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Evolution goes to church

It's usually not a pretty sight when religious belief and evolutionary theory mix, but that's what will be happening over the next few days in hundreds of locales around the country and around the globe, under the banners of Evolution Weekend and Darwin Day.

Rischgitz / Getty Images
This view of British naturalist Charles

Darwin, circa 1880, is based on a

painting by W.W. Ouless.

For two years now, educators and members of the clergy have been working together to bridge the gap between science and religion by organizing an annual teach-in, timed to coincide with the Feb. 12 anniversary of evolutionary theorist Charles Darwin's birth. In 2006 and 2007, the event was known as Evolution Sunday - but this year the organizers say the title has been changed to Evolution Weekend "in an attempt to be more welcoming to members of all religions."

Michael Zimmerman, the intiative's founder and dean of liberal arts and sciences at Butler University in Indianapolis, said the effort is going "phenomenally well" - even though some clergy have had to spin this year's sermons to accommodate the first Sunday of Lent rather than the Sunday before Darwin's 199th birthday.

"We have gone up almost 30 percent over last year, which was 30 percent over the year before," he told me.

Zimmerman is particularly pleased to see scientists get involved. More than 550 scientists from 29 countries have signed up to help answer questions from clergy or congregations, speak at church services or promote Evolution Weekend gatherings.

"I want to be clear: These scientists are not promoting religion, they're promoting good science," he said. "But they're perfectly willing to work with clergy to promote good science."

More than 800 congregations will be engaged in the dialogue this year. Check out the Web site to find a sermon near you - and in case you're in need of inspiration, more than 100 sample sermons have been posted on the resource page.

Darwin has his own day in the sun on Tuesday, when the countdown begins toward the big 200th birthday as well as the 150th anniversary of the publication of "On the Origin of Species." Hundreds of events around the world are offered on the Darwin Day calendar, aimed at celebrating the fruits of the scientific method as well as Darwin's contributions.

Bringing up evolution is a good way to start an argument, as we've seen repeatedly in the six years since Cosmic Log started up. Even in the wake of 2005's federal court decision on evolution education, the argument continues.

To get the anti-Darwin perspective, there are books such as "Darwin Day in America," which blames much of what's wrong with the world on evolutionary theory and materialism. You can also check in with the Discovery Institute and a gathering of blogs such as Evolution News & Views and Uncommon Descent.

Darwin's most vocal defenders include groups such as the National Center for Science Education, and blogs such as Panda's Thumb and P.Z. Myers' Pharyngula.

In this week's issue of the journal Nature, Berkeley paleontologist Kevin Padian addresses Darwin's top 10 legacies, ranging from natural selection to co-evolution. It's a shame the essay is available only to subscribers, but the first two paragraphs alone provide adequate fuel for further reflection and debate (or an argument): 

"Perhaps no individual has had such a sweeping influence on so many facets of social and intellectual life as Charles Darwin, born on 12 February 1809. Of the other two of the great nineteenth-century triumvirate of European thinkers, Marx's ideas have been distorted beyond recognition in their political execution, and Freud's approach to the psyche no longer merits scientific recognition. Neither man had Darwin's impact on the structure of empirical knowledge.

"In the past century and a half, Darwin's ideas have inspired powerful images and insights in science, humanities and the arts. Meanwhile, countless commentators ignorant of his meaning have borrowed his eloquence to plump their own chickens — from capitalism to 'evolutionary psychology.' Darwin has been invoked as the demon responsible for a variety of perceived heartless ills of society, including atheism, Nazism, communism, abortion, homosexuality, stem-cell research, same-sex marriage, and the abridgement of all our natural freedoms. One can scarcely imagine the horror that Darwin would feel at the misunderstanding, misappropriation and vilification of his ideas in the 125 years since his death. ..."

Speaking of debate, Nature also weighs in with questions about the idea of bringing the presidential candidates together for a debate focusing exclusively on scientific and technological issues. The theme gets more detailed treatment in a freely available essay from David Goldston, a former congressional staff member who is now a visiting lecturer in science policy at Harvard.

Are you ready to join the debate over religion, science and politics? Just add your comments below. But please, be civil.