Last night I received a phone call from a faculty member – a biologist – at UW-Fox Valley inviting me to be a participant in a panel discussion on Charles Darwin’s birthday. She had heard me give a convocation address a few years ago, so pretty much assumed that I did not have a big problem with Darwin, but she still did a little two-step shuffle, feeling me out on the matter. I asked her if she was familiar with the Clergy Letter Project, which she was. “Well, I wrote that letter,” I informed her. I could feel her relax, right through the phone.
Some history here: In 2004 I received a call from Michael Zimmerman, then a dean at UW-O. Michael is a passionate and energetic man, a scientist who was somewhere between appalled and terrified by the successful efforts in Wisconsin and elsewhere to stack school boards with Fundamentalist Christians determined to get the theory of evolution out of public classrooms, or at least to have it presented as “one theory among many” alongside so-called Creation Science. He wanted me to draft a letter stating that science and faith were not incompatible with one another, with the goal of having that letter endorsed by other clergy.
I agreed to write it primarily because I was afraid that it would be written badly by someone else. I asked that my name not be used, not out of either modesty or fear of backlash, but simply because I did not consider it a big deal. I devoted all of twenty minutes to writing it, and moved on to other things.
I had underestimated Michael’s passion and energy. It became a very big deal indeed, and soon I was being tracked down by reporters and folks who wanted to acquaint me with the error of my ways. It became an important resource in successful efforts to reverse school board actions in a number of communities, and it continues in circulation to this day. The last I checked, it had about 12,000 endorsers.
It is slowly sinking in that this two-paragraph letter I dashed out in twenty minutes and took no credit for is likely to be the most widely read and influential piece I will write in my lifetime. Had I known that would happen, I might have devoted an extra ten minutes to writing it. And to be perfectly honest, I will always harbor some ambivalence about my role in this. I comfortably stand by what I wrote, and sincerely believe that the theory of evolution is, as I wrote, “a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests.”
My problem is that sometimes I feel like I have served the cause of Scientific Fundamentalists – those who makes no room for the possibility of God at the table of science and sincerely believes the world would be a far better place if all religions disappeared overnight (please note that I am not speaking of Michael, but of some of his bedfellows. Which is not to suggest that he is sleeping with scientific fundamentalists).
Religious Fundamentalists refuse to welcome science and reason to their table—if science appears to contradict a verse in the Bible, then science is false. For Scientific Fundamentalists, such apparent contradictions “prove” that religion is false. A pox on both their houses! Both extremist views are, in my view, abhorrent, which is why I ended the letter with the statement: “We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.” But I still have the uneasy feeling that I helped one set of bad guys beat another set of bad guys, and that I in some ways compromised faith in the process.
So what will likely be my most influential contribution to the world of ideas was written anonymously, and I will always be a bit ambivalent about having done it. There’s got to be a metaphor in there somewhere. Oh, because Michael leaves no opportunities to seek support for his cause on the table, he put the entire story up on Wikipedia, and thoughtfully credited me with authorship. We do not get to choose what our legacy will be—it gets assigned to us by others.
Work and Dementia
2 years ago