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Conversations with Christian and Atheist Activists: Michael Zimmerman

Jan. 3, 2007

As I argued at the 2006 American Humanist Association conference and in articles such as "Overcoming Antagonistic Atheism to Recast the Image of Humanism," progressive secularists and religionists are united in their vision of a tolerant society free of violence, poverty and injustice. To prove it, I conducted four conversations last year with key progressive Christians and atheist activists.

The importance of the lesson of these interviews, that we have more in common than not, cannot be overstated. Why? Because of the mainstream mediaís insatiable hunger for discord and typological analyses, along with the efforts of secular and religious extremists who continue to undermine and distort this reality.

Most recently, on December 15, National Public Radio did a lengthy story on the rise of what I have been calling "antagonistic atheism." The piece, entitled "Atheist Brigade Takes Arguments to the Tolerant," featured interviews with two of freethoughtís most controversial and adversarial thinkers, Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, and Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists.

The introduction of the piece says it all: "Now a small group of nonbelievers has a new approach to getting their message out, challenging the faithful with a fiery rhetorical blend of reason and ridicule. Especially ridicule."

In the story Brooke Gladstone, host of NPR's On the Media, reported: "Atheism already had a PR problem. Then came Sam Harris, author of Letter to a Christian Nation." She went on to summarize a portion of Harris' comments by saying, "Harris says the only way to win is to keep up the pressure until religious tolerance is no longer tolerated."

Rather than speaking to any number of freethinkers engaged in building alliances, mainstream media outlets continue to foster the illusion of a culture war by crowning vitriolic and intolerant secularists official ambassadors to the broader freethought movement.

Such portrayals create the illusion of a culture war and more particularly, the illusion of a fierce split between long-time allies: religious and spiritual progressives, who have historically worked together to abolish slavery, further womenís rights and to crush poverty and intolerance.

Sadly, the media virtually ignores bridge-building projects such as atheist-biologist Michael Zimmermanís The Clergy Letter Project, a statement of support for science signed by more than 10,000 members of the clergy, and the manifesto I co-wrote, "A New Progressive Alliance: A Call for Unity Between Secular, Spiritual, and Religious Progressives," which states the numerous common interests of the three groups.

My own realization of the commonality between progressive believers and non-believers began last year when I spent several months researching the subject. The most convincing part of this research was my frank conversations with key progressive Christians and atheist activists. The following is my interview with Michael Zimmerman.

What prompted you to take the Clergy Letter Project national?

June of 2005 I was in the western part of the state, oddly enough, I had not watched Nightline in years. Iím in a hotel and I turn on Nightline and sure enough, they have a half-hour show on DoverÖ.And there were a whole lot of ministers, fundamentalist ministers, who were basically standing there saying, "If evolution is taught in our schools, people are going to hell. And you have to choose, you canít have both; you canít be a Christian and have a belief in evolution, have to choose one or the other."

Now I know that, in this country we like to believe that most of us are religious people; we are in fact by any statistics, upwardly religious people even though people donít go to church all that much. If you tell people in this country that they have to choose between science and religion, the vast majority of them will choose religion every time, even though they donít know whatís going on.

I knew that the dichotomy that was being presented, especially by all these Fundamentalist ministers in Dover and around the country, was simply a false dichotomy. I decided that night that what we really have to do is take the Clergy Letter that was written and circulated in Wisconsin and take it national. I believed if we were able to get about 10,000 signatures we can make an impact.

So we went national, we got our 10,000 signatures, and then decided that wasnít enough. And we declared Darwinís birthday this year, Feb. 12, 2006, to be the first annual Evolution Sunday. And we thought we could elevate the debate significantly beyond what it had been. And we had almost 500, on very short notice, we had almost 500 congregations around the country and some around the world participate in Evolution Sunday. So thatís how I got there.

Today we see biologist Richard Dawkins condemning pro-evolution clergy in the U.K., saying they betray reason just because they believe in God. Your work, on the other hand, shows very clearly the possibility of building bridges between Christians and non-Christians.

Dawkins is an incredibly bright articulate man, the problem is he takes his personal beliefs, heís a proselytizing atheist, thereís nothing wrong with that, but itís viewed as part-and-parcel of his science. And itís not part-and-parcel of his science, itís part-and-parcel of his beliefs. And heís welcome to his beliefs and heís welcome to criticize anybody he wants. But heís done more damage than help in many ways because of the vituperativeness of his comments.

In fact, I too am an atheist. And Iíve been one for 40-years but what I think is important is that we recognize that people can believe what they want, that there are lots of different kinds of worldviews, there are lots of questions that are asked. Science, as powerful as it is, can only answer a subset of the questions that are of critical importance to humans.

Where my rights begin to be impinged are when others begin to dictate, in this country, whatís taught in the public schools. Thatís how I got involved.

Since youíve spoken to so many clergy members who support evolution and science I want to ask you, how do they feel about the relationship between science and religion? And why do you think theyíre energized by this project?

There are two groups. There are the Fundamentalists who are absolutely irate. They believe this project and the clergy who have signed on are all going to hell and theyíre dragging the country and the world with them. They are the ones who have begun to attack the clergy and attack me personally. The death threats have been mild but theyíve been there. I donít take any of the seriously.

Whatís really exciting for me about this portion of the clergy is it allows me to demonstrate clearly that the fight is not between science and religion, the fight is between different religious groups. And this is, whether you teach evolution or creationism is a religious fight. Itís not a science fight.

The clergy that have signed the Clergy Letter are very outspoken. And they come from lots of different doctrines, lots of different sectsÖ.

They make it clear that thereís nothing in their faith that makes them have to turn their back on modern science. That if they have to not believe what they see in front of them, if they have to swear off the experiments and the data from modern science, thereís something wrong with their religion. Their religion is stronger than that. They recognize that faith needs to be taken on faith; you donít need scientific data to support their faith.

Some atheists, along with the most fundamentalist of Christians, are quick to say you canít be both a Christian and believe in evolution. And yet so many do. Talk about the conflict between faith and science as you understand it.

Personally, I have no religious faith. I canít get my head around how people can believe in a deity. However, I am perfectly willing to understand that others do. It doesnít work for me but I have no problem recognizing that it might work for you, that you have different insights than I do. Iím not convinced itís any better than my insights; Iím not convinced itís any worse. As long as you donít force me to accept yours Iím not going to force you to accept mine.

The practical aspect though, is in this country, if we care about high-quality education in general, and more narrowly, high-quality science education, and the attack is coming from the religious right on evolution first and then spreading out from there; if we donít, those who care about, if we donít work with those in the religious community whose values we share, even if we donít share their faith, we will lose. I think itís just that simple.

When the American public is forced to believe or forced to choose between science and religion, theyíre going to choose religion every time. If we simply say it's science or religion and you have to buy the whole thing or you canít buy any of it, we wonít have a science curriculum any longer. So, I think from a very practical matter, and from the liberal perspective of letting people believe whatever they want to believe, without forcing it on anybody else you know, the idea of freedom of thought, and freedom of expression, and freedom of all the things our Constitution requires. Scientists have no choice but to ally themselves with rational people who are members of religious organizations.

Jeff Nall is a community activist and regularly contributes to publications such as Online Journal, Toward Freedom, and The Humanist. Jeff is a board member of the Humanists of Florida Association and has spoken at conferences such as the 2006 American Humanist Association conference. His recent work, ďA New Vision for Freethought: Reaching Out to Friends in Faithful Places,Ē appears in the current issue of the AHA journal, Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism. His essay, ďIllusion of Conversion,Ē which tackles Catholicismís supposed spiritual conquest of the Aztecs in the 16th century, appears in the current issue of The Journal of Graduate Liberal Studies: Confluence.

Appignani Bioethics Center