Making a Case for Darwin Day as a Recognized UU Holiday

I recently attended the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Oxford, Mississippi.  The theme of their service was Darwin Day. Charles Darwin, Unitarian, is credited for developing what is now known as the theory of evolution.  He wrote the book On the Origin of Species in 1859 which revolutionized our understanding of creation.  During this service, I came to the realization that Unitarian Universalists could embrace the idea for a recognized holiday in honor of Charles Darwin, if not in the secular world, then certainly in our faith tradition. Just as Unitarian Universalists celebrate Christmas to honor our Christian heritage, Darwin Day would celebrate our Humanist heritage.

Since 2006, Michael Zimmerman has been the proponent of the Clergy Letter Project which seeks to have congregations hold  a service that would highlight that science and religion are not opposed to one another.  And more emphatically that the theory of evolution can be embraced by people of faith.  Michael Zimmerman recently wrote an article for the UU Humanist Association urging Unitarian Universalist clergy to sign on to the UU Clergy Letter; which is parallel to the Christian Clergy Letter.  I am a proud signatory of this letter. There is also a Christian Clergy Letter, Rabbi Letter, and Buddhist  letter.

The Unitarian Universalist version of this letter begins by stating:  As Unitarian Universalists, we draw from many sources, including “Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life,” and “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.” While most Unitarian Universalists believe that many sacred scriptures convey timeless truths about humans and our relationship to the sacred, we stand in solidarity with our Christian and Jewish brothers and sisters who do not read the Bible literally, as they would a science textbook. We believe that religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts.

I am in full agreement of this letter and I urge my colleagues to consider adding their signatures in support of Michael Zimmerman’s efforts to demonstrate that religion and evolutionary biology are compatible.

But the reasons given in this letter are not the reasons that dawned on me as I listened to the speaker at the Oxford congregation on Sunday that we need to create a UU holiday honoring Charles Darwin’s work.  The reasons given above are certainly  a part of my reasoning. But what began circulating around in my brain as I listened on Sunday was how important and relevant a holy day such as Darwin Day would be for Unitarian Universalists given our nation’s shift towards religious fundamentalism. Such a declaration would sharpen the contrast of where we stand on matters of faith and science in a culture that is increasingly anti-science.  And to be clear, being anti-science is not just reserved to conservative religious fundamentalists, the recent outbreak of measles at Disney Land is the responsibility of anti-science liberals.

In addition to the sources and the principles of our covenanted association, Unitarian Universalists have proclaimed that truth and revelation is forever unfolding. Along with Ralph Waldo Emerson we propose that not one book can contain the whole of wisdom and revelation for all time.  Here in the works of Darwin is evidence of that unfolding revelation.

For Unitarian Universalists to embrace Darwin Day as a holiday not only honors the compatibility of science and religion as the Clergy Letter Project seeks to do but also highlights one of the unique distinctions of our faith–the belief that  revelation is unending and is revealed through a variety of sources–including scientific study. Our faith is based on a heritage of revelation from its earliest days to the current day. From their earliest beginnings, Unitarians and Universalists have evolved in their understandings of truth.  Today we have a statement of principles and sources for our faith which we have amended and changed as new revelations have become known.

As a people of faith, we have often been at the vanguard of liberal thought and social change–even while the majority of our members may have resisted these very changes. But individuals began with an idea, a revelation if you will, that grew into a movement that not only transformed our faith but the society in which we live.  Whether it was abolition of slavery (Theodore Parker), women’s equality (Judith Sargent Murray), Transcendentalism (Ralph Waldo Emerson),  women’s suffrage (Susan B. Anthony), or ending racism (Mary White Ovington); Unitarian Universalists have been at the vanguard of these transformational movements.  Given that Charles Darwin was a Unitarian, places Unitarian Universalists at the vanguard of the revelation that all life on this planet has a common ancestry and origin. Our faith has added to wisdom of the ages.

The movement to have Darwin Day recognized as a holiday is also an international one. International Darwin Day will inspire people throughout the globe to reflect and act on the principles of intellectual bravery, perpetual curiosity, scientific thinking, and hunger for truth as embodied in Charles Darwin.  This mission is spearheaded by the American Humanist Association.  Darwin Day is celebrated on every continent with various events.  This year’s observance of Darwin Day during the week of February 12th, the 206th birthday of Charles Darwin, has 151 events registered at their website. The mission statement of International Darwin Day is a statement that succinctly reflects Unitarian Universalist principles.

The Clergy Letter Project–Evolution Weekend has 459 congregations registered as participating in their event.  Sixty eight of these congregations were Unitarian Universalist offering an impressive 15% of the congregations listed. Impressive because we are such a small association in comparison to other faiths listed.  But if my experience at the Oxford, Mississippi congregation is any indication, there are many more UU congregations celebrating Charles Darwin’s ideas than are registered on this site.

Attend a Darwin Day event, honor our Unitarian Universalist faith by declaring that revelation is unending and new truths are being made known about the universe in which we live and new truths are being revealed as to how we might live justly with our neighbors on this planet.

Academic Freedom Act

Alabama has been attempting for the past several years to pass what is being called the “Academic Freedom Act.”  I love how pleasant sounding names adorn dangerous and destructive bills.  It should be the first sign to run away from this proposed bill. 

Rep. Grimes has proposed this bill for the past several years.  He has proposed the bill again this year just in time to celebrate Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday.  If the past few years is any indication, may it die once again in committee. 

What this bill does is allow teachers from elementary through college to teach the pseudo-sciences of intelligent design and creationism along side evolution.   I say pseudo-science because what proponents of of ID and Creationism do is take the Abrahamic stories of Genesis as their foundation and then try to prove how the world came to be using these stories as the reference points.  For example, how did the Grand Canyon form?  Well, when the flood waters receded after the great flood that covered the earth, the rush of the waters carved the canyon.  So how old is the grand canyon?  Only a few thousand years.

I kid you not.  There is a book that can be purchased at the Grand Canyon National Park that tells this story of how the world’s greatest canyon came to be from this creationist point of view.   And this is the information that Rep. Grimes wants teachers to be able to teach in the classrooms of Alabama.

One of the arguments attempting to be made is that evolution is a theory and therefore may not be true. So why not present other theories that are more aligned with biblical beliefs?  Well, first off there are several definitions of the word theory. 

Most scientific theories are operating under this definition:

  1. A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena.

While Creationists and Intelligent Design proponents operate under this definition to argue for their curricula to be presented:

  1. An assumption based on limited information or knowledge; a conjecture.

(“theory.” The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. 12 Feb. 2009. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/theory>.)

And because this definition of theory is being used, it is argued that creationism and intelligent design theories (second definition) should be taught in school.   Proponents argue that because the theory of evolution is only atheory, a conjecture (second definition),  then their theory is just as valid to be taught in academic schools.  However, the theory of Evolution is not a conjecture but rather a principle that has been tested and proven to be predictive about natural phenomena.   The theories of creationism and intelligent design cannot be tested and proven to be predictive, they are conjectures. 

They also argue that education should reflect the values and beliefs of their religious community.   This opens the door for other creation stories to be taught as plausible science theories since other religions in addition to the Abrahamic religions are present in our communities. 

Schools are not meant to support or validate the religious belief systems of a community.  They are meant to be institutions that challenge and develop critical thinking skills of its students by using evidence found in the natural world.  It is by this means that advances are made in all fields of research. 

But when religious beliefs begin to dictate where education and knowledge are to advance then we do not advance into the light of day but rather recede into the depths of ignorance and darkness.  

This proposed bill does exactly this.  It needs to once again die in committee.