Creationists and evolutionists have been gathering across all 50 states in the days leading up to Charles Darwin's birthday to examine and debate the compatibility of science and religion.
"The goal of Evolution Weekend is to demonstrate that those outspoken fundamentalists who assert that people have to choose between religion and science are not speaking for the majority of religious leaders and religious persons," said the Rev. Charles Ortman last week to his congregation in Montclair, N.J.
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 Darwin's birth. The event, which began in 2006 as Evolution Sunday, was the product of the 2004 Clergy Letter Project – an open letter organized by biologist and college dean Michael Zimmerman after a Wisconsin school board aimed to pass anti-evolution measures.
The letter, challenging what Zimmerman calls "biblical literalism," states: "We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests."
As of December 2007, over 11,000 American clergy have signed the Clergy Letter Project, and some clergy like Ortman of Montclair, have glowingly spoken of the annual pro-evolution event, which this year has been changed to Evolution Weekend "in an attempt to be more welcoming to members of all religions."
"Science can help us understand questions about religion, just as religion can answer questions about science," Ortman said last week.
Not all clergy, however, view Evolution Weekend as a celebration.
The Rev. Clenard Childress, pastor of The New Calvary Baptist Deliverance Outreach Church, is among many who have called evolution a "farce."
"The only credible theory of how the world began is in the first two chapters of Genesis. The Bible and science agree," he stated.
Rob Crowther of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, the nation's leading think tank on the concept of intelligent design, has also been a critic of Evolution Weekend and The Clergy Letter Project.
"Can you imagine if the Discovery Institute issued a list of clergy opposing Darwinism? We don't think there is anything religious at all to the theory of intelligent design," he stated in a 2006 interview, referring to the idea that the creation of life and the universe are results of an intelligent "designer" and not by chance as evolution theory suggests.
More recently, Ken Ham, evolution critic and President of Answers in Genesis USA, opened a 60,000 square-foot museum that features the Bible's literal account of Creation as aligned with natural history.
The Creation Museum, located in Petersburg, Ky., just outside of Cincinnati, has attracted over 300,000 visitors since its opening in May and is packed with high-tech exhibits that include animatronic dinosaurs and a huge wooden ark. The museum's founder, like many other Young Earth creationists, believes dinosaurs appeared on the same day God created other land animals.
"The argument we make is this: When you believe in millions of years of evolution and add it to the Bible, you actually have to change what the Bible clearly says," explained Ham in a past interview with The Christian Post. "You have to reinterpret it. That unlocks the door to say that you don't take this as written. You reinterpret it from outside influences, which means that you tell the next generation that you can't take the Bible as written. So you just undermine biblical authority."
In November, Ham also co-wrote the book "Darwin's Plantation: Evolution's Racist Roots" with Charles Ware, president of Crossroads Bible College in Indianapolis.
The book argues that Darwin's ideas of natural selection places some "higher on the evolutionary scale" and others "closer to the apes," and are ideas that were precursors to the policies of Hitler and Stalin's murderous regimes.
"Although racism did not begin with Darwinism, Darwin did more than any person to popularize it," Ham writes in his book.
According to a November 2007 Harris poll, more Americans (62 percent) believe in a literal hell and the devil than in Darwin's theory of evolution (42 percent).
Christians, however, were far from a homogenous group and a break-up of respondents based on Christian traditions showed discrepancies in their level of belief.
Only 16 percent of born-again Christians said they believe in Darwin's theory of evolution compared to 43 percent of Catholics and 30 percent of Protestants.