NEW YORK -- Nearly 450 Christian churches around the country plan to celebrate the 197th birthday of Charles Darwin today with programs and sermons intended to emphasize that his theory of biological evolution is compatible with faith and that Christians have no need to choose between religion and science.
''It's to demonstrate, by Christian leaders and members of the clergy, that you don't have to make that choice. You can have both," said Michael Zimmerman, dean of the College of Letters and Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, who organized the event.
Darwin's theory holds that all life on Earth, including humans, shares common ancestry and developed over millions of years through the mechanisms of natural selection and random mutation. The concept is repugnant to many conservative Christians because it conflicts with their belief that man was specially created in the image of God.
Zimmerman said today's event is designed to educate Americans about two things.
''The first part was to demonstrate to the American public that the shrill fundamentalist voices that were demanding that people had to choose between religion and science were simply wrong. The second part was to demonstrate that those fundamentalist leaders that keep standing up and shouting that you can't accept modern science were not speaking for the majority of Christian leaders in this country," said Zimmerman, a former biology professor.
However, Evolution Sunday drew sharp criticism from the Discovery Institute. The Seattle-based think tank funds research into challenges to neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory, such as the concept of intelligent design, which posits that some complexities of life, yet unexplained by evolution, best are attributed to an unnamed and unseen intelligence.
In a statement issued under the title ''On Evolution Sunday It's Give Me That Old-Time Darwinist Religion," Discovery Institute president Bruce Chapman said, ''Evolution Sunday is the height of hypocrisy."
''Our view is not that pastors should speak out against evolution," he added, ''but that the Darwinists are hypocrites for claiming -- falsely -- that opposition to Darwinism is merely faith-based, and then turning around and trying to make the case that Darwinism itself is faith-based."
To counter new challenges to teaching evolution, supporters of Darwin's theory have scheduled hundreds of events around the world today.
The events are part of the Darwin Day Celebration, which was formalized six years ago as a California-based nonprofit program.
Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, England, on Feb. 12, 1809, and died in 1882. He was 50 when he published ''On the Origins of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life," better known as ''The Origin of Species."
His discovery that species evolve over time was based in part on zoological and geological discoveries he made during a five-year voyage around the world on the HMS Beagle.
In his birthplace, the scientist is the subject of a monthlong festival, including a performance this year of ''Darwin's Dream" by composer Graham Treacher. Darwin is buried in Westminister Abbey, along with physicist Isaac Newton and other prominent scientists.