Rev. Michael Dowd: Thank God For Evolution

August 15, 2008

The Reverend Michael Dowd, along with his wife, science writer Connie Barlow, have lived permanently on the road for years, sharing a “sacred view of evolution” with religious and secular audiences of all ages. His new book is Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World.

In this interview with D.J. Grothe, Michael Dowd discusses his new book Thank God for Evolution, which is a religious defense of the central organizing theory of modern biology. He reveals the agenda of the book, and the reception it has received from both the scientific and the religious communities. He explains his religious background, and how he has adopted a thoroughly “naturalized” religion that he calls “Religion 2.0,” compatible with and integrated with evolution, which rejects the supernatural or the “unnatural.” He details why he has become an “evangelist for evolution” and why the “gospel of evolution” has been so popular for both the religious and the secular audiences he has spoken to over the last six and a half years. He expounds his “evolution theology,” and how the traditionally religious can embrace the facts of evolution, which he considers the most important religious act they can commit.

Mark Colvin, this is point of inquiry for Friday, August 15th, 2008. 

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I’m happy to have the Reverend Michael Dowd on point of inquiry. He is what you’d call an evolutionary evangelist. He’s dedicated his life to proclaiming the good news of evolution far and wide of cosmic biological and human evolution. Since 2002, he’s lived entirely on the road with his wife, Connie Barlow, an acclaimed science writer, giving sermons and presentations to a number of secular organizations and churches. He joins me on point of inquiry to talk about his acclaimed book, Thank God for Evolution How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and your World. Welcome to Point of Inquiry, Reverend Michael Dowd. 

Great. Thanks, T.J.. Good to be here. 

I’m pretty persuaded, Reverend, that science and religion are not compatible. Or at least the outlook based on science is not compatible with supernaturalism or superstition. But of course, that’s not to say that religiously minded folks and scientifically minded folks are not compatible. Some of my best friends are Bible believers. And your wife, Reverend, is actually an atheistic science writer? 

Absolutely. If what you mean by a theory. Well, first of all, let me back up, because what you said at the start, I would completely agree with. In other words, science is not compatible with a with an understanding of religion as mostly involved with other worldly, supernatural claims. 

That’s of course, not what I’m trying to talk about at all in my book. I’m basically making the claim that all language that sounds supernatural, otherworldly, abstract, really unnatural. I mean, because when you use the word supernatural, you can also say unnatural, the newer synonyms. And what I’m suggesting is that all religions can also be understood as having this world reference. So other worldly, supernatural language is what I call night language. And it often many religious people do interpret that literally, but many don’t. And in fact, a growing number are interpreting it metaphorically or cosmological. That is, that they’re interpreting what could sound if you interpreted them literally as otherworldly claims in this world. Realistic way. 

Mm hmm. And you and your wife is therefore compatible with your religiosity, even though she’s an atheistic science writer, because you’re taking your religion and kind of naturalizing it. 

Exactly. Both of us would be called religious naturalists. I mean, I’d take his story. 

I was. My book was originally published by a small publisher in Tulsa, Oklahoma. And then it was picked up five months later by Viking in New York. And the first day, just about a month and a half ago, when when the book came out, it was the Viking edition. I was interviewed 15 times on TV and four times on radio, one of these satellite radio and TV tours and probably a dozen of the interviews. The first question out of the chute was how can you as a minister be married to an atheist? Well, I gave what I you know, my kind of standard response on that. And I went home to Connie afterwards and I told her about it. She said, what give the next time you’re asked that, just tell him. What can I say? She’s really great in bed. 

Spoken like my favorite kind of reverend, by the way. 

But let me say one more thing about that, because, you know, again, theism has become pretty trivialized in this understanding today. I mean, most people, when they think of us theist, when they think of, you know, even the word God, what they’re thinking of is a supreme landlord deciding off the planet and outside the universe. A supreme engineer who made this clockwork universe. 

Right. That’s the kind of consensus view of God in mainline religions. 

Well, to say consensus view would be an overstatement, but it certainly is the majority opinion in terms of the conservatives and many liberals as well. Probably is not. Probably not the majority in terms of levels. But in any case, if that’s what you mean by a theist, then yes, Connie is definitely an atheist who doesn’t believe in that kind of a god. But she wholeheartedly celebrates the kind of evolutionary God that I talk about in my book. 

I want to talk more about your naturalized religion in a bit, but I’m really interested in the impact of your book. Maybe the intention you had when you wrote the book was to have the kind of impact you have. You’re trying to get folks from each camp, the science camp, the religion camp, to be shaking hands and hugging what five Nobel laureates, including well-known atheists, have endorsed this book. Scores of religious leaders from all sorts of faith traditions have endorsed this book, even though it mentions evolution all over the place. It’s about evolution. 

Exactly. I think one of the reasons why, you know, these five Nobel Prize winners and all these other theologians, the ministers and rabbis and whatever have endorsed it is because it really it’s one of the books that giving voice to the millions in the middle. Right now, if you pay attention to the media, there’s this polarized debate. You get your you know, those who reject evolution, the young earth creationists and intelligent design folks on the one hand and then on the other. And you’ve got your you know, those who reject religion or at least have, you know, no friend of religion, you know, the new atheist, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett. But those are not the only two meals on the menu. There are literally. Millions in the middle of what I call what we call evolution theology or religion 2.0. Religion evolving its religion, not just tolerating an evolutionary ecological worldview, but wholeheartedly embracing it. But in order to do that, it needs to let go of literal interpretations of its supernatural sounding, mythic language. 

It needs to let go of many of the things that some of my most strident religious friends consider the most important things in that religion. The belief that there’s a personal God up there in heaven looking out for them, that miracles are real. So, yes, your book has kind of been welcomed with open arms in the science community because it’s easier to swallow than, say, Richard Dawkins. But on the other hand, aren’t you in a really tough position because the hard line atheists and scientific naturalists might what? Haven’t you been dismissed even a little because some people might imagine you’re soft pedaling evolution to make it more compatible with the religious folks. Or on the other hand, fundamentalists are definitely going to dismiss you. Is just not being religious enough, not Christian enough? Not true to the Bible. 

Yeah, what you’re pointing to is really important, T.J., and I think it’s right on in our experience. The let’s see, I mean, for the last five and a half. No, wait a second. Six and a half years. My wife and I have traveled nonstop, permanently all over North America. That’s all we do is we travel and speak. We’ve spoken in six or seven hundred different religious and non-religious settings. And and in our experience, about 70 percent of the people we speak to really, really love this perspective. But there’s 10 or 15 percent on either end. There’s 10 or 15 percent of the young earth creation. As those who believe that evolution is the devil, all the evils of the world can be attributed to Darwinism, obviously, that they don’t find this perspective inspiring. But then there’s also ten or fifteen percent of people who are so non-religious antireligious. So, you know, perhaps there they see no value in religious language at all. And they don’t particularly find this perspective inspiring. I mean, most of them are glad most of the atheists and people who are anti religious are glad we’re doing what we’re doing. They’re hoping we’re successful with religious people in terms of, you know, really bringing them into an ecological evolution world view. But you know that the language isn’t particularly meaningful to them. I would say roughly 70 percent of those in the middle really do find value. 

Mm hmm. So you’re speaking to that middle ground that Dawkins might not be reaching, although maybe he is changing some minds. Also, you’re speaking to the people, the religious folks that the fundamentalists would never reach, that the religious folks that dismissed the fundamentalists. But aren’t you kind of really open to the criticism that you, in fact, are making a religion now out of evolution? 

No, absolutely not. In fact, one of the things that Thomas Berrier, one of my mentors, as a phrase that he’s used for years, which I think is very accurate, is this is a meta religious perspective. It’s not a religious perspective in competition with other existing religious perspectives. It’s metter, religious, it feeds and nurses all traditions. So it’s not in any way offering a religious perspective that says that, oh, now we need to believe this. It’s not belief base. This is it’s an evidential world. It’s it’s it’s it’s it’s empirically based. Mm hmm. 

Let’s go back a little and just talk about your roots in religion. You were a former fundamentalist. Yet you somehow converted to be going around evangelizing for evolution. Tell me your conversion story. 

Yes, sure. Great. I grew up Roman Catholic, went to well, I joined the Army in 19. I was in 1978. And I was struggling a lot with drug and alcohol sexual issues. And I had a born again experience in my teenagers that actually I think I was 20 and that was an Assemblies of God context in Berlin, Germany. And it felt real to you? 

Oh, my gosh. Yes, of course it felt real. I mean, well, it was more than it felt real. It shifted my values such that I began living with a heck of a lot more integrity and started struggling an awful lot less with my nature. Now, of course, now I talk about this in terms of evolution, psychology and brain science. But let me just kind of stick with the narrative here. So so I had this Born-Again experience in Germany that was an Assemblies of God context. So the people I hung out with, the books I read, were all coming from a very anti evolution fundamentalist young earth creationist perspective. I said pass out tracts. I would argue with anybody who thought the world was more than 6000 years old. And and so then I went to Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Well, actually, the two things that turn me around at that point, the two things that really shifted out of Evangel College. One of them was that this is an Assemblies of God school. I went to college for three years, graduate in three years there. 

And it should be said Assemblies of God, they’re kind of fundamentalist Pentecostal type. Exactly. 

Led you to Pentecostal, very conservative. What I was unprepared for was the fact that they would be teaching evolution at this school. The first day I walked into biology class. The teacher held up the textbook that we were going to use. And I had used that same exact textbook for years earlier at the University of Miami, Florida, where I was a student for one year before I was dropped out and was doing drugs. And I joined the army. So I knew that that textbook. Evolution and I literally picked up my books, walked out of class, slammed the door and went to the registrar’s office and withdrew from the course, like I told my roommate. Satan obviously has a foothold in the school. Well, so I could make sense of how at an evangelical college they could be teaching evolution. Well, I went on to discover that almost all evangelical colleges and universities that teach evolution, they just teach it in an inspiring way. You know, what would you say, a God glorifying or a sacred, meaningful Ronald Lindsay that God uses evolution? Yeah, exactly. And those they would still continue to think of God in sort of a traditional theistic sense. Mm hmm. So then I but I can’t say as I embraced evolution and I accepted it kind of the way except death and taxes. But it wasn’t until 1988 that I was introduced to the work of Thomas Barry and Brian Swim and others who were really taking the whole universe story seriously, building on the work of a Taradash Dan and of course, the great evolutionary humanist Julian Huxley. 

Right in Telford. It was, what, a Catholic mystic, right? 

Terrorism. It was a paleontologist, but he was also a Catholic priest. And none of his writings were allowed to be published in his lifetime. I was only after he died. Mm hmm. But basically, what what Julian Huxley and Taradash and talked about was that we are the universe becoming conscious of itself, that the human story cannot be understood as a part of as separate from the universe story, that basically the universe has been expanding for 14 billion years. And it has in the human we are the universe becoming conscious of itself or nature uncovering its own nature. And that struck such a deep chord within me. I knew that that was true, that I basically the first night that I was introduced to this perspective, it was February 1st, 1988. I knew I would spend the rest of my life popularizing this perspective, like my appointment with Destiny. So I started basically studying cosmology, biology, anthropology, all the different evolutionary sciences, wrote my first book, Earth Spirit, in 1990 and and ended up pastoring three churches over the course of about a decade. What denomination in the United Church of Christ, which tends to be one of the most liberal of the denominations, religious Christian denominations. 

Right. A pastor can write a book called Earth Spirit and still be talking his kind of liberal Christianity to you. 

I mean, the subtitle of my book was A Handbook for Nurturing an Ecological Christianity. There’s many conservatives that are part of rural UCC churches, but I’ve heard it said humorously that the UCC, the United Church of Christ UCC actually stands for Unitarians, considering Christ. 

It’s that, you know, they’re the only denomination that actively ordains gay and lesbians and bisexuals. 

Writers in the Unitarian Universalist, pastor of three churches in the UCC for about a decade of nine years, nine and a half years. And then for a year, I held up the first government funded program. I was basically the organizer for the National National Environmental Trust. So my I organized Jewish rabbis, Catholic priests, Protestant clergy and evangelical clergy on key issues that were coming up for a vote in Congress. I did that for a year and then for five years I headed up the first government funded sustainable lifestyle campaign in the United States. The Portland Sustainable Lifestyle Campaign in Portland, Oregon. I did it for three years in Portland, Oregon, and then two years in New York. And my job is essentially to help neighbors come together and support each other and using less water, driving, less composting, recycling, all the different aspects of living a more sustainable, earthbound lifestyle. Taking that Christian notion of being good, being a good steward of creation seriously, it was a little more radical than then, just stewardship, because, you know, we’re not my own. My personal approach was a little more like my theology. That time was much more sort of a deep, deep ecology sort of perspective. But we didn’t really get into that with the neighbors. It was really a practice based program to help people habitually use less water, drive left, compost, recycling, all the different aspects of living, a sustainable lifestyle, but also building trust and community with our neighbors. In fact, that was the thing that most people said they got out of the program, was that they felt they had a friendlier, healthier, safer neighborhood because before the program they didn’t even know their neighbors. I did that for five years. And then I met Connie Mack, my wife, my now wife, and we fell in love as mission partners. 

We both we came from very different backgrounds, and yet we both shared essentially the same worldview view, even though we had used different language. We both shared this deep ecological evolutionary perspective where we saw evolution as a sacred, meaningful process. And and really in a way that if I did if I if I were to sum up the whole of what I try to do in my programs, I’d say that there’s there’s nothing more important than what we think about evolution at this time in history. 

You just referred to evolution as a sacred and meaningful process. Are the words sacred and meaningful in quotes there? Are you literally mean kind of sacred? 

I really mean sacred. Now, what I mean by that. Where what I mean by sacred is that. Which is that which is worthy of our deepest honor. Respect cherishing, Reverend. It you know, it’s a sense of of of of the holy or the. That was that which is worthy of our highest commitment. That sort of thing. 

Well, I can get behind that. But I see that as metaphorical or, you know. 

Yeah. What you’re pointing to is, I think important, which is there’s a distinction that I make in the book. I think it’s a core distinction from this perspective. Is evolution, theology perspective or religion 2.0 is the distinction between day or night language, reverence, holy, sacred, meaningful. Those are all night language concepts. Those are interpretive concepts. 

Yeah. Having origins in the infancy of our civilization where we used those words to refer to things that were set apart, things that were other than the normal everyday. 

Right. But if we think that we as a species are going to move into the future, that we’re gonna drop our metaphorical language. We have no understanding of the nature of language. That won’t happen. All I’m suggesting is that the facts of science, the empirical data of 14 billion years of evolution can be interpreted meaninglessly or it can be interpreted in a deeply meaningful way. And Connie and I believe that for us as a species to survive into the future, we’re going to have to find ways so that every religious tradition interprets the same facts, the same evidence, the same data science. But you freely uses the mythic knight language of their tradition in such a way that they just embrace an evolution worldview. And I think that’s what’s going to allow us to cooperate across ethnic and religious differences in service of a healthy world together. 

Reverend Dowd, what makes your perspective different than, say, Spinoza’s or Einsteins? You know, kind of a reverence at this amazing universe we live in, but without ascribing any supernatural or what Andrian might call sub natural attributes to its southern astro? 

I’ve never heard of it go very little. I don’t know. I mean, Spinoza really was operating in a pre evolutionary contest. But those who seek, as we do, as I do, to find ways of communicating the science based history of the universe in ways that traditional religious people feel in their gut is holy or sacred or meaningful or draws them or calls them into deeper lives of integrity, compassion, love, generosity and so forth. I think that’s a that’s a holy work. I mean, that’s that I think is one of the great works of our time, because, frankly, if we don’t find ways of cooperating across differences, we don’t find ways of bringing billions of religious believers into an evidential worldview. In the next 50 years, we are in deep trouble as a species. 

Reverend, you used the phrase gospel of evolution. Yet for many religious fundamentalists, evolution leads to moral decay. You talked about that view that you had earlier than evolution means life is meaningless, that there’s no ultimate morality. So where’s the gospel? Where’s the good news in evolution for you? 

For me, where the good news is, is several things. One is that a sacred and like and what I mean by sacred is a meaningful, inspiring or religiously inspiring way of thinking about the history of the universe. And that’s what I mean by evolution, is the whole history of cosmos, earth, life and humanity as one story. For me, what’s the good news? Several things. One is that it builds bridges. It bridges hadn’t hard science and religion, faith and reason. It helps build bridges between family members. I’ve had people report that humanists and evangelical family members can now have common ground. If there’s enough conceptual common ground that they can have a deep and meaningful conversation on things that matter for the first time. So the fact that it builds bridges, I think is one of things that I see as good news or gospel. The second is that it really gives us a sense of guidance. We no longer have to go to ancient texts to find divine guidance. The history of the universe itself can be seen as giving us guidance for how we. Including the history of human history, how we’ve gone from cooperating, the scale of families and clans and everybody else is a threat to where now we cooperate, the scale of the planet of the globe. How did that happen? How do these major transitions in evolution happen? And when we look at that, clearly one of the things we get is tremendous guidance for what we need to do to move into a just healthy, sustainable future. And I think the key thing would be that we need to find ways of aligning the natural self interest of individuals, corporations and nation states with the well-being of the planet as a whole. If we do that well, virtually everything else will follow naturally. And if we don’t do that, if we if we don’t figure out how to create laws, taxes and moral incentive that align the natural self interests of individuals, corporations and nations with the well-being of the planet. If we don’t do that, virtually all the other good that we do won’t be enough. That essential. And we get that not from any sacred text. We get that from the history of the universe. 

So this is really moral guidance. You’re talking about that this good news is moral guidance. 

Well, okay. Yes, you could interpret it that way. What I’m suggesting, though, is that right now we have systems, we have governmental, and that’s how we govern ourselves and how we do economics. The self interest of the parts and the well-being of the whole are not aligned. And if if what we’ve learned about how prokaryotic bacteria created do you care at Excel, how you carry out creative multicellularity, how how families and clans created the complexity that we know of as tribes. How is multiple tribes came together to form chieftains and kingdoms and so on and so forth? When we get that, one of the key pieces is the aligning of the natural self interests of the parts with the well-being of the whole. It’s more structural that it is moral, although you could see it in wild terms for sure. 

Yes. So you’re not just describing how these things evolved, but there’s a should in there somewhere. 

Yes, there’s an implied sense that if we don’t if we don’t learn from nature, if we don’t follow the way of life with the Chinese, with hold it down the way of life or the laws of nature or the, you know, the ways of God, if you want to use that kind of language, we are perhaps creating the conditions for our own demise. 

Jim Underdown taking other species down with Jim Underdown while leaving the question that it might be natural to murder aside, it might be natural to be afraid of strangers to be xenophobic aside. You say that evolution is making it possible to speak boldly about morality without appealing to ancient text. Absolutely. But isn’t the crux of faith the belief that God, he’s communicated to us, to his people through these ancient holy books? Again, you seem kind of like a Christian lite, unless most people are just wrong about the real definition of Christian. 

What I’m suggesting, E.J., is that there is a distinction between private revelation and public revelation. And private revelation is an insight that comes to one individual who then has to communicate that insight to others and others may or may not believe it. So belief based religion is grounded in private revelation and public revelation is what’s being revealed about the nature of reality. What’s so what’s fundamentally true revealed through science. 

Revealed through science. Exactly through the entire range of scientists that you got atheist scientists, Christian scientists, Buddhist scientists, Hindu scientists, scientists of all religious tradition and no religious tradition that contribute to one common understanding. It’s really collective intelligence. Our species is more collectively intelligent today than we were in the past. And evolutionary thought, faith, evolution, Christianity, evolutionary Hinduism, evolution, Buddhism, evolution, all the religious traditions which they’re all in that process right now of emerging, their evolutionary forms are not belief based. When you use the word faith, it’s not about beliefs, it’s about trust. Faith and trust are synonyms. So for me, my religious orientation is is grounded in evidential science. It’s trust based. And so phrases like trusting the universe, faith and God, accepting what’s so loving, what is cherishing the real. All those are different ways of pointing to a stance toward life, which is one of acceptance and then being an action. How in service of the whole or in service of the larger common good? 

Sounds to me just like a religious seeming stoicism or something more a philosophical worldview. You want to dress it up as religion? 

I certainly don’t see it that way. I see that this is the future. If religions are going to exist in the next hundred years or 200 years or a thousand years, they will be predominantly evolutionary in religion, not as they will you. I believe 100 years and other will be Hindus and Jews and Buddhists and Muslims and Christians, but they will to be decidedly evolutionary Christians, evolutionary Jews, evolution Muslims. 

So you’re fine with all of these religions as long as they get rid of what most people would consider the religion in them, the kind of doctrinal faith based and not faith, meaning trust, but faith, meaning believing things without evidence. Right. 

When we look back 50 years from now, the majority of religious believers will have become religious knowers. And in that process, they will have embraced an evidential worldview and we’ll value that. They will value facts as gods native tongue. 

I love that. Thank you very much for joining me on Point of Inquiry, Michael Dowd. Thank you. D.J. has been great. 

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Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded from St. Louis, Missouri. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiry’s music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Quailed. 

Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.