This is point of inquiry for Friday, August 22nd, 2008.
Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m DJ Grothe the point of inquiries, the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. Before we get to the second part of my discussion with Michael Dowd, here’s a word from Skeptical Inquirer magazine.
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I’m happy to have the Reverend Michael Dowd back on point of inquiry for the second part of his discussion with me about his book, Thank God for Evolution, along with his wife, science writer Connie Barlow. He’s lived permanently on the road for many years, sharing a, quote, sacred view of evolution with both religious and secular audiences. Reverend Michael Dowd, welcome back to a point of inquiry.
You can call me Michael DJ Grothe.
Okay, Michael, I’ll call you Michael. I kind of prided myself on the notion of having a reverend on the show. Yes. Obviously, you’re not the kind of Christian who believes in a literal Jesus Christ who died for our sins, who was resurrected. You don’t believe in heaven or hell. You don’t believe in miracles. I bet. Would you consider all of that a more immature Christianity and less compatible with the science, the scientific worldview that you’ve been persuaded by?
Probably, although the end of the word immature carries baggage. It certainly is. I think religion is evolving in ways all religions are evolving and they and they have been from the start. I mean, Robert Wright’s new book That’ll Be Out Soon is on the evolution of religion. But but I think that what we’re coming to see is that religions have been largely grounded in private revelation. They’ve not even thought of public revelation. They haven’t thought of things like facts as God’s native tongue. I mean, for many religious people, God stop communicating all the cool and important stuff thousands of years ago. And so this is a radical notion that facts are God’s native tongue. That is how reality reveals itself. It’s primarily through facts discovered through the methods of science.
For me, science is a holy endeavor. It’s a sacred enterprise. Every scientific discovery, without exception for me would be to use religious night language would be God revealing God. Mm hmm.
And to use some of that, the language that smacks of New Age belief to me that we are the way the universe is becoming conscious of itself. I know Carl Sagan used that phrase a time or two. Probably not. Not in a new age sense.
Well, yeah, I don’t I don’t lie myself with any kind of new age thought. I mean, how would I use that kind of language? I’m drawing on people like Julian Huxley and Carl Sagan and Thomas Barry.
And, you know, basically this notion that, I mean, it’s a fact that the universe has been expanding for billions of years and becoming more complex, more interdependent and more cooperative at larger and wider scale. That’s a fact. We’re part of that process. And so humans are literally the universe becoming conscious of itself or nature uncovering its own nature. And that’s not a new age thought. It’s just empirical fact.
Right. You can see it both ways. But in your book, which I consider to be a a must read for anyone into this science and religion debate, you go through all the doctrines of Christianity. You don’t take them literally, but you put them in scare quotes and you reinterpret them kind of in in this kind of evolutionary religion sort of way. I mentioned New Age spirituality. I hear you now distance yourself from that.
What I’m trying to distance myself from is the parts of New Age that’s not evidential based, that’s based on private revelation.
Some of these doctrines you put in scare quotes and then you have a really interesting take on them. You mentioned original sin, personal song, salvation. Let’s talk about your take on those doctrines of Christianity.
Great. Well, first of all, I just need to say I got a big smile when you say scare quotes. I’ve never heard that phrase before.
So that it’s a way to emphasize you’re not talking about it in the ordinary sense of neglect yet.
Yeah, exactly. Yeah, great. Original sin would be a great one. I mean, when I talk about, you know, that nothing matters more at this time in history than what we think about evolution. Where I’m coming from on that is that it gives us a shared sacred story, a common creation myth that validates both scientific and religious ways of thinking and speaking.
Yeah, just to interrupt there, by myth, you mean not something untrue, but something. A true story.
We tell ourselves exactly that and a true story that tells that that in some way mirrors the nature of reality or helps us. It’s what David Sloan Wilson, a leading publishing theorist, talked about as practical realism versus factual realism. Mm hmm. So, yes, myths are practically real. That is, they help us navigate in the world that they help us to know how to cooperate at certain scales. And they they are metaphors about the nature of reality and our relationship to it.
But you’re not saying evolution is a metaphor about.
They think that evolution is evolution. Well, let me say it is Burley’s. I can’t. If evolution is not mythologized in the next 50 years, we are screwed as a species. That’s what I’m saying. I’m suggesting that each religious tradition will mythologize it in their own ways, but they’ll be grounded in the same empirical, evidential worldview. And when I say that mythologize I’m what I’m meaning is interpreted in ways that inspire people to cooperate. Inspire people to live lives of integrity, of compassion, of generosity and this sort of thing.
Right. We’re seeing evolution is literally true, factually true, scientifically valid to you, but you want to spruce it up so that it demands the commitments of people that religion normally did.
I would agree with that, except that I would say not so much that I want to spruce it up, that we can’t not interpret it. And so whether we interpret it meaninglessly and try to say that there is no there’s no meaning to evolution, it’s just this all this random chance, whatever. That’s an interpretation. See, that’s the interesting thing about living as animals in symbolic language is we can’t not interpret. So I am suggesting that how we interpret the facts is going to make a difference personally and especially collectively in terms of the decades before us.
Mm hmm. So you were going to talk about original sin.
All right. So original sin or what? Jews and Christians and Muslims all called the fall, the fall of Adam and Eve. These are night language that is their mythic intuitions about what today, what evolutionary psychology and evolution, brain science would call our unchosen nature or our inherited proclivities or just our instincts are evolved instincts. We all have aspects of ourselves that we didn’t choose. We just find ourselves this way because for a long time, that’s what helped us to survive and reproduce. For example, we all have cravings for sugar, salt and fat because for 99 percent of human history, it wasn’t easy to find some results of that. You know, men, especially many women, but most virtually all men, when there’s a rise in status, where we all of a sudden get promoted at work or are, you know, become ordained or, you know, get voted into office. And I’m not even talking about, you know, governor of New York or running for president. This latest scandal, I mean, that in any way where there’s a rise in status, it could be your school board elected to your school board. There’s gonna be a corresponding rise in testosterone from both men and many women. And now we can’t not interpret this are rational parts of our brain will always interpret our experience. So if we interpret things, got a great relationship, your spouse, your partner, there’s no temptation. It’s easy to be an integrity. And you get promoted at work and all of a sudden you’ve got sex on the brain because you have higher testosterone levels. Exactly. And when we have higher testosterone levels, the two things that we know that that does in a human organism is that the higher the testosterone, the more that human being tends to take risks and the more they tend to think about sex. In fact, a woman, a friend of mine in California, in a Marin County. She she was on a hormonal therapy issue. There were testosterone patches. And she told me that after two days, she said, I couldn’t stop thinking about sex. She said, is this what guys have to deal with? Cuoco? Yes.
So, OK, let’s say you got great relationship. Your spouse, you get promoted at work and you get sex on the brain, you get voted into office or whatever. Now, if you interpret this as though maybe something’s wrong with your relationship, your spouse, after all, why would you be having fantasies about this other person? Or if you’re a real spiritual person, then you interpret this as though it’s God’s will that you connect with, you know, this other person over here and you’re fantasizing about or conversely, that Satan is tempting you. Exactly. Exactly. That Satan is tempting you or you might be and interpret Genesis literally so that you the reason you’re having these more forces, because your great, great, great, great, great great grandmother eat an apple. She’s tempted by snake in a garden hose. You’re not going to know how to stay in impeccable integrity. You’re not gonna have the self knowledge or the tools to stay in integrity, which using Christian Knight language to be in Christ, you won’t know how to stay in Christ. That is in integrity because you’re interpreting your testosterone in ways that are actually going to sabotage yourself.
Well, you’ve opened up just a whole can of worms, even talking about sexual morality there, because there are great arguments for polyamory and that, you know, you can remain committed but not monogamous. That’s not the topic of this show, obviously.
No, but let me touch on it, because I’ve actually done a lot of writing on that topic. I bet my first wife and I were nomine items. We were leaders in the polyamory movement. Really? Really. And that’s why that’s why I was disfellowship from my last church. No longer a minister in the United Church of Christ. And my wife and I were in love with another woman and we love each other.
And so I am not saying that monogamy is the only viable or moral or ethical or wonderful way of living. Somebody can be celibate, monogamous or responsibly nominated or irresponsibly nomine argument. And each of those monogamy, celibacy and I’m an Nogami can be done in ways that truly are Life-Giving, and each of them has their own challenges. I’m not putting one about the other. What I am suggesting is that for me, trying to preach and teach this gospel evolution in churches. For me, I had to come to see that monogamy was the only good thing. It was going to serve my marriage and it was going to serve this mission because if I was trying to live nomine organizing, either with my wife’s permission or outside of her permission and just lying to her.
Eventually the paparazzi would catch up with me and the whole thing would come crumbling. Okay, I hear you.
But let me tell you a true story that just happened a few months ago.
In fact, when The New York Times magazine did a piece on my book and me just a few months ago, they interviewed this guy, did a program in Florida where there this gentleman came up to me afterwards. He was just ecstatic. He’s probably 75, 80 years old. And he came up to me, said, Michael, he said, I got. Tell you something, I’ve never told another living being. He said in 1973, I think he said I became the vice president of my corporation. Now, I’ve been married for 12 years. I have never been betrayed, my wife’s trust. I had no idea what this rising status would do to my libido. He said within six months of my promotion, he said I had five affairs. None of them knew about each other. My wife didn’t know about any of them. He said it ultimately cost me my marriage. It cost me my job. And I’ve been living with the guilt and the shame of this for the last 35 years. He said your sermon because I do a whole thing on evolution, brain science. This is your sermon. Help me understand not only what was going on, but now he says, I feel like I can let go these boatloads of guilt and self judgment that I can start cleaning up. And he did between Sunday morning, which is when I preached the sermon and Tuesday night, which is one into the fall of workshop. He called his ex-wife. He told me that I was in tears. He said he basically apologized for being such a deceptive lying sack, came back into integrity and surprise, surprise. About a month and a half later, I found out that his depression of the last 12 years had lifted from coming back to integrity.
So that’s the salvation that understanding ourselves scientifically can bring.
Exactly. It’s one of the ways. Yes, exactly.
What about the centrality of the cross? That’s another doctrine that you reinterpret traditionally.
I mean, just centrality of the cross or any other doctrine. Heaven, hell. You know, the resurrection, the ascension. The second coming of Christ. All these concepts can be interpreted. And they often are in what I call flat earth interpretations of Christianity as literal, otherworldly places, unnatural sort of experiences. I reinterpret those as being real, undeniably real for everyone, because it’s what we know through our experience. So when I think about the centrality of the cross, for me it’s a symbol. It’s a it’s a metaphor for of the fact that integrity, the only integrity that’s going to save us as a species, the only integrity that’s going to help us move into a healthy future is integrity. With respect to the horizontal integrity and ecological integrity being and integris ecologically and with the planet as it is now, but also integrity with it, with respect to time being an integrity, with respect to the past, there’s value in the contributions of countless beings that have made this moment. This conversation between you and I right now possible and also being an integrity with respect to the future, which is taking responsibility for the health and the well-being of the planet and its species.
What do you have to say to all those folks, some of whom may be listening to our discussion, who just don’t find there to be any good evidence? No one for belief in the supernatural or any good reason to dress up. They’re kind of run of the mill experience in this religious language.
They don’t have to. In other words, I would agree with the first part of that, which is that we’re moving from supernatural based, unnatural based religion to undeniable religion, which the only reason, undeniable, is if it’s grounded in empirical evidential reality. That’s consensus that we can that we it’s measurable. And so but everybody doesn’t need to do that. I mean, I would not try to convert or convince any of your listeners that they need to go back and rearm, brace the religion of their childhood or whatever. But I would say that there is a way of interpreting religion that’s grounded evidentially in empirical science, and there’s a way of interpreting science, that soul nourishing, that that that touches and moves and inspires us in in in traditional religious ways or spiritual ways to that kind of language.
Well, I’m with you on that. I read Richard Dawkins on Weaving the Rainbow or a see Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. I’m filled with a kind of, in quotes, spirituality. Don’t let Tom Flynn hear me say that. But I. I get that argument.
Yes. And I’m inspired to be one of the I. Richard Dawkins is playing an invaluable role in the body of life. So are others who are critiquing religion hard and heavy. They’re hitting religion with full force. And the religion they’re hitting is what I’m calling flat earth supernatural, otherworldly, unnatural religion, which deserves to be hit. Hmm. But one of things that’s exciting to me is that I think the theist and atheists alike are coming to recognize that the unnatural, abstract, otherworldly God that atheists reject deserve to be rejected.
Mm hmm. But but you’re speaking to a different audience.
Exactly. I’m speaking to Christians who are at least open to the possibility that God’s word isn’t in the past. But in the present, the facts are God’s native tongue. And God is communicating today justice faithfully, just as real as back in biblical times. And I’m also trying to speak to non Christians of all stripe and color who are basically trying to find some way of integrating an evidential worldview with their sense of the sacred or their sense of the holy or their sense of whatever it is that calls them to lives of greater integrity and compassion and love.
All of that, I’ll concede. I see what’s inspiring about that, except I am confused. Just then, by your use of the word God, you don’t mean God. There you. I mean, the universe, you mean sometimes it seems like you mean humanity. You know our best selves. Something like that.
OK, let me back up, because this is really important. All human beings as long. I mean, this is a pretty universal statement. I think I can I can make the case for this that human beings long before there was language, before we had any words, we just lived like animals.
And, you know, with with animals, we and as language evolve, we start wondering, we start asking questions. We start telling stories because that’s what our rational minds have to do. And so all God language or all God’s language or language of the divine of any sort are personifications of the nature of reality, the nature of ultimately the nature that there their answers to the question, how did we get here? How did everything get here?
But those answers fail in the light of modern science.
They fail only if you interpret the language in a literal way. So the way I talk about God in my book is that God is is a is a is a personification of proper name, a sacred name for ultimate creativity, ultimate reality. The analogy that I use in the book is nesting dolls. That a fundamental truth that we now understand about the nature of reality that just nobody disagrees about whether, well, there are two problems among atheists or Buddhist or Hindus or whatever. And I’ve done programs in all those circles. Nobody debates with the nested nature of divine creativity, or if you want to take away the divine, just the nested nature of creativity, subatomic particles within atoms, within molecules, within cells with an organism from the planets and so on. And so so God, as I’m using it as an evolutionary understanding of God for those who choose to use the term is is a proper name for ultimate creator, the ultimate reality. But the one reality that includes yet transcends everything else. So, yes, you use the word before universe. Well, a few hundred years ago, people didn’t use the word the universe. They talked about the heavens and the world. Right. I mean, the stoic Greeks referred to Cosmos. They they looked up and round and they said Cosmos knows their name for for the whole of reality. That which brought it all into being was a proper name of that cosmos. Little see like the desk or the chair. Then it’s an object. No cosmos, a living being. But yes, I am suggesting that it there’s no one right language for that ultimate creativity but God or goddess or any language of divine.
It works for you. Well, I suspect it will work for billions. I mean, if in the next 50 years.
If hundreds of millions and possibly billions of people, when they use the word God, are not meaning something along the lines of what we’re talking about here, again, I think we’re in trouble.
So that’s why this really matters to you. It’s a time is of the essence sort of thing.
Exactly. The reason for six years that my wife and I have lived on the road and the reason we anticipate living on the road the rest of our lives. And I mean, we don’t have a home with a permanently out of the generosity of people open up their homes.
Yeah, and that’s true evangelism. Like the evangelist, the apostle Paul in the first century or the itinerant preachers, the circuit writers. You’re really evangelizing for evolution. Exactly.
We’re sharing evolution in the most inspiring ways that we know how so that people, religious or nonreligious, can embrace it and and have it do its magic.
So on that time is of the essence point.
I think that in the next 50 years, it’s going to make a huge difference whether we as a species embrace an evolution or worldview.
Yeah. The book really isn’t just on another tirade about the science and religion debate, but you’re talking about transforming lives, changing the world. That was the most interesting part of the book to me. It’s not just science and religion, but it’s a call to action.
Absolutely. Yeah, I see seven reasons, distinct reasons, important reasons that nothing matters more at this time of history than what we think about evolution. If I can just briefly go through them. The first is, as I said before, it gives us a common sacred story, a common creation myth, because humans have almost always needed some kind of shared understanding of the big questions. You know, where did we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going? Why? We’re special. Know, how are we to live? This is what helped them have a sense of identity and sense of meaning and purpose. And only now do we have a fact based, evidential based way of answering those questions. So I think that the fact that it gives us a common creation story is vital. The second is, as I said before, it validates both scientific and religious ways of speaking, and it validates both day and night language and values, both factual, measurable language and also metaphorical meaningful language. It’s important to distinguish those two, of course, but it values them both. In fact, I’d say that the science and religion war ends when we get the science is regulatory but public revelation, not private revelation. Exactly. Public revelation must lead in others. The question becomes which is foreground. Which is background. Because private revelation, you know, Einstein has a vision of riding a beam of light or, you know, some scientists has a profound insight that comes to him in a dream or in a, you know, private revelation is vital. But it’s only when we write the papers and put it out to the scientific community and a whole scientific community goes to work trying to disprove it. The skeptical scientific method is all about discerning. Is this true in a measurable empirical way or is this thought to be true because some charismatic, authoritative person said so or because it’s been passed on for so many generations by tradition and we think it must be true. That’s one the reasons why we’re so grateful that Richard Dawkins let me reprint his a letter that he wrote to his 10 year old daughter as an appendix in my book. Good and bad reasons for believing, because it really does this distinction between evidential versus belief based rebel Ottery authority based ways of understanding things is vital. The third is that I think it’s the key to understanding alleviating suffering. Is it an evolutionary worldview? Helps us understand what it means to be an integrity with respect to time. Because if we don’t understand the major breakthroughs in evolution, we’re not going to even know what integrity is, much less know how to be in it. I think one of the greatest causes of suffering in the world is, you know, individuals, families, nation states, corporations being out of integrity, those being out of alignment with the way reality really is.
You mean not really understanding evolution leads to suffering.
Exactly. And and not living integris early with the flow of evolution with with the way of life?
Well, we think our role is to dominate nature, to to control it and to bring it all interests into human service that it all serves us. We’re out of touch with reality. We’re out of integrity.
Yeah, but isn’t culture the very act of taking from nature and transforming it? Science is not just a way of finding things out, but of controlling nature. That’s that’s technology.
Well, it can be, but it also can be science can give us a way of understanding so that we begin to become an immune system within the body of life, so that the human role in the body of life. Our purpose is that kind of language is to protect and foster and defend the health and the well-being of the body of life, knowing that our well-being has benefited in that same process.
And science and technology can do that. The fourth reason why I think nothing matters more than what we think about evolution is that an understanding of evolution, of a meaningful interpretation of evolution realizes other worldly, supernatural religious language. That is, it makes. It shows how this these this language can be interpreted in a way that universally true. And that’s what I meant when I talked about original sin in the fall. And that’s really.
So by realizing them, you mean making them real, by jettisoning all the supernatural, you know, naturalizing.
Exactly. Naturalizing. Yeah. All right.
So heaven and hell, I don’t merely have to wait to die to go to a place called heaven when I’m in the place. Integrity, love, compassion, generosity, care, consideration. I’m in heaven now. And so are you. It’s true for everybody. So the fifth is that it clarifies our way into the future that only by knowing how we really got here and the trajectory that we’re undeniably on. Can we possibly respond to global issues like global warming and climate change and terrorism without making things worse. In fact, I’d say that to try to solve any large scale problem without an evolution or worldview is like trying to understand disease without microscopes or the structure of the universe without telescopes. It’s not difficult to understand infection without microscopes. It’s impossible. I think that’s vital. It is impossible to know how to move into a healthy, sustainable future if we lack a deep time worldview, if we lack an understanding of evolution exactly. Without understanding the history, the inverse, without being guided by the reality itself. I think religious and non-religious people like Will will think poorly and vote self destructively on issues as diverse as the economy, health care, global warming, terrorism or what have you. The sixth visited unmasks and this is really interesting. It unmasked the powers of manipulation. We are so easily led around like a nose ring. We are led around by our instincts. So the media and the advertising industry, by appealing to our base instincts related to sex, safety, sustenance, status. We are literally manipulated so easily. And an evolution worldview helps us unmask those powers. And so that we can be inspired and empowered to channel our instinctual energies in ways that serve the common good inside of our lives. So we’re no longer shooting ourselves in the foot.
What you’re getting at there is an understanding of human nature through evolutionary psychology kind of gives us some intellectual self-defense.
And a little bit stronger than than self-defense. It actually makes it. I mean, for example, today I find it effortless. It’s easy for me to be in impeccable integrity when I’m away from Connie for anyone anyway. I’ve got a lot of testosterone. When I’m away from Connie for any more than a day, I call some men up and I say, listen, I’m going be away from Connie for the next three days and I’m committed to being an impeccable integrity. And so I’ll call you on Friday and let you know on a scale of zero to 10 zero, meaning I was wildly flirtatious and 10, meaning I was impeccably Integris. How would you know where I was? And just by having that support and accountability, it’s effortless for me to be an integrity.
Okay. But that mutual accountability, I don’t see that coming from evolution. I see that coming from your kind of moral sense and making commitments and following through on them. And that’s where I get that from.
See, for me, evolution includes the evolution of human culture, that all religious insights all all ethical and moral.
If there is any sense of progress in terms of morality, the fact that we don’t kill you know, we don’t stone Sabbath breakers today and we did in the past. And I know you’ve had, you know, conversations about this with other authors. But if there’s if there’s any of that, everything that we learn from that is also learned from an evolutionary understanding that religions evolve just like everything else.
And the seventh reason why really deeply understanding evolution is so important to our future is I feel like Letterman in the top 10 list.
This is so great. I really appreciate the way you’re doing this, T.J., is I would say that it gives us the tools for understanding how to have a great life and thriving relationships no matter what. Hand life deals, no matter what. I mean, the fact is that compost happens. Life’s not fair. We sometimes dealt a really lousy hand. And yet we can really and this this, again, comes from a whole range. This comes a lot from what we’ve learned in the last 80 years in terms of the humanities and psychology and sociology and group dynamics and, you know, empowerment and all this other kind of stuff. But we can know how to have a life that really works and how to have relationships that thrive no matter what.
And that comes from an understanding of evolution, somehow, human evolution included.
Well, we’ve had a long conversation, Michael, even though I feel like we’ve just scratched the surface on so many of the claims, the arguments you make in your book. If our listeners want to learn more about the book one, they can get a copy of it through our website Points of Inquiry, Gorg, and they can also read chapters and and parts of the book on your website. Is that true?
Exactly. People can download for free. My promises, the introduction, prolog and Chapter one all from my Web site. Thank God. Revolution.
Thank you very much for joining me on Point of Inquiry, Michael Dowd.
Thank you, T.J.. As I said before, I so value your program and the guests you’ve had on at the Center for Inquiry. And those of you who are those of us who are who are trying to clearly help people think through things in a rational, empirical, evidential way and to move beyond kind of supernatural other worldly concepts. And, you know, I think it’s some of the most important work on the planet. And so I feel very much a collegial relationship with you and what the what the senator increase all about. And, you know.
Well, I really appreciate hearing that praise from a reverend, no less.
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