The Rev. Michael Dowd and his wife, science writer Connie Barlow, have been on the road since 2002 spreading the good news. Their message? Big History. The Great Story. The Epic of Evolution.
Dowd, who was ordained in the theologically liberal United Church of Christ, wrote a book called Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World. It reads as a combination self-help book, eco-warrior battle cry, and New Age theological treatise. Here's a sample passage from page 161: "Our Furry Li'l Mammal can be a vital force in helping us channel our Lizard Legacy energies in integrous ways. But even our Furry Li'l Mammal has a 'demonic' side."
Dowd will give a talk Oct. 23 at 7 p.m. in room 206 at the College of Charleston's Johnson Physical Education Center (at the corner of George and Meeting streets).
City Paper: There have been a lot of books written reconciling evolutionary biology and the Christian Genesis account, including Finding Darwin's God (by Kenneth Miller) and The Language of God (by Francis Collins). What did you hope to add to the conversation?
Michael Dowd: Well, I'm not trying to reconcile Genesis with modern science. That's not the endeavor that I'm about. I respect those who are doing that, but to my mind, the book of Genesis and all the other world's creation stories are creation myths. They are stories that are inspiring, that help people live great lives, that help people cooperate at social scales that we wouldn't have cooperated otherwise. So all of these creation stories, including but not limited to Genesis, promote personal wholeness and social coherence ... We now have knowledge that can get us there, but in a way that doesn't diss religion or trash religion but that helps religion evolve. So I'm trying to focus on the inspiring side of science, the inspiring side of evidence, which is not the same thing as trying to reconcile a 3,000-year-old mythic story with modern science.
CP: What evidence do you see that evolution is something other than a random, meaningless process?
MD: There's a thing called the thresholds of Big History. First of all, when I use the word "evolution," I'm not meaning just biological evolution. I'm meaning the evolution of galaxies, the evolution of star systems, the evolution of planets, the evolution of cultures, the evolution of human consciousness. I'm meaning the evolution of everyone and everything, which is called Big History ... When you look at it from that perspective, it's clear that it's not just random. I mean, the universe has gone from simple atoms to more complex atoms, and then to molecules, and then to more complex molecules, and then to creatures, and then more complex creatures, and then to societies and more complex societies. So this is what's called the thresholds of Big History, which is we see greater complexity, greater interdependence, and greater cooperation at larger and wider scale, both in the prehuman world and in the human world.
CP: How does it change the work of scientists to know that there is meaning or non-randomness behind what they are studying in the observable world?
MD: Randomness is absolutely a part of the universe, no question. It's just that human brains are inherently interpretive — we're always going to be interpreting. And so there's both the realm of the facts, but there's the realm of interpretation, or meaning making you could say, is not just up to science. It's up to humanity, humans as a whole. Every individual needs to interpret and make meaning, but every group and every culture and every culture and humanity as a whole needs to make meaning, but there's never only one right way to interpret. So I'm not saying that science dictates what things mean. No, not at all. The question isn't what's the one true meaning of anything. The question is, how can we interpret what's real, what's undeniably real, in the most inspiring ways possible?
CP: For a religious believer, how does an understanding of history as you present it affect a person's conviction or experience of the numinous?
MD: When I use the words God and Reality interchangeably, what I mean is that however you think about God, for those people who do use the word God and find it deeply meaningful and inspiring, at the very least — and maybe more than this — what that's pointing to is a personification of what is undeniably, inescapably real ... The Hebrews didn't have a word for nature. Now obviously nature existed, but what we today call "nature," they called "Yahweh." For them, when they used the word "God" or "Yahweh," they were speaking of a personification of what's fundamentally, undeniably real. For example, what we call wind and breath, they didn't have a word for that. They used "Ruach Adonai" or "Ruach Elohim," the spirit of God. They personified both the wind and the breath as the spirit of God, and sure enough, when you die, the spirit leaves you, you don't breathe anymore. So now we use words like wind, we use breath, we use environment. The Hebrews didn't have a word for environment.
CP: What would your response be to critics who say you're practicing pseudo-science and watered-down religion?
MD: Well, nobody accuses me of practicing pseudo-science. I mean, they do until they actually get to hear one of my presentations or read my book. My book was endorsed by six Nobel Prize-winning scientists, plus a dozen-and-a-half leading scientists in the world who are highly esteemed and who are credible and are not necessarily religious. Some of them are, but many are not ...
From the other perspective, however, if someone believes religion is just supernatural otherworldly-ism, well, then the criticism that I'm sort of watering down religion is probably accurate if that's what you think religion is. I think religion is about the right relationship to reality, and all religions have helped people live in right relationship to reality. In fact, Loyal Rue wrote a book called Religion is Not About God, and the whole book ... is about how religion isn't about God as a person, it's about a relationship to reality. And yes, reality has been personified as the various gods and goddesses around the world, but it's talking about our relationship to what's fundamentally real. If religion is about giving us hope in times of peril and inspiration to face life's challenges and the tools to help live a happy, joyous, fulfilling, meaningful life, and the peace to allow us to die a peaceful death, and the wherewithal to leave a sweet legacy — if this is what religions have always provided, then no, this is definitely not watering down religion. This is supercharging religion.