Responding to Mixed Reviews


“Michael Dowd illustrates in Thank God for Evolution that there are many ways to be a spiritual person, and that all of them are enriched by an understanding of modern science, especially evolution. This is a creative, provocative book that sheds light on just about any spiritual path one might be on. Many will find their faith revolutionized.” — Eugenie C. Scott, Ph.D., Executive Director, National Center for Science Education

The following is a response to the few mixed reviews my book has received from the atheist / humanist camp.

Religions evolve, and so do religionists. Theologians have always reinterpreted religious language and concepts in light of the best understandings of the nature of reality available to them. What I and other Evolution Theology, or Religon 2.0, leaders are doing today is really no different than what Augustine or Aquinas or Calvin or Tillich did in their day.

I wrote Thank God for Evolution mostly to help religious believers from different traditions move toward an evidential worldview without having to abandon their tradition to do so. The book itself emerged out of field-testing the ideas contained within TGFE with religious and non-religious audiences across the theological and philosophical spectrum. Since April 2002, my wife, Connie Barlow, a noted science writer, and I have delivered Sunday sermons, evening programs, and multi-day workshops in nearly 600 churches, convents, monasteries, and spiritual centers across the continent, including liberal and conservative Roman Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, Unitarian Universalist, Unity, Religious Science, Quaker, Mennonite, and Buddhist groups. We have also presented audience-appropriate versions of this message in nearly a hundred secular settings, including colleges, high schools, grade schools, nature centers, and public libraries.

Few things are more important, it seems to us, at least here in America, than for millions (and eventually hundreds of millions) of religious believers, over the next few decades, to come to embrace a science-based understanding of the world. Why? Because it matters what we think about evolution--and not just theologically. It matters politically; it matters personally. Indeed, as I propose in a recent blog post, nothing matters more! Trying to understand reality without an evolutionary worldview is like trying to understand infection without microscopes or the structure of the universe without telescopes. It’s not merely difficult; it’s impossible. Without realistic answers to life’s biggest questions, religious and non-religious people alike will think poorly and vote short-sightedly and self-destructively on issues as diverse as the economy, health care, global warming, and terrorism. (TGFE, chapters 9-10, 14-17)

A recent review of my book by Michael J. Booker in the current issue (Volume 14, Number 2) of Skeptic magazine faulted me for suggesting that evolution is a fact as well as a theory. But this is hardly a controversial claim. And as the quotes from Theodosius Dobzhansky, Stephen Jay Gould, Neil Campbell, and Sean B. Carroll on page 79 of the Viking edition of TGFE attest, I'm certainly in good company making it.

Here's something that I think many humanists and atheists have yet to fully realize...

Until churches in America teach and preach evolution enthusiastically, in ways that expand and enrich faith, the battle over teaching evolutionary science in public schools will never end. One of the goals of Thank God for Evolution is to assist the devoutly religious in letting go of attachment to literal interpretations of their otherworldly, supernatural sacred stories/myths in order to wholeheartedly embrace an evidential, empirical worldview. Surely, this turn needs to happen in order for radically diverse religious people to cooperate in service of a just and sustainable future. Anyone who believes that we can achieve a healthy future for planet Earth and its species without billions of religious people being commited to it is seriously out of touch with reality.

Those who might initially be put off by the religious language in my book should know that my wife, Connie Barlow, an evolutionary humanist/atheist science writer, worked with me very closely throughout the writing and editing process. She ghost-wrote the science sections of chapters 2, 5, 9 and 10, as I mention in my Acknowledgments. I challenge those who claim that I am offering questionable science, or distorting science, to cite where exactly. Which page(s)? Which paragraph(s)?

Richard Dawkins graciously allowed me to include a letter he wrote to his daughter Juliet as an appendix in my book. That letter was previously published as the last chapter in his A Devil's Chaplain. There, Richard highlights the difference between believing something based on measurable evidence versus believing something based on private revelation, scripture, authority, or tradition. That religious people might, likewise, come to value this distinction is a central theme of my book.

Regarding the question of teleology... Nowhere in my book do I suggest, or even imply, that there is a force or intelligence or consciousness outside the Universe (or within it, for that matter) that is pulling strings or making evolution go in a benevolent direction. With respect to “the arrow of evolution,” what I do say is this: When we look back over the course of billions of years of biological and social evolution, we see interdependence and co-operation at increasing scale of size and complexity. This is an empirical fact, not a statement of belief. Three or four billion years ago, the peak of Earth’s evolved complexity was expressed in carbon-based molecules maintained by processes co-operating at the scale of a millionth of a meter. Today, mutual support in the maintenance of peak (cultural) complexity occurs across distances measured in the millions of meters. It is true that I interpret this trajectory in a way that many find religiously inspiring. I also, however, acknowledge that it is just as legitimate to interpret the same facts in a non-inspiring way.

When I make the case for chaos and “bad news” catalyzing evolutionary creativity, I'm not suggesting that a Supreme Being or divine intelligence is intending favorable outcomes. Rather, I am simply pointing out the demonstrable fact that how we choose to interpret reality and life’s events profoundly affects the quality of our existence--and this is just as true collectively as it is individually. In my book I mention that many, including myself, have found the mantra “the Universe is conspiring on my behalf” to be an exceedingly useful outlook in most situations. That is, when I act as if this were true, I love my life. I do not, however, suggest that this interpretation is “the Truth.” It is a statement of subjective meaningfulness, not objective truth. And there have been plenty of studies that show that those who hold such an outlook live happier, healthier, longer lives. As the great philosopher and father of American pragmatism, William James, said, when addressing the practical difference it makes whether we view the Universe as benign or indifferent: “From a pragmatic point of view, the difference between living against a background of foreignness [an indifferent Universe] and one of intimacy [a benign Universe] means the difference between a general habit of wariness and one of trust.”

There is, of course, no guarantee that our species will survive into the future. But it seems to me that we’re far more likely to do so if religious people around the world are offered a way of thinking about science in general, and evolution specifically, that they can enthusiastically embrace. I’m quite certain that one of the reasons Thank God for Evolution has been endorsed by 6 Nobel laureates and 120 other esteemed scientists, ministers, priests, rabbis, theologians, and other religious and cultural leaders across the spectrum, from Baptists to Buddhists, including many respected atheists, is that it is an important step in this direction. As Huffington Post blogger, David Sloan Wilson, one of the world’s leading evolutionary theorists and author of Darwin’s Cathedral and Evolution for Everyone, offered, “An itinerant preacher who teaches evolution in the evangelical style? I was skeptical at first, but Dowd remains true to both science and the spirit of religion. He understands that what most people need to accept evolution is not more facts, but an appreciation of what evolution means for our value systems and everyday lives.”

Those who have no use for religious language may nonetheless appreciate my book for how it can help the religiously minded to comprehend and value the worldview of science. Time and again, in speaking across North America, I have found that roughly 70% of Americans, including most humanists and virtually all moderate and liberal Christians (and even some evangelicals) find the integration of faith and reason that TGFE offers to be an exciting and radically fresh third way beyond the chronic debate between the “New Atheists” and those espousing “Intelligent Design”. For public school teachers trying to teach the science of evolution to increasingly resistant students from religious backgrounds, Thank God for Evolution may be just the bridge they’ve been looking for. That, at least, is my hope.

[NOTE: I agree with Genie Scott (whose epigraph began this post) at the National Center for Science Education: In science classes, just teach the science. In addition to this, however, I also suggest that students and society would be well served by creating humanities or worldview classes where students can discover for themselves how the very same science can enrich a multitude of religious and philosophical perspectives.]