Darwinists for Jesus

The New York Times Magazine

Sample Imageby Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

In 1981, Michael Dowd would have counted himself among the millions of conservative Christians who blame Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and the idea of a godless, purposeless universe for the moral decline of society. That year, as a freshman at Evangel University in Springfield, Mo., Dowd felt a rush of indignant anger in biology class when the professor held up a textbook that taught evolution. As he stormed out of the classroom, Dowd could not have imagined that he would come to view evolution as a spiritually inspiring idea that religion must embrace.

In the years that followed, Dowd shed his more conservative views and served as a pastor in the liberal United Church of Christ. Today he calls himself an evolutionary evangelist. For the last six years, he has traveled across North America with his wife, Connie Barlow, in a van that displays an image of two fish kissing each other — one labeled Jesus, the other Darwin — explaining to conservative and liberal congregations why understanding and accepting evolution will bring them closer to spiritual fulfillment. The religious advantage to embracing the evolutionary worldview, Dowd says, is that it explains our frailties, our addictions, our infidelities and other moral deficiencies as byproducts of adaptation over billions of years. And that, he says, has a potentially liberating effect: never mind guilt; once we understand our sinful ways, we can get past them and play a conscious role in the evolution of humanity.

The message is laid out in Dowd’s book, “Thank God for Evolution,” published by Council Oak Books last November and acquired this spring by Viking Penguin for $750,000. In the book and in his sermons, Dowd presents evolution as a sacred epic of emerging complexity that can be seen as “14 billion years of grace.” He sidesteps the question of whose grace this is supposed to be, although the book’s title offers a hint. Dowd makes it clear that he’s not talking about an intelligent designer. Instead, he exhorts his audience to supplant — or complement — their individual notions of God with sometimes-fuzzy concepts like “cosmic creativity.”

Of course, Dowd is hardly the first religious figure to reconcile God and evolution. In 1996, Pope John Paul II declared that evolution was “more than just a hypothesis.” And next year, the Vatican will hold a conference to mark the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s “On the Origins of Species.” In many respects, Dowd’s work echoes the once highly influential writings of the 20th century French Jesuit and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who described evolution as a part of God’s plan, driving all of creation toward a sort of magnetic pole of higher consciousness that he called the Omega Point. In the 1960s, treatises by Chardin like “The Phenomenon of Man” and “The Future of Man” were campus best sellers. Such an interpretation transforms evolution from a process of random mutations with no purpose — which is how most scientists see it — to a more hopeful narrative. Though Dowd shies away from ascribing a divine plan to the unfolding of the cosmos, he finds it spiritually satisfying to look back at the unfolding and see in it a pattern of emerging complexity.

But Dowd’s preaching also draws on more contemporary scientific thinking. Central to his pitch about a “God-glorifying, Christ-edifying, Scripture-honoring way of thinking about evolution” is how findings from evolutionary psychology might help people overcome guilt about their immoral or unhealthful behaviors. “We live in a world today that is very different from the world that our instincts evolved to deal with,” he says. “We have cravings for sugar, salts and fats because for 99 percent of human history, we didn’t have easy access to those things.” Likewise, he says, addictions like sex and drugs are part of our inner proclivities. “Today we have a far more empirical way of talking about human nature than through stories like the original sin,” Dowd says.

More-conservative Christians, however, are unlikely to be satisfied with such a formulation. Ken Ham, who conceived the $25-million Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., avows that Dowd’s evolutionary gospel is of no religious value because it does not provide any of the answers that people want from religion. “What’s his message?” Ham asks. “Who is God? Is the universe God? What is our purpose and meaning? What is good and evil? Who determines our future? The Bible gives us very specific answers.” Ham says that what Dowd is telling his audience is “no different from what an evolutionary atheist would preach” with some of Dowd’s merely subjective feelings “mixed in.”

Yet to scientists and philosophers skeptical about religion, Dowd’s efforts are no less misguided. “I find it fascinating that we are descended from something like Lucy,” says Michael Ruse, a philosopher of science at Florida State University in Tallahassee, referring to a hominid that walked on earth 3.2 million years ago. “But I’m not sure I find it upsetting or comforting, spiritually.” Daniel Dennett, the Tufts University philosopher and outspoken atheist, maintains that Dowd is right that self-knowledge gleaned from evolution “can and should temper our judgments about our morality and immorality.” But even though he applauds Dowd’s “effort at diplomatic teaching” of evolution, he worries that evangelical followers may be less likely to pursue Darwinism further than to develop a “healthy distrust” for such obvious “sugar-coating.”

For his part, Steven Case, a biologist at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, says that Dowd’s message has the potential to confuse listeners about where scientific explanation ends and religious interpretation begins. That could eventually hurt science, Case says, making society less willing to ask theologically discomfiting yet scientifically legitimate questions like when the human race might become extinct.

Nonetheless, Dowd’s views do bring solace to some, going by reactions from parishioners who claim that a scientific perspective has helped them come to terms with their follies of the past. For some at least, the recognition of genetic and biochemical frailty is a healing act. Last fall, for example, after Bob Miller, an 81-year-old man, heard Dowd’s sermon at a Unitarian church in Pensacola, Fla., he felt his guilt over a string of affairs from four decades ago melting away. “I could never quite understand why I had behaved that way,” says Miller, who was climbing the corporate ladder when his infidelities began, leading to the breakup of his marriage. When Dowd began talking about viewing moral lapses against the backdrop of evolution, “suddenly a light went on inside my head,” Miller says. His rising status at his company, he concluded, had probably contributed to increased testosterone. “I think the physical change in my body was so strong that it completely overpowered any moral teachings and religious beliefs I had,” Miller says. “It was still inexcusable, but it made more sense.”

Yudhijit Bhattacharjee is a writer on the staff of Science magazine.