Interview with Michael Dowd

Science of Mind

“Being ‘in integrity’ or ‘in Christ’ is being wholly aligned with the smaller and larger creative wholes of our existence.”  

by Barbara Stahura

A Michael Dowd presentation on evolution is unlike any other talk on the subject. Complete with breathtaking photos of space from the Hubble telescope along with a drawing of our four-part brain labeled with animals representing “Lizard Legacy,” “Furry Li’l Mammal,” “Monkey Mind” and “Higher Porpoise,” Dowd’s lively lectures are proof that evolution can be understood in a way that bridges religious differences. Thousands of people across the country have heard and embraced his message, and his book, Thank God for Evolution, continues to spread the good word.

Once an anti-evolution fundamentalist, Dowd later became a minister in the United Church of Christ before he shifted into interfaith sustainability work and community organizing. Along the way, he came to embrace what he calls “a process theology understanding of evolution.” When he met science writer Connie Barlow, an atheist who had written two books about evolution from a scientific point of view, they discovered their shared passion for a sacred understanding of cosmic history. They married in June 2001.

“Three months later, the World Trade Center was attacked,” he wrote in his book.  “We were living north of New York City at the time, and Connie had been planning to attend a scheduled meeting in Tower No. 1 the morning of September 12. As with so many around us, the collapse of the towers moved us to think deeply about our priorities and life purpose.

“A few weeks after September 11 we were watching the final episode of the PBS television special, Evolution: A Journey into Where We’re From and Where We’re Going. The episode was entitled ‘What About God?’ It examined the struggle many conservative Christian college students have in trying to embrace both evolution and a pre-evolutionary interpretation of their faith. As the program ended, Connie turned to me and said, ‘You need to be out there speaking to students. You need to show people how an evolutionary understanding can enrich their faith!’”

This had been Dowd’s dream for a decade. So the newlyweds soon made a life-changing decision: they gave up whatever possessions they could not carry in a van and became itinerant “evolutionary evangelists,” traveling wherever they are invited to speak on the epic of evolution over the fourteen-billion-year history of the universe. A decoration on the back of the van playfully reflects their marriage and their message: a Darwin fish and a Jesus fish kissing, with little hearts floating up from the lip-lock.

Their presentations combine science and religion in ways that delight and entertain as well as enlighten and awe. As Dowd wrote in his book, “science and religion can be mutually enriching.”People of many faiths and of no faith typically leave the couple’s presentations with a new understanding of how the sacred is being revealed through science as well as a new understanding of evolution as a sacred, cosmic process with deep meaning that offers real hope for the future of our fragile world.

Science of Mind You and Connie call yourself evolutionary evangelists. What does that mean?

Dowd To evangelize is to share or to proclaim the good news of something. And so we proclaim the good news of evolution—that is, a sacred, meaningful interpretation of the history of the universe. This “great story” is inspiring, and it gives us a sense of how things have evolved to this place that allows us to be present to the challenges of our moment and our time, and look to the future with a sense of hope and possibility. Not some otherworldly hope, but a realistic, grounded, this world hope. A hope that we not only can but are likely to make the kinds of changes we will need to make to move into a just, healthy, sustainable future. It doesn’t mean there won’t be tremendous challenges and chaos and breakdowns—there will be— but those, as we also know throughout evolutionary history, have been the primary drivers of creativity and transformation.

Your concept of evolution goes far beyond the Darwinian concept of survival of the fittest.

It obviously includes a basic Darwinian understanding, yes, but evolution also includes cosmic and human history as well. Facts must always be interpreted, and interpretations almost always have a spin, one way or the other. For example, one can take the same basic fact, which is that life continues because creatures eat other creatures, and that can be interpreted in a sort of gruesome way, or as “survival of the fittest.” Or one can interpret the same facts as demonstrating that the entire body of life is in a state of holy communion. The whole body of life is always saying, “Take, and eat, this is my body, which is given for you.” It’s a more religious interpretation, it’s a different interpretation, but it’s just as legitimate. And so when we use the word “evolution,” what we mean is not merely the evolution of life forms by natural selection. We’re also talking about the evolution of galaxies, this solar system, planet Earth and its geological structures and also the evolution of life and human cultures for the last two and a half million years.  

What is it about your telling of the evolutionary story that helps people of all faiths, and those with no religious faith, to embrace it as they have?

Sanity is, in part, defined in terms of having a sense of who you are, where you’ve come from, why you’re here and what you can contribute in a way that’s deeply, soulfully meaningful to you and also reflected by others who say, “yes, that’s who Miss Smith is.” For humanity as a whole, sanity is knowing our larger collective story, including how we can be of service and be a blessing to the larger body of life—becoming an immune system. That is, I believe our role, our destiny, is to protect, foster and defend the health and well-being in the body of life in the same way that an immune system does. This perspective gives us a vision of who we are and why we’re here that’s large and majestic, even heroic. Young people are craving such a vision.

There was a time in my life when I thought the best we could do was to do less bad. Well, finding courage to do less bad is an uphill battle. I mean, people don’t get fired up each morning to do less bad or to get other people to do less bad. But this new way of seeing our past and who we are— that we are the universe becoming conscious of itself, literally—and recognizing how interdependent and interrelated we are, gives people a sense of belonging, hope and inspiration when they look to the future. It gives them a sense of living with challenges, pain, difficulties and the inevitable breakdowns in our lives and to relate to those things from a place of trust, hope and faith. When we look over the course of deep time past and we realize that the main thing that has driven the process of evolutionary creativity is chaos, breakdowns and bad news, we begin to trust the difficulties in our own life. And when we look ahead a few decades and see the challenges coming down the pike, we can look not with a sense of dread or overwhelm, but from a sense of possibility and curiosity. We’re inspired to be in action, to be part of evolution becoming conscious of itself, and to do our part from a place not of fear but of possibility, trust and inspiration.

In your book, Thank God for Evolution, you talk a lot about “night language.” How do you define day and night language and how do they affect our worldview?

I use the phrases day and night language as a reflection of our day and night experience. Humans dream, and in our dreams we have night experiences different from our day experiences. We fly, turn into other creatures, walk through walls. We do all kinds of bizarre things. In fact, if we could do during the day what we do most nights in our dreams, we would be having “supernatural” or “miraculous” experiences every day. But we don’t call them supernatural or miraculous, because (if we are sane) we easily distinguish our day and night experiences. Day language and night language reflect this. Day language is the language that describes what is measurably so, what is physically, consensually true. But we also add night language components, that is, interpretive components, because facts in and of themselves are not particularly evocative. They don’t inspire. They need to be interpreted to be inspiring, and there’s never only one right way to interpret any set of facts.

Night language is the realm of poetry, myth, symbol, metaphor and traditional religious language. It’s the language that inspires; it touches the heart, moves the soul, brings us to tears and calls us to awe. I don’t know of a single example of a people’s creation story— explaining where we came from, why we’re here, where everything is going and why we’re special as a people—that doesn’t have a blend of day and night elements.

For example, when you have gods and goddesses, angels and demons, talking animals and so forth, you’re in the realm of night language. Snakes and animals can talk to us at night. But we don’t experience that during the day. So having some sense of day and night language means that the only time we would call our dreams bizarre is when we judge them by day standards. For people to reject traditional religious language and stories—say the story of the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden with the talking snake— there are some who just reject that story outright and say it’s completely fiction, it’s just ridiculous. And then there are those who interpret it as total day language reality—“No, it’s scientifically true. That snake really did talk.” Both are missing the point.

Virtually all scriptural and sacred stories worldwide use a blend of day and night elements. They’re saying something true, yes; they’re saying something often profoundly relevant for how we are to live our lives and thrive and survive and be functioning members of society. But to interpret them literally as day language is to trivialize them. This distinction is important because only when we distinguish day and night language will we see the promises of religion fulfilled. All religions make promises, but they make them in night language ways. So people who expect the “the Second Coming of Christ” to show up as a 6-foot, 180-pound man coming down magically on the clouds, are expecting the promise that was made in night language to show up in a daytime way. It will never happen. Such a religious vision may be speaking deep and profound truth, but if you’re expecting it to actualize, you and your descendants will wait forever. And that’s one of the reasons why religion has become trivialized. We’re not going to recognize how these promises are appearing in the real world if we’re expecting them to show up in that kind of unnatural, otherworldly fashion.

How do day and night language fit into evolution?

The reason many people have found science uninspiring is because it’s not been brought into the realm of interpretation in a way that touches and moves them to greater integrity, love or compassion. And yet it most certainly can do that. That’s why Connie, my wife, and I do what we do. We’ve found that this sacred, meaningful interpretation of the whole history of the universe does indeed help us live lives of greater joy, purpose and passion for life. Understanding for example, how my brain evolved has made it infinitely easier to live in integrity and enjoy the fruit of doing so on a daily basis. I don’t fall to the things I used to fall to. I’m not even tempted by the things I used to be tempted by. And that’s largely a result of coming to understand my brain’s creation story and the evolutionary path that led to this moment.

The brain evolved in a very natural, additive sort of way, and we all have an unchosen nature and inherited proclivities. That is, we all have aspects of ourselves we don’t like or find challenging, or others around us find challenging, and these aspects of ourselves are part of our instincts, which evolved in a very different world. Having an understanding of this allows us to have compassion for ourselves and others. It helps us also have the tools and the self-knowledge for how to be in impeccable integrity and enjoy the heavenly peace that passes all understanding, on a daily basis.

One of the analogies I often use in my programs is the analogy of Russian nesting dolls: subatomic particles within atoms within molecules within cells within organisms within planets and so on, all the way up and all the way down. Being “in integrity” or “in Christ” is being wholly aligned with the smaller and larger creative wholes of our existence. It’s being in right relationship at all nested levels.

What is the most important thing you want all people to know about evolution?

That it matters what we think about evolution. In fact, possibly nothing matters more, both individually and socially. Personally, I want everyone to know that a sacred evolutionary worldview can transform their lives and relationships, quickly and durably. Collectively, I want humanity to realize that if we don’t as a species become conscious of the process of evolution and adjust our institutions and practices accordingly, we may not be part of the body of life much longer.

There are three main reasons why I “thank God for evolution.” The first is that a holy, deep-time perspective builds bridges. It bridges head and heart, faith and reason, science and religion, and different religious traditions. It helps people understand why religions are different, so we can stop fighting and killing each other over our differences. And it also helps bridge family members. You can have humanists and evangelicals and New Thought family members who can find enough common ground to have some deep, meaningful conversations.

The second reason I thank God for evolution is that as a sacred view of the cosmic history it provides us, as individuals, with real guidance on how to have lives that really work and that are vibrant and alive and thriving, with happy and fulfilled relationships. It helps us know how to heal relationships that have gone sour. But it also guides us as a species. It helps us understand how life evolved and became more and more complex and cooperative. When we see the entire history of the universe in Scripture, we can learn from that and move into a just, healthy, sustainably life-giving future from a place of hope and possibility, rather than fear or overwhelm.

And the third reason I thank God for evolution is that it restores hope, real hope, realistic hope. Not supernatural hope, but a grounded, this-world hope that allows people to perceive the challenges in their lives and the challenges we’re dealing with as a species with a whole new attitude. And it can empower all of us to be of service to our world and to the future with renewed vigor.

An evolutionary worldview, as I discuss in the “Evolutionary Spirituality” sections of my book, really does transform lives and relationships in amazing ways, and I’m familiar with a lot of different modalities of transformation. And it is the only thing that is going to give us clear guidance as a species so we can move into a just, healthy, sustainable and life-giving future for planet Earth and as many other species as possible. •