‘Thank God for Evolution,’ preaches evangelical reverend

Philadelphia Inquirer

By Mischa Aaron Arnosky

Staff Writer

The Rev. Michael Dowd and his wife, Connie, arrived in Tulsa, Okla., Feb. 27 at about noon.

Dowd was getting ready to speak at All Souls Unitarian Church, the second largest Unitarian church in the country, where he has spoken three times before. They were coming from Shreveport, La., and before that, Texas.

There were no flights, as Dowd and his wife travel across the continent in a Dodge Sprinter van. Both have eschewed a permanent residence and have been on the road for seven years, speaking to groups about their views on religion and evolution.

Dowd will soon gas up the Sprinter and make something of a homecoming. He once studied at a Wynnewood, Pa., seminary, and will return to this area in late March to speak at several churches.

An ordained minister and former fundamentalist Christian, Dowd now evangelizes evolution as theology, not theory. In his recent book, "Thank God for Evolution," which his atheist wife helped write, Dowd preaches the "gospel according to evolution."

"It's good news for our species and for individuals and families - a mainstream scientific understanding of evolution," Dowd said. "I base my gospel and presentations in science," adding that his is book endorsed by five Nobel Prize-winning scientists. "It's got the science down; I mean, my wife is a science writer."

Dowd likens the universe to Russian nesting dolls, in which smaller elements are engulfed by larger ones.

"From this perspective, God is not some supreme landlord out there that can be believed in or not," Dowd said. "God is a proper name, a sacred name, a personification of the largest nested reality. I don't believe in God at all, I know God ... that is, I know reality as a whole, and I chose to call that reality God."

Dowd's upbringing wasn't all that conservative. Growing up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and later in Miami, his parents were Catholics. While serving in the U.S. military in Berlin, Dowd said he had a born-again experience - the result of grappling with drug and alcohol issues. He later attended Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, now Palmer Seminary, in Wynnewood, and lived in Philadelphia for three years.

While a student at what is now Evangel University, his fundamentalist views changed. He said he simply wasn't prepared to be taught evolution in biology class. After the professor presented the textbook to the class, he walked out, slammed the door, and dropped the class.

"I said to my roommate, ‘Satan obviously has a hold on this school,'" Dowd said. "It's the only way I could make sense of how they could be teaching evolution at a Bible-teaching college. I didn't know that they taught evolution at almost all evangelical colleges. The Biblical studies philosophy professors there embraced evolution, and I couldn't write them off as being demonically possessed."

However, Dowd said he got to know several of the professors personally, and praised and worshipped with them. One of them was a Buddhist Christian. Dowd said because of his theology, a part of him wanted to tell the Buddhist Christian that he was going to hell; another part of Dowd wanted the Buddhist Christian to mentor him. Dowd went with the latter.

And following a documentary he and his wife had seen on evolution on PBS, in which students attending conservative colleges had been ostracized by their families for taking classes on evolution, Dowd and his wife decided to act.

"When it was done, Connie and I looked at each other and she said, ‘You need to be out there speaking to these students,'" Dowd said. "They were being told that evolution was the devil by their families and their pastors [and] they were grappling with how to hold onto evolution and their faith. Faith shouldn't be reconciled by evolution, but rather strengthened by it."

A couple months after the epiphany, Dowd came home from work, and asked his wife to live on the road with him. It took four months to get everything in order; to sell all of their possessions.

"We've been living on the road for seven years," Dowd said. "It's all we do is travel North America, doing programs on the sacred meaningful understanding of the history of the universe. That's our life, that's all we do."

How hard is it living on the road ... every day ... being with your wife every hour of the day? Not very, Dowd said.

"It really isn't. We think we're the richest people in the world," Dowd said ... "Three to five times a week, I'm speaking on what I'm most passionate about - bridging science and religion. I'm nourished by it and get great responses - and I get to do this with a woman who loves me so much and wants to live this radical and crazy life as much as I do."

Not everyone is swayed by his gospel, though.

Having spoken to more than 1,000 groups in the last seven years, Dowd said most of his listeners are more moderate and liberal. Occasionally he'll speak at a progressive evangelical church, and sometimes a religious group on a college campus, but he said he's mostly spoken at Unitarian churches, Quaker meetinghouses and to atheists and agnostics. By his calculation, 80 percent of the people he encounters gets excited about his message. There are those on the far right and left who don't want anything to do with his message. However, he said those on the far left are "kind of glad" about what he's preaching, in hopes that he'll convert some far right religious folk.

Dowd doesn't try to sway those groups - not actively, anyway.

"I don't get invited into the most antagonistic of settings very often," Dowd said. "Any minister that believes evolution is of the devil doesn't invite me into his church.

"I don't try to convert them, I don't try to fix them, I don't try to prove that they're wrong," Dowd said. "But if they stay in communication with me, they usually get curious about how I can be so passionate about this. So I've actually won quite a few of them over by doing this."

Dowd will be speaking at St. Luke United Methodist Church in Bryn Mawr March 22 at 10 a.m.; Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church March 23 at 7:30 p.m.; and Cherry Hill Unitarian Universalist Church March 31 at 7 p.m.

"I've loved my life, but my time in Philadelphia was very precious to me," Dowd said. For more information, visit www.thankgodforevolution.com.