Thank God for Evolution!

Integral Life

Interview with Stuart Davis | Text by Corey W. deVos

Michael Dowd, celebrated author of the book, Thank God for Evolution, talks with Stuart Davis about his own journey from religious fundamentalism to evolutionary spirituality, the contours of his evolutionary approach, his relationship with his wife and teaching partner Connie, his response to the New Atheist movement, and his hopes about the future of evolution on this planet. He and Stuart also discuss the secret to Michael's conciliatory approach to teaching, which has enabled him to speak amicably with both religious fundamentalists and scientific materialists alike, while helping to build conceptual and relational bridges to cross the gap between science and spirituality.

» Click here to visit and listen to the following conversation between Stuart Davis and Michael Dowd

Evolving Toward God (8:39)

Michael recounts his own journey that has led to his evolutionary approach to spirituality, reflecting in many ways the narrative of evolution itself. In the first ten minutes of this discussion he describes the development of his thinking, his values, and his worldview through the four major structures of consciousness at play in today's world: from the mythic-fundamentalist stage to the rational-scientific stage, to the pluralistic-ecological stage, and onward toward a decidedly integral understanding of God, evolution, and human psychology.

He describes his initial "born again" experience, occurring in Germany when he was about 20 years old. Shortly thereafter, he found himself studying at a Pentecostal university, where his teacher held up a textbook about evolutionary theory—causing Michael to immediately walk out of the class, withdraw from the course, and declare to his roommate that "Satan obviously has a foothold on this school."

Though initially embedded in a rigidly fundamentalist understanding of the world, it did not take very long before Michael began to question his own constrictive worldview—largely due to the concept of evolution itself, which had the effect of expanding his understanding and appreciation of the universe to an astronomical degree. Upon discovering that the theory of evolution was being embraced by many of his biblical studies and philosophy professors—"Godly" and Christ-centered people as they were—along with some other highly influential people in his life, it became clear to Michael that he could rule out demonic possession as the (primary) source of Darwinian thought.

This led Michael toward a passionate fascination with the natural sciences—not as a means to replace his perception of the world as overflowing with sacred meaning, but as a way to augment that sacredness; expanding his relationship with God beyond the trappings of a particular religious tradition.

This newfound appreciation of evolution and the natural sciences culminated over the years into a pressing concern around environmental issues, sustainability, and community efforts to restore our relationship to nature, helping to organize major sustainability campaigns in Oregon.

For the last seven years, Michael and his wife Connie have been living out of their van (a Dodge Sprinter affectionately named "Angel"), traveling all over the country and preaching the evolutionary Gospel to whoever will hear it.

A Marriage of Heaven and Earth (8:46)

Having directly experienced the ways that both religion and concepts of evolution can act as powerful "conveyor belts" of human development—a means of "pulling people up" through magic, mythic, rational, pluralistic, and integral worldviews—it seems that Michael is uniquely situated to help advance the debate between science and spirituality toward a higher ground of agreement and understanding.

Of course, there is no better test of one's ability to walk his or her talk than how that person shows up in relationship. Michael shares his experiences with his wife and teaching partner Connie, an exemplary teacher and scholar in her own right. To many people, their relationship appears on the surface to be laden with paradox-Connie comes from a background of natural sciences and evolutionary studies, and has described herself in the past using words like "atheist," "humanist," or "religious naturalist." Michael, on the other hand, comes from a religious Pentecostal background, and can be described as "spiritual," "mystical," "evangelical," etc.

This is not at all a conflict for Michael or Connie, as it is terribly obvious to them how both their passions stem from an identical source deep in their shared heart. But the seeming disparity between these two very different approaches to reality confuses a great many people—as Michael says, more often than not the first question he is asked when interviewed is "how can you two actually be together?"

Connie has suggested that Michael begin answering by simply stating, "because she is really good in bed."

And that, my friends, is how marrying heaven and earth is done.

Religulous and the New Atheists (7:37)

In 2008, Bill Maher (host of HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher) released a film titled Religulous, a scathing critique of religious fundamentalism, adding Maher's voice to the already raucous choir of so-called New Atheists who are doing everything they can to "remember the cruelties" and loosen the grasp religious fundamentalism has upon the world. Stuart laments the apparent lack of developmental context the loudest proponents of atheism seem to display, noting the hidden irony that, in trying to be the secular guardians of the theory of evolution, most atheists don't seem to understand that they are actually attacking evolution in its most sophisticated form: human development. That is, what they are actually criticizing is a specific bandwidth of human consciousness, and not spirituality or religion per se-they may use words like "God" or "religion" as the target of their arguments, but what they really mean is a particular trend of fundamentalism, ethno-centricism, and black-and-white thinking associated with the mythic worldview.

By throwing the baby of spirituality and sacred connection out with the bathwater of mythic religion, the New Atheists are creating a rupture in growth and psychological maturity, adding fuel to the violent fire that exists between modern and pre-modern worldviews. Defending evolution by trying to eliminate the mythic worldview is like trying to preserve a rainforest by getting rid of all the trees.

From sacred myth to sacred math, our connection with the divine can reach out to the edges of the visible universe, stretching back billion years to the birth of the Kosmos itself, feeling the Big Bang flitter against our cheek like a kiss from our timeless Beloved.

Wouldn't it be nice if people like Bill Maher, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens would simply "get" these developmental nuances, and learn to appreciate pre-rational worldviews the same way a botanist appreciates the seeds and sprouts of a fledgling plant? Well, of course that would be nice—but as Michael points out, it's not necessarily their job to do so. Rather than focusing upon the limitations inherent to these conflicting worldviews, he makes the point that all these approaches to reality form a rich diversity of perspectives-and just as biodiversity is an optimal goal of any eco-system, the same is true for our collective ecology of thought.

"I certainly think that the new atheists are providing a tremendous service at one level. They are critiquing and attacking mythic, other-worldly, supernatural religion. And I think that is one thing that needs to be done in the world at this time. It's certainly not the only thing, and I'm glad they're doing what they're doing and I'm playing a different role in the Body of Life. I'm glad that the creationists are playing their role in the Body of Life! It's certainly not a role I want to be playing-but you know, I wouldn't want my anal sphincter cells and my heart cells to be doing the same thing! I found that the Integral model helped me to formulate a way of holding the whole, a way of holding diversity that allows me to say 'yes' to the role that other people are playing in the Body of Life, but also differentiating passionately...."

Shifting Worldviews (12:47)

Michael's response to the New Atheist movement is a poignant example of how he has been able to build so many bridges between people who might not otherwise find themselves on speaking terms. This is precisely why his work has been met with a remarkable degree of success-evidenced not only by the explicit support he has received by various Nobel Prize laureates and other prominent luminaries, but by his ability to talk amicably with religious fundamentalists and scientific materialists alike. His skills are truly extraordinary-as anyone who has ever engaged in a passionate debate knows, these sorts of discussions typically re-entrench people in their worldview rather than liberate them from it.

When asked for the secret to his transformational approach, Michael responds by emphasizing some crucial aspects to his approach. First and foremost, as he says, "I just try to love them." Simple—obvious, perhaps—but no less fundamental, for it is through a deep and authentically-felt love and respect that our defenses can be disarmed, our disagreements can be held lightly, and our perspectives can shift ever-so-slightly.

The Future of Evolution: In Chaos We Trust (8:45)

Here Michael shares his outlook of our shared future, which he describes as being “hopeful” rather than “optimistic.”  Both optimism and pessimism are too aloof, implying an almost hands-off relationship with the world—a distant observer gauging water levels in a proverbial glass, without ever actually bringing it to his lips and quenching his thirst.  Evolution is no longer on autopilot—it has become self-aware, like a three-year old child looking into a mirror and suddenly recognizing her own subjective identity as separate from the reflection staring back at her.  As such, if a future is to be had, it will be a future we create and enact, a future that will come through us rather than being stacked around us.

By allowing ourselves to this evolutionary perspective, while acknowledging that it no longer makes sense to talk about evolution as a process independent from our perspectives, a renewed sense of faith begins to set in.  Not just a blind faith in a supernatural order that supercedes our pain and our joy, but a living faith in Eros itself—the creative process from which molecules congealed from atoms, cells from molecules, and organisms from cells.  It is a faith in which every intention is a meditation, every action a prayer, every relationship a benediction.  We’ve got 14 billion years of evolutionary momentum at our backs, and there’s no sign of slowing down anytime soon….