Former Evangelical Minister Has a New Message: Jesus Hearts Darwin


by Brandon Keim 

Sample ImageThe Rev. Michael Dowd is preaching a surprising message: Evolution is real and science points to the undeniably reality of God.

For the last five years, the author and former evangelical pastor has lived out of a van with his wife, crisscrossing the nation to deliver the good news.

His latest book, Thank God for Evolution!, drew endorsements from five Nobel laureates and dozens of religious leaders. With the battle between science and religion at a fever pitch, it couldn't come at a better time. Just last week Texas papers reported that a curriculum director had been fired in October for forwarding information about an evolution lecture to friends and colleagues.

Dowd wasn't always an evolution proselytizer. Presented with an evolution textbook on his first day of biology classes at Evangel University, he stormed out and told his roommate that Satan had a foothold in the Christian school. But after encountering the teachings of Catholic eco-theologian Thomas Berry, Dowd embraced what's known as evolutionary theology.

Wired News spoke with Dowd by phone about science, religion and his belief that "a holy understanding of evolution will usher the world's religions into their greatness in the 21st century."


Wired News: Last week we learned that a Texas science education official, purportedly fired in October for insubordination, was actually punished for promoting evolution and downplaying intelligent design. What do you think of that?

Michael Dowd: Anybody who says intelligent design should be taught on the same footing as evolution is coming from a place that has no legal backing. I appreciate the heart of what intelligent design people are trying to do, but it's a dead-end road. It's not science; it's philosophy.

My problem with intelligent design is from a scientific standpoint. It fails to recognize the revelatory nature of science. Science is uncovering the truth of the nature of reality.

WN: What kind of reception have you received from other Christians?

Dowd: Well, I don't get the opportunity to speak in the most fundamental contexts. Anybody who believes that evolution is the devil isn't going to invite me to their church. Most of my audience is on the moderate end. But there's definitely interest. Three weeks ago I was in the Bahamas with 125 evangelical ministers -- progressive, but evangelical nonetheless. There are people who are quite interested in this. They're finding that it opens up new ways of thinking.

WN: Have you visited the Creation Museum?

Dowd: The first time (my wife) Connie and I went there, we drove in with our big van with the Jesus and Darwin fish kissing on the side. The folks working there kept us in sight, understandably, but they were cordial. Then we went back a few weeks ago ... and they were very friendly.

WN: Science hasn't proven that God exists, so why do you believe in him?

Dowd: Atheists and believers agree that reality consists of nested spheres -- subatomic particles within atoms within molecules within cells within organisms within planets within galaxies. Each nested level exhibits divine creativity -- the power to bring something new into existence that didn't exist before.

That creativity didn't exist at the beginning of time, making everything like a potter makes a pot, but exists through the universe in a nested sense. God, Goddess, Allah -- they're just proper names for that ultimate reality. God is a sacred proper name for 'largest nesting doll.' You may choose to call it by another name. Many people just call it the universe.

WN: So you embrace science, and therefore evolution. But in your book, you commend conservatives who don't. Why?

Dowd: Most conservatives have never been exposed to thinking of evolution except as a chance, mechanistic, godless process.

Evolutionary theology talks about evolution in a way that gives people a sense of purpose as part of something infinitely meaningful. Until conservatives are exposed to that, they should reject evolution. It's our responsibility to find more sacred, meaningful, holy ways of promoting evolution.

WN: How can evolution be meaningful in a personal, religiously enriching way?

Dowd: When I say evolution, I mean the cosmic, biological and human as one sacred story: galaxies, planets, life, human consciousness and culture. When someone feels connected to ultimate reality, and knows themselves to be a part of that, it becomes so much easier to exist with integrity, with love and compassion for the whole.

Evolution helps us understand the challenges of life. Why do we struggle with what we struggle with? Traditional religion says it's the Fall, it's original sin. But from an evolutionary theology perspective, original sin is a way of talking about what we call animal instincts.

Take testosterone: The more a person has, the more a person tends to take risks and think about sex. If people think they have sex on the brain because their great-great-grandmother ate an apple, or because they're fundamentally flawed, then they won't be able to live with integrity. Evolutionary psychology gives us a way of understanding our true nature. It makes it easier for us to live.

WN: Couldn't someone just as easily argue that we ought to obey our base instincts, since we evolved that way?

Dowd: That's where it's important to understand the direction of evolution. When we look at the pre-human world, then at human cultural evolution, we see greater spheres of cooperation, of complexity and interdependence at an ever-wider scale. At first we cooperated with family and clan; then at the level of tribe; then, later on, at the level of the kingdom; and now, at a planetary level. Our list of enemies keeps shrinking, and the people for whom we have cooperation and compassion keeps expanding. Why don't we go act on base instincts? Because it goes counter to this trajectory.

WN: But science is full of arguments and disagreements. It's constantly being changed and revised. How do you avoid having a momentary consensus turn into religious dogma?

Dowd: Religious insights handed down by private revelation have often been understood to be eternal truth. They're more likely than science to create religious wars over divinely revealed truths.

The scientific enterprise tends to nurture humility. Like you say, it's always open to being corrected, being changed -- and there's a certain humility to realizing that one's narrative, in terms of talking about facts, is open to change.

WN: Won't evolutionary theology leave a lot of scriptural truths behind?

Dowd: God didn't stop communicating truth vital to human well-being thousands of years ago, when people preserved insights on animal skins. God communicates through science. Facts are God's native tongue. Who of us would let a first-century dentist fix our children's teeth? Yet every day we let first-century theologians fill our children's brains.

There's a difference between flat-earth faith and evolutionary faith. In flat-earth Christianity, the core insights -- sin, salvation, heaven and hell -- are understood in the same way as when people first formulated ideas. I still value the same concepts, but interpret them in a radically different way.