Evolving toward a common ground

Carroll County Times

by Jordan Bartel

When Michael Dowd started college, he thought evolution was of the devil.So he was shocked when a biology professor at the Assemblies of God-affiliated Evangel University in Springfield, Mo., held up a textbook Dowd recognized as one teaching evolution. That day he proclaimed to his roommate, "Satan obviously has a foothold in this school."Fast-forward nearly three decades and Dowd, who just turned 49, is one of the leading proponents of the marriage of science and religion, a so-called - and at first thought oxymoronic - evolutionary evangelist. To Dowd, science is no longer the enemy."I've come to understand that science is a sacred endeavor," he said. "Science is revelatory."Dowd's latest book is titled "Thank God for Evolution!" The exclamation point is apt, for Dowd is excited about accepting both religion and evolution into his life. The book has won acclaim from both the science and religious communities, earning raves from Nobel Prize winners and prominent ministers.

Told in five parts, "Thank God for Evolution!" is both philosophical and relatable. Part one reveals that evolution is not the meaningless mechanism derided by some religious traditions. Part two digs deep into one of Dowd's foremost beliefs - that facts are God's native tongue. Throughout the book, Dowd offers scientific foundations for concepts like religious diversity of human beliefs as well as religious beliefs like original sin and personal salvation."What I really want people to get is science and religion spurring each other to greatness," Dowd said. "When people are exposed to a sacred, meaningful understanding of evolution, it puts pieces together for them. Both sides can lay down their weapons. The war is over."But for many the war is still raging. While the large majority of the scientific community accepts evolution as fact, many fundamental religious denominations refuse to do the same, instead backing the theory of creationism. Much of America also seems divided on the issue.

According to a USA Today/ Gallup poll conducted in June, 39 percent said creationism was definitely true and 27 percent thought it was probably true. When it comes to evolution, 18 percent said the theory was definitely true and 35 percent thought it was probably true. Overall, 25 percent said both creationism and evolution are definitely or probably true.So Dowd has his work cut out for him. For more than five years, Dowd and his wife, science writer Connie Barlow, have lived on the road, sharing their views with religious and secular audiences in both largely conservative and liberal settings. They've spoken at 500 churches, convents and spiritual centers, to Catholics, Mennonites and Buddhists, to young children and seniors. They spend nights, sometimes a week, in the homes of people at each stop of their journey.Much of "Thank God for Evolution!" is based on presentations the pair give while traveling in a large white Dodge Sprinter van they've named Angel. It's emblazoned with the Jesus fish and Darwin fish kissing."People think of this lifestyle as a hardship," said Dowd, reached by phone as he traveled from Louisville, Ky., to Birmingham, Ala. "I feel like I'm the richest man in the world. I get to communicate a message that builds bridges."But first Dowd had to accept the message himself. He grew up Roman Catholic and as a teenager struggled with drugs, alcohol and sexuality.In 1979, while in the U.S. Army in Germany, Dowd said he was born again, went to church that following Sunday and months later experienced what is known to Pentecostals as "baptism in the holy spirit." He spoke in tongues. Soon he was an ardent young earth creationist, handing out virulent anti-evolution tracts and challenging anyone who dared to believe earth was any more than 6,000 years old.There were a few major ideological turning points. First, many of the student and teachers he encountered at Evangel University, people he worshipped with and respected, held evolutionary viewpoints and, as Dowd says in his book, "I couldn't write any of them off as demonically possessed."Eventually, Dowd began to broaden his mind, double majoring in biblical studies and philosophy, and hearing professors reinforce the idea that all truth, even truth backed by science, is God's truth.He also met and befriended Tobias Meeker, a Roman Catholic hospital chaplain and former Trappist monk who considered himself a Buddhist-Christian and embraced a theological understanding of evolution."My heart said, 'Ask him to mentor you,'" Dowd said of Meeker.After earning a Master of Divinity degree from Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa., now Palmer Theological Seminary, Dowd pastered three United Church of Christ congregations, confident in his newfound intimate relationship with God, one not in conflict with evolution but instead enhanced by it.His 1991 book, "EarthSpirit: A Handbook for Nurturing an Ecological Christianity," was one of the first attempts to explore Christianity from a modern cosmology perspective. Later, as the religious organizer for the Washington, D.C.-based National Environmental Trust, Dowd worked with leaders from multiple denominations on social and environmental issues.Then came Sept. 11, 2001. Dowd was living close to New York City and his wife had been scheduled to be in a class at the World Trade Center Tower One on Sept. 12."It came to a point where we just asked ourselves, are we doing what we most want to be doing for the rest of our lives?" said Dowd.And the now nomadic reverend is doing what he believes is his life's work. It's something of a daunting task, but Dowd is sure that most people want to reconcile evolution with God. Sprinkled throughout "Thank God for Evolution!" are testimonials from people, many of them atheists because they were unable to fathom pairing evolutionary and Godly thought, embracing Dowd's thoughts on how each concept can enhance the other.He even has no doubt that there will be a time when belief in evolution and belief in God will not be at odds in people's hearts."I would say somewhere between 2030 and 2050 it will cease to be an issue," Dowd said. "The majority of people - Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus - of all traditions will not just tolerate [reconciliation] but embrace it and reinterpret their religious views.