The Reverend Michael Dowd and his wife, science writer Connie Barlow, have lived permanently on the road for six years, sharing their “sacred view of evolution” with religious and secular audiences of all ages. Dowd recently discussed his new book, Thank God for Evolution, with D.J. Grothe, associate editor of Free Inquiry.
Free Inquiry: Obviously, you’re not the kind of Christian who believes in a literal Jesus Christ who died for humanity’s sins and was resurrected; you don’t believe in a literal heaven or hell. Would you consider such views as representing a less mature form of Christianity, one less compatible with the scientific worldview than your own?
Rev. Michael Dowd: Probably, although the word immature carries baggage. All religions are evolving away from being grounded in private revelation and toward what I call “public revelation,” which is another way to describe science. For many religious people, God stopped communicating all the important stuff thousands of years ago. So I submit a radical proposition: facts are God’s native tongue, and these facts are revealed through science. This is why I say science is a holy endeavor and a sacred enterprise. Every scientific discovery is an act of revelation.
FI: In your book, you go through many of the doctrines of Christianity, and you reinterpret them in light of your evolutionary religion. You reinterpret original sin in such a way.
Rev. Dowd: Yes. By reinterpreting original sin, we get at a common myth that validates both science and religion. Also, if evolution is not itself mythologized in the next fifty years, we are screwed as a species. Each religious tradition will eventually mythologize evolution in its own way, but they will all be grounded in the same empirical, evidential worldview as modern science. When I say that religions will mythologize evolution, I mean that they will interpret the scientific theory of evolution in ways that inspire people to cooperate, to live lives of compassion and generosity. Original sin or “The Fall” is a religious concept that shows the mythic intuitions of people about what we would now call our unchosen nature, our inherited proclivities, our instincts. We all have aspects of ourselves that we never chose, but they are a result of evolution. For instance, with a rise of status comes a rise in testosterone in many women and most men. With higher levels of testosterone come higher sex-drives. Should we interpret this as a result of evil and sin or in terms of biology? So, yes, I am saying we should reinterpret these religious doctrines in the light of science.
FI: So you’re saying that evolution is factually true, but that you want to spruce it up so that it demands the commitments from people that religion traditionally has.
Rev. Dowd: We can’t not interpret evolution. We can interpret it meaninglessly and say that there is no significance to evolution, that it is just random variation; or we can interpret the facts of evolution in ways that make a meaningful difference for people individually and collectively, in light of the problems facing our civilization.
FI: What about all the folks who, first, don’t find any good evidence for belief in the supernatural or God, and, second, don’t find any good reason to dress up their scientific worldview in religious language?
Rev. Dowd: They certainly don’t have to. But I believe we are moving from unnatural or supernatural religion to a completely naturalized religion. And this religion is undeniable, if only because it is grounded in science and not the supernatural. There is a way of interpreting religion in scientific and nonsupernatural ways, but there is also a way of interpreting science so that it nourishes the soul, so that it touches and moves and inspires us in traditionally religious or spiritual ways. I love that the New Atheists are hitting religion with full force and that the religion they are hitting is the kind that deserves to be hit: flat-earth, supernatural, other-worldly religion. Theists and atheists alike are beginning to agree that the other-worldly God whom atheists reject deserves to be rejected. But I think that even after rejecting this God, people can integrate their sense of the sacred with what science tells us about the universe.
This is only a small portion of an extended conversation. To hear the rest, go to www.pointofinquiry.org.