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Thank God for Evolution! - A Response to a RNCSE Review

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Thank God for Evolution! — A Response to a RNCSE Review
Author(s): 
Michael Dowd
Volume: 
29
Issue: 
2
Year: 
2009
Date: 
March-April
Page(s): 
39–40
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

"Michael Dowd illustrates in Thank God for Evolution! that there are many ways to be a spiritual person, and that all of them are enriched by an understanding of modern science, especially evolution. This is a creative, provocative book that sheds light on just about any spiritual path one might be on. Many will find their faith revolutionized." — Eugenie C Scott, Executive Director, National Center for Science Education

Thank you for the opportunity to respond to Clay Farris Naff's review of my book, Thank God for Evolution! (RNCSE 2007 Jan–Apr; 27 [1–2]: 52–3). Naff is a gifted writer with a well-honed, wry sense of humor. I found myself laughing even while thinking that he largely missed the purpose of my book. Of course, I realize that the responsibility lies with me, the author, to communicate effectively. That is why I appreciate the opportunity to clarify the nature and purpose of Thank God for Evolution! (TGFE) for RNCSE readers, and to correct one important misrepresentation of my book in Naff's review.

I wrote Thank God for Evolution! mostly to help religious believers from different traditions move toward an evidential worldview without having to abandon their tradition and join the atheist/humanist camp to do so. The book itself emerged out of field-testing the ideas contained within TGFE with religious and non-religious audiences across the theological and philosophical spectrum. Since April 2002, my wife, Connie Barlow (an acclaimed science writer), and I have delivered Sunday sermons, evening programs, and multi-day workshops in more than 550 churches,convents, monasteries, and spiritual centers across the continent, including liberal and conservative Roman Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, Unitarian Universalist, Unity, Religious Science, Quaker, Mennonite, and Buddhist groups. We have also presented audience-appropriate versions of this message in nearly a hundred secular settings, including colleges, high schools, grade schools, nature centers, and public libraries.

Few things are more important, it seems to us, at least here in America, than for tens of millions of religious believers, over the next few decades, to come to embrace a science-based understanding of the world. Why? Because it matters — politically, theologically, personally — what we think about evolution. Trying to understand reality without an evolutionary worldview is like trying to understand infection without microscopes or the structure of the universe without telescopes. It's not merely difficult; it's impossible.

Until churches in America preach evolution enthusiastically, sacredly, in ways that expand and enrich faith, the battle over teaching evolutionary science in public schools will never end. Thus, the primary purpose of TGFE is to assist religious believers in letting go of literal interpretations of their otherworldly, supernatural myths and to wholeheartedly embrace an evidential, empirical worldview. Surely, this turn needs to happen in order for radically diverse religious people to cooperate in service of a just and sustainable future.

Those who might initially be put off by the religious language in my book should know that my wife, Connie Barlow, an evolutionary humanist/atheist science writer, worked with me very closely throughout the writing and editing process. She ghostwrote the science chapters, as I mention in my Acknowledgments.

Richard Dawkins graciously allowed me to include a letter he wrote to his daughter Juliet as an appendix in my book. That letter was previously published as the last chapter in his A Devil's Chaplain. There, Dawkins highlights the difference between believing something based on measurable evidence versus believing something based on private revelation, scripture, authority, or tradition. That religious people might, likewise, come to value this distinction is a central theme of my book.

In re-reading Naff's review, other than the half dozen or so minor things he didn't like about my book (too many exclamation points, for example, which he was certainly correct about; we removed nearly three dozen of them before the hardcover was printed), his only really substantive criticism related to the question of teleology. He writes, "Dowd has embraced a species of natural theology, and that biases his worldview toward a benevolent teleology that science cannot support."

This is demonstrably incorrect, however. Nowhere in my book do I suggest, or even imply, that there is a force or intelligence outside the universe (or within it) that is pulling strings or making evolution go in a benevolent direction. With respect to "the arrow of evolution," what I do say is this: When we look back over the course of billions of years of biological and human evolution, we see interdependence and cooperation at increasing scale of size and complexity. This is an empirical fact, not a statement of belief. Three or four billion years ago, the peak of earth's evolved complexity was expressed in carbon-based molecules maintained by processes cooperating at the scale of a millionth of a meter. Today, mutual support in the maintenance of peak (cultural) complexity occurs across distances measured in the millions of meters. It is true that I interpret this trajectory in a way that many find religiously inspiring. I also, however, acknowledge that it is just as legitimate to interpret the same facts in a non-inspiring way.

Similarly, Naff wrongly suggests that in my making the case for chaos and "bad news" catalyzing evolutionary creativity, I must therefore believe that some force or intelligence is intending favorable outcomes. Not at all. Rather, I am simply pointing out that how we choose to interpret reality and life's events profoundly affects the quality of our existence — and this is just as true collectively as it is individually. In my book I mention that many, including myself, have found the mantra "the universe is conspiring on my behalf" to be an exceedingly useful outlook in most situations. That is, when I act as if this were true, I love my life. I do not, however, suggest that this interpretation is "the Truth".

In his final paragraph, Naff writes, "a commitment to science requires an unflinching acceptance of the evidence, good or bad." I could not agree more. There is no guarantee that our species will survive into the future. But it does seems to me that we are far more likely to do so if religious people around the world are offered a way of thinking about science in general, and evolution specifically, that they can enthusiastically embrace. I am certain that one of the reasons TGFE has been endorsed by five Nobel laureates and 120 other leading scientists, ministers, and theologians, from Baptists to Buddhists, is that it is an important step in this direction. As David Sloan Wilson, author of Darwin's Cathedral and Evolution for Everyone, offered:

An itinerant preacher who teaches evolution in the evangelical style? I was skeptical at first, but Dowd remains true to both science and the spirit of religion. He understands that what most people need to accept evolution is not more facts, but an appreciation of what evolution means for our value systems and everyday lives.

Those who have no use for religious language may nonetheless appreciate my book for how it can help the religiously minded to comprehend and value the worldview of science. Time and again, in speaking across North America, I have found that roughly 70% of Americans, including most humanists and virtually all moderate and liberal Christians (and even some evangelicals) find the integration of faith and reason that TGFE offers to be an exciting and radically fresh third way beyond the chronic debate between the "New Atheists" and those espousing "intelligent design". For public school teachers trying to teach the science of evolution to increasingly resistant students from religious backgrounds, TGFE may be just the bridge they've been looking for. That, at least, is my hope.

Thank God for Evolution! is available as a free PDF download via http://ThankGodforEvolution.com.


About the Author(s): 

AUTHOR'S ADDRESS

Michael Dowd
c/o NCSE
PO Box 9477
Berkeley CA 94709-0477
ncseoffice@ncseweb.org

Michael Dowd received a BA in biblical studies and philosophy (summa cum laude) from Evangel University in Springfield, Missouri. He also earned a Master of Divinity degree (with honors) from Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He served as a United Church of Christ minister for nine years in Massachusetts, Ohio, and Michigan. His book EarthSpirit: A Handbook for Nurturing an Ecological Christianity (Mystic [CT]: Twenty-Third Publications, 1991) was one of the first attempts to look appreciatively at traditional Christianity from the perspective of a modern cosmology. He and his wife Connie Barlow are co-creators of the leading educational website in the Evolution Theology movement: http://www.TheGreatStory.org.