Review of Michael Dowd’s “Thank God For Evolution!”

Review of Michael Dowd’s “Thank God For Evolution!”

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A review of Michael Dowd, Thank God for Evolution!: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World. (San Francisco: Council Oak Books, 2007).

Japanese Buddhists use the term “the stench of Enlightenment,” or so I have been told, to describe someone who has newly achieved satori. The newly initiated or born-again religious believer is often just too much to take, hence “the stench”! With time and maturity, the Zen masters reassure us, the over enthusiasm of the newly enlightened will wear off a bit, and a more mature spirituality will ensue.

Back in 2002, when I first met Michael Dowd through his new wife, Connie Barlow, I was reminded of that lovely Zen phrase. Rev. Dowd had already traveled from the Pentecostal enthusiasm of the Assembly of God to the liberal confusion of United Church of Christ. He had been recently converted to the Epic of Evolution, as told by Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme. Connie Barlow, a science writer and atheist, was his new wife. Together, they would live the lives of wandering evangelists for the Great Story. Together, their marriage would embody the union of religion and science, Christianity and atheism. Together, they would take the Good News of Evolution to churches, schools, and community groups all over North America, all the while developing the artistic and liturgical forms and pedagogical tools to make the Epic of Evolution existentially relevant to the lives of children and adults alike. Their devotion to the Great Story was just too much, at least for this staid academic.

There is, however, nothing like a true believer to get the job done. So while their enthusiasm was a little too enthusiastic, I was very, very curious to see how their itinerant ministry would evolve. They brought a lot of skills and passion to the job. And over the years, I have read their reports and musings with great interest and been pleased to creatively plagiarize some of their pedagogical tools (in an evolutionary universe all creativity is creative plagiarism).

Five years into their journey, there is now a remarkable book and website to show for their effort. Thank God for Evolution! is single authored book, but Connie Barlow certainly deserves an award for the best-supporting editor. Indeed, their marriage, its joys and troubles, is itself a major topic in the book. The subtitle of the book is thus appropriately “How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World.”

The book is a genre bender—mixing inspirational science writing, theological reflection, Biblical interpretation, and self-improvement manual into a sometimes distracting blend. Though based on “the Greatest Story ever told,” TGFE! itself lacks a strong narrative structure, which frankly makes the book easier to pick-up, skip-around, put-down and pick-up again. And that is how this book is best read and used. In that sense, it is a very useful book for adult religious education, youth ministries, and individual study. I foresee no adoption at the university level, but frankly in the pews is where the greater need is. That is not to say the sophisticates and stayed members of the Academe might not also benefit from reading something completely out-of-the-box.

Dowd has succeeded in attracting glowing endorsements of TGFE! from a huge variety of scientists, religious leaders, and authors. This is accomplished in part by the many generous citations included from these very authors, among others. The book is valuable simply as a collection of quotes on evolution, science, and religion (though regrettably full citations are not included). Dowd channels a lot of Thomas Berry, both in his prose and in his citations. Second to Berry is the work of David Sloan Wilson. He has wrapped himself in the words and wisdom of many, many others, and provided a who-is-who directory in the back, which I found myself frequently consulting. Seven chapters into the book, I had read so many quotes from so many authors that I was beginning to feel a little left out and over-looked, but then was pleased to discover my own words and name staring back at me on page 127. Thanks, Michael!

While Dowd affirms multiple religious traditions, he engages the Christian idiom in depth, offering creative evolutionary reinterpretations of concepts like Original Sin, Resurrection, and Personal Salvation. He refers to these as “REALizing” religion, moving religious doctrines of the “Night Language” of dreams to the “Day Language” of science, from the “Private Revelations” of scriptures to the “Public Revelations” of science. Continuing revelation is a big theme in TGFE! Unfortunately, the book will be a non-starter for anyone who rejects the notion of continuing revelation.

I particularly liked Part III: “The Gospel According to Evolution,” in which he uses evolutionary brain science and evolutionary psychology to reconstruct the doctrine of “Original Sin”. He notes the quadrune evolution of the human brain with its “Lizard Legacy” in the cerebellum and brainstem, its “Furry Li’l Mammal” in the limbic systems, its “Monkey Mind” in the neo-cortex, and its “Higher Porpoise!” in the prefrontal cortex. It is the interplay of these evolved structures of our brain that inevitably lead to sin. Dowd dwells on the story of Rev. Ted Haggard, President of the National Association of Evangelicals, who was outed as a closet homosexual in November 2006, as well as a number of other religious and political leaders who had been tempted by their Lizard Legacy and Furry Li’l Mammal. Dowd writes:

So long as religious and political leaders continue to ignore our evolutionary heritage, and thus do not put in place structures of internal and external support that can withstand the high dosages of testosterone that high status and power necessarily confer, then there will be no hope for a less calamitous future.

Understanding the unwanted drives within us as having served our ancestors for millions of years is far more empowering than imagining that we are the way we are because of inner demons, or because the world’s first woman and man ate a forbidden apple a few thousand years ago. The path to freedom lies in appreciating one’s instincts, while taking steps to channel these powerful energies in ways that will serve our higher purposes (Dowd, 2007, 148).

What follows in the next few chapters is the self-improvement section of the book, as Dowd develops his “Evolutionary Spirituality”. There are sections on “Taming Our Monkey Mind” and “Evolving Our Most Intimate Relationships”. As someone who cannot bear to read self-improvement manuals, I had to read these sections with a certain anthropological detachment, curious to see how evolutionary psychology and evolutionary spirituality can be adapted, but not likely to ever practice any of the exercises he recommends.

Michael Dowd is himself a big presence in the book, frequently referring to his own life and struggles. In the end, I did not really want to know or infer that much about him, his problems, and his marriage. Dowd has developed a content rich website for this book, where you can also preview the book ( I was a bit put off by all of the pictures and video clips of Dowd the Preacher on the website, but then that too is part of the genre of the mega-church and evangelical mission, which informs the passionate commitment and creativity.

Let that not deter you from perusing this book. Much insight and wisdom has been assembled in these pages. Take what you like and leave the rest, as the saying goes. And there is a lot to like, much to learn, experiments to be modified and adapted, and a refreshingly creative attempt to take the drama of the constructive engagement of religion and science from the Ivory Towers into the popular culture. Let’s hope we see Rev. Michael Dowd sometime soon on “The Hour of Power” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show”.

Disclosure: My dissertation was in part a case study of Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme’s The Universe Story, San Francisco: Harper, 1992. The dissertation is entitled Reinventing Nature: Science Narratives as Myths for an Endangered Planet, Temple University Department of Religion, 1994.