Religious evolution

The Rev. Michael Dowd, author and religious naturalist, comes to Cal Lutheran to discuss science and religion

By Shane Cohn 09/22/2011

Words like “evolution,” “evangelism,” “science” and “religion” don’t often find harmony in the same sentence. But the author of the bestselling book Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World has made it his mission to bridge the gap between science and religion. The Rev. Michael Dowd, a religious naturalist, has been touring the country for 10 years, speaking to about 1,600 secular and nonsecular groups, conservatives and liberals, with his evolutionary evangelistic program that shows “how science can give us a deeply inspiring worldview that can motivate us to cooperate across ethnic and political and religious differences in service of a healthy future.” His book has been endorsed by six Nobel laureates and other science luminaries, including noted skeptics, and by religious leaders across the theological spectrum. Dowd, along with his wife, Connie Barlow, a noted science writer and family educator, will be presenting "Thank God for Evolution: Science as Modern-Day Scripture" on Tuesday evening at California Lutheran University.

Dowd spoke to the Reporter this week about his theology, his book and upcoming lecture.


VCReporter: For much of mankind, religion and science have gone together like oil and water, and it seems, as a reverend, you’re sort of in the middle of it trying to link the two.
Michael Dowd: What I’m trying to do is show how scientific, historic and cross-cultural evidence reveals divine guidance, or divine communication, or whatever you want to call it. When I speak to religious people, I call it God’s word or scripture. The idea that old books are a better guide or a better map of what’s real and what’s important than current guidance has led to collective insanity. Scientific, historic and cross-cultural evidence are our best and most important map of what’s real and what’s important. So I’m trying to show religious people how it is that science reveals divine guidance better than the Bible, better than the Quran, better than any ancient text. And I’m trying to show nonreligious people how our best scientific understanding of reality, which is called “big history,” shows how deeply inspiring and empowering an evidential science-based world view is, and that evolution isn’t just about Darwin, DNA and dinosaurs. Evolution is about how we understand ourselves and the quality of our lives, and whether we’re going to struggle with our lives or have fruitful, amazing joyous lives because how we think about our human nature profoundly impacts the quality of our lives. If I believe the reason I have a difficult time living in integrity, and why I shoot myself in the foot and why I have negative thoughts and patterns, if I think all of that is because my great-great-great great-grandmother ate an apple, I am going to be clueless about how to live in integrity.

You mentioned the term “big history.” Can you explain that?
It’s a new academic discipline, only about 20 years old. It is physical evolution, biological evolution and cultural evolution as one modern-day creation story. For the first time in the history of humanity, we have an evidence-based creation story. Not just one that came out of people’s imaginations, but based on evidence. It helps us understand the evolutionary significance of religion, that all religion helps people live in security with their tribe, with people in their community.  . . . That is the evolutionary function of religions, that they help people cooperate and sacrifice for each other and love and care for each other beyond their relatives and for whom there would be a reciprocal altruism. So religions have played an important evolutionary role. But the problem is we now got billions of religious people whose map, their inner GPS or reality, is about 2,000 or 3,000 years old, so the two fundamental questions that all cultures have needed to ask and answer is what’s real and what’s important. … Imagine trying to drive from St. Louis, Missouri, to Portland, Oregon, but you haven’t reprogrammed your GPS since 1840. You’d have a map of the Oregon Trail in there. You’re not going to get there. It has created what I think of as collective insanity — when you can’t distinguish the inner world from your outer world. It’s cute for kids to have invisible playmates and to have make-believe pretend stuff. That is considered normal, healthy and natural. But if you’re 25 years old and can’t distinguish your inner dream-like world from your outer world they call that insane. Yet you’ve got millions of religious people that use all this kind of religious language that is profoundly meaningful but they’re thinking of it literally. It’s not a surprise, for example, that America is not leading the world in regard to our response to climate change because 1 in 3 Americans believe these are the end times anyway so why bother.

I was at the GOP Debate at the Reagan Library. Texas Gov. Rick Perry could not answer or, perhaps more accurately, skirted around the question about science in regard to whether or not he believed in climate change. In 2012, it is pretty amazing that the guy who has a chance to be the next president of the United States is skeptical about science.
What’s really crazy is that his state is burning up! His state is on fire! There are various reasons for that, but one is that it is exacerbated by human emissions. . . .  It’s because of this insanity of denying what God is revealing through evidence . . . that whatever we mean by the word “God,” it can’t be less than reality. Reality is revealing itself, not through ancient books, but revealing itself through scientific, historic and cross-cultural evidence. …  and when we really get the best evidential understanding of death, human nature and the trajectory of big history, when we have our eyes focused on best collective intelligence, our best science-based understanding of death, human nature and the trajectory of big history, it gives us a profoundly inspiring way to think about our lives, our culture, our future because we can see ways of cooperating across these huge differences so we can work together for a healthy world because right now that is not the case.


You talked about how many religious folk have an “internal map that is 2,000 to 3,000 years old.” How does that affect communication between the secular and nonsecular?
…So we’re in this weird place culturally that religious people are locked into a sort of traditional religious language, and a lot of science people don’t have use for that religious language and don’t realize there is a bridge. That is what Connie and I are really trying to provide. A bridge to show secular people that science gives us an amazingly inspiring universe and a way of understanding ourselves in this universe; that we are literally the universe becoming conscious of itself. That is an amazing thought . . . that the universe as a whole has gone from simple atoms, to complex atoms, to molecules, to complex molecules, to creatures, to more complex creatures, to societies, to more complex societies, when people get that we are not separate from nature,that we’re not separate from the universe. Like Carl Sagan said, we are the universe becoming conscious of itself, and when people get that, they have a religious experience. So we’re trying to show secular people how inspiring science can be, but we’re also trying to show religious people they don’t have to be scared of science and that it can enrich, strengthen and deepen their faith. When they get that, they no longer hold on to literal interpretations of the Bble and interpret it more metaphorically and begin to see that maybe the Bble isn’t the best source of divine guidance, and maybe evidence is. They don’t have to stop being religious people. In fact, there is a big difference between secular Jews and fundamentalist Jews. Secular Jews still value the tradition, language and rituals, but they just don’t interpret any of it in an otherworldly way, or in an unnatural way. So we’re seeing the early stages of emergence of secular Christians, secular Hindus, secular Muslims. And maybe secular isn't the right word. Maybe it’s Christian naturalists, Hindu naturalists, Jewish naturalists and seeing that it’s about this universe, and religion isn’t all about the afterlife and beliefs. And if people think religion is all about the afterlife and beliefs, they have a trivial view of religion.

You must get hit with the God question a lot. Do you find yourself having to explain your views on God during the program?
Yes. When you look from an evidential standpoint, you find that all cultures use god language in some way. What they’re pointing to is basically reality personified, that all god language is interpretations. So if I say “God loves me,” what I’m basically saying is that reality can be trusted, reality as it is, not as I wish it was. You could say that reality is God’s secular name … that all God concepts are personifications of reality, or how reality really is. That is why there are all these different stories, maybe thousands of different stories from around the world about what God or the gods did. It’s not like God has a multiple personality disorder. These are different stories about what reality is like, what the real world is really like, what the universe is really like. So with that, when you get the question of belief — Do I believe in God or do I not believe in God? — it doesn’t even make sense anymore. That’s why this sacred evolutionary understanding, it kind of dissolves the atheist/theist debate because those concepts both came into being long before we had any understanding of evolutionary emergence. . . . I call myself a post-theist. I’m neither a theist nor an atheist. Or I’m both a theist and an atheist. They are trivial concepts. They no longer match the nature of reality. I don’t believe in God or disbelieve in God. I know that all cultures have personified reality, and so I don’t interpret those personifications in a literal sense. So, yes, those questions do come up and I talk about them in a reality-based way, and in a way that some people don’t find satisfying. Some people like to think about God as a supreme landlord who resides outside the planet, outside the universe. OK, whatever. What I sometimes say is that reality is my God. Integrity is my religion. What I mean by that is reality, that is, the nature of what’s real as evidentially understood, that is my primary allegiance. That is what I mean when I say that is my God. Integrity, living in right relationships with reality is my deepest inspiration, and helping others and our species to live in right relationships with reality is what my life is about and why I do what I do.

The Rev. Michael Dowd and his wife, science writer Connie Barlow, will present "Thank God for Evolution: Science as Modern-Day Scripture" at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 27, at California Lutheran University in the Lundring Events Center.

shane@vcreporter.com

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