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Author's Corner: Reverend Michael Dowd
August 13, 2009
The Reverend Michael Dowd is one of the leading voices in the Evolutionary Theology movement and the author of "Thank God For Evolution."
You were once a fundamentalist Christian who believed the earth was 6,000 years old. What made you change your mind?
I came to see that God has been revealing truth in the last 200 years that the biblical writers couldn't possibly known. Things like extinctions-98% or more of the species that once existed are no longer here. Moses couldn't have known that. That's a genuine revelation.
One of the things there's universal agreement about in the scientific community is that everything in the universe is evolving. Galaxies evolve, star systems, solar systems evolve, continents and seas evolve, plants, animals, bacteria, and humans evolve. Traditions evolve, anything that tries to stay the same or becomes extinct, toxic or trivial.
Plate tectonics -- which we've known about since 1966. Stardust--the fact that our bodies are actually made of atoms that are created inside stars. Glaciers -- the fact that for 120 years we've understood glaciers, these massive ice sheets that have created lakes, healthy soils and things like that. All of these major truths that we now understand come through science. So it was basically coming to see that science didn't have to conflict with my faith, that a scientific world view interpreted within a sacred and meaningful way could strengthen, and deepen and enrich my faith.
How does your book help reconcile science and religion?
Science is revealing divine truth. God speaks through evidence. But for non-religious people, I'm trying to help them see that religion isn't merely about supernatural otherworldlyism. It's about how we live ethical, moral lives.
Our best understanding of science can help, not just deepen faith, but we're also seeing the naturalizing, or what I talk about in my book the ‘REALizing' of religious concepts. For example, the Fall of Adam and Eve and Original Sin -- if you interpret those concepts as literal truth, that a snake way back when tempted a woman to eat an apple, you miss the point. That story is pointing in a metaphoric way what's fundamentally true about all human beings, that we all have an unchosen nature. We just find ourselves this way because it makes really good evolutional sense. We all have cravings for sugars, salts and fats, because, for 99% of human history, it wasn't easy to find sugars, salts and fats. A craving for those things allowed our ancestors to survive long enough to reproduce.
You have been very warmly received by the scientific and skeptical communities.
To have some of the world's top scientists endorse a theological book, even though my theology is very inclusive, it's very naturalistic, it's not supernaturalistic, it indicates to me that's there's a hunger for a bridge-building perspective. So much of the media portray this as though there's a polar opposite. On the one end of the spectrum, you've got your Young Earth Creationists and Intelligent Design Creationists. On the other end you've got your new atheists, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Richard Harris, Daniel Dennet. You'd think that those were the only options on the menu. Yet there are millions in the middle, the bulge in the bell curve, those who integrate evolution and spirituality. For me, it's not just a matter of reconciling the two. My faith is strengthened, deepened, enriched by an evolutionary understanding.
What is your opinion on the creationist movement?
Young Earth Creationists, I think, trivialize God. What kind of a God would have stopped communicating all the really important, vital stuff, back when people believed the world was flat and religious insights were recorded on animal skins? We don't believe, we know how God created the Atlantic Ocean - through plate tectonics. We know how the mountains were formed, why the Himalayas were formed, because the continent of India is slamming into the continent of Asia. We can measure for example that the Atlantic Ocean is growing at the same rate that your hair or your fingernails grow.
I appreciate what I think the Intelligent Design people are trying to do. Unfortunately, Intelligent Design still implies a designer, like God's an external designer, a clockmaker outside a clockwork universe. It's not a surprise to me that virtually all scientists, well over 95% of the scientists of the world, soundly reject Intelligent Design.
How do you feel about religion's relationship with politics?
I am in favor of a strong separation of church and state. But religious people are naturally going to be involved in having preferences on political issues, so they're going to naturally organize in groups to get action taken. The problem is that so many religious people think it's all about this otherworldly supernatural stuff, that the only thing that really matters is whether you believe certain things about the past, so that you can have cosmic fire insurance. That's a pretty trivial understanding of what religion is all about. I think what religion should really be about is calling our politicians, our economists, our corporate CEOs, not just calling them, but helping them, and supporting them, in being in deepest integrity. That's when things are gonna work, when we're aligned with reality, with what reality really is. We're not gonna know that if we think the world is 6,000 years old, or if we think God pooped the world into existence or waved his hand or spoke the world into existence.