Thank God for Evolution, by Michael Dowd
I started writing this review for my Shelfari page, but it kept growing and growing until I decided it might make a halfway decent article here. Since my scathing review of Blue Like Jazz , I thought this one was a little more generous. By a little.
I wanted to like this book. I really, really wanted to like this book. Inspired by an article by blogger DagoodS, I picked up the book in Dallas while waiting for a connecting flight. Dowd has lately been making the rounds promoting his book, and appearing on everything from Albert Mohler’s radio show to Point of Inquiry. He lives the life of an itinerant evangelist, who travels about the country writing and lecturing on his successful marriage of Christian faith and the theory of evolution. After hearing Dowd being interrogated and his Faith questioned by Dr. Russell Moore, I admit I developed a soft spot for Dowd. I wanted to like him, and his book. I wanted somebody from inside the Christian faith who could successfully promote and evangelize both Christian belief and modern science. Picking up the book, I was struck by 6 pages of accolades from theologians, physicists, ministers, biologists and Nobel laureates. I was impressed by his opening paragraphs which promise inspiration and insight to such diverse beliefs ranging from the Fundamentalist to the Atheist, and everyone in between. I was not even fazed when I turned to the author’s photo on the back cover to discover that Michael Dowd bears a shocking and disturbing resemblance to my old Calvary Chapel pastor Skip Heitzig.
I really wanted to like this book. And I did, but only occasionally. Dowd certainly has a unique way of looking at life that can be beneficial to his readers. He is critical of, what he calls, ‘flat earth Christianity’, or the belief that science should be filtered through the sieve of a literal reading of Scripture. Dowd rightly considers this to be naïve and foolish, and writes his book on this presumption with no justification. No justification is needed – and it was refreshing that this book was not another ‘science vs evolution’ debate. Rather, Dowd takes for granted that evolution is the truth revealed by God through science, and shows how we can understand ourselves better with a proper knowledge of our evolutionary past. In this respect, Dowd draws a lot of his inspiration from, and improves upon, David Sloan Wilson’s tepid Evolution for Everyone.
But my praise ends there. From the radio interviews that I have heard, Dowd is a better speaker than he is a writer. He continually interrupts his narrative with inspiring quotes attached to obscure names (and a disproportionally large number from David Sloan Wilson) and personal anecdotes taken from his many speaking engagements. Every author has their own style, and I understand that Dowd is trying to reach as large an audience as possible, but I found this style to be just a level above that used in Rhonda Byrne’s dreadful The Secret. I think Dowd is better than that, and he should write better than that.
As for the content, Dowd advocates using evolution in harmony with religious belief as a way of understanding ourselves and fellow humans. For instance, ‘original sin’ as conceived by the authors and interpreters of Scripture is actually inherent in each of us due to our evolutionary past. Humans have evolved from animals and that tendency to be harmful or ‘sinful’ to others is a vestigial by-product of past survival instincts. Dowd playfully calls this our ‘Lizard Legacy’, and contends that we can better tame this ‘sinful nature’ if we properly knew its source. Dowd considers Scripture to be true only as far as the writers could interpret the natural world around them. They could not conceive of Evolution via natural selection, so they used the ‘Night Language’ (Dowd’s euphemism for ‘myth’) to make sense of evil as best as they could. But as God continually reveals himself to humanity through his gift of science, we can see clearly the true nature and the evolutionary roots of ‘original sin’. Other theological concepts, like grace, atonement, and salvation are given similar ‘Night Language’ treatment.
I understand that many, if not most, modern educated Christians conceive of these theological concepts in a similar manner. I certainly did when I was a Christian. Yet, even as a religious skeptic, I found myself asking ‘what kind of Christian is this?’ as I read. I fear that the audience who could most benefit from this kind of book, the religious fundamentalist, will do exactly as Dr Russell Moore did during his interview of Dowd. The fundamentalist will ignore the content of the text and will instead search the pages for a litmus test as to what kind of Christian Dowd really is. That is a shame, but the good news is that Dowd answers that question in depth fairly early on. The bad news is, the Fundamentalist will likely slam the book shut upon reading the answer. Dowd considers himself neither a theist, nor a deist, nor a pantheist, nor an atheist, yet considers himself all of the above. He has coined the term ‘creatheist’ to describe his own religious belief – a believer in an all-pervasive God who is continually in the process of creating and revealing. The Fundamentalist will almost certainly stop upon reading these words (p. 337):
I cannot agree that “Jesus as God’s way, truth, and life” means that only those Christians who believe certain things about Jesus or the Bible get to go to a special otherworldly place called heaven when they die. I used to believe that, but I don’t anymore. In hindsight, I see that my old belief cheapened, belittled, and impoverished the universal glory of the Gospel.
Although many will find Dowd’s religious views to be distasteful, I certainly do not mind, nor am I offended. Yet at the same time, this is the sort of double-speak that makes people like John Shelby Spong difficult for me to understand or enjoy reading. Dowd’s resulting theology of Humanistic/Christian/Universalist views is a confusing mishmash of vague spirituality, mythology, pop psychology and a smattering of science. And I do mean a smattering – although he brings up evolution constantly, he never actually utilizes it in his message other than to state that our minds come from a primitive heritage. For instance, the middle chapters of the book veer into self-help territory, complete with exercises for the reader to try. One of the exercises involves describing our ‘DNA of Deep Integrity’ by listing our Evolutionary, or Christ-like, character traits (e.g. trusting, honest, loving, etc) and our de-evolutionary character traits. While the exercise may be helpful for the reader, the mere insertion of terms like ‘evolutionary’ and ‘DNA’ seems forced, and the fact that no explanation is given as to why Christ-like behavior is ‘evolutionary’ makes the whole thing rather moot. Other exercises, some of which are taken directly from 12-step recovery programs, are treated similarly. Nobody denies that evolution, in the sense of character progress, is a relevant feature in human development. The controversy with the religious adherant lies with Darwinian Evolution via natural selection, and I am afraid Dowd makes no harmony with this particular scientific theory and his religious views. The term ‘evolution’ is used by Dowd in a rather careless and haphazard way which left me fairly confused – sometimes I did not know what Dowd was writing about, but he was certainly not writing about evolution or religion. Some of Dowd’s other exercises, like speaking in tongues as a form of inward meditation and imagining a painful memory as if it were a practical joke from God, seems to me to be completely unhelpful.
Astoundingly, the book ends with an appendix written by arch-skeptic Richard Dawkins. Although I am not a big fan of Dawkins’s work, I must say this excerpt from A Devil’s Chaplain was quite enjoyable. Dowd includes it for its “sound guidance for an evidential, evolutionary faith”. Somehow, I doubt that Dawkins would entirely agree with that wording. But the appendix was a fitting conclusion to my overall perception of this book. It demonstrated to me that, sadly, there is no marriage between Evolution by natural selection and traditional Christianity. I discovered that in order to make the marriage work, Dowd must practically redefine both evolution and Christianity. I am now convinced that ramming the square peg of Christianity into the round hole of Evolution is pure futility. I can only think that the pages of accolades found at the beginning are from well-meaning, educated people who are tired of their constant debating with young-earth ignoramuses, and are happy to find anything somewhat reasonable that can hopefully get them to, not leave Christianity or religion, but to at least see the light of science and progress. Hopefully that book may someday come, but sadly, I think this one misses the mark.
Good luck, Mr Dowd. I wish you much success on your lecture circuit and your itinerant ministry.