A former evangelical pastor now travels fulltime across America preaching the ‘gospel of evolution’
Published: 22 January 2008(GMT+10)
The internet address of the Rev. Michael Dowd’s website (www.ThankGodForEvolution.com) speaks loudly of what his ‘ministry’ is all about. The blurbs on his book of the same title promise us, for example, that:
- ‘If you love God, if you love the animals, if you love Jesus, if you love the flowers and Sun and Moon, here’s the book that will help you gather all these loves together.’
- It will show you the way ‘toward a deeper Christianity’.
- It offers ‘a new, all inclusive, science-based, spirit-infused way for us to move together as co-evolutionary participants in the process of creation.’
Although this is not meant to be a comprehensive review, his book deserves more than a cursory comment, because Dowd’s approach will undoubtedly ensnare (and has already ensnared) many.
Claiming to have once been a ‘fundamentalist evangelical’, Michael Dowd had, it seems, already ‘converted’ to a mystical view that one could label ‘evolutionary Christianity’ before he met and married an atheistic science writer devoted to evolution. This couple are now itinerant preachers, continually traveling ‘on the road’ to show people how the ‘sacred story’ of evolution can ‘enrich their faith’.
Dowd is nothing if not enthusiastic about his mission. His is supposed to be the way to ‘look for overarching understandings that can be celebrated by all peoples, including devout religious believers of every tradition and ardent nonbelievers, too’. Imagine something that can enrich not just the faith of Christians, but also Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, you name it—one big love-fest. Evolution is supposed to do all that, if only we could all understand things the way he does.
Evolution is cruel? Apparently not …
Dowd knows that ‘religious believers can hardly be expected to embrace evolution if the only version they’ve been exposed to portrays the processes at work as merely competitive and pointless, even cruel’. His solution is to repackage evolution a bit—emphasize the cooperative things that animals do that aids their survival. Oh, and make sure that all that disease, suffering and bloodshed in the natural world is referred to by less negative-sounding words, like ‘strife’. And rather than avoid discussion of death as the elephant in the living room, he tries to turn it into a positive: ‘Death is of supreme importance in the process of divine/cosmic creativity.’
A total package—worldview plus ‘feelgood religion’.
Dowdism and Intelligent Design
Dowd says he is happy to know that the leaders of the ID movement accept the evolutionary history of life on earth, i.e. that there have been substantial transformations, the order of appearance is the same, etc.—the only issue for them being how this ‘long creation story’ unfolded.*
To him, this means that the battle for evolution is virtually ‘won’, if only enough people get the point.
He is quick to distance himself from IDers, though, by saying that the evidence does not ‘point to a designer God who planned the whole thing or who is pulling the strings. Indeed, there is compelling evidence against such a trivialized notion of the divine.’
* In a sense, the same is true for ‘progressive creation’, despite it portraying itself as a ‘literal reading of the Bible’. Such positions accept the standard evolutionary order of appearance of life on Earth. Dowd’s characterization is not necessarily true for all the leaders of the ID movement, but it certainly applies to many.
Dowd’s is not just some abstract philosophical work, but a clever tome aimed at trying to meet all manner of personal needs in substitution for all that a reader’s current belief might offer them. He calls it ‘a solid program for personal and relational transformation grounded in evolutionary integrity.’ He includes tips on how to relax meditation-style, and addresses the readers’ personal problems. E.g.:
‘Your greatest difficulties (including substance addictions and other destructive habits), while your responsibility, are ultimately not your fault.’ So whose are they? That of our reptilian ancestry, it seems. They are ‘instincts, not mistakes’, he says.
The biblical Christian has the hope of the future—Dowd has a substitute (counterfeit?) there, too; he proclaims that a ‘holy understanding of evolution will usher the world’s religions into their greatness in the 21st century.’
His ‘evolutionary Christianity’, he says, involves ‘enthusiastically embracing a deep-time worldview’, which will embrace ‘biblical and traditional expressions, conservative and liberal’, and is (wait for it) ‘God-glorifying, Christ-edifying, scripture-honoring … ’
He uses a lot of ‘Godspeak’ like this. For another example: ‘ … the Gospel can free a person from addiction to sin and self-absorption, enabling each of us to savor the fruit of the Spirit.’ But it soon becomes clear that such terms do not mean what you used to think.
For example, ‘scripture-honoring’ means that every passage in any sacred text from any culture, if it does not fit the evolutionary/deep-time worldview, is labeled as ‘flat-earth’. Revealingly, he states:
‘Of necessity, this evolutionary effort will also mean that some of the teachings [of Christianity/the Bible] will be translated almost beyond recognition, just as our skin is so unlike that of our scaly reptilian ancestors. Then, too, some passages will have so little utility that they will disappear, just as the primate tail was lost within our lineage of apes.’
‘Apostles of evolution must strive for an Evolutionary Christianity, an Evolutionary Hinduism, an Evolutionary Islam, an Evolutionary Judaism, and more.’—Michael Dowd, author of Thank God for evolution
Of course, by being free to reinterpret something beyond recognition, and then to pick and choose which passages will disappear, and so forth, one can make any ‘sacred text’ say almost anything, causing it to become effectively irrelevant. He says that ‘Apostles of evolution must strive for an Evolutionary Christianity, an Evolutionary Hinduism, an Evolutionary Islam, an Evolutionary Judaism, and more.’ But none of those categories mean much anymore, if each is ‘revamped’ into an evolutionary syncretism wherein all their competing truth-claims disappear.
Facts for faith?
One of the items of bait on the Dowdian ‘hook’ is the assurance that at last, here is a religion that squares with facts. He says (emphasis in original), ‘Evolutionary religion’s alternative to reliance on ancient scriptures is empirical data. In a way, the data are our scriptures—and to these we submit.’
Of course, the implication is that ‘the facts’ are on the side of evolution, and opposed to a straightforward understanding of Genesis history, which is not the case at all. ‘Facts’ or ‘data’ are always interpreted, and as a dispassionate review of this website, for example, reveals, modern creationism has overwhelmingly shown that these facts make more sense when seen through the lens of the Bible’s history.
Evolution not chance?
Random mutation plus natural selection (those organisms which just happen to survive in whatever environment just happens to be there) are of course simply chance plus chance, despite all the efforts to gloss over this and pretend that evolution is ‘not chance’, as one of Dowd’s chapters does. Seemingly to get around the difficulty of extracting meaning from randomness, Dowd approvingly quotes Stuart Kauffman, one of the ‘emerging complexity theorists’ who acknowledges that neo-Darwinism could not really account for the upwards, information-increasing evolutionary story. Kauffman thinks there must be some inherent property in matter/nature to become more complex. At least that makes the universe somehow creative, which is great when you’re trying to encourage people to see it as a sort of God-substitute.
Although irenic-sounding, in reality Dowd very arrogantly insists that, unlike the Bible-believer, his religion is driven by empirical facts. There is somewhat more than a little irony in his approval of Kauffman—because it’s the empirical data of the real world of physics and chemistry that tells us that there is no such tendency to self-organisation, but rather that there is a relentless tendency in the opposite direction. Unguided and unforced by any programmed mechanism (as happens when an organism grows up from a fertilized egg, for instance), all systems of matter and energy tend to run down to greater simplicity. We can rely on this for the same reason that we can know that there are no such things as perpetual motion or ‘free energy’ machines.
Trusting the Universe?
Under the heading ‘The Universe can be Trusted’ we read: ‘The Universe can be counted on over time—it can be trusted, deeply trusted—to move in the direction of more diversity, more complexity, more awareness, more transformation and growth, faster and faster, and, and [sic] more intimacy.’
I couldn’t help but wonder how a more consistent atheist like Richard Dawkins would react on reading this. He knows that there is something we can definitely trust about a universe without the infinite-personal Creator God of the Bible, and that is that whatever the variety and complexity generated within this current evolutionary interlude (as he sees it), its long-term future is dark, cold and dead. The direction of natural processes, without any divine operation, ensures that one day all stars will have burned out, all temperatures will have equalized, everything will have completely ‘run down’. Long before then, our sun will have exploded and engulfed the earth prior to dying completely.1 So much for Dowd’s inevitable increase of intimacy in this trustworthy universe.
One reason for this emphasis on ‘trusting the universe’ seems to be so that it can become a panacea for our personal problems. He says:
‘“Accepting what is,” “trusting the Universe,” “making life right,” “celebrating Reality” are all inclusive ways of saying what many religious people—and people in recovery—mean when they speak of “having faith in God” or “trusting their Higher Power.” It really is the ticket to emotional, psychological, and spiritual freedom, and to a peace that transcends understanding.’
Dowd offers a total substitute for biblical morality, too. Under the general heading of how to realize ‘Personal Salvation’, he writes:
‘Growing in Deep Integrity
a. What do your reptilian instincts want that helped your ancient ancestors survive and reproduce but that now have negative consequences if you act on them indiscriminately, habitually, or in ways that are out of integrity? (List everything related to food, substances, safety, and sex that occasionally cause you problems or challenge one or more of your relationships.)
b. What do you appreciate about your reptilian instincts? How do they serve your life and your relations?
Furry Li’l Mammal
a. What does your Furry Li’l Mammal want that would have served your ancient ancestors but that now have negative consequences if you act on them indiscriminately, habitually, or in ways that are out of integrity? (List all your issues and challenges related to love, parenting, sibling relations, status, security, and wanting to look good or be right.)
b. What do you appreciate about your mammalian instincts? How do they serve your life and your relations?
c. How have your mammalian instincts helped keep your reptilian drives in check?’
And so on. It’s not hard to see why Dowd apparently has a powerful effect with his ‘teen ministry’. He says:
‘Time and again, I have watched young people experience salvation by learning about their evolutionary heritage—that they are the way they are because those drives served their ancient ancestors. Halleluiah!’
In this age of deep green environmentalism substituting for biblical faith, it’s not surprising to read, also, the following comment by Dowd: ‘Planet Earth comes first. The health and wellbeing of the body of Life must take precedence over the health and wellbeing of any single species, including our own.’
For those whose Christianity is based primarily on their experience, e.g. how they felt after making a commitment to Christ, why, Dowd has something to offer them, too. He says, ‘No matter your religion or philosophy, making a commitment to grow in deep integrity will offer you much the same experience as those who have repented of their sins and asked Jesus to be their personal Lord and Savior.’
The bottom line—accountability for sin
those who are most passionate about defending so-called ‘Christian evolution’ are generally those who really would like the freedom to do away with parts of the Bible that are, to them, unpalatable
It’s been said before that those who are most passionate about defending so-called ‘Christian evolution’ are generally those who really would like the freedom to do away with parts of the Bible that are, to them, unpalatable. These are the bits that involve what Paul called ‘the offense of the Cross’—including the reality of judgment for man’s sin. The ‘give-away’ of this in Dowd’s case is the following paragraph describing the implications of the ‘evolution revolution’:
‘Given what we now know about deep-time creativity and grace, we can no longer in good conscience continue interpreting the story of Jesus’ birth, life, teachings, passion, death, and resurrection as primarily having to do with saving a select group of human beings from the fires of a literal hell when they die.’
Charming people away from God’s Word
It’s not hard to see how the ‘missionary work’ of this presumably engaging couple—with that flow of ‘spiritual’ talk combined with such enthusiasm for the subject—would be disarming for many.
Nevertheless, theirs is a tragically misguided and misguiding work, and ultimately deadly to truth. No matter how we might fancy ourselves as heirs of a progressive culture, the bottom line is that God is unchanging, and so are the foundational truths in His Word, including the history of how we inherited our sin nature, and thus why we need a Saviour. And of how sin and death—the very heart of the Gospel message—entered the world.
The faith has been ‘once delivered to the saints’ (Jude 1:3); it is not something that is subject to rewriting to suit the spirit of the age.
At least the likes of Dawkins are being consistent by pointing out the reality if the story of evolution is true. If hydrogen, left to itself, has indeed turned into people, then one may as well get used to the stark loneliness of a meaningless universe—and not invent philosophical nonsense like this in an effort to persuade people that they can have their cake and eat it too.
- A review of A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith by Brian McLaren
- Cults and Creation
- What’s Wrong With Bishop Spong?
- How theologians can play with words
- Promoting ‘peace with evolution’
- Taking firm hold on an illusion (review of Darrel Falk, Coming to Peace with Science)
- Harmony and discord (review of The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief by Francis Collins)
- The Emergent Deception—the evolution factor
- The notion that humans could escape this fate by migrating to another planetary system does not avoid the same inevitable destiny for any other star that could power any biosphere humanity could set up. Return to Text.