Thursday, February 07, 2008

Thank Who for Evolution?

Last night I attended a talk by Rev. Michael Dowd at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Northwest Tucson.

Dowd is the author of a book, Thank God for Evolution. He and his wife, Connie Barlow, have been touring the US for the past 5 years, delivering a strange blend of religious revival and science tutorial. For about two hours in front of a largely aged, but receptive audience, Dowd paced, gesticulated, and even skipped while he delivered his message. I'll summarize what he said below, and my analysis follows.

Dowd thinks there is a "sacred, meaningful, inspiring story of the universe" that needs to be told "in a religious way". By doing so, he maintains, we will live "lives of greater integrity, passion, and service to the world".

Dowd used to be an "antievolutionary fundamentalist", but now he thinks we need to embrace an "evolutionary and ecological world view".

He drew a distinction between private and public revelation. A private revelation produces believers (the one who experiences the revelation and his/her followers), and unbelievers (those who are skeptical). By nature it divides. On the other hand, a public revelation is one that we can all share, a form of "collective intelligence".

Dowd thinks we need to preach the "nested emergent nature of divine creativity". By "divine" he means "the power to bring something into existence that never existed before". Creativity, he says, exists on multiple levels in the universe, from subatomic particles (which form atoms) to stars (which form galaxies). Out of simplicity comes complexity.

At times, Dowd sounded very much like a New Ager or pantheist, as when he said "We are literally the universe becoming aware of itself". He approvingly quoted the physicist Brian Swimme as saying "Four billion years ago the Earth was molten rock, and now it sings opera".

Dowd thinks that "all religious concepts and doctrines can be understood in a universal sense". He calls the literal interpretation common to fundamentalists a "flat Earth faith" -- these concepts are interpreted the same way as they were 2000 years ago. "God is the name for all realities, that includes all realities and transcends them".

Dowd drew a distinction between "day" and "night" language. (He also used language as a verb.) Day language is the everyday language of facts and experiences, but night language is the language of dreams. As an example, he gave the talking snake in Genesis. The mistake of fundamentalists is that they take the night language in the Bible as literal, when it is meant to be poetic or metaphoric.

Dowd thinks "facts just sit there, they need interpretation and metaphor". "Facts," said Dowd, "are God's native tongue".

"Why would you let a 1st-century dentist fill your children's teeth?" Dowd asks. "And yet we let 1st-century theologians influence our children's beliefs." As an example, he observed that the penalty for breaking the first 5 commandments is death by stoning; but the 6th commandment is "Thou shalt not kill."

"Scientists," says Dowd, "are empirical theologians". Science without religion (by "religion" here he seems to mean ethics or morality) is deadly to our species. "All entities are self-interested", and we have to "align the natural self-interest of individuals, corporations, and nation-states with the well-being of the planet".

Every living thing, says Dowd, is a gift. At this point I asked, "What is the gift of the tuberculosis mycobacterium?" He didn't seem to like this question; it was one of the few times he faltered during his presentation. But he recovered by saying that "God loves his plagues, too", which drew a big laugh from the audience. After all destruction, he said, comes new creativity. The primary thing that drives evolutionary creativity is chaos. Without the moving of crustal plates, we couldn't have a living planet, so the destruction of earthquakes are actually a necessary outcome. (I observe that this is very similar to a claim made by physicist-theologian John Polkinghorne.)

Preserving as many species as possible - biodiversity - is important. (But is preserving tuberculosis important?)

He recommends the book, The Happiness Hypothesis, by Jonathan Haidt.

God's will and God's ways are best reflected, Dowd said, in the scientific community's achievements. Trying to understand what is real without an evolutionary world view is like trying to understand the physical word without telescopes or microscopes.

He says he is a "creatheist". A creatheist believes that

  1. The whole of reality is creative
  2. We are part of the process
  3. We need analogies and metaphors to describe the nature of reality

"God" is just a sacred proper name for all of reality. We should act as if the Universe is conspiring on our behalves -- even if you don't believe it. Prayer is like a cell in the body communicating with the body of which it is a part.

Dowd has a low opinion of the fundamentalist outlook: "We cannot trust our future to anyone who believes the world is but a few thousand years old." But he also thinks that only his approach will solve the creation-evolution debate: "Until churches preach evolution enthusiastically, the fight over evolution in public schools will never end". He believes most churches will embrace his perspective by 2050.

Count me as unconvinced. Calling scientists "empirical theologians" really seems like an insult to scientists, especially when Dowd admits that scientists have added more to our understanding of the world in the last 300 years than theologians have done in 2,000 years. Why denigrate science by associating it with the mumbo-jumbo of theology?

While Dowd said a lot that I agree with, most Americans aren't pantheists, and I don't think they are likely to become pantheists. The view of God as a personal being who hears and responds to prayers is very deeply engrained in most Christian denominations, and replacing this being with "the whole of reallity" is not likely to appeal to them. Too much of what he said sounded like New Age woo; he apparently has been influenced by Teilhard de Chardin. A belief that the Universe is "conspiring on our behalf" is the kind of romantic misconception that caused the death of Timothy Treadwell (as depicted in the documentary, Grizzly Man). The universe simply doesn't care about us, one way or the other.

However, if Rev. Dowd causes fundamentalists to rethink their beliefs, by talking to them in a language they find more appealing, then he may ultimately have a positive impact. I'd be interested in seeing how he speaks before a fundamentalist audience.


Eamon Knight said...

Dowd was on the CBC last weekend (can't recall whether it was The Sunday Edition, or that wasteland of woolly thinking, Tapestry). When he defined "God" as being the same as the universe, rather than the traditional Western theistic concept of a Person, I largely lost interest. Sounds like a nice enough guy, but really he talks a lot of meaningless blather -- "It's not even wrong!".

The fundamentalists will dismiss him as a liberal/newage apostate.

Anonymous said...

"The fundamentalists will dismiss him as a liberal/newage apostate."

Right. The fundies don't regard Unitarians as Christians; if he talks to them, he might as well be Buddhist or Quetzalcoatlian.

renu said...

I am a Hindu who has for the last year been dropping by at the UUA center in my neighborhood, not a member yet, but a little more active than that, as I like the breadth of vision of the people I meet, who do not approach life through religion. But this sort of lecture by Dowd makes me a little uncomfortable, it can't become anything goes, not beause it's a question of doctrine, but because no meaningful discussion os possible. Especially getting lost in a thicket full of Tao of Physics or de Chardin can quickly begin to look like a buffalo lazily walowing in a swamp

Erdos56 said...

The Teilhard mention (and various other associations like Paolo Soleri's Chardin-esque meanderings) brings up a possible quandary: does there need to be a poetics of atheism or, better yet, rationalism? Not, perhaps, with the goal of directly opposing fundies, but with the more modest goal of trying to "corrupt" the youth away from turning into future fundies.

Dawkins, at a reading I attended a few months back, mentioned that his greatest feelings of achievement were not from our little cheering squad in Palo Alto, but when he went to places like Lawrence, Kansas and got warm receptions from young people who had harbored concerns but never found a voice.

The art or poetics of rationalism has the potential to spread those realizations further still, possibly even to Topeka.

Takis Konstantopoulos said...

Thanks for letting us know about this guy (Dowd). I was not aware of his existence. It seems that there is a movement among religious people who want to establish religion as part of the Sciences or use "scientific" methods to prove irrational beliefs. My kind of business is Mathematics and I find it most annoying when Mathematics is used to "establish" religious "truths".

Another example, on this side of the Atlantic (U.K.), is Dr. John Lennox of Oxford--a Mathematician himself (but also a priest) who uses Science and Mathematics to produce evidence for his faith [sic]. (Does faith need eveidence?)
He is a colleague of Richard Dawkins at Oxford and seems to be going around giving a talk titled "Has Science Buried God?", which is also the title of a recent book of his. He gave a talk last month in Edinburgh and I did attend it. I was appalled by the naivete of his arguments that were supposed to be used as a rational approach for his religious beliefs.

Just like Dowd, Lennox does not dismiss evolution, but he wants to have it all attributed to somebody at the top.

Unlike Dowd, Lennox is not just a priest, but also a Mathematician and so more dangerous for ordinary people can be easily impressed. Example: The only time he "uses Mathematics" in his talk is when he goes to the blackboard drawing 3-4 Venn diagrams and the symbol for "there exists" next to them, while at the same time apologizing to the audience for being carried away, but--he claims--that is due to his being a Mathematician, and Mathematicians are people who use chalk and write strange symbols.

I find it very insulting to be called an empirical theologian. First of all, I don't like the word empiricism in connection with Mathematics. Second, not only I don't like, but also don't care about the word theologian. I am sure there are other Dowd-like characters out there who think of theologians as scientists.

Theologians (in their majority--there could be some exceptions) do not care about Science nor understanding. Also, both Dowd and Lennox, when referring to "understanding" they do so in a very perverse sense. For example, they will tell you that they understand that (their version of) Christianity is correct because the book of Revelations says so and because it has been established that the book of Revelation is more authentic than many Greek texts of that era.

So what? Where is the QED???

Alex Altorfer said...

I would like to mention that Mr. Konstantopoulo's confusion in regarding Michael Dowd and John Lennox as somehow similar is completely unfair. Lennox is a conservative evangelical, whereas Dowd is a liberal. Theologically they are worlds apart.

Michael Dowd would NEVER claim that "his version of Christianity is correct because the book of Revelations says so and because it has been established that the book of Revelation is more authentic than many Greek texts of that era". Such a claim is completely foreign to Dowd's theology.

Konstantopoulo may have attended John Lennox's talk, but he clearly did not read Michael Dowd's book, and it shows.

Harriet said...

Nice topic; Dowd spoke at the local UU church (where I used to belong) and said more or less the same stuff.

I didn't ask a question but the questions in my mind were more or less the same as yours; the point is that nature, while awesome to comprehend, IS uncaring.

Bottom line: many people want a deity that cares about them and they aren't going to get it from the universe as it really is.

But, the talk was at least entertaining and not as dreadful as I had feared.

I am starting to read the book and so far it IS dreadful. Perhaps it will get better as I go through it.