The New Evangelism: Michael Dowd’s Evolutionary Christianity
Gailon Totheroh April 22, 2011
Who is Michael Dowd? He calls himself an evangelist. Not surprisingly, he can be found in churches preaching. But Dowd’s gospel is not one where sin is rebellion against God, but rejection of Darwin.
Likewise, salvation doesn’t come from Jesus on a Roman crucifix, but merely embracing the emergent Universe. Thus, we should Thank God for Evolution, the title of his 2008 magnus opus. Subtitled “The Marriage of Science and Religion,” the popular book-endorsed by no less than six Nobel Laureates-unfolds a central theme that standard Darwinism is scientifically accurate and religiously inspiring.
With faith-evolution controversies running unabated, Dowd’s Darwin-for-all-occasions may seem a hard sell. Yet Dowd’s effusive friendliness and seeming openness are swaying many his direction. His sales technique even wins over atheists and Christian evangelicals.
Still, Dowd is a mover-and- shaker who doesn’t move everybody to awe. The unwilling might include those who question Neo-Darwinism in whole or part, those who are uncomfortable with religion, and conservative adherents of traditional religions.
Since 2002, the self-described “evolutionary evangelist” has been on the road across America in a marathon of speaking engagements held mainly at schools and church groups. In addition, Dowd has four main websites, three books, and has spoken at the United Nations for their Values Caucus, a group dedicated to provide an “open forum . . . in order to allow a new culture to emerge.”
But Dowd’s background emerges from the old culture. Growing up Roman Catholic, he says he became a born-again Christian while serving in the army in 1979. He accepted that evolution was mostly harmful bunk until a few professors at Evangel University (conservative, Pentecostal) convinced him otherwise. From there, he went to seminary and then signed on with the liberal United Church of Christ for nine years.
While still with the UCC, he fully embraced evolutionary mysticism in 1988. Within an hour of starting a course on “The New Catholic Mysticism,” Dowd says he was weeping and seeing the “scientific story of the Universe” as a “sacred epic.” “I knew I would spend the rest of my life sharing this perspective as great news,” he adds. In fact, Dowd’s worldview moved from Christian monotheism to religious naturalism.
His commitment to naturalism while retaining the language of Christianity can be glimpsed in his statements from a recent article in Skeptic magazine:
“God is not a person; God is a personification of one or more deeply significant dimensions of reality.”
“‘Getting right with God’ means coming into right relationship with our planet and all its gloriously diverse species and cultures.”
“I foresee a time when religious leaders get their guidance and inspiration from humanity’s common creation story (Darwinian evolution) and teach and preach the discoveries of science as God’s word. When that day comes, our faith traditions will thrive and many of us will look back and exclaim, ‘Thank God for the New Atheists’.”
Despite his co-option of theological language, there is little left of traditional monotheism, let alone traditional Christianity, in Dowd’s worldview. Indeed, the “supernatural” itself doesn’t exist according Dowd; it’s merely an invention of the Western mind. “Evidence suggests that the only place that the so-called supernatural realm has ever existed has been in the minds and hearts (and speech) of human beings–and only quite recently.” Accordingy, the God of the Bible is no more real than the Greek gods Poseidon or Helios, and the Bible itself is a jumble of “old mythic stories” that provides no real guidance for the challenges we face today: “Ours is a time of space telescopes, electron microscopes, supercomputers, and the worldwide web. It is also a time of smart bombs, collapsing economies, and exploding oil platforms. This is not a time for parsing the lessons given to a few goatherds, tentmakers, and camel drivers.” (emphasis added)
Given Dowd’s turn to religious naturalism, one may find surprising the number of Christian evangelicals interviewed for his recent online series at EvolutionaryChristianity.com, “The Advent of Evolutionary Christianity.” Some of the evangelicals’ tacit approval of Dowd’s agenda is curious.
For instance, among the nearly 40 interviewees was Karl Giberson, professor of physics at Eastern Nazarene College, who bemoans, “Evangelical theology has not made peace with evolution.” That is, some evangelicals have not accepted Darwin’s take on evolution as is and incorporated it into their theology.
Giberson serves as vice president with the pro-Darwin BioLogos Forum, a group he helped found with the most well-known evangelical advocate of Darwinian evolution, Francis Collins. The BioLogos website states, “We believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. We also believe that evolution, properly understood, best describes God’s work of creation.” But Dowd thinks God is only a metaphor for the universe and the Bible can’t be used to determine right and wrong. Science is the new Bible. This would seem to put BioLogos and Dowd at odds with one another.
Indeed, Giberson estimates that he disagrees with 60% of Dowd’s thinking. Yet Giberson objects to nothing Dowd asserts in their hour-long interview for the Advent series. Why is that?
Giberson says, “It’s fine to be working arm in arm with Michael Dowd, comfortably setting aside our differences and promoting the harmony of Christian faith and evolution.”
And Giberson also disagrees with Dowd about the New Atheists, taking them to task in his book Saving Darwin. What gives? Aren’t the Dawkins and Harris crowd the same people Dowd honors as God’s prophets? But Giberson says building a coalition to promote Darwinian evolution is more important than the gulf between their religious beliefs.
WINNING OVER THE RELUCTANT
Even apart from Dowd’s celebration of the New Atheists as prophets, he shows an ability to win over secularists. Atheist blogger Phil Ferguson originally wrote with ambivalence about Dowd’s Advent series. For Ferguson, Dowd and his cohorts’ made-up religion stuff is okay as long as they “don’t fight known science.” At the same time, “Maybe they are just abusing science to promote religion.”
After Dowd responds online by saying that he’s a “religious naturalist” in which God doesn’t mean what it used to mean, Ferguson is on board. He applauds Dowd’s “intentions and efforts”-and his pragmatism in “reaching people that would run screaming from this blog, so keep up the good work.”
Not everyone has hopped onto Dowd’s bandwagon. New Testament scholar Peter Jones has described Dowd’s worldview (“One-ism”) in his book One or Two: Seeing a World of Difference (2010). Jones finds Dowd’s use of Christian and Biblical language deceptive; he rejects establishing common cause with someone who engages in “worship of creation.”
Stanford scientist Richard Bube, whom both Dowd and Giberson greatly respect, was extremely critical of Dowd’s first book written in 1990, The Meaning of Life in the 1990s. Bube was once president of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), an organization of devout Christians in science-and a pioneer in efforts to put science and faith in harmony.
Dowd says Bube’s writing were his “lifeline” during college. Yet Bube calls false Dowd’s assertions that “every atom of the universe has an inner intelligence which is non-material and ultimately unknowable” and “the earth is alive and we are the Earth’s reflexive consciousness.” Bube also criticized Dowd for taking liberties with the Bible and Christian theology, concluding that “we must not let the idea take root in the Christian community that these aberrations on Christianity are the prescribed way to go.”
A COMMITMENT TO DIVERSITY?
Dowd frames all he does in terms of openness and diversity. After all, he says, “Just like a forest or a pond eco-system, variety and different diversity of species makes for the health of an eco-system. I think that’s true in consciousness and culture as well.”
But the range of diversity he is willing to embrace seems to have sharp limits. For one thing, by endorsing and heaping fulsome praise on the New Atheists and their bashing of what he calls “superstitious, other-wordly religiosity,” Dowd certainly appears to encourage the exclusion of traditional monotheists from being part of any discussion about Darwinian evolution. After all, one of the driving goals of the New Atheists is to so debunk traditional religion that its adherents will be driven out of the public square entirely.
In his own series at EvolutionaryChristianity.com, meanwhile, don’t expect to find any supporters of intelligent design in biology as part of the conversation.
When asked why he didn’t include someone from the intelligent design movement among the nearly 40 interviews in his “Advent of Evolutionary Christianity” series, he replied, “If I were to do it again, I would probably include one, two, or three people from that perspective . . . I certainly anticipate interviewing and occasionally featuring some of the work of a more ID perspective.”
However, Dowd added pre-conditions for interviewing an ID proponent. Candidates would have to subscribe to four concepts Dowd says were held by the Advent interviewees: “We’re all committed Christians, we all value evidence as divine communication and divine guidance, we all have deep-time eyes, and we all have a global heart.”
But how can this group of interviewees truly have these four points of common ground when they obviously don’t agree on what being a Christian means? Or what “divine communication” signifies? What serves as evidence? Are “deep-time eyes” a reference to an old earth chronology or more about “one’s communion with the powers of the earth” as Dowd’s website states? Does “global heart” mean any animal is just as good as a human because people are only a part of “the larger body of life”?
While Dowd’s stated commitment to many voices matches his assertion that his is just one voice among many — his lone voice dominates the Advent series. By interjecting stories and commentary during the interviews, Dowd exerts far more influence than that of any other individual.
DOWD’S WORLDVIEW AND ITS IMPACT
What is true of Dowd is that he has held a worldview of religious atheism for over 20 years. The difference is that today there are millions of people who have switched to Dowd’s faith in the Universe. In fact, analysts have estimated that there are 50 million Americans and 100 million Europeans who fit what used to be called New Agers, but now want to be known as Cultural Creatives, Progressives, Brights, or Integral Spiritualists.
So what wins out in the end for Dowd, the advocate of blending Christianity and evolution? Party-line evolution-with mysticism in tow-or is it vice versa?
And what true blue evolutionist might not welcome Dowd? Dowd himself finds even the atheist evolutionary biologist PZ Myers a kindred spirit: “There is very little about which PZ and I disagree, other than perhaps the fact that I’m working to evolve religion and he’s working to free society of it.”
In the process, well-reasoned scientific objections to macroevolution and alternatives to Neo-Darwinism like intelligent design are cast aside. The other casualty is well-considered traditional religion – thrown under the bus for the latest mystical fad that is nothing more than recycled paganism.