Think of Michael Dowd's new book, Thank God for Evolution!, as a kind of spiritual Nicorette gum for Christian fundamentalists: It's not a perfect solution, but at least you're not smoking.
For most people, there has long since ceased to be an intellectual debate about the fact of evolution. Specialists still can (and frequently do) dispute the exact mechanisms by which pond scum became prokaryotes became Plato, but there is a general consensus about the 14 billion-year history of life.
But for some—think Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell—fact is a four-letter word. And although the Reverend Dowd promises in a prologue that his book will be useful to people of all spiritual stripes—including agnostics and atheists—it's really only directed at unreasonable Bible-thumpers. His message? Evolution is real, and it enriches faith.
That's a tough sell, and unfortunately Dowd insists on using a bunch of woo-woo spiritualist language to convey his points, but so far Thank God for Evolution! seems to have struck a chord. Originally slated for a first printing of 3,000 copies, it has already gone through four successive reprints and sold over 10,000 copies. And, just last week, Dowd sold the worldwide rights to Penguin for $750,000.
WW caught up with Dowd via phone while he was on tour in California. To cut through some of the woo-woo fog, we started out picking his brain with a true/false test:
It is possible to prove the existence of God: False
What doesn't kill religion makes it stronger: True
It is possible for complex molecules like DNA to form spontaneously, guided only by the laws of physics and random chance: True
It is possible for a scientific fact to disprove a religious belief: True
It is possible for a religious belief to disprove a scientific fact: False
Atheists are missing out: False
Jesus was an actual person who actually died and actually came back to life afterward: False
God appears to country folk in treetops and TV dinners: True
The Book of Genesis is about as accurate as Al Gore's award-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth: False
What the #$*! Do We Know?! offers many valuable insights into the marriage of science and religion: False
WW: Practically speaking, what do you think the purpose of your book is?
Michael Dowd: One of the things I'm painfully aware of is that if we don't find ways of cooperating across ethnic and religious differences in the next 50 years—and specifically ways of bringing traditional religious people in to an evolutionary worldview—we're in serious trouble as a species. What I'm trying to do is reach religious people of various backgrounds, especially Christians, in a way that invites them and seduces them into an empirical, evidential, science-based worldview.
So what is God?
Philip K. Dick said, "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." I think that's a fair way to characterize God. God is nothing less than the sacred proper name for the whole of reality. Evolution, creative emergence, cosmogenesis.
In your book, you say the evolutionary story suggests there is a God, and that he is omnipresent and immanent. How so?
What? Where do you find that? I don't say anything like that. I've never phrased it that way in my programs, and I doubt I phrased it that way in my book. I would disagree with that.
On page 96 of Thank God for Evolution!, you write: "If God is truly omnipresent and immanent (as traditional theologies have claimed and the evolutionary story suggests)...." It's one of many instances where you use those terms.
[Pause] Carl Sagan said, "In order to have an apple pie, you need the entire universe." What I'm suggesting is merely that the whole of reality is reflected in each of its parts. When you say that using religious language, it's "God is omnipresent and immanent."
What do concepts like sin and guilt have to do with evolution?
Sin is a religious way of saying we all have an unchosen nature, inherited proclivities—we say we'll do something, and we don't; we say we'll never do that again, and we do—in other words, we follow our deeper drives. In the past, that would be no problem, but now we live in a world co-created by covenants, agreements and commitments. Sin merely points to the fact that we fall short of our commitments and goals.
But aren't cooperation and self-interested competition both strategies that have been preserved by natural selection? From a purely evolutionary point of view, how can you assert that self-interested competition is sinful, whereas cooperation is virtuous?
There's no problem with self-interest. The only problem is when it's a breach of integrity. If someone wants to follow their instincts and eat themselves fat or fuck themselves silly, there's nothing wrong with that. But for most of us, that's not going to jibe with the agreements and commitments we've made.
Rev. Michael Dowd speaks on Saturday, April 12, at 7 pm at First Unitarian Church of Portland (1011 SW 12th Ave., 228-6389), on Sunday, April 13, at 1 pm at Unity Church of Portland (4525 SE Stark Street, 234-7441), and on Tuesday, April 15, at 7 pm at Unitarian Universalist Fellowship (4505 East 18th Street, Vancouver, 360-695-1891).