Pharyngula

Thank God for Evolution!

Why me, O Lord, why me?

One of the more recent books sent to me is Thank God for Evolution!: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) by Michael Dowd. I have read it, and I’m feeling biblical.

My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?
Psalm 22:1

I am so not the right person to review this book—it’s like asking Satan to review The Secret. The two aren’t even on the same wavelength, and the discombobulated reviewer is going to sit there wondering whether this thing serves his ends or not, but mainly he’s going to be confused and find it incomprehensible. Michael Dowd is an evangelical pentacostal preacher and he loves evolution. His purpose in writing this book is to convince his fellow Christians that they can serve Jesus by rejoicing in the wonders of biology. The whole idea makes my head hurt.

I can’t just trash the whole thing, though. There are some commendable aspects that I have to acknowledge, even while thinking the whole premise is wrong.

First of all, Dowd is just so danged happy about evolution. This is tent revival biology: not so much concern about the facts and details, but a lot of whoopin’ and stompin’ and hallelujahs and yee-haws, all for the idea of billions of years of the Creation. It’s charming, at first, but also a little wearing, and it’s not something to encourage questioning.

For another, Dowd is definitely sincere. There’s another book with a similar intent, E.O. Wilson’s The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), which is written to persuade evangelical Christians that biodiversity is compatible with religion and that good people of faith must work together to preserve our world. While I’m entirely in agreement with Wilson’s hope, what put me off that book is that it’s written by an unbeliever respectfully telling a believer what they should do, and I couldn’t help but wonder if his target audience would find the book a bit phony and condescending. Thank God for Evolution, however, is written by a fervent believer to other believers (again, I am not the target audience), and I think has to ring more truly in the minds of those believers. Where Wilson tried to appeal to the reason of the faithful in the cadences of his Southern Baptist upbringing, Dowd is making an appeal to the emotions of the more modern evangelical movement. He’s preaching a kind of evolutionary spirituality.

It’s an approach that I don’t particularly care for, and that I think subverts the science. The message is too often that we shouldn’t accept the conclusions drawn from evidence because they are verifiable, testable, objective pieces of reality, but because they will make you feel better, because they will justify your life, and because they glorify God. It’s all backwards; God and Christianity are assumed and unquestioned, and what the reader is asked to do is find the right rationalization to reconcile evolution with Jesus. This might be the right approach to take with people who will never, ever question the righteousness of the Lord, but to us post-theistic folks, it’s a little silly. Especially when it’s drawn out over 390 pages in an unrelentingly enthusiastic book.

At the same time that Dowd is appealing to his fellow believers, though, it’s also clear that he is the product of the frantic explosion of American Christian sects, where so many profess the unity of belief in the divinity of Jesus but have little else in common. There is a commonality of methods and ritual and rationale—at least to me, who can scarcely tell a Baptist from a Sunni Muslem—but at the same time, each individual seems to be an idiosyncratic splinter with amorphous jell-o for a creed. For example…

Occasionally, someone who has heard me speak asks in frustration, “What are you, anyway? A theist? Atheist? Pantheist? I can’t tell what you are!” My standard response goes something like this: “I’m all of those—and none of them. Actually my wife [the science writer Connie Barlow] and I had to coin our own term. I’m a creatheist (cree-uh-THEIST) and my wife, well, she’s a creatheist (cree-ATHEIST). We spell it the same way. We mean the same thing. We just pronounce it differently.” This response almost always evokes smiles or laughter.

Here is why this new word can bridge the theist-atheist divide: One need not believe in anything in order to be a creatheist. It’s not a belief system. It is based on what we know, not what we believe. I call creatheism a “meta-religious scientific worldview” and posit the following three points as a core to its understanding.

  1. The Whole is creative in a nested, emergent sense.
  2. Humanity is now an integral and increasingly conscious part of this process.
  3. There are many legitimate ways to interpret and speak about Ultimate Reality.

Sorry to say, that does not bridge this atheist’s separation from theistic belief—it’s glib and superficial, and the three points are awfully New Agey and fuzzy. You won’t be catching me calling myself a creatheist, however it’s pronounced.

Actually, the way Dowd attempts to unite the various splinters of belief is by this process of redefinition. God is just our experiential Reality, not necessarily an intelligent anthropoid magic maguffin … although it’s OK if you feel like personifying him, too. But whatever this god-thing is, it is the reason for reveling in your joy at evolution.

The book is a fascinating read in some ways, as a glimpse of a deeply alien culture. I just can’t get much of it, myself. For instance, this is the first pro-evolution book I’ve ever read that advocates speaking in tongues.

Speaking in tongues has been a significant part of my spiritual practice for half my life. Speaking in tongues has its detractors, but there are sound evolutionary reasons for its effectiveness. The following practice will REALize the act of speaking in tongues, because it doesn’t require you to believe in anything. It’s an experience available to anyone who tries it.

How I speak in tongues is simple. I pretend I can speak a foreign language; vocalizing nonsensical sounds in a gentle, melodic, or rhythmic way. I encourage you to try it, right now. Do it in whatever way comes naturally, for a few minutes or longer, until it becomes effortless. Now speak in tongues again, this time inaudibly, though perhaps still moving your lips. Then continue this “speech” without moving your lips; have it happen just internally. Whichever form suits you best, you should notice immediately that your awareness expands. You are more aware of what you see and hear and feel—without trying.

Speaking in tongues is immersion in the holiness of this moment, this time and place. I often do it intentionally, to quiet my mind while driving, for example.

I’m afraid I didn’t try the technique myself — I didn’t see the virtue in it. Anyone out there who wants to, though, report back and tell us how well it worked. I did use my imagination to conjure up an amusing picture of a speaker at a biology conference with his eyes rolled back and chanting nonsense syllables in front of his powerpoint slides (which, in some cases isn’t that much of a stretch of the imagination), and also wondered with some horror about how many of the drivers on the road are cruising down the interstate at 70mph blissed out on “ba na shu ra mo bal ka…”.

Bottom line: this is not a book for me, and it’s probably not a book for most of the readers here. It’s irritating, and it takes for granted a whole set of incredible premises that I find objectionable. It’s approach is glib and superficial on the biology side.

On the other hand, if you’ve got a devout Aunt Tillie who is not going to ever question her faith and is going to cut you out of her will because your acceptance of scientific fact means you’re going to hell, go ahead, send her a copy. It translates biology entirely into the terms of an evangelical faith-head, and might reconcile her to your ideas. I can also imagine this book finding an audience with the Oprah crowd — there’s nothing here to contradict evangelical Christianity, and instead it twists evolution (aargh, it burns) to match the expectations of the religious. That’s why I’m going to reject it altogether, but it might just appeal to those who dread getting their science straight.

Comments

  1. #1 Sastra
    July 17, 2007

    I once gave a short talk on Intelligent Design to a fellowship of Unitarian Universalists, which contains a liberal hodge-podge of beliefs running from humanism to neopagan to liberal Christian to “spiritual but not religious.” Afterwards, we sat in a large circle for a discussion, and I was surprised that many of the people who scorned Creationism as unscientific loved evolution because they think it speaks of a spiritual progression to higher levels of consciousness, ala Teilhard de Chardin. That is scientific, of course.

    I felt that they weren’t really accepting the theory because of the evidence, but because they could make it fit in well with their spiritual beliefs and their political liberalism. Backwards, as you say. That’s why I adopt the stance of secular humanism: method, method, method, and let the results come out where they do.

  2. #2 Blake Stacey, OM
    July 17, 2007

    I could never be a creatheist — there’s no evidence that Creathe exists! And really, aren’t we all more than a little tired of the endless bickering (and, in the past, outright warfare) between the people who believe in Cre-ath and those who worship Creath-ee?

  3. #3 Sastra
    July 17, 2007

    David, I think you’re reading too much into what was intended by PZ (and Steve_C) to be a casual, flippant remark. Fact is, from the point of view of an outsider, differences which seem critical from the inside become relatively unimportant. This doesn’t just hold for religion, it’s true for pretty much anything. An American watching a BBC show might not be able to tell if a character is supposed to be Welsh, Irish, Cornish, Scottish — and a Brit might not discern the difference between a Southern accent and a Midwestern twang. I don’t pay any attention to sports. If someone corrected me and said “The Cardinals are a baseball team, not football” I might jokingly say “same thing.” Yes, I know the difference. But if you’re not an insider, it’s fiddling around.

    Sunnis and Shiites will kill each other over doctrinal differences which a Southern Baptist can’t even describe. From the point of view of atheists, the sunni/southern baptist distinctions are likewise academic. Some of them are important, from a practical viewpoint, of course. Some sects are more benign and conducive to secular harmony than others. But the actual supernatural beliefs themselves? Whatever. Same stuff, different shovel.

  4. #4 Brownian
    July 17, 2007

    I’m skeptical of the whole idea that speaking in tongues expands one’s conciousness. If that were the case, we would expect those from religions that practice it on a regular basis to be generally less close-minded and idiotic than the general population.

    The pentacostals I’ve met sure as hell didn’t give me the impression that they were any more conscious than anyone else. If anything, they seemed a lot less so.

    And by the way PZ, Satan did review The Secret.

  5. #5 Brownian
    July 17, 2007

    kmarissa, my interpretation of tongues is the same as yours. The relevant passages are in Acts 2:1-12.

    It states very clearly that the Apostles began to speak in tongues and that “6When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7Utterly amazed, they asked: ‘Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? 8Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? 9Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11(both Jews and converts to Judaism Cretans and Arabs–we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!'”

    Perhaps David, our resident theology expert, can explain why it is that Pentacostals and Charismatics are unable to read their own fucking holy book.

    Does that sound fundamentalist enough for you Dave?

  6. #6 Brownian
    July 17, 2007

    Though I did find the post amusing, you, like… well pretty much everyone else here does not seem to have the slightest knowledge about religion in general, and Christianity in particular.

    By the way David, have you bothered to ask how many of us here came from religious backgrounds? Do you have any idea how many of us have studied theology?

    Want to go head-to-head with us on theology?

    Seriously?

    Would like to try me on?

    Wanna start of with Buddhism? It’s an easy one. I’ll let you pick Theravada or Mayahana, just to be fair.

    How about Zoroastrianism, if that’s more your flavour?

    Maybe you should explain Jainism to us theological idiots, Professor.

    That’s what I thought. Shut your damn mouth.

  7. #7 Blake Stacey, OM
    July 17, 2007

    Hmmm, now I just need Richard Dawkins to read my blog post aloud. . . .

  8. #8 Brownian
    July 17, 2007

    David, the god of the Q’uran and the god of the Bible are the same god.

    If you have a reason for claiming that they aren’t, then I ask you to provide some doctrinal differences.

    Before you begin, I’m going to tell you what you’re going to need to do to demonstrate ‘difference.’ You are going to need to demonstrate that a) the god of the Bible is a relatively consistent entity with demonstrable qualities or attributes; b) the god of the Q’uran is a relatively consistent entity with demonstrable qualities or attributes; and c) the differences between the qualities or attributes of the Biblical god and the Q’uranic god are significantly greater than the differences or inconsistencies in the qualities or attributes of each god.

  9. #9 Brownian
    July 17, 2007

    The God of the Bible is a trinity. Allah is not. Difference. Right there.

    As for the rest of your drek, I have no desire to jump through your little hoops. I am not the lap-dog of fundamentalists, whether they are atheist or Christians.

    David, I have met a great many people of a great many cultures and faiths, and I have met few who are as big an ass as you.

    All I asked you to do was to provide validation of your claim. Since you refuse, I have only to offer a refutation of your claim.

    The god of the New Testament is a trinity. Jesus is mentioned nowhere in the Old Testament. The god of the Old Testament is a monity, or a binity if you interpret the references in the books of Genesis, Numbers, Judges, Job, Samuel, David, and Job.

    God of the Old Testament is a binity. The god of the New Testament is a trinity. Difference. Right. There.

    Enjoy living in hell. Anyone who thinks as poorly as you is certainly there.

    I’m done with you.

  10. #10 Brownian
    July 17, 2007

    For those of you who aren’t David, I meant to say “or a binity if you interpret the references in the books of Genesis, Numbers, Judges, Job, Samuel, David, and Job to the ‘Spirit of God’ as referring to the Holy Spirit.

    I mention this for those that might be interested in scripture on this point. David is not, since he has obviously never read the bible.

  11. #11 Brownian
    July 17, 2007

    I find the linguistic aspects of glossolalia to be very interesting. I would expect that the utterences of speakers during glossolalia sessions to include only phonemes of languages known to the speakers.

    For those of you who have experienced it first hand, have you ever noted diffferences in the sounds made by someone whose first language is German versus someone whose first language is English?

  12. #12 Brownian
    July 17, 2007

    Before anyone else spends any time jumping through the ittle hoops of a fundamentalist, I would ask if there is even one comment that suggests that said fundamentalist has any interest in understanding whatsoever. It is clear from the evidence that said fundamentalist equates disagreement with ignorance (despite the protestations of said fundamentalist.)

    Really? I thought science took care of that whole “the Earth is only 6,000 years old” thing pretty handily.
    Yup. Shame that that’s a misreading of the Bible.

    Wow! IN which part of the bible does it happen to mention the trinity…other than as ‘aspects of a single god’–there are *not* THREE gods, there is only ONE GOD (or have you been reading some different babble?

    If you apply the same level of intelligence to work at your firm as you do to religion I would have left long ago. I don’t think that you are ignorant of religion because you disagree. Just as I don’t think that Dembski is ignorant of mathematics just because I disagree with him. I think that both you and Dembski are ignorant of religion and mathematics respectively because you say stupid things.

    On a completely unrelated note, PZ, at what point does a troll who has refused to answer a single question or offer a single piece of evidence for his claims (not even scriptural evidence) but instead impugns the intelligence of his interlocuters get tossed in the dungeon or disemvowelled?

  13. #13 Sastra
    July 17, 2007

    David wrote:

    So football and baseball are really fundamentally the same thing, right?

    From the point of view of someone deciding between going to a sports event, and going on an art tour? Yes. That was my point. It’s not a matter of being ignorant about real differences between football and baseball. It’s a matter of being in a situation or perspective where the differences become minor in context.
    And what Bill Dauphin (#68) says.

  14. #14 Brownian
    July 17, 2007

    Wow! IN which part of the bible does it happen to mention the trinity…other than as ‘aspects of a single god’–there are *not* THREE gods, there is only ONE GOD (or have you been reading some different babble?

    Refresh my memory, David. What was your answer to this question?

  15. #15 Sastra
    July 17, 2007

    “–From the point of view of someone deciding between going to a sports event, and going on an art tour?”–

    And now the goalposts have shifted yet again. Before we were at least talking about objective properties of the religions. Now by “same” we are just referring to differences in regards to specfic decisions. Not objective differences.

    You can take the ‘decision’ part out. “From the point of view of someone comparing sports events to art tours …” football and baseball would be classified together, their distinctions irrelevant.

    You’re right : there are objective differences between Islam and Christianity. But our point is valid: the differences are less important, less significant, from far outside, than from someone involved on the inside.

    NoiUno asked (#5):

    There’s a difference between southern baptists and sunni muslims?

    PZ Myer replied (#7):

    They say there is. I don’t think I believe them.

    Since there are of course obvious differences, PZ is clearly joking — and yet making the serious point that from HIS perspective, from the point of view of an atheist — it’s really just quibbling. This has nothing to do with lack of scholarship or understanding. It does have to do, however, with lack of belief. If you believe one is true, and one is false, then there’s no comparison. And no objectivity.

  16. #16 Brownian
    July 17, 2007

    Nice one Billy, but your experiences growing up were nothing like mine. You see, hockey is the game for which I had neither talent nor interest which my parents nevertheless forced me to play in order instill in me a sense of something called “sportsmanship,” but which mostly bored me when it didn’t humiliate me.

    Of course, like Martin Luther, when I didn’t like the sports I was made to play, I made my own up.

  17. #17 Brownian
    July 17, 2007

    Isn’t rugby just another sect of football (soccer)?

  18. #18 Brownian
    July 17, 2007

    David, you still haven’t described how you answered the question “Wow! IN which part of the bible does it happen to mention the trinity…other than as ‘aspects of a single god’–there are *not* THREE gods, there is only ONE GOD (or have you been reading some different babble?” and therefore provided evidence for your claim that “[you] have answered the very questions [I] quote.”

    Were you lying?

  19. #19 tony
    July 17, 2007

    Brownian:

    Isn’t rugby just another sect of football (soccer)?

    I’m aghast!

    How can you say such a thing!

    If anything, soccer is the bastard child of rugby, and some girl’s game (like skipping)!

    (nothing against girl’s games, mind — quite like to watch girls… at games…. mmmmmm)

  20. #20 tony
    July 17, 2007

    Brownian: methinks David has

    that unfortunate quality of being wrong

    that he so readily pins on others…

    shamed by his own rhetoric, I see.

  21. #21 Brownian
    July 17, 2007

    Don’t wait too long, Tony. From the evidence here, it is a fact that David lies occasionally, and thus I wouldn’t attach any credibility to his claims of being an ex-athiest or even an Xian.

  22. #22 Brownian
    July 17, 2007

    Rugby [sputter incoherently]League[/sputter incoherently]

    Wow, did Fatboy just cause Tony to speak in tongues?

  23. #23 Brownian
    July 17, 2007

    I can’t tell from here. Are you better suited to being written on or run through an inkjet printer?

  24. #24 Brownian
    July 17, 2007

    Too late guys. David’s already stipulated that the bible is inerrant (er, when it’s not using metaphors or telling stories, that is.)

    I suspect (which is all I can do since he failed to ever actually say anything other than to accuse us of not knowing anything about theology) that to David, the salient difference between Xianity and all other religions is that he believes them to be false.

    So in effect, David is a fundamental atheist with regards to every religion on earth save his own.

    What a waste of time he was.

  25. #25 Spooky
    July 17, 2007

    Brownian:

    It states very clearly that the Apostles began to speak in tongues and that “6When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7Utterly amazed, they asked: ‘Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? 8Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?”

    Babel Fish.

    Had to be!

    And because Babel Fish are a dead giveaway, they prove the nonexistence of god!

    I miss D. Adams.

    Oh, and David?

    Abloo abloo abloo abloo. Poor thing!

  26. #26 David
    July 17, 2007

    Gee… I’m gone for a bit and you guys jump all over me. Do you have no other life but posting comments?

    Briefly:

    Brownian, I gave you the only answer that question deserves. Its an incredibly stupid question that about 5 minutes on the internet would solve. The fact that you even asked it shows that you have a dismal understanding of the Bible.

    I have no idea about frozen waterfalls. I don’t know the reference. Nor does it apply to anything about my life.

    Its nice to see that there is at least one atheist with intelligence.

    Having a conversation about religion on this board is a pointless exercise. I could have more fruitful conversations with a brick wall.

    kagehi, its nice that you suspect things. I have opinions as well.

    I am not going to try to jump through hoops, whether they are atheist or fundamentalist Christian.

  27. #27 Brownian
    July 17, 2007

    I could have more fruitful conversations with a brick wall.

    I don’t doubt that for a second. Well, hop to it then.

    Just a friendly reminder: walls can’t hear. They communicate by tapping messages on each other in Morse code with their foreheads. If the wall doesn’t respond, you just have to tap harder.

    To Brick Wall:

    Sorry, but it was either you or us.

    PS. Don’t be offended when he tells you that you know nothing about brickwalleology. He won’t give a single example that suggests he knows what he’s talking about, but he’ll tell you six ways from Sunday that you’re an idiot.

    Be gentle with the poor man. He’s not quite right.

  28. #28 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    July 17, 2007

    post-theistic

    Now, that is a take-home meme – it gets around those “religion is here to stay because it exists in all societies … um, like the tendency to get fat makes fat individuals a necessity” persons. Ever since the secular state was invented and became pretty much the standard political system, by definition we live in a post-theistic society. Let’s hope it proliferates.

    It requires very little knowledge of either of the two religions. In fact, it basically requires no knowledge beyond the facts that they are religions. Which of course makes it an ideal statement for those who do not want to do any actual reading/studying on religion or theology but merely want to sound like they do.

    Since we are into the law/meme thing on this thread – this suggests a Myers’ corollary to Goodwin’s law: “As the length of any discussion of analyzing religions grows, the probability that someone will use the Courtier’s Reply approaches one.” :-P

    One can’t deduce a lack of knowledge on a subject from the fact that a modicum of knowledge reveals that the philosophical aspects are easy to summarize and analyze. For a recent example, sports puts competitors against each other for entertainment value. :-P

  29. #29 Brownian
    July 18, 2007

    Having a conversation about religion on this board is a pointless exercise. I could have more fruitful conversations with a brick wall.

    David, why are you still here? Are you lonely?

    You’re not getting anything out of this conversation. You’ve stated time and time again that we don’t know anything. If the supermarket shelves are bare, why wouldn’t you find somewhere else to shop?

    Now please leave us be. You know we have an evil atheist evolution conspiracy to keep up in the face of overwhelming evidence of the one TRUE God of the Holy Bible, and that takes a lot of work. Besides, we’re scared of honest questioning, like all cowardly atheists.

    Have some Christian Compassion? for us, won’t you?

  30. #30 Brownian
    July 18, 2007

    David, I am going to ask you one (1) question, and I want you to answer the question. Please do not go into what I might or might not know about religion or anything else, because that is irrelevant. This question is about you.

    You said, “having a conversation about religion on this board is a pointless exercise.” If that is the case, then hat do you hope to achieve by continuing to post here?

  31. #31 Brownian
    July 18, 2007

    Thank you very much for answering my question, David.

  32. #32 Ichthyic
    July 18, 2007

    I think that he is taking his opinion, and confusing it with knowledge.

    nice bit of projection on your part.

    nothing more.

  33. #33 Daniel Pech
    February 13, 2008

    If humans were originally made to live unfallen lives in an Edenic environment (no death and no want of food, etc.), then the instinct of self-promotion in a fallen world is nothing but a desire to attain a forfeited Eden. The question is whether an individual has or gains the grace to forego becoming a tyrant (or to what degree and in regard to what things).

    Tyrany is a function of personal triashe, a willingness to force one’s own needs and wishes ahead of the needs and wishes of others.
    But, the true story of the leading men aboard the sinking Titanic proves that tyrany has no power over love.

  34. #34 Louise
    March 14, 2008

    Another New age attempt to water down Christianity and lead us away from the truth. EVERYONE BEWARE. Please do your own research and look into “evolution of consciousness” Search on the computer for Barbara Marx Hubbard, Marianne Williamson, and Eckhart Tolle who is getting so much publicity for his book “The New Earth”. This isn’t one or two people preaching individual messages but these people are all interconnected. Learn for yourself PLEASE and spread the word.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.