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 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