Living In A Divine Cosmos: A Book Review of “Thank God For Evolution” by Michael Dowd

Spiral Galaxy M100 for Thank God for EvolutionSpiral Galaxy M100

In the twenty-first century, the evolution of scientific knowledge and of society itself is racing ahead of old societal moorings. Michael Dowd’s “Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World” offers a promising framework within which human beings can understand modern life, and catch up to the reality they live in. Although Dowd does not use the phrase, what he pictures might be called a Divine Cosmos.

I have heard Michael Dowd speak on several occasions and appreciated the depth of his knowledge about science, evolution and the Christian faith. Reading his book more than confirmed my impression. His book is a tour de force for a new spirituality.

Dowd treats his subject expansively, colorfully elaborating on the birth of elements and compounds, the formation of stars and galaxies, the evolution of the human mind, and much more. Thought-provoking quotes from many scientists and authors are scattered throughout the book’s pages, adding poetic variety and intellectual heft to his thesis.

Six years after it was first published in 2007, the book is as pertinent to our part of the cosmos as ever. Let’s consider the world in which it may offer some light:

  • Our knowledge about plant and animal genetics, and about the human genome is exploding. How can we agree on the ethics for using this knowledge?
  • Citizens in many nations are polarized by race, religion and ideology. Could a unifying world view bring reconciliation?
  • Climate change and the exploding world population pose dangers to humans and the natural environment. How can we find a context for dealing with such complex issues?
  • Communications and information technologies are evolving so rapidly that we seem incapable of using them wisely. Can we figure out an answer?

In this complex and seemingly fragmented world, can we ever make sense of it all?

The Need for a New Framework for Understanding the World

The challenge to make sense of our baffling world is unlikely to be met by Western religions. (Note that the book, as well as this discussion, is “New truths no longer spring fully formed from the traditional fonts of knowledge. Rather, they are hatched and challenged in the public arena of science.”  Michael Dowdframed mostly in the context of the Western world and takes little note of Eastern thought.) Christianity is based largely on the story, actually many stories, of the Bible. Islam, birthed out of Christianity and Judaism, is based on its own book, the Koran.

The old stories of Christianity and Islam, once thought literally true—and still believed so by some—apply usefully to modern life only when reinterpreted through the modern eyes of sociology, science and psychology. Or, more simply, people may use a currently accepted understanding of a life problem, then remake the old stories to fit. They make a common-sense value the real basis for understanding a life situation and the old story comes along for the ride. Perhaps a new story is needed.

A New Framwork: The Story of Cosmic Evolution

In “Thank God for Evolution” Michael Dowd says, “Without a meaningful story that explains the world we actually live in, people  have no idea how to think about the big picture.” A Christian minister in background, he says that every religion relies on a creation story. Even the non-religious need such a story. When we know where we and everything else came from, we begin to have a framework within which we can understand life’s parts and find life’s meaning.

“The most practical belief system for a large scale society in the long run is one that is firmly anchored in factual reality.”  David Sloan Wilson, quoted in Thank God for EvolutionDowd proposes that the story of evolution is that story: “The scientific history of cosmos, Earth, life, and humanity is our shared sacred story—our common creation myth. It is an epic tale that reaches back billions of years and crowns each and every one of us as heir to a magnificent and proud lineage.” Dowd calls it the “Epic of Evolution.”

This story is based on reality as we know it now, not the incomplete and often incorrect picture of reality from an ancient time.

The Magnificent, Ever More Complex Cosmic Journey

The fourteen billion year Cosmic Story Dowd speaks of is magnificent in scope. It includes all of time and all of the universe. It includes all the histories of our earth: the histories of  plants, animals, human beings, religions and nations. Dowd explains the nesting of these and other aspects of reality. Many parts of life depend on and live within another part. A useful microbe lives The Evolutionary Epic, Cheryl Genet Editorwithin my body, I live on habitable earth which lives within a suitable solar system and so on. With the passage of time, complexity grows and further nesting of life develops. Society, scientific knowledge and human relationships all  grow and become more complex, yielding synergies that promote yet more complexity and growth.

In describing the “Evolutionary Epic,” Dowd uses  imaginative language to reveal its breadth, its beauty, and what he sees as its religious meaning. For example, the fourteen billion year story occurs in “Deep Time,” and he calls the Big Bang “The Great Radiance.”

Day and Night Language: Science and Meaning in a Divine Cosmos

In another creative use of language, Dowd seeks a reinterpretation of religion to make it more honest about the real world and to offer a reason to live with faith. He speaks of using Day Language to for talking about a scientifically based picture of reality, and using Night Language to speak of the less tangible, and perhaps un-provable realities that humans find in religion, art and ethics. It is his way of providing mutual space for two systems that have largely been in conflict. The Day Language is the exact language of science. The Night Language is metaphorical and open to interpretation. For example, faith might be in God (though not the human-like creator pictured in Genesis);  or it might be in “Life,” or in “The Ground of Being,” or in the Universe. What Dowd calls “Faith,” some people might simply call a positive way to view life as a whole.

To unify religion (particularly Christianity, Dowd’s faith background) and the cosmic story, Dowd suggests dramatic reinterpretation of common Christian dogmas. God’s will, divine revelation, original sin, salvation and of course the Biblical creation story are to be understood as necessary evolutionary steps for humanity. But to have meaning for the present, all must be looked at in night language, that is metaphorically. Reality as seen through science remains in the driver’s seat. As Dowd says, “Facts are God’s native tongue.”

If the mission to move science and religion onto a single foundation succeeds, Dowd thinks humans will see themselves as part of a single reality. They will visualize a future that doesn’t depend on revelation from separate realm, but depends on living in a single world where the welfare of all beings is connected to the whole.

The Universe Becomes Conscious of Itself.

Dowd and a number of others describe the evolution of human consciousness as the cosmos becoming aware of itself. The fourteen billion yearThrough this new understanding of evolution that Dowd presents, religion finally makes sense. For years, as a molecular biologist who studied evolution, I ‘believed’ that evolution meant there was no God and worse, that the universe was unfriendly. A closer examination of growing amounts of evidence helped me discover that the universe is a friendly place”… Katherine G. Russell, review on Amazon.com story started with the Big Bang and has culminated in beings who communicate with words and think in concepts. These humans built technologies and industries that transformed their lives and much of life on earth. Through sciences like cosmology, biology and psychology, these curious humans learned of their cosmic origins, their physical make-up and their own thinking processes. Humans who were made out of the cosmos and are one with the cosmos have finally begun to understand their place in it.

For better or for worse, this has put humans in the driver’s seat of the part of the cosmos we call earth.  From this central position, humans have played the most glorious and the most hideous roles in the cosmic story. Some humans have created beautiful art, transformed societies for the better and sought to care for their earth home. Others have brought death to whole societies, systems of social degradation, and wreckage to our earth home.

For Dowd, humans are the reason that the search for a better way to interpret life and determine our moral values is so critical.

Divine Cosmos: An Inspiring Vision?

Many book reviews posted on amazon.com written shortly after the book was published also see a positive vision for themselves and for the earth. (See the quote from Katherine G. Russell.) Others see Dowd’s book as an attempt to re-establish failing and false ideas of God. (See the quote from Stephen A. Haines.) Some of his critics fail to see the leap in theological thinking that Dowd is taking, from the  person-like God of theism who is outside the cosmos and in control, to a what could be described as a pantheistic God, no longer a separate entity, but a name for For all his reading in cosmology, geophysics and the rest, the logic of natural selection has eluded him. He endorses deep time, but only as a wedge to insert his deity into the mechanism”  Stephan A. Haines, Amazon reviewthe whole of evolving reality. In this sense, the story is of a divine cosmos, but the divinity is dramatically different from the theistic God of the past.

I do find a few things to criticize. Dowd sometimes treads a path between religion and science that is so diplomatic that he skirts some hard questions. He suggests that the Universe is a “friendly place,” but says little about wars that have claimed the lives of millions—horrors that are difficult to fit into a “friendly” Universe. On the opposite hand he says Christians can still believe in Jesus as their personal savior. However, this savior would no longer be a God-man, separate from them, but another human being, and one of whom we have very little historical knowledge.

The Central Story of an Evolving Humanity

Nevertheless, the intelligence, vision and scope of “Thank God for Evolution” make it a great starting point for those who want a reality based framework for a spiritual understanding of life.

A widely shared Cosmic Story may be vital both for fixing the problems created by humans and for building a fruitful future. Perhaps It can help us address the challenges listed in the opening of this review regarding genetics, polarizing ideologies, climate change and information overload. The Cosmic Story, or “Epic of Evolution,” is not a wellspring of quick answers, but it is fact based and open to revision, as science always is. The Cosmic Story is as true as anything we can find—and the truth must be at the heart of any spiritual evolution of humanity.

Other Books on God and Evolution:
Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution
God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion
Cosmic Consciousness (A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind)
Cosmos & Culture: Cultural Evolution in a Cosmic Context
Evolutionaries: Unlocking the Spiritual and Cultural Potential of Science’s Greatest Idea

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