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Friday, August 29, 2008

Connie Barlow and Michael Dowd at Chautauqua

One of the many highlights of my week at Chautauqua was meeting Connie Barlow and her husband Michael Dowd. Michael is the author of Thank God for Evolution. His blog, The Evolutionary Evangelist promotes the concept of Evolution Theology ....
As I and others are now using the term, Evolution Theology, or Religion 2.0, refers to those whose position on the science vs. religion controversy tends toward reconciliation or synthesis. The term points broadly to those who do not see themselves at either end of the polarized debate as it is currently framed (either anti-evolutionary creationism and intelligent design at one end, or anti-religious atheism at the other). Theistic evolutionists, religious naturalists, evolutionary humanists, emergentists, pantheists, panentheists, theosophists, and the 11,000+ signers of the Clergy Letter Project may differ in how they integrate evolution and theology , but they all do.
The short Wikipedia article on Michael Dowd refers to him as an itinerant Pentecostal preacher. He and his wife travel around America promoting evolution and Christianity. Michael and Connie sat in on a class that I took (Evolution and Christianity). Michael's version of Christianity is very confusing to me, as was the instructor's version. It's part of the so-called "sophisticated" Christianity that seems to deny any scientifically detectable evidence of God's intervention in affairs of the natural world. Undetectable, that is, unless you are a person of faith. People of faith can see the hand of God in events such as the breakup of the Soviet Union and the tearing down of the Berlin wall whereas the rest of us see these as entirely natural events. People who hold this position often go as far as saying that they really don't believe in supernatural beings because God is everywhere in nature.

I had never heard of Michael Dowd before last week but I have been a fan of Connie Barlow for fifteen years. She is the author of two books that I consult frequently when discussing evolution. The first one is From Gaia to Selfish Genes: Selected Writings in the Life Sciences published in 1991 and the second is Evolution Extended: Biological Debates on the Meaning of Life published in 1995.

The books are collections of excerpts from publications by leading thinkers about evolution. The selection is excellent. All the important ideas are there. In some cases this is my primary source because I haven't been able to find the original works; for example, I don't have a copy of The Logic of Life by François Jacob.

It was a delight to finally meet Connie Barlow (and you, too, Michael!). I wish I had known that she would be in Chautatuqua so I could have brought my books for her to sign. As you might have guessed, Connie is the "evolution" part of the team while Michael is the "theology" part. The unusual part of this relationship is that Connie doesn't necessarily buy into religion in the same way as her husband.

Connie published another book in 2002 called The Ghosts Of Evolution Nonsensical Fruit, Missing Partners, And Other Ecological Anachronisms. I'm not familiar with this book but I think I'll buy it.


  1. I've heard a few interviews with Michael Dawd (Dowd?) and I have to say, the impression I got was that he actually comes across to me as an 'agent provocateur', going undercover in the churches of the US in order to convert them to reason. This type of 'Christian' who doesn't seem to believe in a supernatural God or miracles is apparently able to get access to the religious masses in a way that an atheist would find impossible.
    Its still somewhat nebulous but not in the infuriating way of Alistair McGrath.
    If they were all like that we'd have no problems!

  2. I've also heard interviews with D[o|a]wd, and his Christianity is unlike anything I ever believed or practiced (not that my experience is authoritative or exhaustive). There's more than a hint of Spinozan pantheism in there. Maybe all he's doing is taking the universe as we find it through science and dressing it up in god-talk -- an excercise I find to be so much superfluous window-dressing, but whatever floats your boat I suppose.....

  3. Ghosts of Evolution is a good book. I often recommend it, especially to young people and non-experts, because of the vividness of the examples. These include many plants that people may know well, but haven't considered how mysterious they are, like the Osage Orange and Kentucky Coffee Tree.

    But it does tend to get repetitive. It is OK to have many variations on the same theme, but sometimes we see the same examples one time too many. Even so, it's a quick read, and fits a rarely-filled niche as a readable book about evolutionary ecology.

  4. Larry,

    It was great meeting you and thanks for mentioning me in your blog post. One minor point of correction: Connie and I do NOT travel the country preaching evolution and Christianity. We teach and preach evolution in ways that all people, religious or not, get get excited about. It's true that when I'm in a Christian context, I show how a mainstream scientific understanding of evolution can offer Christians a "religious faith" or "spiritual path" that is far more reasonable and grounded in measurable reality than a faith based primarily on ancient private revelations. But at least up to this poin, I do far more speaking in non-Christian settings than I do Christian ones.

    Beloved science friends and colleagues:

    In case you’re interested, I have posted here:

    recent interviews with my favorite atheist interviewers...

    1) Point of Inquiry, with D.J. Grothe: Part I: Thank God for Evolution

    2) Point of Inquiry, with D.J. Grothe: Part II: The Marriage of Science and Religion

    I also participated in the Point of Inquiry online forum discussion following my interviews
    (accessible from the Point of Inquiry website).

    3) Interview with Reggie, The Infidel Guy...

    And on my blog...

    My response to an atheist with Asperger’s Syndrome who felt my program was too Pollyanna:

    Common misunderstandings that non-religious and anti-religious people have about the
    “Evolution Theology” perspective I offer in my book and public presentations:


    ~ Michael
    cell: 425-760-9941


  6. Hi, Larry. I blogged about Dowd some time ago, here: