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Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World Paperback – April 28, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Since 2002, ordained United Church of Christ minister Dowd and his wife, science writer Connie Barlow, have traveled the country celebrating evolution as a grand epic story with a host of psychological and moral implications for shaping contemporary life. As narrator, Dowd projects an earnest next-door neighbor teaching style that earns a measure of patience and forgiveness when he undertakes divergent metaphors and analogies that may leave listeners scratching their heads at times. Dowds talking points offer a potpourri of scientific and theological insights that remain generally engaging, though not necessarily stirring. He reaches the peak of his effectiveness when he provides specific calls to actions for his audience to meld flat-Earth Christianity and evolutionary Christianity in both their personal problem-solving and in larger global challenges. These nuggets make the lengthy journey worthwhile, at least for those in the fields of science and religion wanting to foster new areas for dialogue beyond the current culture wars. A Viking hardcover. (Sept.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"Dowd presents evolution as a sacred epic of emerging complexity."
-The New York Times
"Dowd masterfully unites rationality and spirituality in a world view that celebrates the mysteries of existence... A powerful book!"
-Craig Mello, winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine
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When most people who start reading it, usually they don't understand exactly what the book is about. This was my situation when it ended up in my hands. Yet, when studied, its message becomes clear. Dowd proposes a Religious Naturalist view of God, where He is not seen as a transcendent entity (i.e. a "Big Daddy in the sky somewhere"), but rather a /personification/ of all that there actually is, that is of all of the material world, its processes, including what we know, and what we don't know. For Dowd, God can be even greater than what we know, but He cannot be less than that. This proposal has a pantheist or panentheist flavor to it. He shows that conceived this way, we can say that the universe (God) is evolving always through the same natural creative processes, always leading to emergent properties and structures. We are all part of the story, the process of creativity, and emergence that goes on forming more interconnected and unified societies: from tribes, to villages, to cities, to countries, to economic and political blogs, to globalization, and so on. It all forms part of what scientists and theologians call "The Great Story" or "Big History": the story that includes all of the stories of how the cosmos evolves.
For him, evolution is not meaningless blind chance, because we can actually give it meaning and purpose. From here, he distinguishes between day language and night language. Day language is the language of science in general, strict description about facts and data. Night language is when we use a kind language that refers exactly to the same facts and data, but in a meaningful, spiritual sense. With night language, we can talk about the universe poetically and metaphorically: talking about how God created the elements inside stars, how listening to God's revelation can we save the world, how to follow Christ's steps, and so on. Taking night language literally, not metaphorically, will lead you to what Dowd calls "flat-earth thinking", which is what many religions fall into when they take mythical understandings of the world literally.
Yet, what Dowd proposes is not that people should leave their religious traditions and "convert" to Religious Naturalism. He proposes instead to take this Naturalist view as a "meta-religion", that is, a source where all religious traditions can be nourished, so that they have new ways of referring to God (i.e. the Whole of Reality). So, he is not presenting a religion in competition with other religions, rather he proposes that religious believers become what he calls "religious knowers". We should use science to know in intersubjectively valid terms (what he calls "public revelation"), rather than believing stuff (what he calls "private revelation"). He talks about how through science, God reveals where we came from, what is our place in the universe, how are we constituted, why do we have the instincts that we do, and so on. From here, he gives us great advice, not only about how to have a science-grounded spiritual life, but also how to contribute to everyone's welfare and the world. All of what I've shown is a bit of the bare-bones of what the book has to offer, often in a style with which pastors preach the Gospel.
Criticisms? Yes, there are some. Yet, please understand that none of it is directed at attacking the book in any way. I highly recommend you buy it. I have given the book as gifts to the pastor of my church and friends. Having said that, there comes the uneasy part of pointing out one particular worry, and one flaw.
Worry: Religions are not mere beliefs. Yet, in many of them, beliefs are an integral part of a religion. I do agree with the characterization of many of those beliefs as "flat-earth views". Yet, what Dowd proposes is too radical for many religions. Let me use Roman Catholicism as an example. He does think that taking literally the Creed that Catholics recite in Mass would be a flat-earth vision of reality. If I understand him correctly, he proposes not to give up on the Creed itself, but use it to give it a meaning that is closer to Reality (with capital "R"). So when it talks about God and Christ we use the words with a different meaning and /interpret/ Reality in new ways ... There's the rub! Catholicism (at least in its present form) *requires* a fixed meaning for the words of the Creed, given that these meanings are established through the dogmata (e.g. the Niscean Council's view on Christ's sonship). To change their meaning (at least as radically as Dowd proposes), would be to literally throw away centuries of Catholic tradition and teachings. This will not be an easy task. Liberal Catholics may be more inclined to do something similar, but I seriously doubt that most of them would be willing to change so abruptly. Process theology may find a way to update a lot of Catholic thinking still rooted in Agustin of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas, but I don't expect it to back from the belief that Jesus is as much as God as the Father is (something inherently incompatible with a Religious Naturalist view). From this point of view, I do think that religious denominations would see the book, not as a meta-religious proposal, but rather as competition with current religious beliefs.
Flaw: And here comes the saddest part for me, and the reason why I don't give the book five stars (although I hope that this will be corrected in future editions of the book, I talked to Dowd about this problem and he has taken note of it). The problem per-se is not in the main text but in one of the appendices, specifically Appendix B called "Realizing the Miraculous". What I'm going to say does /not/ change the message of that appendix, it still holds. The message is that we can "realize" the miraculous stories we find about Christ in the Gospels, that is, change the meaning of the stories to refer to objective Reality.
However, it would have been great that before writing it, Dowd would have talked to experts on religion in Antiquity, since apparently he fell in the legendary "Jesus' story is just almost a carbon copy of those of many gods and heroes in earlier religions." One example is when he says that the story of the crucifixion appears in other cases (clarifying in a confusing manner that they include being bound to or embedded within a tree or a stone) like those of "Dionysus, Osiris, Krishna, Prometheus". Um, no. Prometheus was not "bound to a stone" in the same way that Jesus was crucified, and not for the same reason. Osiris was never crucified, nor tied to a tree nor a stone. According to mythology, Krishna was killed (as far as I know) by an arrow. I don't remember if Dionysus was ever tied to a tree or a rock (I'm pretty sure he didn't die on a cross).
Dowd also gives twice the example of the virgin birth in this appendix. Contrary to what he says, the following mythical characters did /not/ have a virgin birth (because their mothers had intercourse, hence, were not virgins): Heracles, Plato, Mithra (according to Roman Mithraism, Mithra was born of a rock, not from "Anahita"), Augustus, Horus, Dyonisus (*not* born in December 25th), Krishna (*not* born in December 25th), Dionysus/Bacchus (they were born of different mothers depending on the religious current), etc. Many of these mothers had intercourse with other gods or they gave birth in an extraordinary manner, but most of these were not virgins.
There are more mistakes like these throughout that portion of the book. It is not my intention to point these out because I want to be mean-spirited. Again, I highly, VERY HIGHLY, recommend this book. Yet, misinformation like this can often lead to people's minds to discredit the rest of what Dowd wants to say, which is factually grounded and a treasure to be valued. Needless to say that Appendix B contains a very important Naturalistic message, but it is obscured by these historical mistakes. I wish I could give it 4.5 stars, but the system doesn't let me, so ... 4/5 stars it is.
My friend told me the other night at dinner that he had completed a third of the book and could see why I had been so taken by it. What many may not understand is a "nontheistic" view of God. Dowd actually quotes Gene Marshall in the book who is my friend's mentor:
When the Bible or classical theology referred to `God' as an individual person, this was a pictorial way of talking about `reality in all its fullness'. God is not the greatest or largest of beings. God is the ground of all being. God is that awesome and mysterious Reality in which all things live and move and have their being, and out of which all things emerge and into which all things return. --GENE MARSHALL
Dowd, Michael (2008-06-19). Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World (p. 125). Plume. Kindle Edition.
Gene Marshall The Road From Empire to Eco-Democracy [...] is a "student" of Paul Tillich The Courage to Be, Kierkegard Kierkegaard's Writings, VI: Fear and Trembling/Repetition: 006, and other existentialist theologians. I told my friend over the weekend that I still dislike "nontheist" as a terminology to describe "god" as the ground of being. What these guys are really saying is that they do not have an anthropomorphic view of "God." That is, God isn't some being outside of creation that acts in supernatural ways. What blew me away was Dowd's picture of evolution as in itself being supernatural. The cosmos is God trying to look at God's self. He quotes Richard Dawkins:
It seems that life, at least as we know it on this planet, is almost indecently eager to evolve eyes. We can confidently predict that a statistical sample of reruns [of evolutionary life on Earth] would culminate in eyes. And not just eyes, but compound eyes like those of an insect, a prawn, or a trilobite, and camera eyes like ours or a squid's, with color vision and mechanisms for fine-tuning the focus and the aperture. Also very probably parabolic reflector eyes like those of a limpet, and pinhole eyes like those of Nautilus, the latter-day ammonite-like mollusk in its floating coiled shell. . . . And if there is life on other planets around the Universe, it is a good bet that there will also be eyes, based on the same range of optical principles as we know on this planet. There are only so many ways to make an eye, and life as we know it may well have found them all. . . . Like any zoologist, I can search my mental database of the animal kingdom and come up with an estimated answer to questions of the form: "How many times has X evolved independently?" It would make a good research project, to do the counts more systematically. Presumably some Xs will come up with a "many times" answer, as with eyes, or "several times," as with echolocation. Others "only once" or even "never," although I have to say it is surprisingly difficult to find examples of these. And the difference could be interesting. I suspect that we'd find certain potential evolutionary pathways which life is "eager" to go down. Other pathways have more "resistance."
Dowd, Michael (2008-06-19). Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World (pp. 39-40). Plume. Kindle Edition.
Finally, in Appendix A Dowd shares Richard Dawkins' letter to his (Dawkins') daughter titled "Good and Bad Reasons for Believing." Worth the price of the book alone as I had tears when I read it (reprinted with permission!). That says something.
This book can expand your cosmology and consciousness: closer to science IS closer to god (BEING/REALITY)!!! As Dowd tells us throughout the book, 'You are made of stardust.' You're also related to broccoli . . .