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Rev. Michael Dowd: Thank God For Evolution
Posted: 26 August 2008 11:53 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 76 ]
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First I have to say that I have not read your book and will probably not. I did listen to your interview on POV. While I am impatient when dealing with any superstitious magical beliefs, I also realize that deriding those same beliefs would not get me far in converting people to scientific method and rational thinking. As was mentioned in another forum, one size will never fit all. I think different approaches will work with different people, and some people will never change, no matter what approach is used. The more ‘tools’ in the logic arsenal, the more prepared we lovers of logic will be out in the real world. Michael, if your book changes just one person to where they believe in evolution, I would be happy, because that one person will teach their child about evolution and so one down the line. Although it is not my style, I think (from the description) it will (hopefully) be more effective that that.

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Posted: 27 August 2008 01:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 77 ]
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I just heard the second installment, and I have to say I agree with one of the earliest posters in this forum, who said that Mr. Dowd comes across as being unaware that he’s far, far afield of what would be in the ballpark for consideration as Christian theism (I think the poster said he’s an atheist in denial, or something).

If I understood the last few exchanges with DJ correctly, God isn’t taken by Mr. Dowd to be anything more than a motivational metaphor for humanity - a synonym for the universe.  He seems to be arguing that the physical universe and the emergence and evolution of life are the only real objective truths anybody knows with certainty, and that the only reason why US Christians (protestants, mostly) have trouble accepting evolution is that it hasn’t been sufficiently mythologized in religious language to make it palatable to them.

Either he’s unduly excited about having finally understood the natural law doctrine that the Roman Catholic tradition has embraced for centuries and with which (they’ve finally explicitly conceded) there is no conflict arising from the truth of evolution, or he’s unintentionally working on converting Christians to a pretend faith that is agnostic or secular at its core but which retains its historical theistic terminology for inspirational purposes.  Thoroughly, thoroughly obfuscating (though perhaps unintentionally so) in my view.

My guess is that a died-in-the-wool Catholic (among which Spong is not normally included) will respond to the message with “yes, but this is already well established”, the reason-driven protestants (Plantinga, Craig, etc.) will respond similarly, and the YEC crowd raising the big stink over evolution will just reject it out of hand.  I’d expect each of these sects would reject the lack of recognizable theology in the message, and that probably UCC-ers and Unitarians are about the only crowds that will jump up and embrace the message in its totality.  Maybe Deepak Chopra, too.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to see Christians working among themselves to bring their faith in alignment with reality, I’m just amazed by the packaging of this particular approach.

Since Mr. Dowd’s present in this forum, maybe he can comment on any misperceptions he sees in my take-aways from the podcast.

[ Edited: 27 August 2008 01:38 AM by Hoobajoob ]
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Posted: 27 August 2008 04:37 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 78 ]
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Michael Dowd - 26 August 2008 09:46 PM

... BTW, I discuss what I mean and do not mean by the word “God” in Chapter 7 of Thank God for Evolution: “What Do We Mean by the Word ‘God’”.

You get kudos for taking the time to define the term in your book, but I was referring to discussions. Most of us have not read your book and do not plan to do so. (Your “marketing” here has reminded me more of a sassy salesman for Amway, a demonstrably mediocre product, than of an author whose ideas have merit on their own.) The same is true for most of the people at your seminars. And those that have read it have already filtered your definition through their own thought-prisms. My experience suggests that, unless debaters consistently remind one another what they mean when they use the word ‘god’, the definition drifts toward each individual’s initial bias. Like gravity, our preconceptions are difficult to escape because doing so makes us feel groundless.

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People often argue over the term “god” without defining it. It is almost as if they are using the same term to refer both to a penguin and to a quiche. While both may contain eggs, that’s hardly their most salient characteristic.

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Posted: 27 August 2008 07:37 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 79 ]
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This may be my last post on this forum. I’m flying to Hawaii tomorrow morning (from Washington, DC) and expect to be mostly offline until Monday or Tuesday. 

Hoobajoob: You are largely correct in your assessment of my audience.

Those who tend to respond most enthusiastically to the Evolution Theology I espouse in my book and public programs are secular and science-oriented people who are not particularly anti-religious, Unitarian Universalists (which includes many humanists, atheists, and religious naturalists), Roman Catholics, mainline protestants, progressive evangelicals, New Thought folk (Unity and Religious Science), and those into Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer, etc.

Those who rarely invite me/us to speak, rarely come to our programs, and tend to respond critically when they do, are young-earth creationists, religious fundamentalists of any kind, and the anti-religious crowd (well represented on this forum). Most in the latter group do wish me well and hope I’m effective in bringing religious people into an evidential worldview. But many are skeptical about my chances for success.

NH Baritone: Yes, I’m aware that most on this forum have no interest in reading my book. I also know that most anti-religious people have religious family members, friends, and co-workers, many of whom have a hard time embracing a scientific worldview. I apologize for coming off like a slick salesman. You are right, of course, I am almost always “marketing” my message. The reason I am “evangelistic” about this perspective is (I think) one of the reasons why so many Nobel laureates and other science and religion leaders have endorsed it — it’s a decent bridge that provides at least enough conceptual common ground for family members and friends with radically different worldviews to have a deep and meaningful conversation about issues that, up till now, they’ve not been able to.

Here’s my vision in nutshell (it’s how I conclude my book). I’m fully aware of how corny this will sound in the context of this forum. I share it here because it expresses my values and is the vision that wakes me up excited to be alive and play my role in the body of life each day.

Co-evolutionarily,

~ Michael

I envision the day when facts are universally celebrated as God’s native tongue, when evidence is honored as divine clues, and when the thought of looking to the past, rather than the present, for our best understanding of words like “God,” “sin,” “salvation,” “heaven,” and so forth, will be unimaginable.

I long for the day when public revelation is valued above private revelation nearly everywhere, and when day language and night language thrive in their respective domains. Oh, would it come to pass that millions of people wait with eager anticipation for the next revelations from God that appear in journals like Nature and Science. May there come a time when theologians and preachers vie with one another to articulate the most inspiring meanings of such ongoing revelation.

I cherish the day when awareness of the nested emergent nature of divine creativity will be universal, and when people everywhere understand that words create worlds. What a magnifi cent time it will be when the question “Do you believe in God?” makes no more sense than asking “Do you believe in Life?” or “Do you believe in Reality?”

I hunger for the day when most of the world’s religious believers see themselves as religious knowers; when the majority of Christians are Evolutionary Christians, the majority of Muslims are Evolutionary Muslims . . .

I salute the day when “the body of Christ” means all those individuals and organizations around the world who are committed to evolutionary integrity.

I anticipate a glorious day when understanding ourselves as stardust and as the Universe become conscious of itself inspires hundreds of millions of diverse people all over the world. I see, too, a time when generations live in relative peace with one another, thanks to a shared perception that death is no less sacred than life and, consequently, that this life, this moment, truly does matter.

I look forward to the day when God’s active guidance will be available to all. Yes, I say, yes! There will be a time when young people in every tradition wonder how it was possible for their elders to favor unnatural, otherworldly interpretations of the core doctrines of their faith when natural, evolutionary interpretations of our shared journey are so much more compelling and undeniable.

May there come a time, too, when billions of youth are taught in homes, churches, synagogues, mosques, schools, and through the media about the gifts and challenges of their inherited proclivities, and when healthy practices for channeling our most insistent urges are widely used and shared.

I dream of the day when aligning with the trajectory of divine creativity captures the imagination of our species; when millions of people, especially young people, are inspired to follow an evolutionary calling that serves the Whole. There will even come a time when peoples throughout the world come to regard as kin those whom their grandparents feared or hated. There will still be trying times; there will still be enormous problems to solve; but these will be regarded as evolutionary catalysts and dealt with head on in a spirit of possibility, openness, and trust.

I imagine a day when the devoutly religious give this book to their nonreligious loved ones saying, “See, God is real and faith is essential”; when scientists share it with their religious loved ones, saying, “See, evolution is divine and science is revelatory”; and when both sides read it and respond, “Oh. Got it. Thank you.”

I pray I live to see the day when billions of human beings will say, “Thank God for evolution!”

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Posted: 27 August 2008 08:00 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 80 ]
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Yours is not a tack that I could take in good conscience; much of the language you’re using sounds odd to me, and I do generally like to use words in their traditional sense. However I do wish you well in your endeavors, and hope that you can change some minds among the religiously-minded. My sense is that one aspect of religion that makes it captivating is the reliance on the supernatural, the notion of an all-knowing father-figure up in the sky, and the notion that we survive death and will get to be with our friends and family forever someday. To the extent that that’s true, your project is not likely to be very successful. As DJ pointed out on the program, the news of science and evolution may be fascinating and mind-expanding, but it isn’t precisely “good news” or “gospel”. Evolution is good in many ways, but it is also red in tooth and claw. If science provides us with anything it is not optimism but realism. And most people would prefer not to face realism, but to choose optimism and then fit the evidence to that picture. Witness the tremendous pushback with global warming to see this sort of thing in action nowadays, with actual science.

But as I say, I wish you the best. Seems to me your heart is in the right place, and you’re taking the effort to a part of the populace that wouldn’t be traditionally open to the message that we’re bringing. That’s definitely a good thing.

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Posted: 28 August 2008 05:19 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 81 ]
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I regret that I’m coming to this topic so late, because I would like to participate in this dialogue with Michael. From the little I’ve read so far (I haven’t heard D.J.‘s interview), Michael strikes me as a thoroughgoing naturalist who understands the power of symbolism and especially metaphor. I’m not put off by the language, at least not as much as most of my fellow secularists here. On the contrary, I have been arguing for years that by using traditional religious words in ways that really get to the symbolic and psychological roots of their origins, we have an opportunity to invite people to think about religion in new ways.

The essential argument that I see in Michael’s work, so far, is that all religion has its genesis in reality, what we secularists would call naturalism. Well of course it does. Everything has its genesis in reality. Every god-story, every story of a supposedly miraculous event that could never really happen, has its genesis in something that is very real in the world and in the human mind. It might be a fear or an aspiration, but somewhere and somehow it’s grounded in reality and in particular the reality of our experience. Our challenge is to uncover the genesis of the meanings attached to religious words and ideas so that we can distinguish between sound and unsound conclusions, and between fact and fiction.

The most frequent objection is that Michael is using words in a way that throws people off. Good. That’s the point: to get people to think about old ideas in new ways. If a critical mass of people demonstrate that this can be done with integrity, and most especially in a way that really tells us something about where religion comes from and what it is, we will begin to make a major difference in the life of religion.

I do not believe that we should necessarily be antagonistic toward religion. I am antagonistic to religion only insofar as it asserts unsound claims or preaches something other than a thoroughgoing respect for the worth and dignity of all persons. Tragically, the dominant religions in most cultures invite our antagonism. But it needn’t be that way. Michael is one of many people who are trying to change this longstanding and tragic history and create a new religion that is fully grounded in naturalism.

I don’t know how successfully Michael navigates the line between sound and unsound conclusions, but I will return to this topic after listening to D.J.‘s interview and reading what has been written here. And who knows, maybe I will read your book, Michael. Feel free to contact me any time. I’m interested in what you have to say.

[ Edited: 28 August 2008 05:25 AM by PLaClair ]
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Posted: 28 August 2008 06:07 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 82 ]
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Paul, I do think you should listen to both interviews with Michael Dowd—DJ did two back-to-back. I think you would find his approach congenial.

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Posted: 28 August 2008 09:25 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 83 ]
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Michael Dowd - 26 August 2008 02:40 PM

1) If anyone on this forum knows of anything more important in the coming decades than assisting religious people the world over (especially here in America) in coming to embrace a science-based evolutionary/ecological worldview, please let me know.  I just don’t see it.

Why is helping theists come to terms with “a science-based evolutionary/ecological worldview” more important than addressing economic, political and social injustices? Are you suggesting that the only way of tacking poverty and enviornmental degradation and wars and famines is by helping theists come to terms with evolutionary biology? If not, then what exactly are you suggesting?

Honestly, if theists can’t cope with the fallibility of their doctrines - and considering its supposed to be infallible though based on “faith” i get why they are so resistant on accepting this - then I don’t know what else to say to them.

I am, however, more concerned with enviornmental degradation caused by a form of economic developement that sees the planet as expendable, or militarism that seeks to use brute force to protect the centralized control over the resources that are exploited for the economic developement noted above, and organizational structures of economies that breed inequality and poverty than I am of the coping difficulties of theists with the fact that species comes from a slow evolutionary process and not the will of some mythological deity.

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Posted: 28 August 2008 12:46 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 84 ]
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truthaddict - 28 August 2008 09:25 AM
Michael Dowd - 26 August 2008 02:40 PM

1) If anyone on this forum knows of anything more important in the coming decades than assisting religious people the world over (especially here in America) in coming to embrace a science-based evolutionary/ecological worldview, please let me know.  I just don’t see it.

Why is helping theists come to terms with “a science-based evolutionary/ecological worldview” more important than addressing economic, political and social injustices?

I think Dowd is approaching this concern in the same way as Sam Harris.  Religious certainty is dangerous in an increasingly technological world where the weapons of intolerance can be WMDs and other advanced weaponry rather than scimitars and muskets.  I’m just finishing up with the book and I think you’ll find that Dowd’s matches your concerns about the future.  Resolving the issues you raise, Dowd believes, can be accomplished by making theists see science as a way to have a group revelation that is just as awe inspiring as is the Gospel hearsay about a virgin birth.  When we recognize that we are of the earth rather than have dominion over it, Dowd thinks the world would be a better place.  I’m coming around to that line of thinking.

J

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Posted: 28 August 2008 01:59 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 85 ]
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Jason G - 28 August 2008 12:46 PM
truthaddict - 28 August 2008 09:25 AM
Michael Dowd - 26 August 2008 02:40 PM

1) If anyone on this forum knows of anything more important in the coming decades than assisting religious people the world over (especially here in America) in coming to embrace a science-based evolutionary/ecological worldview, please let me know.  I just don’t see it.

Why is helping theists come to terms with “a science-based evolutionary/ecological worldview” more important than addressing economic, political and social injustices?

I think Dowd is approaching this concern in the same way as Sam Harris.  Religious certainty is dangerous in an increasingly technological world where the weapons of intolerance can be WMDs and other advanced weaponry rather than scimitars and muskets.  I’m just finishing up with the book and I think you’ll find that Dowd’s matches your concerns about the future.  Resolving the issues you raise, Dowd believes, can be accomplished by making theists see science as a way to have a group revelation that is just as awe inspiring as is the Gospel hearsay about a virgin birth.  When we recognize that we are of the earth rather than have dominion over it, Dowd thinks the world would be a better place.  I’m coming around to that line of thinking.

J

Thanks for the response!

I dont necessarily disagree with anything you just wrote (though I would like to point out that much of our greatest modern horrors were not due to religious beliefs but rather economic policies), but my comment was driven by a specific question of his to this forum. He asked what is more important than helping theists embrace evolution and I pointed out what seems to me to be the obvious. I am in no way claiming he is not a decent person with decent ambitions for a better world. He certainly seems so. He seems very amicable. I am simply saying that we have much more pressing concerns than whether religious fundamentalists believe in evolution or not.

Like I noted in my parenthesis above, much of our modern horrors were due to economic policies and not religious beliefs.

What happened in China in the mid1900s was economic-based, not religious. The wars, poverty and diseases in Africa are largely due to economic policies and not religion. Our war of aggression in Iraq is due to economic policies and not religion. When Bush signed his most recent signing statement over the defense spending bill it had to do with permanent military bases and controlling Iraqi oil, not converting Muslims to Christianity. The impending demise of the WTO is centered around how the developed countries are imposing unfair economic policies on the developing world and which is producing horrendous results is about economics, not religion.

I dont disagree that it would be nice if religious fundies embraced evolution but its far from our most pressing concern. Again, thanks for the response!

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Posted: 28 August 2008 02:09 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 86 ]
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To me, an argument about whether economics or religion is the more important issue is meaningless. It’s like arguing about whether a heart is more important than a brain. If either one stops functioning, you’re dead.

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Posted: 28 August 2008 02:31 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 87 ]
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PLaClair - 28 August 2008 02:09 PM

To me, an argument about whether economics or religion is the more important issue is meaningless. It’s like arguing about whether a heart is more important than a brain. If either one stops functioning, you’re dead.

i would be cautious with using anatomy analogies. besides there is nothing wrong with prioritizing. but for the sake of your analogy lets extend it a bit further.

lets say i have heart murmurs and a malignant brain tumor. which is more important in addressing?

but maybe its meaningless because we can address both, which i think we can. but keeping to the specifics of the question i think its apt to point out that we do have more pressing concerns than helping theists to accept evolution.

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Posted: 29 August 2008 12:19 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 88 ]
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Why are we talking about human organs?  Mr. Dowd has his defining issue, and that’s fine.  If you’re not interested in the topic, then maybe this thread’s not your thing.

I’d love to hear less static from religious people on something so obviously objectively true as evolution, so I hope he’s successful with at least some of the Protestant crowd that hasn’t yet integrated evolution into their faith.  The Catholic church already seems to have arrived, so I’m not sure there’s much convincing to be done there.

Despite what sounds to me like his confused pretend-theology, I think people like Mr. Dowd and secular types like E. O. Wilson are to be commended for reaching “across the aisle”, if you will.  It’s rare and refreshing to find people working actively to establish productive conversations between secular types and theists on topics that should be commonly regarded as meaningful and valued (or sacred, or whatever).  The new atheists sure as shit aren’t doing a damn bit of good in that department.

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Posted: 30 August 2008 03:43 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 89 ]
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Marriage of Science and Religion…

I have known college thesis advisers who come up with topics for research by arbitrarily concatenating hot buzzwords from disparate areas.
Then suggesting to eager, naive graduate students that they base their research on thinking of a way to make the marriage mean something.
Occasionally it works, and the investment can be so cheap.

Now, imagine if the two disparate areas are “non-overlapping magisteria….”

Where can I find me a grad student intern, in need of direction?

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Posted: 30 August 2008 06:48 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 90 ]
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I listened to D.J. Grothe’s interviews with Michael Dowd and found them fascinating, both because I find Dowd’s ideas intriguing and essential, and because I could “hear” D.J. struggling to understand him. In the main, I thought D.J. conducted excellent interviews. He seemed to be trying very hard to make sense out of what didn’t fully make sense to him. Yet at times, D.J. just wasn’t hearing his guest - not because he wasn’t trying, but because (in my view) religion has done to him what it has done to many of us: it has us tied in knots.

Virtually every secularist would agree that evolution is among history’s greatest and most important ideas. It is the foundation of modern biology, its great organizing principle, the glue that holds the discipline together. Without evolution, you could do some biology but you couldn’t understand it. We understand that, and we champion evolution perhaps more fervently than anyone else.

Yet ironically, we secularists as a group are overlooking many of evolution’s applications. The evolutionary principle governs not just biology, but every dynamic system, from social relationships to economics to politics to religion to sports and games. The entire discipline of game theory, with all its offshoots, is a riff on evolution.

If that is true — and I am convinced beyond a doubt that it is — then we cannot understand religion without understanding the evolutionary principle. As Dowd puts it: “If we think that we as a species are going to move into the future that we’re gonna drop all metaphorical language, we have no understanding of the nature of language. That won’t happen.”

To understand religion in its evolutionary context, we must understand how its elements evolve: its ideas, its practices, its attitudes and its language, among other things. Analogize each of these to a part of a strand of DNA. If our objection to Buddhism is the non-natural-ness of reincarnation, that is no reason for us to want to eliminate Buddhism’s meditative practices or its ethics of trying to end suffering. If in a particular Christian denomination we like the attitudes, practices and social ethics but don’t like the non-natural ideation, there’s no reason for us to want to convince these Christians to stop living out a social commitment, or not to sing or dance or celebrate in community with each other.

The same is true of religious language, and the central question we should ask ourselves should be informed by an understanding of how evolutionary principles apply to religion. Many of our members are put off by and don’t like using “religious words.” Think about that in an evolutionary context (i.e., think about it in the context of reality).

If we don’t use those words, they are not going to disappear. As Dowd puts it: “If we think that we as a species are going to move into the future that we’re gonna drop all metaphorical language, we have no understanding of the nature of language. That won’t happen.”

If we refuse to use those words, all we do is isolate ourselves: generally and from perfectly good religious attitudes, ethics, practices, etc. Some of us don’t even like to sing because singing somehow conjures up visions of the dreaded R-thing. That is not a winning evolutionary strategy. Just the opposite, it’s a dead loser, and the proof of that is in our numbers and the low esteem in which we are held.

What Dowd is saying, as I understand him, is that it’s not necessary to discard the baby with the bath water; in fact, as is clear when you really think about that, it’s a very bad idea. Quoting Dowd again: “All I’m suggesting is that the facts of science, the empirical data of 14 billion years of evolution, can be interpreted meaninglessly or it can be interpreted in a deeply meaningful way. Connie and I believe that for us as a species to survive into the future, we’re going to have to find ways so that every religious tradition interprets the same facts, the same evidence, the same data of science, but freely uses the mythic night language of their tradition in such a way that they embrace just an evolutionary world view . . .”

In other words, he wants to use evolution to move the religions into a reality-based world view. He might give a different answer if religion wasn’t so pervasive. But in this world and with this species, we’re going to have to work with what we have. And the way I see it, there are plenty of good things about religion (not theism, per se).

Here’s the essence of Dowd’s argument as I understand it, including an instance where D.J. wasn’t understanding him.
Dowd: “If evolution is not mythologized in the next fifty years, we are screwed as a species. . . When I say ‘mythologized’ what I’m meaning is interpreted in ways that inspire people to cooperate, that inspire people to live lives of integrity, of compassion, of generosity and this sort of thing.”
DJ: “Right, you’re saying religion is literally true, factually true, scientifically valid to you, but you want to spruce it up so that it demands the commitments of people that religion normally did.”
Dowd: “I would agree with that, except that I would say not so much that I want to spruce it up, but that we can’t not interpret it. And so whether we interpret it meaninglessly, and try to say that there is no meaning to evolution, it’s just all this random chance, whatever - that’s an interpretation. See, the interesting thing about living as animals in symbolic language is that we can’t not interpret. So what I am suggesting is that how we interpret the facts is going to make a difference personally and especially in terms of the decades before us.”

I think Dowd is right. In fact, this is essentially the argument Calvin Chatlos has been making and I’ve been making for years. I’m sorry Michael isn’t here right now, but maybe others will be interested in continuing this. I think he’s spot on.

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