The Rev. Michael Dowd is making the rounds in Ventura County this week, delivering speeches and workshops at churches in Ojai and Ventura. The topic of his considerable passion: evolution.
For Dowd, a trip through the cosmos ends at your front door. Actually, Dowd and his scientist-author wife, Connie Barlow, don’t really have their own front door. They have lived on the road for six years, preaching the excitement of science as religious inspiration. They roam North America appearing at venues both secular and sectarian, attempting to convince their audience that each individual person is the result of 14 billion years of evolution.
Dowd did not come to this intersection of science and religion in a predictable way. He says he had an epiphany when he was in the Army.
“I was on a backpacking trip, and I had a very profound mountain experience where I was confronted with a vision of my death, basically,” Dowd says. “The thought that was there was, what if I live 100 years — what difference does a person make in their lifetime? …
"I was convinced that I wanted to make a difference in the world, but, at the time, I was really addicted to drugs and alcohol and a lot of stuff, just really struggling.”
“I came off the mountain, literally, and the next Sunday went to church. They showed a Billy Graham film and asked if somebody wanted to commit their life to Christ, and I ran down to the altar.”
After leaving the Army, Dowd attended Evangel University in Springfield, Miss., where he received a B.A. in biblical studies and philosophy. But the school had a few surprises for the born-again young man. “I was unprepared that they were going to be teaching evolution there,” Dowd says. “I was blown away. At first I was freaked out.
I walked out of class, made a big scene and stuff. In fact, I told my roommate that Satan obviously had a foothold in the school. It was
the only way I could make sense out of them teaching evolution at the school, because I had come to believe that evolution was of the Devil, and here they were teaching evolution at a Bible-reading college.”
What the 49-year-old preacher now believes in is a science-based sacred understanding of the universe. “It is very far from fundamentalism,” Dowd says.
The reformed and informed Dowd has indeed traveled a long way from evangelical Christian fundamentalism. His path toward politics began in 1988 with an interest in environmentalism. As his search for knowledge continued, Dowd looked to the sciences for answers.
“I was immersing myself in the studies of biology, cosmology, anthropology and all these disciplines related to the entire universe story,” Dowd says. “Cosmology is the study of the cosmos, the study of the large-scale structures of the universe. I studied chemistry, where the elements of the periodic tables came from. We’ve known since 1957 that chemical elements came from inside stars. Joni Mitchell had it right back in the ’60s: We are stardust.”
As Dowd pursued his studies of all things scientific, he felt he was learning far more about the nature of reality than he had learned from the Bible. “I began to see science as revelatory,” Dowd said. “I began calling it ‘public revelation.’ Private revelation is an insight which comes to one individual. Public revelation is what the whole scientific community is given.”
The collision of science and politics landed squarely in Dowd’s lap in the mid-’90s. “I was the organizer for the National Environmental Trust,” Dowd says. “So my job was to organize Jewish rabbis, Catholic priests, Protestant clergy and Evangelical clergy on key environmental issues which were coming up for a vote in Congress.”
Those were the glory days of former House of Representatives leader Newt Gingrich. “The Republicans were threatening to repeal all the major environmental legislation,” Dowd says, “so there was a lot of interest and a lot of funding for organizing the religious communities around protecting some of the environmental concerns. In the United States, that was the first time that religion and religious leaders were beginning to take a public stand on environmental issues.”
Dowd’s next stop was a governmental sustainable life campaign, first in Portland, Ore., then in New York. “My job was to help neighbors come together and support one another, four to eight households at a time,” Dowd says. These neighborhood groups became eco-teams helping each other with using less water, composting, driving less and recycling.
Everything changed when Dowd met his future wife.
“We fell in love as mission partners,” Dowd said. “We both basically felt that our purpose in this world in our lifetime was to share this universe story perspective with everyone, from atheists to evangelicals.”
And that is why they have no front door of their own, only the road and other people’s houses where they stay as they travel from one speaking engagement to the next.
They have published a book discussing their evolutionary views, Thank God for Evolution, and operate a Web site, thankgodforevolution.com.
Dowd relishes sharing his enthusiasm with all types of groups. Recently, he spoke to a group of 125 evangelical ministers about evolution. He says they accept the concept the way most people accept death and taxes. “But it doesn’t inspire them, it doesn’t fire them up. It’s like, ‘OK, evolution, whatever.’ ”
The comprehensive vision Dowd preaches is based in science. “It is the story of the universe, how the galaxies evolved, how our solar system evolved, how planet Earth evolved, and life, and how human cultures have evolved over the last 2 ½ million years of human existence,” he says. “Darwinian biological evolution only accounts for an understanding of the biological aspect. We are also talking about the evolution of galaxies and stars and planets and human evolution.”
Dowd says he believes chaos, breakdowns and bad news are the catalysts for creativity and transformation. “So I begin to trust the chaos, I trust the challenges, I trust the difficulties,” he says.
Hoping to give his audiences a sense of compassion and commitment with his presentations, Dowd nevertheless also believes the world is heading down a dangerous path.
“Frankly, if we don’t find ways of cooperating across ethnic and religious differences in the next 50 to 70 years, we are in deep doo-doo.”
Dowd is not afraid to take a political stance on issues of social importance. “Think about the millions of people who are united in peace thanks to George W. Bush,” Dowd says. “He is the great unifier — not in the way he would want. So it is that chaos-vibed creativity that allows me to be less judgmental toward George Bush, even though I am profoundly committed to getting somebody like Barack [Obama] or Hilary [Clinton] in the White House.
“So rather than looking at the challenges we are now dealing with and saying, ‘Oh shit!’ we look at the challenges and say, ‘OK, what is possible now?’ ” Dowd says. “That way you have a different emotional stance.”
Dowd is realistic about the serious problems facing the world, whether political in nature or simply unavoidable disasters. He says he sees them as challenges instead as roadblocks. “I think oil is going to be a challenge,” Dowd says. “Overpopulation is obviously going to be a challenge. Most population scientists say that within the next 80 years, we will see human population decline. I think we’re going to see the growing gap between rich and poor.”
But Dowd says he views these issues as forcing civilization to come up with creative solutions. He says he can envision some terrible circumstances before we are able to rebound.
“I’m not Pollyanna,” Dowd says. “We could see some kind of nuclear exchange. I think that from an evolutionary viewpoint these problems — even catastrophes — will serve as evolutionary drivers.”
The Rev. Dowd speaks this week at the following Ventura County locations: Feb. 28, 7 p.m., at Meditation Mount, 10340 Reeves Road, Ojai, 640-8815; March 2, 10 a.m., at the Ventura Vineyard Church, 1956 Palma Dr. Suite A, Ventura, 650-2510; and March 5, 7 p.m., at the Center for Spiritual Living, 101 S. Laurel St.643-1933.