In 2002, a former Christian pastor and his wife, a freelance science writer, embarked on a mission to spread the “good news” of evolution and the sacred story of science. Meet evolutionary evangelists Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow, itinerant preachers of the Epic of Evolution.

The Epic of Evolution presents the scientific story of the unfolding of the universe, the earth, and its myriad lifeforms as a sacred myth and full-service religion. Since 2002, Dowd and Barlow have preached the gospel of evolution and hosted evolutionary revivals for over 2,000 groups throughout North America. Their audiences include children and adults, in both secular and religious venues. They offer free online seminars on “evolutionizing your life” that draw heavily, if selectively, on biology and evolutionary psychology to “decode human behavior, eliminate self-judgment, and create a big-hearted life of purpose and joyful integrity.” These seminars are designed to make you feel that “the Universe has put its stamp of approval on your life …you will know the thrill of living in right relationship to reality and in alignment with your highest values.”

This unconventional ministry is part of a larger constellation of movements that I elsewhere refer to as “The New Genesis,” or “Epic Science.”[1] Believing that science can provide a fresh, all-encompassing moral vision, its proponents outfit science with the accoutrements of religion and myth, and thereby hope to attract converts. The Epic of Evolution is a continuation of spiritual work begun by other scientists, philosophers, and theologians, past and present. As Dowd explains:

The Evolutionary spirituality movement has been evolving and producing its sacred texts for decades, and indeed much longer. From the early explorations of Julian Huxley and Teilhard de Chardin to the work of Epic of Evolution pioneers—Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, Miriam MacGillis, Mary Evelyn Tucker, and Eric Chaisson—to leading evolutionists such as Edward O. Wilson, David Sloan Wilson, and Ursula Goodenough to popularizers of evolutionary psychology and evolutionary brain science.[2]

The list encompasses many others. Dowd and Barlow are especially keen, as we will see, to induct biologist Richard Dawkins and other new atheists into their pantheon of heroes and prophets. Some readers may also note Dowd’s inclusion of environmental thinkers, notably religion and ecology pioneer Mary Evelyn Tucker, who along with Brian Swimme spearheads a similar “big history” project called Journey of the Universe. Ecological concerns comprise an important facet of Dowd and Barlow’s evangelism, which proclaims ecology as the new theology. That is, scientific reality gives us clear guidance on moral issues. Or as Dowd sometimes puts it, the study of our relationship to reality and how we should live in “right relationship” to that reality is now the domain of ecology—not theology.

This all sounds promising in a world gripped by environmental crisis, religious factionalism, and political inertia. But what sort of religion is this that exalts the work of mortals, including atheist scientists, as “sacred texts”? What ethical and aesthetic sensibilities does it inculcate? Who is the target audience? Here I highlight a few of the fascinating and—sometimes troubling—aspects of this evolutionary ministry and religion of reality.

Ritualizing the Epic

Dowd and Barlow are aware that hardcore atheists like Dawkins would likely balk at the prospect of putting science into mythic form. Yet myth and ritual are necessary elements for fostering affective and phenomenological connections with abstract scientific data. Dowd and Barlow create and preside over a variety of such evolutionary rituals, in both religious and secular settings. These include a Cosmic Communion that invokes the wisdom of Carl Sagan, the recitation of evolutionary parables and songs, ritual use of “Great Story beads” that mimic rosary beads, and a candlelit Cosmic Walk that symbolizes the unfolding universe. In Cosmic Communion rituals performed in liberal churches or spiritual retreat centers, participants are “anointed with ‘stardust’ (glitter) to signify, as Carl Sagan pointed out in the 1980s, that we are quite literally ‘made of stardust.’” Participants may string together Beads of the Cosmic Rosary intended to represent key moments in evolution. The shape and color of beads are suggestive of cosmic events like super novae, or signify the evolution of particular life forms such as dinosaurs, birds, or flowers. Cosmic beads can be personalized, like a charm bracelet.

For the Cosmic Walk, a rope is placed on the ground in a spiral shape, symbolizing 14 billion years of cosmic unfolding; candlelit stations around the spiral represent cosmic and evolutionary events, such as the Big Bang, the death of dinosaurs, and the emergence of early humans. Interestingly, markers near the end of the Cosmic Walk symbolize major discoveries by twentieth century scientists, including the discovery of the expanding universe—the very discovery that brought to light the “storied” structure of our cosmos. In this way, the ritual becomes self-reflexive, visually evoking the anthropic insight that humans are the universe become conscious of itself. Human knowledge of the universe is itself ritualized as an event of cosmic proportions and significance.

 

But children are an important part of the ministry for other reasons. These evolutionary evangelists aim to inoculate children against religious ideas while they are young.

 

Dowd and Barlow hope to attract audiences large enough to rival modern mega-churches. Barlow offers her vision of “evolutionary revivals” that preach the message of evolutionary psychology and brain science to young people.

I see my preacher husband (Michael Dowd) …finally being able to let loose his pentecostal, celebratory energy for praising evolution. …Michael and I have been working for more than a year on some cool stuff in evolutionary psychology and evolutionary brain science, that helps us understand WHY we have these challenges, helps us accept our “inherited proclivities,” our “unchosen nature” (Michael’s phrases), and then, from that acceptance, being able to step forward and work with our whole body-minds to channel those energies in responsible ways. We have found that teens and young people especially tune into this part of our programs, as these are their new and frightening struggles. With the help of local liberal churches (talk about re-energizing mainline congregations!), we could pour a lot of energy into an amazing event that would be the template for doing more and better “Evolutionary Revivals” all around the country—which would be a new form of participatory concert for college kids, too!

Another such ritual draws on evolutionary history as told in Dawkins’ book The Ancestor’s Tale. Dawkins conceived of the book in a way that makes it an appropriate source for Epic proponents: he intends it as a scientific version of an epic journey, akin to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. He even permits himself to draw parallels between his project and a religious quest—albeit, not without a certain amount of discomfort. (“Pilgrimages? Join forces with pilgrims?” Dawkins asks. “Yes, why not. Pilgrimage is an apt way to think about our journey to the past …an epic pilgrimage from the present to the past.”)[3] As in Chaucer’s tale, each of Dawkins’ journeyers has a unique story to tell—e.g., the Gorilla’s Tale, The Seal’s Tale, The Fruit Fly’s Tale, and even the Cauliflower’s Tale.

Inspired by Dawkins, Dowd and Barlow have created a whimsical ritual called “The River of Life” that allows participants to imaginatively greet their evolutionary ancestors. “Child-friendly” versions of the ritual are accompanied by rhyming songs about particular organisms and how they make their living. Lyrics describe “ant-eaters, tree sloths and ground sloths of long ago/all South American, ‘cept Armadill-e-oh,” or “lettuce and lima beans/all feed on solar beams.” The song’s refrain repeats the core message that all these organisms are our relatives. They have also designed a Dawkins-inspired “Ancestors Meditation” that invites participants to think themselves back into evolutionary time where they rendezvous with ancestors both recent and remote, as a way of connecting with “this long, awesome story of evolution.” The message is that “we are the universe, turning to look in awe at what we come from, and what we have become.”

Dowd and Barlow have also created what amounts to a promotional video for Dawkins’ first children’s book, The Magic of Reality. The video opens with the pair affirming Dawkins’ commitment to scientific reality as more wondrous than traditional myths and stories: “the truth is more magical …than any myth or made-up mystery or miracle,” in Dawkins’ words.[4] The book’s message, they note, has “really broad implications for society along the lines that we’ve been promoting for ten years.” One segment of the video finds them reading aloud from sections of the book that receive their strongest approval. An example is Dawkins’ distinction between “supernatural” magic (a category that includes religious myths and miracles, Grimm’s fairy tales, and the Harry Potter series, among other pernicious sources of fake magic) from the real “poetic magic” that is the domain of science. Reality—the facts as ascertained through science—is magical in the poetic sense, Dawkins contends. Dowd and Barlow similarly affirm Dawkins’ more controversial claim: “To say that something happened supernaturally is not just to say ‘We don’t understand it’ but to say ‘We will never understand it, so don’t even try.’”[5] They estimate that The Magic of Reality is suitable for children of approximately fifth grade level, but urge viewers to introduce the book to children as early as possible, before they are old enough to understand.

 

When religions are built around such deep reverence for science, those feelings naturally extend to scientists as the religious leaders, the purveyors of new, public revelation.

 

Why so much interest in children and young people? A new religion must attract a fresh supply of young converts. But children are an important part of the ministry for other reasons. These evolutionary evangelists aim to inoculate children against religious ideas while they are young. This objective is not limited to debunking fundamentalist or creationist beliefs; rather, Dowd and Barlow, like Dawkins, tackle any number of childlike beliefs or fanciful notions that are not demonstrably of scientific provenance. Barlow teaches a scientifically enlightened version of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” to child audiences. The song’s signature expression of childlike awe—“How I wonder what you are”—is updated by Barlow as “Now I know just what you are.[6] Dowd has opined elsewhere that today’s children are demanding reality, not stale old myths and fairy tales. Children are rejecting stories that do not meet their evidentiary standards.

Now kids expect the real deal: magnificent BBC, National Geographic, Discovery Channel, and History Channel productions that enflesh T. rex and trilobites, and that spectacularly feature (and animate!) the fresh news delivered by Earth’s orbiting population of space telescopes. …Ancient stories that contradict the new stories beloved of modern children (the stories of black holes and fossil behemoths) will be met with insistent protests, “But that’s not true!”

One wonders why so many children have in recent years demanded so much Harry Potter, and similar magical tales. Inspired by Dawkins, these evangelists for reality are doing their part to contain the social menace of unscientific magic.

Heroic Science as Surrogate Religion

Authority and expert knowledge are integral to Epic of Evolution advocacy, in ways that go beyond keeping up on the latest developments in science. A general preoccupation with prominent scientific figures (“heroes,” Barlow calls them) reflects the imprint on some of these new religionists of Joseph Campbell’s claims for the centrality of a hero figure and the epic journey in mythic narrative. These ideas gain support from biologist E.O. Wilson, who first coined the phrase “Epic of Evolution” in On Human Nature (1972) and who remains highly esteemed among its devotees. Wilson sees religion and myth as playing a key role in humans’ evolutionary psychology and our feelings of awe for charismatic leaders.[7] “The mental processes of religious belief—consecration of personal and group identity, attention to charismatic leaders, mythopoeism, and others—represent programmed predispositions whose self-sufficient components were incorporated into the neural apparatus of the brain by thousands of generations of evolution.”[8] Submission to a superior or charismatic being is an ingrained evolutionary survival strategy, in other words. Evolution has programmed in humans a need for these critical facets of religion.

Barlow is explicit in her endorsement of scientists as new religious leaders. Chief among her deceased heroes is biologist Julian Huxley (1887-1975). Barlow conducts imaginary conversations about Epic science with Huxley in her book Green Space, Green Time (“Marvelous term, evolutionary epic!” is Huxley’s encouraging observation to Barlow in one such imagined exchange. “Is that your creation?” he inquires. “No,” replies Barlow, “that’s Ed Wilson’s term. We’re all using it now.”)[9] Huxley was a member of the well-known family of intellectuals that includes Aldous Huxley as well as Thomas Henry Huxley (Darwin’s contemporary and one of his most ardent and pugnacious defenders). Julian, a prominent player in the modern synthesis of biology, sought to extend evolution into virtually all areas of life. Barlow appears to regard Huxley as something like a personal savior. When she encounters concerns and criticism of the Epic movement, she searches his texts for reassurance. Having located—with the help of more imaginary conversations—a passage in Huxley that seems to put the criticism to rest, she is reminded of why she “fell in love with this guy” whom she credits with changing her life, and who reassures her in moments of doubt: “I am with you!”[10]

 

As an environmental ethicist, I am concerned about the—all too cozy—affinity of these myths with Anthropocene narratives of humans as a new “God species.”

 

Green Space, Green Time draws direct parallels between witnessing new breakthroughs in science and experiencing the birth of a new religion. “It’s like thinking about having been able to live in the time of Jesus,” Barlow comments. Pursuing this thought further, she reflects that

Well, we are living in the time of Jesus, from the way-of-science standpoint. Somebody you or I know might well be the equivalent of Jesus, in that they may utterly change the world of science and therefore all the personal varieties of religious feelings drawn out of science. A hundred years from now, somebody we know might be considered as Darwin is now. (291)

The equivalence Barlow discerns between a divine figure such as Jesus and a scientist engaged in trailblazing research goes well beyond appreciation for science and its potential to inform or enrich our lives. When religions are built around such deep reverence for science, those feelings naturally extend to scientists as the religious leaders, the purveyors of new, public revelation.

Evolving Toward a Global Omega Point?

A new religion that worships scientific reality and exalts the humans who create it might seem the perfect mythic companion to a dawning Age of Humans that grants our species a special role as planetary managers and potential arbiters of future evolution. As an environmental ethicist, I am concerned about the—all too cozy—affinity of these myths with Anthropocene narratives of humans as a new “God species.”[11] Can such a religion provide resources for humble reflection on human domination of the planet? Will it encourage restraint and caution in our interactions with the natural world? Or will it serve instead to naturalize and extend human power and dominion over the planet?

Science can foster as well as undermine arrogance and hubris, depending on how it is used, the degree of trust we place in it, and how much we accept or seek to downplay the morally ambiguous nature of its findings. Like many other advocates of The New Genesis, evolutionary evangelists subscribe to a progressive view of science generally, and of evolutionary processes in particular. A belief that science is steadily converging on reality is clear from Dowd’s frequent claim that an “evidential reformation” is taking place, a new kind of enlightenment that replaces factional superstition with (sacralized) collective scientific knowledge. Humans as a species, Dowd believes, are evolving from belief to knowledge: “We’re growing up as a species, going through the very same process we’ve all gone through individually.” (Note, incidentally, how this vision of individual development aligns with Dowd and Barlow’s efforts to move children toward knowledge, and away from belief.) On this account, the human species has evolved from tribal and ethnic units into larger configurations of city-states and nations. The coming evolutionary transition will consist in a global, collective, cooperative stage of human development. This phase will be accompanied by a shared, science- and reality-based religion that serves our spiritual, empirical, and ethical needs. That religion is the Epic of Evolution.

This investment in the progressive quality of human evolution, and of science itself, draws inspiration from a variety of sources. Chief among them for Dowd are theories of multi-level selection and global cooperation advanced by evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson, who suggests that scaled-up social evolution can usher in a cooperative, interspiritual age. Like Dowd himself, Wilson traces his evolutionary philosophy to the work of scientist-priest Teilhard de Chardin who prophesied an Omega Point of human evolution, a final stage of material complexity and higher-order global consciousness—a “planetary mind.”

Though presented as a fresh, exciting vision rooted in cutting-edge science, these evolutionary prophesies will sound familiar to students of evolutionary thought and the history of science. The vision accords well with what physicist-philosopher Martin Eger identified as “Epic Science.” Epic science gained prominence in the 1970s with science popularizes and synthesizers like Carl Sagan and Edward O. Wilson, but it has much deeper roots in Victorian culture. Today, as in Victorian times, one finds in these grand projects a “shared belief among the converted that by finally replacing older mythologies, the new scientific epic will provide an overarching background for human self-understanding , moral reflection, and personal and social communication.” Common features of the genre, Eger demonstrated, include an extension of the evolutionary paradigm as far as possible; an emphasis on the unification of knowledge; “flagrant excitement” about all that science can offer to an understanding of our daily lives; and even “unabashed calls for a new morality or a new ‘vision’ of the world.” Typically the claim is made that the goal of extending evolution in these directions is close to being realized and that we are living in an era marked by the dissolution of final mysteries. For some writers in this genre—Teilhard de Chardin and his followers among them—the universe is understood to have attained the fullness of self-awareness in human beings.  The cosmos is assumed to unfold in the direction of conscious evolution.

If we seek a “new” religion that valorizes science and exalts human forms of consciousness, the Epic of Evolution fits the bill. But if the goal is to foster ethical sensibilities that encourage reverent and responsible coexistence with the natural world and its myriad beings, the evolutionary epic stands on much shakier ground. Some research suggests that the more faith one has in scientific knowledge and progress, the less concerned one is likely to be about major environmental issues like climate change. Belief in the efficacy of scientific progress actually decreases environmentally friendly behavior. This is because trust in scientific progress assures us that science will be able to control, manage, and fix whatever problems we encounter or create. In short, “the more likely we are to believe in the power of science, the more likely we are to trade in our hybrids for hummers.” In this respect, faith in science seems to mirror certain kinds of religious faith, and the climate denial or complacency it often engenders. This is a brand of faith that mimics certainty—certainty about future outcomes, about our place in the universe—regardless of whether the investment is made in science or religion. The Epic of Evolution contains a heady mix of both.

This research is not definitive, of course, but it supports my longstanding hunch that triumphalist science makes for poor environmentalism. To be sure, many people manage to combine a healthy respect for science with sincere concern and moral commitment to the natural world. That is to be encouraged. But the Epic of Evolution and the ideologies that inspire it go far beyond healthy regard for science. They effect a consecration of science that treats our current, sprawling and imperfect body of knowledge as a new revelation, a sacred text unto itself. Are humans on the brink of a transformative Omega Point and an evidential, planetary awakening? Or are we now encountering a different sort of planetary awareness—one that underscores the very real limits of our planetary system, and the limits of our own talent for cogitating, or tinkering, our way out of trouble? Could it be that inordinate trust in the power of scientific and human progress is a driver of systemic collapse? My own sense is that science, insofar as it ever supports any such broad conclusion, lends support to the latter position. As for how we should respond, individually or collectively, to what the data is telling us: that is a question science alone can never answer.


Lisa H. Sideris is an associate professor of religious studies at Indiana University with research interests in environmental ethics and narratives at the intersection of science and religion. She is author of Environmental Ethics, Ecological Theology, and Natural Selection (Columbia University Press, 2003) and co-editor of a collection of interdisciplinary essays, Rachel Carson: Legacy and Challenge (SUNY, 2008). Her recent work focuses on the role of wonder in environmental and science-religion discourse, and on efforts to recast scientific narratives as sacred, shared stories for humanity.

 

[1] See Sideris, Lisa H. 2015. “Science as Sacred Myth? Ecospirituality in the Anthropocene Age. Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture, Vol. 9.2, 136-153.

[2] Dowd, Michael. 2009. Thank God for Evolution. New York: Penguin, 275.

[3] Dawkins, Richard. 2004. The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 8.

[4] Dawkins, Richard. 2011. The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True, New York: Simon and Schuster, 265.

[5] Ibid., 23.

[6] The verses appear in Dowd, Thank God for Evolution, p. 91.

[7] See Wilson’s endnotes to Consilience, particularly for Chapter Three, “The Enlightenment.”

[8] Wilson, Edward O. 1972. On Human Nature. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 206.

[9] Barlow, Connie. 1997. Green Space, Green Time: The Way of Science. New York: Springer-Verlag, 294.

[10] Ibid., 296.

[11] For more on this see my essay, “Anthropocene Convergences: A Report from the Field.”

Image from Flickr via BobvdK

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