July 1st marks the 150th anniversary of the theory of evolution. For years, I believed that Darwin was of the devil. Now, I deeply honor his contribution to religion and my walk with God. Indeed, other than Jesus, no one has had a more positive impact on my faith and my ministry than has Charles Darwin.
For the last six years as an itinerant evolutionary evangelist, I have preached the good news of evolution from the pulpits of hundreds of churches across America. Faith can be strengthened and difficulties in life surmounted—all by bringing a mainstream scientific understanding of evolution into our religious lives. The response has been phenomenal. People of all ages and across the theological spectrum light up when they see new possibilities open for them, their loved ones, and the world. Often tearfully, always excitedly, they share their testimonials. Here is mine.
Jesus and a nurturing church community gave me a lifeline in my struggles to find sobriety as a young man. A corollary of being born again, however, was that the preachers I listened to and the authors I read told me that accepting evolution would seduce me away from godly living. At first I believed them. But then I met professors, ministers, priests, nuns, rabbis, and chaplains who not only accepted an evolutionary view of cosmos and culture but found it religiously inspiring. Soon I too came to embrace the history of everyone and everything as our common Creation story.
Today, thanks to Charles Darwin and the countless evolutionary scientists and writers he inspired—in fields as diverse as astrophysics, geology, genetics, primatology, sociobiology, and brain science—I interpret my Christian faith in far broader and more this-world realistic ways than ever before. It is obvious to me now that God didn’t stop revealing truth vital to human wellbeing back when people believed the world was flat and religious insights were recorded on animal skins. God is still communicating faithfully today, publicly, through the worldwide, self-correcting scientific enterprise. I now see science as revelatory and facts as God’s native tongue.
From this perspective, divine grace and guidance extend back billions, not just thousands, of years. Looking at the history of the universe through sacred eyes, my faith is strengthened and my heart filled with joy. No longer do I fear that my family and friends will suffer for eternity in the fires of an otherworldly hell. No longer am I led astray by my instincts—my unchosen nature. And no longer do I find it difficult to live in integrity and know the peace that passes all understanding.
When I ponder the past, I am humbled and filled with unspeakable awe and gratitude at our journey through deep time to the present moment. When I see suffering nearly everywhere today, I am overwhelmed with compassion and called to action. And when I look to the immediate or distant future, I am filled with faith, hope, and a sense of urgency to do my part in ushering in God’s kingdom on Earth as it is in heaven.
For me, the ethics of evolution are not only consistent with the teachings of religion, they advance it. An evolutionary understanding urges me to grow in morality and to expand my circles of care and compassion—even to include those who see the world in very different ways. My worship of God now includes doing everything I can to ensure a just and thriving future for planet Earth, for our children's children, and for as many species as possible. As an ordained Christian minister, I cannot imagine a higher calling for myself.
I am not, of course, trying to claim that Darwin’s legacy has been entirely positive. Just as atrocities have been committed in the name of Jesus and Christianity, so have evils been perpetrated in the name of Darwin and evolution. There will always be those who distort the work of great men and women to advance their own shortsighted and self-centered ends. But when I look back over my life and reflect on the significant people who have blessed me, my relationships, and my world, Jesus and Darwin are at the top of my list.
Rev. Michael Dowd is the author of Thank God for Evolution (Viking), which has been endorsed by five Nobel Prize-winners and dozens of other scientific and religious leaders.