Friday, September 17, 2010

#79. A Dowd Sampler


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In my previous post, I said that Michael Dowd's book, Thank God for Evolution, is so comprehensive that, in trying to describe it, I hardly know where to start.



The most basic thought about Dowd's work I'd like to share with readers is simple enough; it's that he has taken the new cosmology to heart. He offers countless practical thoughts for an understanding of our creative participation in the evolution of the universe. As far as I'm aware, nothing else comparable-- in terms of his many down-to-earth suggestions-- is available.

And because of his background as an evangelical minister, he is able to sympathetically address the concerns of many religious people. As a reader commented recently, "Michael Dowd’s book fills the niche we have been waiting for. It reinterprets mysteries of the Christian faith in light of the evolutionary story. [It] is an inspiring and unique insight into what the Great Story means for each of us in our daily lives."

But Dowd is surprisingly good at addressing the concerns of non-religious people as well. And his broad inter-religious perspective is an excellent model of how our planet's traditional religions can respectfully relate to one another.

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For the record, I want to say that when I first heard of his work I mistrusted him. "Even if it's the new cosmology he's fanatical about," I thought to myself, "who needs another fanatical preacher?"

It wasn't until I heard him speak and got to shake his hand that I could see that his style and personality had nothing about them of the righteousness and rigidity or fanaticism we see in so many religious leaders.

Dowd is just the opposite. As the reader quoted above says, "Throughout his book he speaks as a pastor, with compassion and understanding of human frailties."

In this post I want to offer three samples of Dowd's practical ideas. I hope to keep them brief, to provide readers with just enough information for you to decide if you want to do any follow-up reading. If you prefer web sites to old-fashioned books, you can do your reading on-line. I'll provide some web links at the end this post.

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Sample #1. One of Michael Dowd's most practical thoughts with regard to the connections between science and religion is that religious people don't need to be afraid to make changes in their traditional religious views. In fact, they need to make some changes if our religions are to regain their power for good in the world.

Dowd quotes the early-20th-century English mathematician and evolution-friendly philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, who says, "Religion will not gain its old power until it faces change as science does."

Science is constantly updating itself-- continually refining its understanding of the world at every level from stars and atoms to life on Earth and the workings of the nervous system and brain. Religion needs to do no less.

In our day it's apparent that some aspects of the Earth's religions are getting in the way of their own best traditions. Dowd says they need to let go of some of the mythological aspects of our religious traditions. 

He's talking about things like the New Testament story of Jesus walking on water and the Taoist story of Lao Tzu, the author of the Tao Te Ching, who was at his birth already 98 years old!

The cosmologies of the pre-Modern religions are filled with such attention-getting and often delightful stories. But we don't need to be afraid to recognize them precisely as stories.

Dowd gives an excellent example on page 362 where he lists no fewer than twenty-seven religious traditions which honor a virgin-mother. 

Some of the more familiar names of individuals with virgin-mothers include Heracles, Plato, Perseus, Krishna, Tammuz, Horus, Hermes, the emperor Augustus, Alexander the Great, Dionysus, and Romulus and Remus.

Dowd's list also provides another example of a mythological feature that's commonly found in pre-modern religions: at least five of these figures were not only born of a virgin-mother but were also born at the winter solstice. On the old calendars, that was December 25.

In our day, religions need to give up their insistence on the literalness of such mythological features.

Ken Wilber offers a similar point in his Marriage of Sense and Soul, where he notes that it's not an issue if participants in a specific tradition want to believe things like the virginity of the founder's mother. It only becomes an issue if believers insist that everybody else has to believe it, or if non-believers insist that no one should believe it.

In Christianity, for example, the virginity of the Virgin Mary is a time-honored belief, and there's no reason for not accepting it if you want to-- or for not accepting it if you don't want to. The basics of the Christian tradition don't depend on it.

Over the last several decades, a comment that has increasingly been heard from young people is, "I'm spiritual but not religious." To a great extent it's their way of saying that they want to hold on to basics but don't feel any need to accept mythological features.

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Sample #2. Another thing that young people mean when they say "I'm spiritual but not religious" has to do with the attitudes of religious institutions toward different kinds of people.

In a widely publicized article which appeared recently on Facebook and in the national media, Anne Rice, the writer of popular Vampire stories, publicly disowned the institutional form of Christianity to which she had earlier been a convert. Her point is that in our day the institutional forms of religion seem to be mostly negative.

She views institutional Christianity as anti-gay, anti-women, anti-Moslem, anti-sinners, anti-nonbelievers, "anti-" just about everything and everyone. "Anti-life," she says.

Michael Dowd is especially good at making clear that these "anti-" attitudes are not part of the basic Western religious tradition. He says that the Judeo-Christian tradition is by its very essence inclusive of everyone, that we can see-- more clearly than ever from the evolutionary perspective-- that that's what the tradition is all about.

Justice, peace, and equality have been the basics of Western religious tradition from the time of the Hebrew prophets, long before Jesus' own preaching about God's "kingdom"-- the "reign of God"-- as welcoming and promoting the welfare of all.

The Dali Lama says "Compassion is my religion." It's hard to imagine anyone who takes the Western religious tradition seriously wanting to say less.

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Sample #3. As I see it, respect for persons--and for personal freedom-- comes first of all from our respect for ourselves. Science has been making a major contribution along those lines with its findings in the area of brain and nervous system studies for the last fifty years.

As the reader I quoted above notes, Dowd speaks with "compassion and understanding of our human frailties." They are, as he says, "part of our deep ancestral heritage." When we know something about our ancestral heritage we can see that there's no possible place for the righteousness and rigidity of religious fundamentalists or for the exclusionary attitudes of many religious institutions.

Dowd does an especially good job in presenting an easy-to-understand summary of the evolutionary development of the brain, the biological source of our frailties. He calls it the "brain's creation story." In terms of living out the New Cosmology in everyday life, this sacred story of our brain allows us to trust that we are called, with all our frailties, to be co-creative participants in the world's evolutionary development.

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It is likely that you are familiar with the term "triune brain" from the popular media. It's the insight, developed by scientist Paul MacLean about a half-century ago, that the human brain has several layers, each of which comes from a different level of our evolutionary past.

A good example of science updating itself is that a fourth area of the brain has recently been recognized, so that Dowd can refer now to the "quadrune brain." The basic idea is that we share the deepest of these four layers with reptiles, and the next two more recently evolved layers with mammals and primates. There is also, of course, a uniquely human layer to our brain.

Dowd gives these four layers of the brain cute easy-to-remember names: "Lizard Legacy," "Furry Li'l Mammal," "Monkey Mind" and "Higher Porpoise." He says, "Children and teens, especially, delight in these playful ways of talking about our brain." (I do, and you probably will, too.) He makes use of these ideas frequently in his book, so I'm going to offer a few brief thoughts about each of them in this "sample #3" of my Dowd Sampler.

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"Lizard Legacy." This is innermost part of the brain, the earliest layer in terms of biological evolution; we share it with reptiles. It includes the brain stem and what scientists call the cerebellum. It's that part of the brain that keeps us breathing and allows us to physically move our muscles without having to consciously think about it. Without our Lizard Legacy we couldn't drive a car, play a musical instrument or type on a computer keyboard.

It's also the seat of those instinctual urges, not much under conscious control, which Dowd calls our "inherited proclivities." These are our basic biological drives for food, sex and shelter which are biological essentials for individual and species survival.

Dowd points out that our Lizard Legacy, which itself developed from the nervous system of even earlier creatures who lived in the sea, is also the basic source of our addictions. As an example of its power, Dowd mentions that scientists have found that even creatures like nematode worms, who have almost no brain at all, can get addicted to nicotine. 

So our inclinations toward excess in terms of food, sex and "feel-good substances" are part of our evolutionary heritage. They are deeply rooted in our reptilian brain and we don't need to feel guilty about them.

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"Furry Li'l Mammal." This is Dowd's name for the middle part of the brain, which we share with our mammalian relatives (those animals who have hair or fur on their bodies, give birth to live young and have milk glands to feed them). Scientists refer to this old mammalian brain as the limbic system; it is the seat of our memory and emotions.

The limbic system transforms the earlier reptilian drives for food and sex into powerful emotional-charged cravings. It's responsible for the fact that we can respond emotionally to music and that we can be violently repelled by the odor of rotten food.

Reptiles don't have a limbic system and don't care for their young after they hatch; mammals do. The Furry Li'l Mammal is the source of the deep drives we experience for relationships, to be bonded with others, and to acquire some recognition in our social groups. It's also the basis for close friendship and warmth in human relationships.

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"Monkey Mind." Scientists call this newer part of the mammalian brain the neocortex. We share it with our primate relatives. It's also called the "Chatterbox Mind" because it is incessantly talking to itself. It's the source of language, of sequential thinking, and it's what allows us to learn by reasoning as well as by experience.

The neocortex lets us choose between our competing reptilian (Lizard Legacy) instincts and our more social (Furry Li'l Mammal) urges. It also allows us to look ahead: "If I do this, then that might happen." But it also causes us to constantly fret about the past and worry about the future. It's hard to turn off the Monkey Mind.

Addictions to watching TV, playing computer games and surfing the web are consequences of our "chatterbox" neocortex. It endlessly takes us from one thought to another and keeps us from being in the present moment. The term "Monkey Mind" comes from Buddhism, where exercises such as meditation, drumming and chanting have been used for many centuries to quiet down this part of the mind that just wants to keep on spinning and spinning.

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"Higher Porpoise." This is the most recently evolved part of our brain and unique to humans. It's called the "executive brain" because it lets us not only choose between competing drives from the older parts of the brain but also enables us to do so with strength and conviction. Scientists refer to it as the frontal lobes or pre-frontal cortex.

This part of our brain is what accounts for our sense of the future and our vision of what might be. Dowd gives some down-to-earth examples of how it works. It's what allows a teenage boy, for example, to get up early to practice for a swim meet or to avoid drug use so he won't get thrown off the football team. It's thanks to our brain's "Higher Porpoise" that we can envision and plan for a future, and work to accomplish our goals.

The pre-frontal cortex is especially significant because it is what makes each of us not just a living being or a mammal or a primate but a person. It is the home of our personal consciousness and freedom-- of the mystery which we experience ourselves to be.

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It's this sense of personal freedom that's the very essence of Modern and Post-modern worldview, and being better informed about the brain's Sacred Story gives us an understanding of human freedom that people in earlier centuries did not have. I quoted Ken Wilber in post #76 with regard to Modernity's Gains: "Slavery existed in every pre-modern society and none of the world's pre-modern religions offered these rights and dignities on any large scale."

The point is that knowing the brain's creation story "allows us," as Dowd says, "to trust our shadow side." And it's only when we trust ourselves that we can be willing to let go of things like the mythological features of our religious traditions, and that we are able to trust, rather than fear or exclude, other persons. We all have a Lizard Legacy as well as a Furry Li'l Mammal and a Monkey Mind; but we also all have a Higher Porpoise.

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I hope my "Dowd Sampler" will encourage you to learn more of what Dowd has to say. If you're interested in using electronic media, these two web sites may be of special interest:

One is a link to an on-going discussion he's been having with the head of a major Baptist seminary (look for "Is Biblical Christianity Bankrupt?"):

The other is a list of some of the world's top science and religion leaders, including a number of Nobel Prize winners, who support his work:

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1 comment:

Sam said...

While trying to eliminate numerous spam comments, I inadvertently deleted all comments at the END of the posts up until #90. BUT... they are still preserved in the collections of comments found in posts #32, #67 and #83.

One set of comments, however-- for posts #84 to #89-- has been completely lost. If you happen to have copied any of them, I'd much appreciate your sending a copy to me so I can restore them. Thanks.