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Book review: The Language of God by Francis Collins

This post was written before I became an atheist and does not represent my current views. You can find more up-to-date posts on religion in my faith/skepticism category.

Image from AmazonFrancis Collins is an eminent scientist who, as head of the Human Genome Project, led the monumental undertaking to sequence the entire human genome. Collins is also a Christian and he explains why he believes and how that relates to his life's work in the 2006 book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence For Belief.

Collins sets himself apart from most Christian apologists in a few ways. First, he doesn't see science as an opponent of religion; he insists that they answer different questions. Second, Collins agrees with the scientific consensus about evolution and he doesn't see it as a threat to religion. He spends a great deal of the book presenting the evidence for evolution and arguing in its favor. A third thing that makes Collins' apologetic different from the likes of Josh McDowell and Lee Strobel is that his case is not built on the Bible. He includes illustrative quotes and makes passing reference to the textual reliability of the Bible, but it's far from being central to his argument.

Collins dismisses a few other reasons for believing before getting to his evidence. The origin of life, long believed to be a question that science cannot answer, has been commonly claimed as evidence for God's existence. How did self-replicating life forms come into existence if God didn't breathe life into them? Science has made inroads toward solving this cosmic riddle, and Collins refuses to hinge his belief on a gap in our knowledge that may be closing.

He deals similarly with the claims of irreducible complexity by Michael Behe and other intelligent design spokesmen. Behe claims that certain structures and processes are so complex that they couldn't have evolved because if they were any less complex then they wouldn't provide any advantage to the organism. Nearly all scientists, including Collins, have seen the problems with Behe's idea. The examples that Behe gave have been debunked and there are no known irreducibly complex structures in biology.

After dealing with the origin of life and irreducible complexity, Collins turns to the more general reason for believing in God, called "God of the gaps." This phrase is used to describe a view of the relationship between science and religion. There are gaps in our scientific knowledge, like how life originated and how certain structures evolved. Believers often want to credit God for doing things that we don't yet understand. Humans have taken this approach for time out of mind. Before we understood rainbows, many cultures assumed they had a supernatural explanation. Those who take this view of God find that as scientific knowledge grows, God shrinks. For decades, thinking believers have discarded this view of God. Collins roundly rejects any evidence for God that is based solely on gaps in our knowledge.

So, scientifically, ID (Intelligent Design) fails to hold up, providing neither an opportunity for experimental validation nor a robust foundation for its primary claim of irreducible complexity. More than that, however, ID also fails in a way that should be more of a concern to the believer than to the hard-nosed scientist. ID is a "God of the gaps" theory, inserting a supposition of the need for supernatural intervention in places that its proponents claim science cannot explain. . . . Ultimately a "God of the gaps" religion runs a huge risk of simply discrediting faith. ID portrays the Almighty as a clumsy Creator, having to intervene at regular intervals to fix the inadequacies of His own initial plan for generating the complexity of life. For a believer who stands in awe of the almost unimaginable intelligence and creative genius of God, this is a very unsatisfactory image (Collins, 193).

So, after passing over the claims of creationists, intelligent design proponents, "God of the gaps" evidence in general and Biblical literalists, Collins presents his evidence for belief. It can be narrowed down to two reasons: 1) The universe had a beginning which seems to have been fine-tuned for life, and 2) humans all share a sense of morality.

Scientists have made reasonable explanations for what has happened in the history of the universe all the way back 13.7 billion years to mere microseconds after the big bang. But, it's true that science has been powerless to tell us anything about the universe before that. The singularity that must have existed before the explosion of the Big Bang defies all scientific laws. And as the universe expanded, conditions that would be friendly to life are a very unlikely outcome. This could be seen as evidence of a supernatural designer that brought the singularity into being and sent it out of the gate at the proper trajectory to ensure that life would be possible in a few billion years. Or it could be seen as another gap in what we know. Like other gaps, it's getting smaller all the time. And even if science never learns any more about the beginning of the universe, consider the implications of Collins' view. He says that God set up the conditions of the big bang almost 14 billion years ago, then didn't intervene until two or three thousand years ago, once humans had evolved fully and begun to found civilizations.

Collins second reason draws heavily from C.S. Lewis, who makes the universal human experience of morality his central reason for believing in God. Not only is this line of reasoning susceptible to the charge of finding God in another gap in our knowledge, but that gap has already all but vanished. Collins and Lewis are both correct when they claim that nearly all humans share an inborn sense of right and wrong. The next step in their reasoning is that if there's a moral law, then there must be a moral lawgiver. God is invoked as the absolute standard that our morality is measured against. I used to consider this a very convincing argument, but now I don't see how you get from the fact of shared morality to the conclusion of God's existence. It is one attempt to the question of where our sense of morals comes from, but is it the most probable?

The Darwinian evolution that Collins uses to to explain the complexity and diversity of organisms can also explain the behavior of humans and other organisms. As an example, take the maternal instinct. It's easy to see how any animal with a strong affection for its offspring would be more likely to pass its genes on. As much as I enjoy taking care of my daughter, I recognize that this paternal instinct is a product of evolution. That doesn't make my feelings any less significant to me. Morality could be seen in the same way. A group of evolving humans living a small group, as early humans did, would be more likely to survive than a neighboring group if they took care of each other. Kindness, generosity, forgiveness and bravery would all give a survival advantage. As humans spread around the world and diverged into different cultures, you would expect slight differences in this instinct to evolve but for the heart of the instinct to be shared by all humans. And this is exactly what we see. Does this make our shared morality any less real? I see no reason to abandon an instinct that has served us so well just because we've found out more about its origin.

Many people will find Collins' approach refreshing. Others will find it conciliatory or even blasphemous. For my part, I find it unconvincing.

8 comments

I’m not sure kindness, generosity, or forgiveness would offer much survival advantage. Maybe within the tribe, if those were the characteristics that were valued or attractive to the opposite sex. But soon the Klingons are going to come over the hill and smash your forgiving skulls in and take your women. Their aggressive, sneaky, ruthless DNA will live on.

Seems that most modern societal structures are in place as a check against our innate inclinations.

Interesting that our “shared morality” has little to do with how we actually behave or how we want to behave. Have we evolved some need for guilt I wonder?

Two links for you:

Internet monk has a new podcast out, Coffee cup apologetics. His second episode covers some of what you’ve talked about. It may be a rehash of what you’ve already read, he mentions zacharias and lewis. But I think what he says briefly about the use of apologetics is good. http://www.internetmonk.com/imonkaudio/coffeecupapologetics2.mp3

There’s an article in the recent Discover magazine about this. I started it at school and then had to turn the magazine back in to the library (although something inside me told me to just keep it). Now that I found it online, I’ll finish it.
http://discovermagazine.com/2007/may/the-discover-interview-marc-hauser/?searchterm=morality%20evolution


matt [Member]  05/30/07 @ 23:02

I’m not sure the article adds much to the conversation. But I’d be interested to know what you think.


matt [Member]  05/30/07 @ 23:23
dan [Member] • http://www.brendoman.com/05/31/07 @ 07:37

Is there any argument that out-group kindness, generosity, or forgiveness has any evolutionary benefit or evolutionary roots? Or even that it has any societal benefit? I don’t see much extension of kind treatment toward outsiders outside of intentional and fairly radical religious/moral organizations. These ideas have to come from somewhere. Maybe they’re the process of people sitting around thinking deeply. But it’s hard for me to see them as something innately inside us. Mostly.


matt [Member]  05/31/07 @ 08:45
dan [Member] • http://www.brendoman.com/05/31/07 @ 09:12

I haven’t read Collins’ book yet, but I’ve read several reviews and this one is the best written yet. Your responses are well-argued and the examples memorable and well-chosen ("a New Yorker in Missouri” paralleled with the other ethnic minorities you list is a really interesting and provocative example, I think). You could probably get some cool free stuff from publishers if you offer to review their materials, and I’d like to read more reviews from you.


doug [Member]  06/02/07 @ 07:49
dan [Member] • http://www.brendoman.com/06/02/07 @ 07:52

I have not made a detailed study of the cosmos nor of the terrestrial origins.
I do understand how some investigations lead to evolution. To me evolution is still a theory, not a doctrine. There are too many assumptions and self-deceptions in the theory.
Evolution cannot order its own purpose nor origin. Or is the origin a matter of eternity? So, if this is true, then nothing has been discovered which is reliable for scientific advancement.


Wilmer R. Witte [Visitor]• 10/19/09 @ 07:32

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