By B.J. Marshall
In The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, Francis Collins presents what he believes to be the strongest arguments for theism: what he calls the “Moral Law,” the origins of the universe, and life on earth. In a nutshell, Collins sees the ubiquity of morality to be the work of God on our hearts; he sees the marvelous universe and the nature of reality to be “an insight into the mind of God” (p.62); and he sees life on Earth to be the handiwork of God. While the brand of theism he supports is specifically Christian, he does not spend a great deal of time arguing the point. He does spend one chapter apiece devoted to refuting atheism, agnosticism, creationism, and intelligent design. He then posits what he calls “BioLogos” as an alternative worldview (Bio meaning life and Logos meaning word.)
Well, that covers the gist of the book. Before we delve into it, starting with Collins’ introduction, I would like to introduce my plan of attack here. I intend to post weekly, where I will most likely cover a chapter in anywhere from two to four weeks depending on the content of the chapter. I openly welcome your comments to my content, so feel free to use the comment section liberally.
To understand Collins’ perspective, it is helpful to know a little about him. Here’s an excerpt of his Wikipedia entry: “Francis Sellers Collins (born April 14, 1950), M.D., Ph.D., is an American physician-geneticist, noted for his landmark discoveries of disease genes and his leadership of the Human Genome Project and described by the Endocrine Society as ‘one of the most accomplished scientists of our time.’ He currently serves as Director of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Collins… was president of the BioLogos Foundation before accepting the nomination to lead the NIH. On October 14, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Francis Collins to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.”
Collins starts his book by recounting a press conference with Bill Clinton, Tony Blair (connected via satellite), and others to announce the complete mapping of the Human Genome. He asks the reader to consider blatant religious references by political figures (Clinton referred to this event as “learning the language in which God created life” (p.2)) and the number of scientists who hold a belief in God. Collins is obviously discouraged that there exists such antagonism between the spiritual and scientific worlds, and he claims that a synthesis of the spiritual and scientific worlds is possible, although he maintains the notion of non-overlapping magisteria.
Collins asks why a president and a scientist would feel compelled to invoke God. In reply, he lists a few possibilities: is it poetry, hypocrisy, currying favor from believers? Presidents and prominent figures invoke God all the time. Every State of the Union address has “And God bless America.” Although I try hard not to, I still invoke god with surprise “OMG!” or when I stub my toe (use your imagination to think of what I say). Given that almost everything a president says is carefully crafted, Clinton’s statement may very well be to curry favor from the 92% of Americans who believe in God.
Collins also attempts to demonstrate to readers how many scientists believe in God, but I found it to be disappointing. Collins mentions a 1916 study that asked scientists whether they believed in a God “who actively communicates with humankind and to whom one may pray in expectation of receiving an answer” (p.4). In 1997, the survey was conducted again with much the same results – about 40%. Collins doesn’t cite his source for this study, so we don’t know who these “scientists” are. Are they they same scientists who doubt evolution? According to a 1996 article in the journal Nature, in which scientists who were members of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) were polled, more than 65% did not believe in God. (Percentages varied by fields of study.) Many who did not believe were agnostic. In the table of the link I provided, one figure for personal belief in God is only 7%. That’s a far cry from 40!
Whatever the number of scientist-believers are, Collins maintains that “[s]cience’s domain is to explore nature. God’s domain is in the spiritual world, a realm not possible to explore with the tools and language of science” (p.6). There are two glaring problems with this. First, wouldn’t God’s domain be both the spiritual and natural realms? I mean, he’s omnipotent and omnipresent, right? Second, the Christian deity is apparently one that operates in the world. Recall how the study Collins cited asked scientists whether they believed in a god who actively communicates and answers prayers. (I’m assuming at least some of those prayers have expected results that are tangible.) As soon as God enters the natural world, science can test those claims. In fact, it has in many cases.
Collins at least gets it right when he states that science “is the only reliable way to understand the natural world” (p.6). So I wonder how he justifies a belief in something he can’t validate. He says that science can’t answer certain questions like “why did the universe come into being,” “what is the meaning of human existence,” and “what happens after we die?” I think it might be these questions which spur him to look at something beyond the natural.
In the next chapter, Collins shares with the reader his journey from atheism to belief in a “God who is unlimited by time and space, and who takes personal interest in human beings.”
Other posts in this series: