The Language of God: And So It Begins

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:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Andy

    I’m not bothered about saying OMG. I’m not referring to god when I do so in the same way I’m not referring to s** when I say f***

  • Reginald Selkirk

    what he calls the “Moral Law,”

    An obvious sign that Collins is a C.S. Lewis fanbois. If you are not already familiar with Lewis and responses to that argument, you might want to a little background reading on it.

  • Jim Baerg

    “Collins sees the ubiquity of morality to be the work of God on our hearts”

    As Reginald points out that is C.S. Lewis’ major argument for the existence of God. When I read Lewis’ _Mere Chrisianity_ many years ago I found that to be a weak argument since both biological & cultural evolution would result in a morality of some sort in any social animal.

    (I was mildly impressed by Lewis managing to interpret the Trinity in a fashion that made in not self-contradictory.)

  • Bob Carlson

    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.”

    Which he has previously claimed happened as a result of seeing a frozen waterfall:

    On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains … the majesty and beauty of God’s creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ..

    Wow, phenomena like waterfalls freezing or suns rising evidently make no sense to him without a belief in Jesus Christ. Where’s the rationality in that?

  • voss

    “why did the universe come into being,” “what is the meaning of human existence,” and “what happens after we die?”

    Francis Collins is by no means the first apologist to ask these questions. All of them appear to contain elementary and unwarranted assumptions. I will address the easiest one first.

    1. “what happens after we die?”

    We decompose. Do you have any reason to expect more than that? If so, then please be specific as to what real world evidence lead you to that conclusion.

    2. “what is the meaning of human existence,”

    That question is so vague as to possess virtually no meaning. Does human existence have to have a meaning beyond the obvious heritability of alleles? If the question is of philosophical relevence, then does human existence have to have only one meaning? Can there not be a meaning for each human? Mightn’t we each determine our own meaning? Who says there must be only one meaning?!

    3. “why did the universe come into being,”

    This question could be interpreted in at least two ways. Please specify which way you meant. Was it meant in the sense of physical science, as in: “what principle of physics caused the Big Bang?” (or why is there something, rather that nothing?). Or did you mean to ask “does the universe have a human purpose?” as told in the hundreds of creation myths in human history.

    This last question at least has the potential for interesting discussion when you specify your intention.

  • bassmanpete

    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.

    My opinion is that it has a lot to do with the size of one’s ego. The large ego can’t accept that it’s going to cease to exist, so it grabs at any straw that appears to offer continued existence.

  • http://protostellarclouds.blogspot.com/ Mathew Wilder

    The 3 questions Collins says science can’t answer are ill-formed or absurd questions in the first place, so who cares if science can’t answer them? That doesn’t mean science doesn’t determine what we should believe. (I happen to think science’s success record should influence our beliefs about ontology, but that could just be the chemicals talking.)

  • Reginald Selkirk

    “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.’ …

    I remember the Human Genome Project, of which Collins was chief administrator. I also remember how it started to lag, and how Collins had half his lunch eaten by J. Craig Venter. Speaking of whom, Venter was recently interviewed by Der Speigel, and Collins came up in the conversation. I found out about it through Pharyngula.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    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?”

    Another criticism of this: just because science cannot provide answers on some questions does not mean that the answers supplied by religion are correct. That would be an argument from ignorance. Indeed, different religions come up with different answers to such questions, and religion does not offer a reliable method to choose between them.

  • jack

    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.

    Here’s the source to which he is referring:

    Larson EJ, Witham L (1997) Scientists are still keeping the faith. Nature 386:435-436

    These are the same authors who did the survey of the NAS a year later. The first study surveyed a broad population of scientists. At the time, most of the popular press made a big deal of the first study, as in the July 20, 1998 cover story of Newsweek entitled “Science Finds God”. When about 90% of the general adult population believes in God, and only about 40% of scientists do, “Science Finds God” is hardly the appropriate rational conclusion.

    Even so, for me the most interesting question is, “Why is that 40% not zero?” I’m working on a book that attempts to answer that, but that’s getting a bit off-topic here.

  • http://peternothnagle.com Peter N

    …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.”

    Your two objections to that assertion are fine, but I would add a third (which Reginald also touched on in his comment above). How on Earth can no, strike that — How the Hell can — Damn, I can’t find an emphatic but non-ironic way of putting this.

    If “God’s domain” is supposed to exist with no material manifestations, and no interaction with the physical world, then how (fill in the blank) are we supposed to tell the difference between facts and random, made-up imaginings? How can we have any confidence in anything he says after this?

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Peter N “If ‘God’s domain’ is supposed to exist with no material manifestations, and no interaction with the physical world, then how (fill in the blank) are we supposed to tell the difference between facts and random, made-up imaginings? How can we have any confidence in anything he says after this?”
    /me puts on Theology hat
    “‘Facts’ are what I know. ‘Random, made-up imaginings’ are what you know. My access to the infinite truths of existence make me humble. Your false ideas about it fill you with hubris. I know this is true because my personal experience tell me so. Your personal experience is full of shit.”
    /me takes off Theology hat

    See? That was easy. Don’t you feel foolish now?

  • David

    Most Theistic defenders seem to never have heard of the Argument from Consequences fallacy.

    God has to exist because otherwise morality is a subjective human construct. God has to exist because otherwise when you die, you die.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Even so, for me the most interesting question is, “Why is that 40% not zero?” I’m working on a book that attempts to answer that, but that’s getting a bit off-topic here.

    That is not the most interesting question for me. Compared to the general populace, 40% of scientists with god-belief is extremely low, and that is the most obvious conclusion to be drawn.

    Explaining it from the other end; why don’t 100% of scientists go all the way to atheism, has some very easy and obvious candidates: Religious brainwashing starts from a very young age. Scientists who are religious tend to be less fundamentalist in their beliefs than the general populace. Some scientists may hang on to religion for social or other nontheological reasons. Once a scientist has thrown off the more extreme, dogmatic forms of belief, she may lose interest in the topic rather than pursuing it to its logical completion (because after all, scientists have other things to think about, such as doing science.)

    Perhaps you see some value in digging through such reasons, and good luck with it, but I do not see the non-total shriking of god-belief as any argument in favour of the truth of god-claims; rather people, including scientists, are not consistently logical beings in all aspects of their lives.

  • Scotlyn

    @

    My opinion is that it has a lot to do with the size of one’s ego. The large ego can’t accept that it’s going to cease to exist, so it grabs at any straw that appears to offer continued existence.

    To be fair, it may be compassion as well as ego. If Collins’s MD is a medical qualification, then he may have had to personally confront the question, “why can’t all of our best evidence-based medicine stop people from dying.” It may be that medical doctors tend to be numbered more among believers than other scientifically educated people because in their daily work they inhabit this margin between living and dying, and are therefore liable to developing the hope against hope that a failure in keeping your patient among the living is not an utter failure – ie that some ineffable divine plan exists in which there is hope of a resurrection.

  • L.Long

    ………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…..

    Hate to disappoint but nether can any religion or supernatural belief. An no one has supplied verifiable proof they have been there and came back and related what it is like….Don’t even try ‘near death BS’ as proof. So he still lives with a deep delusion. VOSS stated the reality and IF there is something beyond then deal with it then, for now live well and be happy-Live is too short.

  • jack

    I do not see the non-total shrinking of god-belief as any argument in favour of the truth of god-claims

    Nor do I.

    people, including scientists, are not consistently logical beings in all aspects of their lives

    Exactly so. But is it not surprising that some scientists, who dedicate their working lives to understanding nature through reason and evidence, cannot break free of the emotional forces that draw people into religious belief? It is not merely the lingering effects of indoctrination during childhood. Collins, for example, never experienced that. There is something special, something unusual, something tenacious about the emotions that engender belief in a personal God. Why is that? What are those emotional forces? Can they be explained in a way that makes sense in light of our evolutionary history? These are the questions I’m trying to answer. Of course, I’m not the first person to attempt this, but I think I have something new to add to the discussion.

  • BJ Marshall

    Collins being a C.S. Lewis fanboy and his inconsistent stance on “god-of-the-gaps” Arguments from Ignorance will certainly show up in later posts, so you’re all on the right train of thought.

  • charles

    God who is unlimited by time and space, and who takes personal interest in human beings.

    Jesus: Holy Zeus! Dad – check this out!
    Holy Ghost: He’s busy smiting somebody. What’s up?
    Jesus: Check out Ann Coulter and that dude down there!
    Holy Ghost: That’s not Ann Coulter. That’s Jodie Fisher.
    Jesus: Oh – right.
    Yahweh: HELLO SON. WHAT’S GOING ON HERE?
    Jesus: Hey Pops! Just checking out our creation. Wow! Are those real?
    Yahweh: BY JOVE, DON’T YOU HAVE ANYTHING BETTER TO DO?
    Jesus: Sorry, dad. It’s just that these humans, they’re so darn interesting!

  • Zietlos

    I find it amusing @19, that Yahweh is yelling “By Jehovah”…

    Jack… I think you’re looking at the issue in the wrong way. Reginald has the right of this, in my opinion. To use an example in a different (hypothetical) issue, but this is still valid as it uses comparative percentages:

    60% of all flying animals die out. Birds, bats, squirrels, fish, whathaveyous. 60% of them, in, say, 50 years. A fairly short timespan. Half the lifespan of a parrot. Would you say “Well, it wasn’t 100% of those animals yet, so there’s nothing worthy of notice here”, or would you say “OMG! Something is screwing over all the flying animals!”. 60% of scientists, by those numbers, have deconverted in the recent past. It isn’t “Well, it wasn’t 100%”, but “OMG! For some reason all the smart people are deconverting!”. Let me give you a German word: “Zeitlos”: Changing lots. Changing times. Change is not instant. Instant gratification is a religious belief. We have no gods to instantly satisfy our needs, to change or mould our societies as required by an omnimax hand. Humans, we do it. We don’t do it very quickly, but we do it. These things take time.

  • jack

    Zietlos,

    As far as I can tell, Reginald and I are not in disagreement. As far as I can tell, you and I are not in disagreement.

    “Well, it wasn’t 100% of those animals yet, so there’s nothing worthy of notice here”

    You seem to be implying that I think that, because only 60% of scientists don’t believe in a personal God, then “there’s nothing worthy of notice here.” If so, you are mistaken. I tried to make it clear in my original comment that I have exactly the opposite view:

    At the time, most of the popular press made a big deal of the first study, as in the July 20, 1998 cover story of Newsweek entitled “Science Finds God”. When about 90% of the general adult population believes in God, and only about 40% of scientists do, “Science Finds God” is hardly the appropriate rational conclusion.

    The second point I was trying to make, perhaps not clearly enough, is that, for some people — even for some scientists — no amount of education and scientific training is sufficient to dissuade them of their belief in God. Francis Collins is a good example of this. That fact says something interesting about religious belief. It’s not like most other beliefs. It has a tenacious grip on some human minds, and won’t easily let go. Why is that?

    Maybe you don’t find this an interesting question. I do.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Compartmentalization.

  • jack

    Surely compartmentalization is part of the answer, but it cannot be the whole of it. One could just as easily set up mental compartments for any irrational, superstitious or magical belief… things like the tooth fairy, astrology, etc., but I doubt that 40% of scientists hold such beliefs. Theistic belief appears to satisfy some needs that are deeply rooted in human nature.

    Dawkins has argued that religious beliefs are special because they are highly evolved packages of memes… adapted through a selection process to appeal to human minds and to propagate easily.

    D.S. Wilson and others argue that religious belief promotes social cohesion and has adaptive value in and of itself. Whether or not that occurs through group selection is an interesting side issue that is irrelevant to our present discussion.

    Some have suggested that religious belief is adaptive, because the inter-group antagonism it fosters serves to isolate human groups, thereby inhibiting the spread of infectious diseases.

    Some anthropologists with backgrounds in cognitive science, like Pascal Boyer and Scott Atran, argue that religious belief is a by-product of the mental modules that have evolved in humans for such purposes as predator avoidance, contagion avoidance and social interaction.

    I don’t dismiss any of these ideas. Religion is a complex and multifaceted thing, and we should not expect any one idea to explain it all. But I think these and similar ideas are not enough.

    On page 38 of his book, Francis Collins asks, “Why do we have a God-shaped vacuum in our hearts and minds unless it is meant to be filled?” I think this is a revealing rhetorical question. I think it points to the essence of why Francis Collins, one of the most distinguished and accomplished scientists, believes in a loving personal god, but not the god of deism, not the tooth fairy and not astrology.

    What is that God-shaped vacuum? Where does it come from?

    Those are the questions that most interest me.

  • Ritchie


    What is that God-shaped vacuum? Where does it come from?

    Those are the questions that most interest me.

    Then surely ‘Do we have a God-shaped vacuum?’ would too? It is a question Collins beggars rather than specifically considers, it seems.

  • jack

    Yes, that too is an interesting question, although I would put it a bit differently: Why do some people claim to have such feelings (of a ‘God-shaped vacuum’), while others do not?

    You’re right that Collins seems to assume his readers know what he’s talking about and accept that these feelings constitute a universal, if subjective, human experience… as is dreaming, for example.

    I don’t think it’s that universal, but I do think it’s a fairly common emotional sensation, especially among people who have been through desperate personal crises. Certainly there are many published accounts of such feelings, and the ‘God-shaped vacuum’ phrase shows up often in Christian literature. It is commonly attributed to Pascal, who had strong interests both in vacuum (in the physical sense) and in god. He did write some passages that express this idea, although, as far as I know, he never wrote it in exactly that phrase.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    It seems to me that the vacuum comes from our early socialization, for the most part.

  • Zietlos

    The vacuum comes from the local appliance store. :)

    If the phrase appears commonly, and is attributed to a historical figure, then that, itself, is your answer to your mysterious vacuum. People hear it, like the sound of it, and requote it. Some of these people don’t offer a citation, so further people quote them on it. Soon enough, it is a commonplace saying.

    Those who are highly stressed can find relaxation to feel almost medicinal. Think about prayer: often sitting, or at least kneeling, eyes often closed, a relaxed self-supporting hand gesture, it is simple meditation, really. I personally prefer to interlock my fingers when I am pensive, but to each their own. Many people are stressed, and they turn to a publicly acceptable form of meditation to loosen up. Thus, people with high stresses have an outlet, prayer, to reduce their stress, lacking anything else, so they have a need, a vacuum, and they fill it.

    There is a logical explanation for everything…

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    It seems to me that the vacuum comes from our early socialization, for the most part.

    and can be filled by more substantial concepts than god(s). You can’t fill a vacuum with the vacuous.

  • John Nernoff

    I read the book and discussed it on local TV bout a year ago. The odd thing is I can’t remember too many specifics. The discussion here jogged my memory a bit.

    The alleged moral code that humans possess is a mish-mash of good and bad things: Slavery is thoroughly approved in the Bible. Giving away ALL you possess to the poor is advocated by Jesus in more than a dozen instances. I have not gotten a cash gift from Dr. Collins yet. Not planning for the ‘morrow is supposedly wise advice that no Christian I know follows. Kill thy neighbor, take his land and cattle and keep the virgins for your own use was regularly advocated by Yahweh, Jesus “father.” Religious slaughter is commonplace in history and continues to this day: examples: the Crusades and Sunnis v Shiites over who is the legitimate successor of Muhammad. Flocks of birds and ant colonies display a better morality.

    Collins as suggested has obviously glossed over all these points. Moreover what is “God” supposed to BE. What IS it and how does it operate? No mention of any scientific description. But I know what these believers are thinking: it is a man in the sky, usually with an untrimmed beard sitting on a throne with Jesus at his right hand. Absurd. [Muslim alert! No Jesus.] In a universe of billions of light years and countless trillions of stars, the creator supposedly resides on a third rate watery cinder circling an average star and looks exactly like a species that evolved a mere five or ten million years ago on a 4.5 BILLION year od planet. Collins may be a good scientist and a better than average administrator but he clearly suffers from compartmentalized thinking, lack of analytic depth and puzzling gullibility.

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    John Nernoff “In a universe of billions of light years and countless trillions of stars, the creator supposedly resides on a third rate watery cinder circling an average star and looks exactly like a species that evolved a mere five or ten million years ago on a 4.5 BILLION year od planet.”
    If it’s so “third rate”, then how come it has kittens, hmmm?


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