The Language of God: From Atheism to Belief

The Language of God, Chapter 1

By B.J. Marshall

The chapter begins with a description of Collins’ experiences growing up. His parents shrugged off the business world and lived an agrarian life on huge tracts of land in the Shenandoah Valley. His father went on to teach at a women’s college. Collins was homeschooled, and faith did not play a part in his upbringing. He went to an Episcopal church, but it was more for music appreciation than theology. OK, so we have a picture here of an ardent scientist who really didn’t have a place for theism.

It’s funny how, written from a theist perspective, he paints such a picture of atheists. Collins recounts how, as a student at the University of Virginia, conversations would easily turn to religion, where Collins’ sense of the spiritual was easily challenged by the one or two “aggressive atheists one finds in almost every college dormitory” (p.15). Later, he says he enjoyed his agnosticism because it was “convenient to ignore the need to be answerable to any higher spiritual authority” (p.16). Collins likens this to practicing the “willful blindness” of his number one idol, C.S. Lewis (p.16). After college, he pursued a Ph.D. program at Yale and shifted to atheism, where he felt “quite comfortable challenging” the spiritual beliefs of others (p.16).

That comfort obviously didn’t last long. After moving from chemistry to biology and getting accepted by the University of North Carolina, he did work that put him in intimate contact with very ill patients nearing death. He was astounded by their spirituality, and in one conversation a elderly woman simply asked him what he believed. He said he wasn’t really sure and admitted to himself that he had never really weighed the arguments for and against belief. He realized he “could no longer rely on the robustness of [his] atheistic position” (p.20). How does one go from being quite comfortable challenging theists to having their “robust” atheistic world-view crumble? Apparently all it takes is to have an elderly sick woman ask what one believes. Incredible. I would have loved to have seen the atheistic Collins in action when he felt comfortable challenging the spiritual beliefs of others. Of course, Collins never says whether those challenges ended in his favor; I’m guessing they probably didn’t.

So, Collins decided to look for answers and was pointed by a Methodist minister to look into the theology of C.S. Lewis. Collins marveled at how Lewis’ arguments seemed to anticipate what Collins was thinking. The idea that most rocked Collins’ ideas about science and spirit: The Moral Law and a Christian penchant for capitalization of random words. He then details a bunch of everyday problems, noting how it seems to be a universal human attribute to defer to some sort of unstated higher standard. “Though other animals may at times appear to show glimmerings of a moral sense, they are certainly not widespread, and in many instances other species’ behavior seems to be in dramatic contrast to any sense of universal rightness” (p.23).

Of course, Collins never cites his sources, so we are left wondering how he knows how narrowly spread these non-human glimmers of morality are, and we are left asking how Collins is able to differentiate between “any” sense of universal rightness and these animals’ behaviors – let alone the assertion that humankind’s behavior is all that noble and aligned with universal rightness. Ask Hitler, Pol Pot, or even Mother Teresa.

Jessica Pierce and Marc Bekoff’s book Wild Justice highlights the broad range of what we would call moral behaviors – fairness, trust, empathy, reciprocity, and more – in other animals. (I say “other” animals, because too often theists imagine humans apart from the animals). Pierce was interviewed on the Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot podcast. Here are some examples from her web site:

  • An older female elephant chasing away a male to protect and care for the younger female he injured in his rambunctiousness,
  • A rat in a cage refusing to push a lever which, although he knows he will receive food, he knows that pushing the lever will shock a neighboring rat, and
  • A group of chimpanzees punish latecomers because no one can eat until everyone arrives.

(I encourage you to add your own examples in the comments)

Over at Why Evolution Is True, Greg Mayer addresses this same excerpt of Collins’ book, so I will simply link to it rather than expound here.

Not only does he confuse how animals can be moral, but he goes further to conflate morality with truth: “Let me stop here to point out that the conclusion that the Moral Law exists is in serious conflict with the current post-modernistic philosophy, which argues that there are no absolute right and wrongs…. If there is no absolute truth, can postmodernism itself be true?” (p.24). I’m not here to discuss the merits of postmodern philosophy, but I do find it amusing that he goes from moral relativism to the rejection of absolute truths. I can easily see how someone who holds to a relativistic standard of morality would still be perfectly well off thinking it’s absolutely true that all rocks dropped in Paris will fall to the ground.

Collins sees altruism as a stumbling block to naturalistic explanations. He claims that selfless altruism – he explicitly rules out reciprocal altruism – cannot be attributed to individual selfish genes that want to perpetuate themselves. He gives three arguments from sociobiologists such as E.O. Wilson (though Collins never cites his sources, so we don’t know without looking it up ourselves whether Wilson actually posited any of these three) that Collins think fail:

  1. Altruism as positive attribute for mate selection,
  2. Altruism as indirect reciprocal benefits, and
  3. Altruism as benefiting the whole group.

Before we unpack these arguments, we should note that Collins states that if altruistic behavior on the basis of its positive value to natural selection could be shown to be a credible argument, “the interpretation of many of the requirements of the Moral Law as a signpost to God would potentially be in trouble” (p.25). Well, sorry to say for Collins’ sake, there’s a lot of literature out there (check the references at the bottom of the page) explaining how evolution could have led to altruism – and not just in humans. Dawkins mentions four good reasons for individuals to be altruistic in “The God Delusion” (p.250-251):

  1. Genetic kinship: We evolved in small groups, allotting plenty of opportunity for kin altruism to develop,
  2. Reciprocal altruism: This one is out by Collins’ standards, but we’d have plenty of time to develop this altruism given that we’d meet the same people over and over,
  3. Reputation: Dawkins states that biologists see a survival benefit to not only being a good reciprocator but having a reputation for being a good reciprocator, and
  4. Conspicuous consumption: Those who can provide food/shelter/protection with no expectation of compensation can flaunt their superiority.

Additionally, I argue that reciprocal altruism might not be as plainly seen as Collins might think. OK, there’s the obvious “I scratch your back, you scratch mine.” But I think there are plenty of examples of altruistic behavior with no tangible repercussions. For example: We had a huge snowstorm, and I helped my elderly neighbor shovel out her parking space. I am not expecting anything from it, and it doesn’t even fall in line with Dawkins’ lines of evidence (genetic, reputation, or conspicuous consumption). I did it because it fulfilled in me a desire to help my neighbor. I felt good doing it. Collins would not have been able to see that.

So, it appears that altruism as a positive attribute for mate selection corresponds nicely with kinship altruism and conspicuous consumption. It appears to me that having a reputation for being generous does indirectly benefit oneself, so maybe Collins would cry foul that this is a type of reciprocal altruism. However, it seems to me and others that a group consisting of individual members with unique and sometimes competing desires living cooperatively together seeks a stable solution to cohabitation.

Since Collins thinks that altruism must come from outside humanity, where does it come from? Well, he quotes his beloved Lewis again (Collins says he was stunned by the logic you are about to read): “If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe – no more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house. The only way in which we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves….” (p.29). OK, so let me get the analogy straight. We can’t expect God/architect to be a fact inside the universe/house, so the only place we would expect to find God/architect is within us?? I’m in the universe, too, so why should I expect to find God in me and not outside me? On what grounds is this good logic? Although, it does explain why I’ve been haunted by my architect. Oh wait, no I’m not.

Collins has now found God, and he wonders what sort of God this is. He rules out deism out of hand on the grounds that, if Collins did indeed perceive God, then God would want a relationship with me. Sadly, I’ve tried to use this logic on Alyson Hannigan in vain for years. Given the high standards of the Moral Law, Collins concludes this God must be holy and righteous. He doesn’t even consider Euthyphro’s dilemma in trying to figure out the correlation between his God and the Moral Law: Does God arbitrarily dictate what is moral (in that case, isn’t he amoral?), or does God say stuff is moral because that stuff is moral (in which case, why’s God the middle man?). He also apparently didn’t consider any other god who might desire a relationship with him. Nope – just Yahweh. Well, Jesus: Yahweh 2.0.

It became clear to Collins that science would get him nowhere in questioning God. Collins states that, if God exists, then he must be outside the natural world (but inside all of us, I guess), and therefore outside the purview of science. Oh, if he could only get off that easily.

Other posts in this series:

Are Atheist Kids More Altruistic?
Atlas Shrugged: Job Creators
Atlas Shrugged: Too Much of a Good Thing
Atlas Shrugged: Big Soy
About Adam Lee

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