The Language of God: Collins vs. Dawkins

The Language of God, Chapter 7

By B.J. Marshall

The next part of Francis Collins’ discussion of atheism is largely an attack on Richard Dawkins. Given that The Language of God is about biology, I suppose it would seem natural to attack an evolutionary biologist like Dawkins.

Collins’ first attack is that Dawkins, in The God Delusion, argues that evolution fully accounts for biological complexity so there is no more need for God. “While this argument rightly relieves God of the responsibility … it certainly does not disprove the idea that God worked out His creative plan by means of evolution” (p.163). Because Collins holds a different view of God, he sees Dawkins’ argument as irrelevant to the god that he worships. Collins calls Dawkins’ “repeated mischaracterizations of faith” as betraying a vitriolic personal agenda.

Nothing could disprove Collins’ idea of God using evolution, but that doesn’t mean Collins’ idea is a good one, any more than positing that gravity works does not disprove that maybe God is sitting outside of space-time, pulling on the fabric of the cosmos to create the gravity wells that massive bodies appear to create. His argument is just as absurd as Intelligent Falling is for gravity and flies defiantly in the face of Ockham’s Razor, and yet Collins is the one calling out Dawkins on building straw men? With 38,000 brands of Christianity, how could Dawkins – assuming he was even talking to Collins face to face – have any idea which characterization of God Collins maintains? I’ll grant that Dawkins doesn’t pull punches, and he sometimes chooses words that bite intentionally; however, Dawkins shows (to me, anyway) remarkable patience dealing with Creationists, and he has often said and written that his goal is consciousness-raising.

Collins’ second attack is another Dawkinsian straw man: Religion is antirational. Dawkins describes faith as “blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence” (The Selfish Gene, p.198). Collins states that certainly doesn’t describe his view of faith, nor the view of most of his acquaintances. Collins then argues that serious thinkers throughout the ages “have demonstrated that a belief in God is intensely plausible” (p.164).

I’m not quite sure how much of a straw man this is, especially if you’re talking about the sects which think the Bible is inerrant and believe in stories about God stopping the sun so Joshua can kill more Amorites or loads of zombies walking into Jerusalem. That seems awfully irrational to me. Rational is given by the Oxford English Dictionary as “Having the faculty of reasoning; endowed with reason.” George H. Smith talks about reason at length (Section IV – Reason Versus Faith), and it seems that he and Dawkins are of one mind on this one: “Faith is belief without, or in spite of, reason” (Atheism: A Case Against God, p. 59).

Dawkins’ attack most certainly does address the type of faith Collins possesses. Collins holds a belief that there’s a god who uses evolution as his amazingly slow, horribly inefficient, and almost infinitely error-riddled process of seemingly blind trial and error to create life; he holds this belief without a shred of anything we would call evidence. Sorry, but mapping the history of cosmology since the Big Bang to the creation myth doesn’t cut it for me. Finally, I wouldn’t say that a belief in God is intensely plausible, but I understand apologists attempts to persuade people that the existence of God is possible. Sorry again, but I want probable – not just possible.

Collins’ third attack is Dawkins’ objection that great harm has been done in the name of religion. Collins doesn’t deny this, but he asserts that evil acts committed in the name of religion don’t impugn the “truth of the faith” (p.164); those acts instead indict the humans practicing the faith.

We’ve discussed the whole “rusty container” thing before. But I can’t stop myself from commenting on “truth of the faith.” On what basis, or against what criteria, can Collins base the truth of his faith? I have a hard time getting around the circle: The Bible says there’s a God and this stuff is true, and God says the Bible is true. This Holy Circle of Logic makes for a nice t-shirt, really.

Collins’ last attack on Dawkins is that Dawkins’ claim that science demands atheism goes beyond the evidence. “If God is outside of nature, then science can neither prove nor disprove His existence” (p.165). Atheism itself must be a form of blind faith.

First, I don’t recall Dawkins ever actually saying that science demands atheism; Dawkins usually goes only so far as to say that the existence is God is highly improbable. I won’t try to defend Dawkins’ thesis in The God Delusion further because, as far as philosophical treatises go, it falls short. Aside from that, science goes just as far as it can with the evidence; that is to say, it has found none, and not for lack of trying. This is certainly farther than Collins, who simply asserts with no evidence that God is outside of nature.

Collins ends this section on atheism with the following:

So those who choose to be atheists must find some other basis for taking that position. Evolution won’t do (p.167).

Fortunately, there are plenty of them.

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