Talking to the middle ground

CollinsBookThe mainstream media are covering intelligent debate over religion and science. And it’s about time.

Former Time religion correspondent Richard Ostling, now with The Associated Press, wrote an excellent news article focusing on the arguments of Francis S. Collins, author of the recently published book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. Ostling appropriately recognized that Collins’ faith is a news story unto itself, considering that he is one of the world’s leading biologists and leader of the Human Genome Project.

Much of the media’s reporting on science and religion has focused on controversial school-board decisions and federal funding of forums and research papers. The stories are full of high emotion, distinctive sides and bomb-throwing statements. A story on Collins and his work is not likely to produce that level of controversy, despite his highly intelligent work on combining the controversial areas of faith and science:

He asks scientific skeptics to investigate God with the same open-minded zeal they apply to the natural world, saying that there’s no incompatibility between belief and scientific rigor.

He tells fellow evangelicals that opposition to evolution — whether based in the biblical literalism of creationists or “intelligent design” arguments — undermines the credibility of faith. He finds the first line of thought “fundamentally flawed” and says the second builds upon gaps in evidence that scientists are likely to fill in.

The audience of 200 at [a Williams College conference sponsored by the C.S. Lewis Foundation] gave Collins’s views a respectful reception, in contrast to the frosty reaction he got when he said at a national meeting of Christian physicians that the evidence for evolution is “overwhelming.”

But scientists are probably the tougher audience. According to Nature, the weekly science journal, “many scientists disagree strongly” with Collins-style arguments, and critics think “more talk of religion is the last thing that science needs.”

CollinsLabCollins’ arguments are drawing a good deal of attention, largely because of his book. In a Time review, David Van Biema argues that the book is “enlightening but not always convincing.” (The New York Times reviewed Collins’ book alongside books by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Owen Gingerich, Joan Roughgarden, E.O. Wilson and Louis Wolpert.) The pace of Collins’ writing is closer to position statements than arguments that can sustain, Van Biema argues, and the book is most interesting when he criticizes creationists:

His insights on the nature of a God-science overlap, while fresh, are celebratory rather than investigative, budgeting relatively little space to wrestle with instances when the conjunction of the two can induce the philosophical bends (such as faith’s understanding of God’s place outside human time).

The book seems liveliest when Collins turns his guns from atheists on the left to creationists and intelligent designers on the right, urging the abandonment of what he feels are overliteral misreadings of Scripture. “I don’t think God intended Genesis to teach science,” he says, arguing that “the evidence in favor of evolution is utterly compelling.” He has little patience with those who say evolution is just a theory, noting that in his scientific world the word theory “is not intended to convey uncertainty; for that purpose a scientist would use the word hypothesis.” The book is hard on intelligent design, heaping scientific doubt on its key notion of “irreducible complexity” in phenomena like blood clotting, and theological scorn on its ultimate implications (“I.D. portrays the Almighty as a clumsy Creator, having to intervene at regular intervals to fix the inadequacies of His own initial plan … this is a very unsatisfactory image”).

That is not the argument his publisher has chosen to emphasize, or his book’s subtitle would be flipped to read A Believer Presents the Evidence for Science. But it may be the one with the best prospects. Students of the debate note that atheists are more dogmatically opposed to God than Evangelicals are to evolution, if only because aggressive creationism is neither a long-standing evangelical position nor a unanimous one. According to Edward Larson, a Pulitzer-prizewinning historian of the evolution debate at the University of Georgia, American support for it, now near 50%, hovered around 30% as recently as 1960. Today, Larson says, “it’s a dynamic situation, with no unanimity.” Evolution is taught at some Christian colleges.

Collins, according to the Time piece, has regular talks with Prison Fellowship’s Chuck Colson. And Collins is attempting to move him away from his hardline intelligent design stance. I find this quite significant. While it may appear that Collins takes heavy heat from both sides of the debate, scientists opposed to intelligent design clearly respect his opinions, as do those fighting to supplant evolutionary theory with some form of intelligent design theory. With someone of Collins’ stature in the middle, how far apart are the two sides?

The statistics cited in the Ostling article are compelling. If 40 percent of scientists are religious, then why don’t we hear their perspectives more often in news articles? Why has this debate always been so polarized?

Journalists covering the evolution vs. intelligent design/creation wars should place Collins high on their list of sources to call next time a school board attempts to overturn a school’s teachings in the name of the Bible. Or the next time they hear a scientist trash religion for failing to support their work. An intelligent, respected scientist who can speak knowledgably on matters of faith is an invaluable source for understanding what has for years been a yawning gap between two of the most influential groups in American society.

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  • Nancy

    I am thrilled to learn that Francis Collins has written a book! I was privileged to meet and listen to him share his testimony with a graduate christian fellowship at the University of Michigan. Will go buy his book this weekend, thanks.

  • Matthew M.

    If 40 percent of scientists are religious, then why don’t we hear their perspectives more often in news articles? Why has this debate always been so polarized?

    See Sternberg, Richard; and Sagan, Carl.

  • Martha

    Sorry, but I’m sceptical about this. I figure if journalists ever hear of this bloke and ever bother to quote him, it will be in the context of ‘reasonable Christians’ (i.e., ‘those that accept science as the primary determinant of what is and is not believeable’) versus those dern redneck Bible-bashing seven-day-creation fundamentalists.

    I somehow very much doubt we’re going to see ‘scientists challenged to re-evaluate religious belief by one of their own’ type stories, and I regret to say I think he will only be respected and regarded as long as he is a scientist first and a believer second; that is, as long as he can be used to provide reasonable and calm and non-extravagant and non-controversial quotes – none of those pesky miracles, thanks! More of that ‘well, the walking on water was actually due to a mini-ice age which just conveniently happened to freeze a floe for Jesus to walk on and his dumb apostles thought he was actually walking on water but we know better because that’s just not possible’ science, yes please!

    I’m not presuming to judge what Dr? Professor? Collins believes, but going by how the reviewer purred when excerpting the attacks on creationists and hastily passed over the atheists, I’m betting that’s how his book will be used: as a moderate to bash the ‘right’ over the heads with (and don’t you just love how the reviewer neatly parcelled up the divergent views into left and right?)

  • Thuloid

    We may not hear much about those 40% of scientists who are believers because, well, 40% isn’t that small a number. These folks aren’t uncommon, and in my experience don’t seem to feel threatened. Just like we don’t hear so much about whatever percentage it is of librarians or cab drivers who are believers, we don’t hear all that much about the scientists who show up in church every Sunday. For most, I don’t think it’s really any great feat of reasoning to reconcile their studies with their faith, so it probably doesn’t occur to many to go announcing their beliefs to newspaper reporters or writing books about God. And being religious folk, many probably consider that there are people trained specifically to do the latter–their jobs teach them to stick to their competencies.

    My guess is that the lack of response to outspoken atheists is rooted in that same professional behavior. The most common reaction to crank research is not to loudly answer it, but just to ignore. So when a biologist or physicist reads a story about Richard Dawkins’ atheism, he shakes his head and goes about his day.

  • Charlie

    My experence is that scientists come across as very nice and sincere when telling about their own religious convictions. But they get hammered by philosophically savy audiences when they cross over into philosophy.

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  • Shaun

    Joan Roughgarden’s brand new book, Evolution and Christian Faith is worth a look. As a Stanford evolutionary biologist and a Christian, she argues they are compatible.

  • Joseph Marchante

    I am intelligent enough to recognize the extent of my ignorance. As a civilization, what is the extent of our knowledge? Out of a hypothetical one hundred percent, can we say that we possess ten percent? I do not know the right answer, but who does? Being in our planet is like living inside a room with four walls and a small window looking out into “our” universe. There could be other universes or dimensions for all we know, and that is my belief.

    I do not doubt evolution for one second, but both in terms of time (eternal) and space (infinity), I do not have enough of an omniscient point of view to make a valid judgment that discards the hand of one (or more) Creators. We can watch a seed evolve into a plant, but if that seed is our universe, we can ask the question: Is this the product of an always-existing continuous natural process, or did it require some rational engineering, or (a third position is possible) could a higher form of consciousness have evolved from the natural process and then found a way to coexist with or control the same?

    I embarked in search of the eternal questions back in the 70′s. After much study and analysis, I am convinced that anything is possible. To learn why and get my full treatment on this subject, go to where my book “Ercian Testament” is published for free. Read Chapters Ten through Eighteen to get the whole picture. Although just started today, you are also welcome to visit my blog at where I aim to promote the teachings of “Proligion” and “Ercian Philosophy.” Take care and be well.