The Language of God

Subtitled “A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief,” this book by Francis S. Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project and current head of the National Institutes of Health, sets for itself a significant task: To provide evidence for belief. Is that even possible? Perhaps not, but Collins does make a good case for the fact that science need not be a threat to faith.

Collins begins by writing of his own journey to Christian faith. He then discusses common objections to religious faith, current scientific thinking regarding the origins of the world and evolution, and the problems with creationism and intelligent design theories. He concludes by presenting his own view, commonly called theistic evolution although Collins prefers his own term BioLogos. He concludes with an appendix in which he delves into bioethical issues, including stem cell research.

This was my church’s book club selection for the last three weeks (we meet weekly discussing each book in chunks). It’s probably not a book I would have picked up on my own, mostly because this is not an issue I struggle with much. In the days when I took a more literal approach to scripture, I just didn’t think about it; and now I tend to take the creation story as something more metaphorical, which happens to also be the view that Collins takes.

Collins presents the science in clear straightforward terms that even someone like me, with a weak background in science, could understand. This was, I should add, the general consensus of everyone in my church’s book club. No one complained about finding the science difficult, and the people in the group who are knowledgeable about science had no bones to pick with the presentation here. (And given Collins’s scientific credentials, I’m not surprised.) I’ll admit that science never was, and probably never will be, my favorite subject, but I did enjoy his discussion of the commonalities among genes of humans, mice, and chimps and how tiny variations have huge consequences. And even better—I understood it, mostly! (I’d have trouble explaining a lot of it to someone else, but I could follow the thinking while I was in the middle of it.)

In general, I liked the tone Collins took when dealing with those he disagrees with—and he disagrees on some points with believers, nonbelievers, and skeptics. And although he is a Christian, much of his argument deals with a more general theism, rather than Christianity in particular. He rarely takes a snarky tone although there were, I thought, a few cheap shots pointed toward agnostics and atheists and some misuse of the term evangelical, when conservative evangelical, fundamentalist, or Biblical literalist would have been more suitable. (The narrowing of the definition of evangelical to include only conservatives is a pet peeve of mine.) These were, however, exceptions to the rule; for the most part, the tone is genial.

Collins’ noncombative tone does not mean wishy-washiness. He makes his arguments against creationism and intelligent design in clear, compelling language, noting how it’s not just bad science but bad for the church. He even takes down some views that I have found persuasive in the past, such as the idea that the gaps in our scientific knowledge are the places where God has intervened. But there’s a problem with that “God of the gaps” view. Sometimes those gaps get filled:

Faith that places God in the gaps of current understanding about the natural world may be headed for crisis if advances in science subsequently fill those gaps. Faced with incomplete understanding of the natural world, believers should be cautious about invoking the divine in areas of current mystery, lest they build an unnecessary theological argument that is doomed to later destruction.

Collins’s theistic evolutionary stance leaves room for scientific advances without pushing God out of the picture. It is, according to Collins, “the dominant position of serious biologists who are also serious believers.” Here’s the basic synthesis that Collins presents:

God, who is not limited in space or time, created the universe and established natural laws that govern it. Seeking to populate this otherwise sterile universe with living creatures, God chose the elegant mechanism of evolution to create microbes, plants, and animals of all sorts. God intentionally chose the same mechanism to give rise to special creatures who would have intelligence, a knowledge of right and wrong, free will, and a desire to seek fellowship with Him.

So as someone already on board with most of Collins’s ideas, I liked the book. But what about those who aren’t already convinced? As far as I’m concerned, the book doesn’t actually present a cogent, incontrovertible argument for the existence of God. I don’t think such a thing is possible. As Collins himself says, belief in God requires a leap of faith. Collins does write quite a bit about the use of the moral law as evidence for God, which I find to be a rather weak argument. I wish he hadn’t leaned on it quite so hard because it tends to overshadow the more satisfying idea that spiritual knowledge is just a different kind of knowledge, outside and beyond science.

I’m also not sure that someone who has fully bought into creationism or intelligent design would be convinced, but that has less to do with Collins’s argument for science than with the unwillingness of such believers to give up their position.

I do think this book might be helpful to someone who is trying to find a way to mesh the supposedly contradictory worldviews of faith and science, and there are a lot people out there who fit that description. What Collins does well is argue against the common objections to belief in God, showing that one can be intelligent, logical, and a believer. This is a message that people on all sides of the arguments need to know.

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6 Responses to The Language of God

  1. bookssnob says:

    This sounds really interesting, Teresa. I don’t have a problem with the whole science and religion thing but I do like reading people’s arguments about it. It’s a shame that this wouldn’t be a particularly helpful book to give people who are looking to be persuaded from an atheistic/agnostic frame of mind, though. Sometimes I don’t really know how to answer questions and a book that could offer useful arguments would be helpful to me!

    • Teresa says:

      It might offer some useful arguments if you’re talking to people on the fence, especially if they are assuming that Christians simply cannot belief in logic or science.

  2. I think I saw this author on The Colbert Report– what he had to talk about sounded fascinating. But I’m a wee bit disappointed that this is preaching to the choir a little, rather than reaching out.

    • Teresa says:

      The thing is, I think he’s trying to reach out, but I’m just not sure that those outside the choir would be convinced. But, to be fair to Collins, some of my skepticism about the effectiveness of his arguments has to do with how entrenched I think some of these biases are.

  3. Jenny says:

    I agree with you–I can never think what someone could say to talk someone into believing in God, though, to be fair. It’s such an emotional (not really rational) thing. I just never understand why there should be any conflict between science and faith. They are completely different areas. At least that’s how I feel.

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