Book Review: The Language of God

When I was a believer, I would have been scandalized by someone like Francis Collins. A Christian… who’s okay with evolution?? Burn the heretic! I now know that the truth doesn’t have lines so clearly drawn, and that’s where The Language of God comes into play. Collins, a geneticist and head of the Human Genome Project, attempts to serve as a bridge between science and faith, showing both believers and atheists there is merit to the other side. Does he succeed as a peacemaker? Is the long war finally over?

Let’s get the niceties out of the way first – and yes, there are positive things to say about Francis Collins! Overall, The Language of God is a very readable text. Collins brings in complicated subjects like cosmology and genetics and makes them understandable to the layperson. Even if a reader disagrees with the conclusions Collins draws from certain arguments, it won’t be because they didn’t know what he was talking about.

Collins lives up to his scientific credentials by acknowledging the consensus about the age of the earth and evolution by natural selection. He denies any scientific “conspiracy” suppressing creationism by pointing out that, if anything, scientists are invigorated by new ideas that challenge the existing paradigm, and these ideas succeed or fail on their own merits, not from science’s “atheistic bias”.

Collins takes his fellow believers to task for being dismissive or ignorant of modern science. Astutely, he points out that young people who discover the evidence for evolution after only learning creationism will be led to question other teachings – including the foundations of their Christian faith. He goes back as far as Augustine to show that a literal creationist view of Genesis is a relatively new phenomenon in the history of Christianity.

So where does Collins’ faith enter the picture? The Language of God is bookended by the idea of moral law. Collins does not believe naturalism can explain a “higher standard” of human behavior, noting that altruism “cannot be accounted for by the drive of individual selfish genes to perpetuate themselves.” I’ll let Dawkins debate Collins on this point, but I do think that Collins doesn’t give enough credence to the advantages of altruism on the population level. Surely Collins would acknowledge that humanity flourishes when we all work together – his Human Genome Project would certainly not have been successful without his team setting aside their own individual objectives for a common goal. While Collins believes that the evolutionary impetus leads to tribalism instead of altruism, he must acknowledge that the innumerable denominations of Christianity indicate that religion suffers the same difficulty.

Collins also disagrees with claims that mankind created God as a form of “wish fulfillment”, as he doesn’t think the harsh and strictly just God of the Bible is the type that people would create from whole cloth. But aren’t the vindication of the faithful and an eternity of heavenly bliss exactly why people find Christianity so appealing? More broadly, Collins contradicts himself in a matter of paragraphs by proposing that a universal human longing for God points to an object of that longing. Somehow, Collins doesn’t think the idea of a God “fulfilling” some universal “wish” is an example of “wish fulfillment.” Which came first: the longing or the longed-for?

Collins encounters the same pitfalls as other apologists when addressing the issue of human suffering. He recounts the harrowing ordeal of his daughter’s sexual assault and his own struggle to reconcile his faith with this very personal evil. Collins proposes two reasons why God may have allowed this horrible event to occur. For himself, he believes he now understands that he cannot protect his children from all pain and suffering, and he must entrust them to God. For his daughter, he notes that this experience has allowed her to be a source of counsel and comfort for other women who are dealing with the same issues.

I’m glad Collins and his daughter have found ways to cope with their trauma, but are outsiders going to find these solutions satisfactory? For Collins’ daughter, if the only purpose of suffering is to be able to help future sufferers, wouldn’t it be great if there was some all-powerful being with the ability to end the cycle of suffering permanently? And how is Collins comforted by the idea of his daughter being protected by the same God who fail to prevent the original assault? How many second chances would you give a babysitter who let your child be harmed under their care? Collins precedes his explanation with so many “if” statements he almost seems to be losing confidence himself:

Consider this: if the most important decision we are to make on this earth is a decision about belief, and if the most important relationship we are to develop on this earth is a relationship with God, and if our existence as spiritual creatures is not limited to what we can know and observe during our earthly lifetime, then human sufferings take on a wholly new context.

Emphasis mine, but that’s a lot of conditions for your grand rationalization of human suffering! You’d better be damn sure your God is real, because if our existence is limited to our earthly lifetime, and if our most important relationships are with our loved ones and not with God, you may have wasted your life devoting yourself to a cosmic teddy bear.

These “if” states pop up throughout the book, and they only serve to undermine Collins’ credibility. When addressing the fine-tuning argument, Collins claims that if an intelligent Creator set off the Big Bang, then the unlikely fine-tuning of the universe falls into place. Collins also notes that miracles are not an issue for the theist scientist, because if a being exists outside of nature, then there’s no conflict in positing that this being could make miracles happen.

By making these claims, Collins has now provided an explanation for literally any phenomenon one wants to explore. But Collins has already shown a more naturalistic bent than many Christians, so as a scientist, where does he draw the line? When does he stop looking for naturalistic explanations and accept that “God did it”? Collins never addresses this.

Moreover, Collins’ rationale can be used to support more than just Christianity. If Allah is the one true god, and if Muhammad is his prophet, then of course Muhammad could split the moon in two! How does Collins sort through the supernatural claims of other religions to arrive at Christianity? This is never addressed either.

Even Collins’ stance on theistic evolution (or as he rebrands it, “BioLogos”) fails when held up to scrutiny. Collins is clearly familiar with the “god of the gaps” fallacy as he applies it to intelligent design, but he vehemently denies that theistic evolution falls into the same trap. He weasels his way out by claiming that his ideas are “not intended as a scientific theory” and questions like “How did the universe get here?” and “What is the meaning of life?” are not answerable by science. However, the first question is absolutely the domain of science, and the second is not answered by theistic evolution anyway, so where does that leave Collins? If “BioLogos” is not a scientific theory, perhaps he should not spend an entire book using science to defend his views.

While I obviously have my issues with a lot of Collins’ writing, I must emphasize that I haven’t addressed the hefty chunk of The Language of God where Collins, as a scientist, simply explains the evidence for various ideas that may be controversial to Christians but not to scientists. I think The Language of God could be a good book to give that anti-science family member to show that science and God don’t necessarily conflict. However, because of its various apologetic issues, I hope this book would not be the last word on the subject, but that it would ultimately serve as a springboard into further inquiry.

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So You Think You Know Easter

 

      1. Why was Jesus’ particular tomb chosen?
        • It belonged to Joseph of Arimathea
        • It happened to be close by
      2. Was the tomb sealed when the women arrived?
        • Yes
        • No
      3. Who did the women meet at the tomb?
        • One man
        • Two men
        • One angel
        • Two angels
      4. Did the women fetch the disciples before or after encountering the men/angels?
        • Before
        • After
        • Trick question – they fled in terror and told nobody
      5. Where did Jesus first appear to the disciples after his resurrection?
        • On a mountain
        • Indoors/seated at a table
        • In Jerusalem (location unknown)
      6. Where did Jesus ascend into heaven?
        • Jerusalem
        • Bethany

References:

  1. Matthew 27:60, John 19:42
  2. Matthew 28:1-2 (Yes), Mark 16:3-4 (No), Luke 24:2 (No), John 20:1 (No)
  3. Mark 16:5 (One man), Luke 24:4 (Two men), Matthew 24:2-3 (One angel), John 20:12 (Two angels)
  4. John 20 (Before), Matthew 28 (After), Luke 24 (After), Mark 16 (Trick question – remember, verses 9-20 are a later addition!)
  5. Matthew 28:16 (On a mountain), John 20:19 (Indoors), Mark 16:14 (Seated at a table), Luke 24:33-36 (In Jerusalem)
  6. Acts 1:4-9 (Jerusalem), Luke 24:50-53 (Bethany)