Tuesday, 21 February 2012

The Language of God

I first heard of Francis Collins in Michael Shermer's The Believing Brain, where his faith journey served as a contrast for Shermer's own journey from evangelical Christianity to atheism.  The Language of God is Collins' own telling of that story, along with his reflections on the relationship between science and faith.

Collins is famous for his role as the director of the Human Genome Project, in which a host of geneticists pooled their efforts to develop a complete map of the human genome.  He is also a committed evangelical Christian, and this makes him something of a poster boy for the idea that Christianity and science can be compatible.  After all, if such a distinguished scientist is also a believer then faith must be smart.

The Language of God opens with his own description of his conversion.  Brought up in a non-religious household, he more or less drifted into atheism as the default option for a budding scientist, before his switch to medicine brought him into direct contact with the faith of his patients and challenged his own unbelief.  His growing dissatisfaction with atheism led to a long investigation of the basis for belief. 

Two things stand out as lying behind his decision to become a believer.  One is his conviction that his seeking God was in itself evidence that such a being existed.  However, by far the greatest justification behind his faith seems to have been the idea of the Moral Law as explained by CS Lewis - the idea that all humans have a shared sense of right and wrong and that this points to an absolute moral standard built into the cosmos by its Creator.  Finally, his moment of conversion came amidst an emotional experience of the beauty of nature.

The voice of Lewis permeates this book, along with that of Augustine of Hippo.  However, it seems the main reason he ended up a Christian, rather than a Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu, is because when he sought God the people on hand to help him with this quest were Christians.  He expresses a great deal of appreciation for the wisdom of these alternative faiths even as he maintains his preference for his own.

You will notice that none of his reasons for believing have anything to do with science.  He was not convinced of God's existence by scientific evidence, and is clear no such proof is possible.  Instead, his aim in the main part of this book is more modest - he merely sets out to demonstrate that science doesn't disprove the claims of religion.

He thus criticises three positions which dominate the debate on the interface between science and religion.  The first is the "strong" atheist position of the likes of Dawkins and Dennett.  The problem with these thinkers, he says, is that they refute a "straw man" version of religion, and overclaim on the scientific evidence.

The second position he refutes is that of young earth creationism, and he attacks it from two angles.  Firstly, he is quite clear that to accept this view is to reject the findings of almost every branch of science we have including physics, cosmology, geology, biology, and his own field of genetics.  Secondly, he calls on Augustine as chief witness to the notion that belief in a young earth was never seen as essential to the understanding of Genesis.  The accounts of creation can be understood poetically, allegorically or theologically and were never intended to be the basis for a science lesson.

More interestingly, he also rejects the "softer" view of creation embodied in the intelligent design movement and the ideas of irreducable complexity championed by John Lennox among others.  A key problem with the idea of irreducable complexity is that scientists are already finding ways to reduce it, squeezing the "God of the gaps" into a tinier and tinier space with each new discovery.  Secondly, in his view intelligent design fails as science - it leads to no hypotheses which can be tested by further experimentation, and so is a scientific dead end.

So if none of these popular responses to the intersection of science and religion are tenable, what is a believing scientist to do?  Collins' answer is the idea of "theistic evolution", which in true Dawkins/Dennet style he christens with a new term, Biologos.  This view, he says, receives little airplay in the public debates about science and religion, but is actually the view of most believing scientists.  All the evidence for the origin and age of the cosmos, the process of evolution, the descent of humanity, and the relatedness of living creatures is accepted as valid scientific knowledge.  These are the mechanisms by which the Creator brought the creation into being.  They are open to investigation by humans and we should rejoice in these investigations.  Religion does not attempt to answer these scientific questions, but rather to answer questions of meaning and purpose - why is there something rather than nothing, what is our purpose in life, how should we live?

So, interestingly, he ends up in much the same spot as the atheist Stephen Jay Gould with his "non-overlapping magisteria".  Science is the means for investigating the natural world, religion is the means for understanding moral and spiritual questions.  Science will neither prove or disprove religion because it is about something different. 

I took an instant liking to Collins, with his modest outlook, his tolerance of difference, his desire for harmony between science and religion, and his compassion for those who suffer.  He also made me think again about apologetics.  It seems to me that the purpose of apologetics is not to convince, but to support.  It may be that belief is reasonable, but Collins will only get as far as convincing you that it is not unreasonable.  Conversion (or indeed deconversion), as Collins himself experienced, comes from other sources - from our search for an emotional centre, our encounters with other people, our apprehension of beauty.  It is a largely intuitive process.  Reason comes later.


Andrew said...

Jon you write great reviews! I am putting this one on my summer reading list.

Brad McCoy said...

I read this a couple of years ago and really liked it. His writing is good. He makes the science very accessible, and interesting. I especially liked the way he presents life on earth as the most unlikely thing ever (unless you allow for the multiverse possibility, I suppose).

Ultimately, though, I found him a bit weak on theology. He didn't present much in the way of how he understands the bible. Collins and people like him are quick to argue that science and the bible can coexist, and that Genesis etc ought not be read ultra-literally, but present very little in the way of an alternative. There are still many questions that science, as he understands it, presents to the bible.

Jon said...

Yes Brad, I agree. I think the question was beyond the scope of his book but his solution to the science/religion problem does pose some interesting questions. Where exactly does one domain stop and the other start?

I worry less about the implications for how we read the Bible, perhaps because I gave up on literalism years ago.

Brad McCoy said...

But, of course, unliteralism begs its own questions. Nothing in life is simple.