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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Review: The Language of God by Francis S. Collins

In The Language of God, Francis Collins tells the story of how he moved from atheism to Christian faith. It all began during his final years of medical school when he was confronted by the faith of his patients. He writes:

"I witnessed numerous cases of individuals whose faith provided them with a strong reassurance of ultimate peace, be it in this world or the next, despite terrible suffering that in most instances they had done nothing to bring on themselves. If faith was a psychological crutch, I concluded, it must be a very powerful one. If it was nothing more than a veneer of cultural tradition, why were these people not shaking their fists at God and demanding that their friends and family stop all this talk about a loving and benevolent supernatural power?" [1]

Collins became convinced that faith in God is rational after reading C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity. In it, he realized that there is a universal moral law that all humans seem to hold to [2]. It is unique to humans [3] and is often characterized by altruism [4]. Such altruism does not fit a purely evolutionary paradigm, as it yields no benefit to the altruist, but can instead be costly [5]. Collins then realized that such a God was outside of scientific observation. “The evidence of God's existence would have to come from other directions, and the ultimate decision would be based on faith, not proof” [6].

Collins continues his narrative by discussing four questions he wrestled with. First, he considered whether or not God was just wish-fulfillment. However, he logically reasoned that, just as hunger presupposes food, a longing for God presupposes God [7]. Second, he briefly considered the harm done by religion. His answer is threefold. First, he draws the reader's attention to the many great things religion has done. He also points out that religious people are capable of breaking the moral law taught by their faith [8]. Finally, he states that secularism is not immune to the same criticism. He then considers suffering. Suffering is the result of humans exercising their free will [9], the evolutionary process of creation [10], and provides us with a chance to grow [11]. His final question is the subject of miracles. First of all, the matter of whether or not miracles happen is a presupposition outside of scientific observation [12]. While Collins does affirm miracles, he prefers to lean towards skepticism. Miracles happen, but they should not be the default explanation [13].

After working through these preliminary doubts, he considers the origins of the universe. Collins accepts the Big Bang Theory based on three key pieces of evidence. First, the universe is expanding outwards, indicating the galaxies were once together at a single point [14]. Second, the universe possesses a background noise, which is the expected “afterglow” an event as catastrophic as the Big Bang would leave behind [15]. Finally, there is a uniform ratio of elements throughout the universe, indicating they all come from a single event rather than multiple events occurring in different places [16]. What science cannot explain is the cause of the Big Bang. Collins believes that a First Mover, God, is an excellent explanation for the cause of the Big Bang [17]. He also believes the fact that Earth is fine-tuned for life is best explained by a Creator [18]. He sets up a logical argument to explain this. If God is supernatural, then “he is not limited by natural laws” and then is not limited by time and is then in the past, present, and future. He could then exist before the Big Bang and after the universe, know how the formation would occur, know of the specific planet that is ready for life, know about the creatures that planet would develop, and know the creatures themselves [19]. While the argument he makes here might not convince all scientists of God’s existence, it gives a good rationale for Christians to accept science’s explanation of the world’s origins.

Collins then provides evidence for evolution. Using carbon dating, he dates the earth at 4.55 billion years [20]. He then traces the fossil record from the beginning of plant life 400 million years ago through the appearance of Homo sapiens 195,000 years ago [21]. It is in the DNA itself that the process of evolution can be explained. The DNA is capable of containing information about adjustments to the species [22]. DNA is self-copying [23] and RNA is able to pass on the DNA’s information [24]. Many Christians already biased against the theory of evolution may not accept the basic evidence Collins presents here. It is clear, however, that Collins is in awe of a God who could work through such a process.

Collins presents his strongest evidence for evolution while recounting his experience leading the Human Genome Project. He found two pieces of key DNA evidence for evolution. First, DNA between species is incredibly similar. A computer can use these similarities to construct a tree of life based on the DNA sequence [25]. Second, “Darwin's theory predicts that mutations that do not affect function (namely, those located in “junk DNA”) will accumulate steadily over time” [26]. Collins found this "junk DNA” as the leftovers of previous unsuccessful mutations. Understanding the genome allows scientists to explain how natural selection occurs. Many mutations occur in the DNA. Some are damaging, some are useless, others are useful and these useful mutations are passed on to the next generation [27]. Because of this observation, the common distinction between micro and macro evolution is arbitrary. Macroevolution from one species to another occurs as the result of small incremental changes in the DNA [28]. However, this does not explain away God. Evolution is unable to explain the moral law or the universal longing for God [29].

If evolution is so sure, then how come only one-third of Americans accept it [30]? Collins proposes three reasons. First, it does not seem to fit daily experience [31]. Second, it is difficult to grasp the long periods of time the theory requires [32]. Third, it seems to go against Genesis 1 [33]. Collins then takes a brief look at Genesis 1. His approach to the passage is simple and does not engage in all of the exegetical complexities Genesis 1 presents. He indicates that the chapter is poetic and has differences with Genesis 2 [34]. Neither of these details will do much to change the mind of someone who is convinced that Genesis 1 is literal. However, his reference to St. Augustine is significant. Augustine rejected a literal reading of Genesis 1 long before external scientific theories put pressure on the church to change its interpretation. Augustine points out that God is outside of time and that the word "day" can be symbolic [35]. While these two points may not sway many evangelicals, its source shows the exegetical process is more complicated than simply “‘caving in' to evolutionary theory” [36].

Collins then lists four options for relating science and faith. The first is to allow science to trump faith with atheism or agnosticism. The problem with this approach is it is unable to explain the Moral Law and goes beyond science. Science cannot prove or disprove the existence of God [37]. The second is creationism, which favors a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and rejects all scientific evidence that might suggest otherwise. Such an approach has led some believers to characterize God as a deceiver by creating a world of evidence that does not match reality in order to test peoples’ faith [38]. The result is that many Christian young people have not pursued careers in science while those who have have denied their faith because it does not fit the evidence [39]. Such an approach is damaging to science and to faith alike. Third is Intelligent Design, which proposes God when science fails to explain all the evidence. Yet this is not a scientific theory. It is untestable, has not proposed a mechanism for supernatural intervention in complex mechanisms, and irreducible complexity is increasingly being disproven [40]. Finally, any argument that puts “God in the gaps” will fail if science comes to fill in the gap [41]. The fourth option is Collins’s own, one he calls “BioLogos” [42]. BioLogos accepts the scientific explanation of evolution and accepts the tenants of faith on matters outside of scientific inquiry, such as the existence of the Moral Law [43]. BioLogos seeks to return science and faith to their respective spheres of domain. Science handles science while faith handles faith and the truths they reveal can coexist. Collins presents an appealing picture of science and faith in dialogue and, hopefully, a path to integration.

[1] Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, (New York, Free Press, 2006), 19-20.

[2] Ibid. 22

[3] Ibid. 23

[4] Ibid. 25

[5] Ibid. 26-27.

[6] Ibid. 30

[7] Ibid. 38.

[8] Ibid. 40

[9] Ibid. 43

[10] Ibid. 45.

[11] Ibid. 46

[12] Ibid. 48

[13] Ibid. 51

[14] Ibid. 64.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid. 65.

[17] Ibid. 67.

[18] Ibid. 75-77.

[19] Ibid. 81-82.

[20] Ibid. 89.

[21] Ibid. 95-96.

[22] Ibid. 100.

[23] Ibid. 102

[24] Ibid. 104.

[25] Ibid. 129

[26] Ibid. 129-130.

[27] Ibid. 131.

[28] Ibid. 132.

[29] Ibid. 140.

[30] Ibid. 147.

[31] Ibid. 148.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid. 149.

[34] Ibid. 150.

[35] Ibid. 152.

[36] Ibid. 151.

[37] Ibid. 165.

[38] Ibid. 176-177.

[39] Ibid. 177-178.

[40] Ibid. 187-188.

[41] Ibid. 193.

[42] Ibid. 197.

[43] Ibid. 200, 204.

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