When I started my blog last November, I mentioned that I planned to talk a lot about what I discover as I read books about atheism. You may notice, however, that I have yet to really get into any book reviews or discussions. I started reading The God Delusion an embarrassingly long time ago, but I read it off and on, and with a lot of starts and stops. When I’m at school, I’m either doing homework or watching Netflix, and when I have time at home to read in the summer, I don’t want to do it locked up in my bedroom so my mom doesn’t realize that I’m studying heathen literature. So what I’ve done instead of reading atheist books is reading theist books!
I found The Language of God last May when I was turning in rental textbooks to the school bookstore after finals. The subtitle, A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief caught my attention and I bought it impulsively. I noticed that it was required for a section of the Science and Religion class I had taken the previous semester, except with a different instructor. This week, I finally finished it!
The author, Francis Collins, is a prominent scientist and the leader of the Human Genome Project, but he’s also a devout Christian. The goal of The Language of God was to show the reader how science and religion complement each other rather than conflict each other.
Collins starts by telling us how he was raised in a secular home and lived as an atheist as he went through medical school. Once he started exploring what he believed, he turned to C.S. Lewis for answers. To make a long conversion story short, Mere Christianity is what did it for him. Having read it for my philosophy/worldview class, I’ll admit that it is well-written and carefully thought out, but Mere Christianity didn’t change my mind. Collins, however, was swayed by Lewis’ identification of the Moral Law (or Law of Right and Wrong).
The concept of the Moral Law, when paired with what Collins described as a universal human longing for God, are what persuaded Collins toward theism. In considering the existence of a grand Moral Law, what Collins failed to recognize was the fact that most atheists believe that morality is subjective when he saw it as objective and pointing us toward a higher power. This also leads him to belief in a personal, caring God as opposed to an impartial deity because, in implementing moral guidelines, this ethical superpower shows that it cares that we do what’s right.
One thing that didn’t impress me while reading this was how Collins described the way that his atheist views crumbled so quickly under the weight of these two factors. The way that he described it, his time spent as an atheist was not a time spent asking questions and forming opinions; he had a very weak disbelief. Therefore, when he was confronted with Lewis’ persuasive words, and he deeply considered the question of a god for the first time, he was swayed towards theism and, ultimately, Christianity.
Following his conversion story was my favorite part of this book. Collins described his scientific beliefs, including a brief explanation of how the Big Bang worked and how his discoveries in the human genome pointed time and time again towards evolution. Even as a Christian, he understands that if something is scientifically obvious, then it ought not be ignored or denied on a religious basis. Rather, the intricate workings of the cell and the cosmos leave him in awe of God’s handiwork.
Another aspect of Collins’ writing that I enjoyed was how cautious he was with his reasons for belief. He warned theists not to place their belief in gaps in scientific knowledge such as holes in the fossil record or the unknown origin of the first living cells. There have been so many times when ignorance pointed toward belief, but scientific discoveries such as heliocentrism and evolution took the mystery out of it and eliminated the need for a supernatural power to answer these questions.
In the second half of The Language of God, Collins explores four options that can be chosen in regards to our reconciliation of science and faith: atheism/agnosticism, creationism, Intelligent Design, and BioLogos (or theistic evolution). In the chapter on atheism and agnosticism, Collins’ primary argument is against that of, you guessed it, Richard Dawkins, and his claims that a study of evolution and natural origins inherently lead one to atheism. To put it simply, Collins disagrees with Dawkins’ idea that methodological naturalism entails philosophical naturalism. Collins’ conclusion here is reasonable, though; if the natural and the supernatural do inhabit separate realms, then what we learn about one can’t give us much insight into the other.
In the chapter on creationism, Collins addresses a question I always wonder when I meet a theistic evolutionist: how do you reconcile your belief in evolution with your belief in the bible, specifically Genesis and the story of Adam and Eve? His explanation echoed what I’d been taught when I took the class that this book was used for. We’d learned to think of nature and Scripture as two absolute truths, and if they are both true, then they can’t contradict one another (I personally find this absurd, as I see Genesis as not only contradicting nature, but itself). This leads him to the conclusion that the creation epic and the story of the Fall are allegorical, teaching us about human nature and God’s relationship with mankind.
Being raised in an LCMS home where everything in the bible is literally true, I couldn’t pass off Genesis as a poetic narrative so quickly. That leaves so many issues such as the fall of mankind, which supposedly leads to redemption through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Is that story supposed to be taken as myth, too?
Collins’ discussion of Intelligent Design echoes what he said before about not basing our beliefs on a “god of the gaps” theory, whether it be in regards to irreducible complexity or the origins of life. So, clearly he has rejected atheism, literal creationism, and Intelligent Design.
This leaves Collins’ unwavering belief in theistic evolution, which he renames BioLogos (life from The Word). His conclusion is a beautiful one, but I see a few issues with this. It seems as though a lot of his reasons for belief are based off of emotions. He believes because he sees a universal yearning for God throughout humanity, and because he feels called as a medical professional to save lives, and because he sees beauty in the human genome. One of the greatest pillars supporting his belief is that of the beauty of design and his feeling of purpose.
At the end of The Language of God, Collins addresses specific questions to readers who are theists and readers who are not. To atheists, he asked the following in regards to why some of us don’t believe:
- “Have you been turned off by the hypocritical behavior of those who profess belief?”
- “Are you distressed by some specific philosophical problem with faith, such as why a loving God would allow suffering?”
- “Are you simply uncomfortable accepting the idea that the tools of science are insufficient for answering any important question?”
- “Does the discussion of spirituality simply make you uncomfortable, because of a sense that recognizing the possibility of God might place new requirements on your own life plans and actions?”
- “Have you simply not taken the time to consider the spiritual worldview?”
Collins is a smart man and a clever writer, but it didn’t take a genius to sense the condescending tone of these questions. The answer to each, which I’ll give below, had been discussed in the book, so I assume that he expects any skeptical reader who approached the book with one of these questions to now begin their conversion to Christianity.
- He’s talking about times when religion has caused harm or when Christians haven’t been the nicest individuals. In the book, he described humans as rusty containers who simply carry the pure holy water of God, and he warns us not to gain an impression of Christ based on his followers. Personally, the actions of Christians and the effects of religion aren’t huge reasons why I don’t believe. They make me dislike religion more, but when it comes down to the existence of God, they don’t sway me in either direction.
- When addressing the problem of evil in this book, Collins essentially attributes it to a perfect God who created imperfect man who sinned and created evil by its own will. This is the approach of many Christians, but it doesn’t satisfy me; to me, it points to a God whose power is limited. If humans created evil on our own, then that’s something that God didn’t create, although he is supposed to be the creator of all. And if he did create evil, then he isn’t all-perfect. I don’t see how there is any other way to understand this philosophical question, and I don’t think that any Christian explanation of the problem of evil will ever satisfy me.
- Collins refers multiple times to the difference between questions of “what” and questions of “why”. He emphasizes that science can answer the “what” questions, but it can never answer the “why”: why are we here, what does life mean, etc. While naturalism doesn’t provide an answer as to why humans exist, I’m skeptical as to whether that question needs an answer in the first place. There doesn’t need to be a grand, overarching purpose of why the human race exists, and it seems to me that in the end, there’s not.
- There are several things that Collins could be referring to with this question, but to me, it sounds like he is implying that Christians have more moral obligations than atheists do, and we may not want to believe because belief would require greater moral responsibility. He mentioned during his conversion story that he would now have to take responsibilities for actions that he would prefer to forget about, but I think that most atheists can agree there is an even greater weight to our personal need to take responsibility for our own actions.
- This question makes me remember how Collins had never truly questioned his spirituality until becoming a Christian. It’s understandable that he may not realize that atheists do consider these questions about God, greater meaning, and morality, but most atheists do much more than he ever did as an unbeliever.
All in all, I found The Language of God to be enjoyable and educational. I learned not only how genetics points towards evolution, but how many theistic evolutionists can justify their belief in both God and an old earth. It made me question what I believe in a way that made me feel as though I ended the book with more confidence in my atheism than when I began.