Sunday, July 4, 2010

A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief

The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief by Francis S. Collins.

The News & Observer

August 27, 2006

Discovering God


Francis Crick, Richard Dawkins, and Charles Darwin are all famous biologists. They all became atheists, whose beliefs, or lack thereof, were molded by their profession. Now comes another famous biologist publicly professing his views on religion. Francis Collins made his name leading the government’s effort to map the human genome. He too was an atheist. But in “The Language of God” he tells how he foreswore atheism to become a devout evangelical Christian.

Collins is a missionary. He offers the story of his religious conversion hoping the reader will see the light. If successful, Collins would do more than save souls. He would bridge what may be the central divide in contemporary thought: the chasm between the scientific method, which relies on reproducible observations, and religious belief, whose foundation is faith.

Many scientists agree with the late Stephen Jay Gould — the Harvard paleontologist, essayist, and Jewish agnostic. Gould famously posited that science and religion are two separate nonoverlapping domains, which should be respected but segregated. Collins finds Gould’s separate domains “unsatisfying” and the militant atheism of other scientists revolting. “May it never be so!” Collins exclaims in reaction to the concept of a heartless, Godless universe.

Collins begins his heartfelt tale on the hardscrabble farm where he grew up in Virginia. His parents were freethinking Yale graduates doing a “sixties” thing in the 1940s. They thought their children should learn music and sent them to a local church to sing in the choir. “They made it clear,” he writes, “that it would be a great way to learn music, but that the theology should not be taken too seriously.” Collins drifted into agnosticism. He didn’t know if God existed, and he didn’t much care. That began to change when he entered medical school at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he encountered patients “whose faith provided them with a strong reassurance of ultimate peace.” He began to read arguments for Christianity by C.S. Lewis, the Oxford scholar and Christian intellectual. Slowly, he came to believe in God.

What convinced him was Lewis’s concept of a “Moral Law,” aka “the law of right behavior.” Collins never actually defines the Moral Law, but a major component of it is altruistic behavior, the voice “calling us to help others even if nothing is received in return.” Collins concludes that the Moral Law — which he believes to be contrary to all natural instincts — must come from God.

But what kind of God? Collins rejects the deistic view, which casts God as a remote entity who set the universe in motion then wandered off to do something else. That was not the kind of God Collins wanted. He wanted “a theist God, who desires some kind of relationship with those special creatures called human beings.” Later, while hiking in the Cascade Mountains, he “knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ.”

Collins spiritual journey from agnostic to committed Christian was over. But this sincere, emotional story takes up little space. Most of the book is devoted to telling us why it makes sense to be a Christian. As his subtitle implies, Collins wants to present evidence that supports his beliefs. He does this by examining a set of hypothetical questions posed by a set of hypothetical unbelievers. But these questions are largely straw men, erected so Collins can knock them down.

“What About All the Harm Done in the Name Of Religion?” is typical of them. Collins admits that terrible acts have been committed in the name of religion — the Crusades, the Inquisition, Islamic jihads, and so on. These are, he argues, the products of fallible human beings, not religion itself. “Would you judge Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’ on the basis of a poorly rehearsed performance by fifth-graders?” Collins asks rhetorically. He then points out that atheist regimes in the Soviet Union and China were as brutal as any religious-leaning governments.

Collins is at his best and worst when he tackles Christian views on science, especially evolution. He bluntly rejects the position of young Earth creationists who believe the Biblical story that the Earth and all its species were created in six 24-hour days less than 10,000 years ago. About 45 percent of Americans hold these beliefs. “If these [young Earth] claims were actually true,” Collins writes, “it would lead to a complete and irreversible collapse of the sciences. … Young Earth Creationism has reached a point of intellectual bankruptcy, both in its science and in its theology.”

Intelligent Design, a movement based primarily on the perceived failure of evolution to explain life’s exuberant complexity, gets similar dismissive treatment. After a detailed analysis, Collins states that “Intelligent Design remains a fringe activity with little credibility within the mainstream scientific community.”

Not only does Collins side with science in its battles with fundamentalism, he uses its methods to defend his own faith. And that’s where the difficulties begin. As noted earlier, his religion starts with the Moral Law and its corollary, altruism. Collins believes this law is God’s gift to mankind, the thing that separates us from the other animals. Collins might be on to something if scientists were unable to square altruism and evolution, if they could find no examples of creatures other humans that exhibit this behavior.

However, many biologists contend that altruistic behavior is a product of evolution, a positive in mate selection, among other things. That is, females select nice guys because they are likely to make good fathers. Collins attempts to trash this argument by pointing out that a newly dominant male monkeys sometimes practice infanticide to clear the way for their own offspring. This is clearly not altruistic behavior. But humans have also practiced infanticide at times. In any case, occasional infanticide among monkeys does not preclude altruistic behavior. In fact, many cases of altruism among primates have been documented. In a recent book “Our Inner Ape,” the respected primatologist Frans de Waal observes, “It’s not unusual for apes to care for an injured companion, slowing down if another lags behind, cleaning another’s wounds.”

I have no doubt that there is a Moral Law, but Collins is unconvincing in attributing its existence to God. Ultimately, Collins winds up, like so many other deeply sincere proselytizers, trying to prove what can’t be proven. The most he can offer is “that a belief in God is intensely plausible.”
But plausible ideas are only starting points in science. Their validity must be established by rigorous testing. Collins may be as sure of his faith as he is of the map of the human genome, but the evidence he provides to support his beliefs do not meet scientific standards. He may have leapt across the chasm between science and religion but his book does not show the rest of us the way.

There is room for God in the minds of many people, but there is no rational apologia for Him. “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so,” wrote Mark Twain over 150 years ago. Then, as now, some believe, some don’t. Fortunately, science and religion can coexist peaceably as long as we recall Gould’s admonition to treat both domains with respect.