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!
Convinced by C.S. Lewis
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.
Christians Can Accept Evolution, Too
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.
Debunking Atheism and Creationism
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:
- Intelligent Design
- 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, 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.
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.
Atheists on the Hot Seat
1. “Have you been turned off by the hypocritical behavior of those who profess belief?”
In the book, Collins 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.
2. “Are you distressed by some specific philosophical problem with faith, such as why a loving God would allow suffering?”
When addressing the problem of evil in this book, Collins essentially attributes it to a perfect God who created imperfect people who sinned and created evil by their 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.
3. “Are you simply uncomfortable accepting the idea that the tools of science are insufficient for answering any important question?”
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.
4. “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?”
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.
5. “Have you simply not taken the time to consider the spiritual worldview?”
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.
13 thoughts on “Book Review: The Language of God by Francis Collins”
Regards the five questions here are my answers:
“Have you been turned off by the hypocritical behavior of those who profess belief?” In a sense, yes I have. It started when i was a teenager and my mom died. The priest was in so many word a prick.
“Are you distressed by some specific philosophical problem with faith, such as why a loving God would allow suffering?” This is something I’ve always pondered. After all recall their god created the angels, and not only good but evil.
“Are you simply uncomfortable accepting the idea that the tools of science are insufficient for answering any important question?” Actually one of the biggest tools of science is the computer which I’ve made my career from.
“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?” No, in my research I studied the Biblical texts, and other documents and arrived at the conclusion that there was no need for continued faith or spirituality.
“Have you simply not taken the time to consider the spiritual worldview?”
Oh no I took the time, then summarily rejected all of it.
Thanks for the review. Now I won’t have to buy that book. Actually, I never would have bought it anyway.
As a teenager interested in science, I never saw a conflict between science and Christianity. And I never took evolution as an argument against God.
As for those questions:
Well, yes. But that did not turn me away from Christianity. It only turned me away from the Church.
What turned me away from Christianity, was that I could see how different the Old Testament God was from the New Testament God. And if a timeless changeless god can change over time, that suggests that it is man that created god, rather than god that created man. That started my questioning. It took several years of questioning before I broke away.
I never had a problem with either of those.
I took the time. But then I later took the time to question it.
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.
This line has bothered me for a while. Isn’t a human supposedly a mix of spirit and physical. The saying, “We’re spiritual beings having a human experience.”, which I haven’t bought into yet. Native Americans believe spirit is contained in rocks, trees, animals, everything. And Christians believe ‘you have a soul’ It would stand to reason that if you investigate one you’d bump into the other.
Then again, maybe the tools we use to learn about physical realm can’t be used for spirit realm? So, it’s just a matter of correct tools? Why aren’t these tools obvious or been invented? Why is spirit such an elusive slippery topic? Are our sensory organs not equipped to sense the supernatural? We haven’t evolved there yet? The Amazing James Randi has debunked a lot of the myth of the supernatural.
I shouldn’t even comment here, but it’s interesting to toss the idea of spirit around.
On the 5 questions; I don’t give them much thought. My thoughts of late revolve around figuring out my fellow humans and how or if I fit into this human social network. I can’t figure humans and they tell me that I am one!
Good post. Thought provoking.
I had very similar thoughts reading the book as well. Collins seems honest and genuine which is more than I can say for many of the authors he quotes as sources. I like that he tackles some of the more common arguments theists make. However, I found out after reading it that apparently he came to a belief in “the trinity” by seeing a frozen waterfall in three parts one morning. He briefly alludes to it in this book but doesn’t go into that detail. I respect his work as a scientist but like you said, it bothers me that he seemingly never considered his views until reading C.S. Lewis. I’ve said before that several of the chapters in this book should be changed to “I found C.S. Lewis very persuasive, parts 1-3.”
All in all, a decent book of apologetics but not at all compelling if you are already familiar with the arguments.
I think it’s great that you continue to research. Any good skeptic should follow your lead. Collins is brilliant, but he takes on faith what cannot be proven and, for this, he is actually one of the most profound hypocrites that I know.
For someone who is fully aware of the scientific method, to assert with no evidence that a “supernatural” actually exists is irresponsible. There is absolutely no proof of that. Furthermore, living in this reality, we can only hope to prove what is natural. if we can ever prove a “supernatural”, then it automatically becomes “natural” for all things in this universe are, indeed, natural – or, of nature.
As for morality being objective or subjective, this is all hogwash. I tend to agree with Matt Dilihunty and others when they say morality is subjective, but it is compared to objective acts. For example, if we agree that “well being” is a subjective moral, then objective acts define whether or not the act is moral. Shooting me is objectively immoral because it defies my subjective morality of “well being”.
So much more to say here, but I will leave it at that. Bottom line: Morality does not require a god. Not sure who exactly said it (I think it may have been Steve Pinker), but I think it is wise to say that only through religion can an otherwise moral person commit immoral acts and be justified – to paraphrase.
Here’s my take on Collins’s questions:
1.“Have you been turned off by the hypocritical behavior of those who profess belief?”
Sure. And that’s one of the things that led me to think twice about religion. If these churches make the claim that people are improved by belief, and then we can see that it is clearly not the case, why should I take any of their other claims seriously?
2.“Are you distressed by some specific philosophical problem with faith, such as why a loving God would allow suffering?”
Not once I left religion. Once I realized that the universe is what it is, and doesn’t care about us, those philosophical problems all went away.
3.“Are you simply uncomfortable accepting the idea that the tools of science are insufficient for answering any important question?”
No. But if someone claims to have the answer to an important question, and there is no reliable way to verify whether that answer is right, then I’m not going to accept that they have a correct answer.
4.“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?”
The discussion of “spirituality” makes me uncomfortable because “spirituality” is a vague mushy word that nobody seems to be able to adequately define. So I’m subjected to lengthy pointless discussions about how important this vague undefined idea is supposed to be.
5.“Have you simply not taken the time to consider the spiritual worldview?”
I was raised religious, and have spent considerable time thinking about that sort of thing. Read the bible twice, cover-to-cover, read other various religious texts, read a bunch of books about religion. I decided that an innate human bias toward superstition was no reason for me to think that any of the man-made religions had any correct answers about anything. (Plus there’s that problem again with vague definitions. What exactly is a “spiritual worldview”?)
Good and thorough review of this book. I agree with you on the comment about morals. Morals are not a religious or christian subject. One’s view on God does not change the moral views of the individual. Thanks for the review.
He sounds like a man who admired C S Lewis, simply because he believed two things: Truth can be found in poetry, and God can’t be proven like he is some mathematics equation: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
But, being an admirer of Lewis, and he also being intellectual, it wouldn’t shock me if there was more reasoning put into the things he writes down than at first meets the eye. But I don’t know for sure. Thanks for the review.
I agree with your criticism of the problem of evil. I disagree with your take on creationism which I fully affirm. I am a non-Biblical creationist. Still, nice post.
Great work 💯
Here some thoughts on your fine post.
I chuckled at your heathen literature comment.
There is no moral law. Morals are indeterminate; there is no inherent right or wrong; it is human beings who decide what is moral or not. So, that argument would not have swayed me either. I think I read the C. S. Lewis book. At that time I was an inpatient at a long term mental health hospital for major depression, trying to escape my Christian belief system, but not having the clarity of thought to get out.
What about all the mistakes found in nature. Are our genetic defects leading to disease so wonderful? And, this is just one thing. What about the violence of the predator as they rip the flesh of their prey? Oh, is not this wonderful? I love big cats, but their killing is pretty gruesome.
Except there is no valid evidence for the supernatural in the methodological naturalist mode, so metaphysical naturalism is a legitimate position. If you accept the one, you can safely accept the other one.
So, if he thinks Christianity is so great he would agree with the teaching that women should be submissive to men.
Universal attraction to god, bah. I have an aversion to god.
Here is what I think on Collins’ questions.
1 – Of course, I am turned off because of this hypocritical behavior, but I am critical of all hypocritical behavior, including my own when it occurs.
2 – Hardly distressed. It is a reason why I am an atheist? Certainly, yes. But, what is distressing is trying, which I do not do very often, to convince a believer that this issue has not been satisfactorily solve.
3 – I deny the assumption that science cannot answer anything important. If you want to have some kind of comforter that is up to the other person. Why are we here? Is as meaningless as why chickens do not lay bricks. Not, exactly the same, but I am here. Why lay awake a night wondering why I am here and fearing my nonexistence?
4 – What new requirements. Is he suggesting that atheists cannot have any morals? And, is he saying only Christians have proper morals (what ever they are supposed to be)?
5 – Have taken far too much time. I am even taking the time to write a blog post that seeks a secular definition of spirituality, which partially divulges my explorations.
Your confidence is usually the way believers are after they read books on atheism.
Once again you have written a very good blog post.
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