June 09, 2008

The Language of God-1: Introducing Francis Collins, distinguished scientist and evangelical Christian

(This series of posts reviews in detail Francis Collins's book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, originally published in 2006. The page numbers cited are from the large print edition published in 2007. The complete set of these posts will be archived here.)

In this book Francis Collins tries to present arguments for the existence of god. Collins is an eminent scientist, the person who took over in 1992 from James Watson (co-discoverer in 1953 of the double-helix structure of DNA) as head of the Human Genome Project that in 2000 finished mapping out the complete sequence of 3.1 billion bases in human DNA. This was a monumental feat and Collins managed to shepherd this huge project to a successful conclusion.

To the extent that one can infer the nature of an author from his writings, Collins comes across as a thoughtful, compassionate, tolerant, and genial man, someone with whom it would be enjoyable to spend some time with discussing deep issues. He seems like someone who is sincerely trying to reconcile his scientific and religious beliefs, and he does not shirk the hard questions though his responses to most of them (as I will discuss in later posts) are contradictory and superficial. But that is unavoidable. Once you have made the decision to try to reconcile science with belief in a personal god, you cannot avoid contradictions because the two worldviews are fundamentally incompatible.

His personal history is also interesting. He was born to parents who lived a free-wheeling and free-thinking life on a farm where he was home-schooled. After getting his degree and Ph. D. in physical chemistry, he then obtained a medical degree and got interested in genetics research, ending up as a medical geneticist at the University of Michigan. He helped discover the genetic causes of cystic fibrosis, neurofibromatosis, and Huntington's disease.

He started out as an agnostic, then for a short while in college became an atheist until, at the age of about 26 and towards the end of medical school, he started questioning his own lack of belief and by the age of 28 became a convinced evangelical Christian. He has remained so despite a tragedy in his family that might have shaken the faith of someone else. Although he says that god never 'spoke' to him, he did receive what he considers a sign that finally convinced him of god's existence and he describes this climactic conversion moment to faith. While grappling with questions of belief, he was hiking in the Cascades and when he saw a "beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ." (p. 297)

Why did the waterfall make him convinced of Jesus' divinity and not (say) Allah, Krishna, or Thor? Why would it make him think of god at all instead of wondering (as I would have) about the steps by which rushing water gets frozen? The book does not say but in a profile of him in Time magazine on July 17, 2006, he reveals that the frozen waterfall was in three separate streams, suggesting to him the Trinity.

Collins is convinced that Jesus is a historical figure and that he died and was resurrected. He also thinks that the authors of the gospels of Matthew and John were Jesus' disciples of the same names (p. 295) and were thus writing eyewitness reports, although that is a matter of considerable dispute.

Given his impeccable scientific credentials and personal religious history, he makes an ideal candidate for countering the arguments of atheist scientists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Victor Stenger.

The book is an easy read, one that I managed to finish in a single day, though I may have been helped by being familiar with the arguments he was making. Although Collins is not a particularly elegant or stylish writer, he more than makes up for that by having a direct and straightforward style that makes his argument easy to follow. He is dealing with a difficult subject and he knows he has an uphill task in trying to reconcile belief in god with science but he does not try to hide the difficulties in a thicket of incomprehensible verbiage.

But unfortunately, this very clarity also works to his disadvantage since, as I will show, the glaring flaws in his logic now become painfully obvious, raising the interesting question of how someone who clearly is able to apply rigorous evidence-based reasoning to his science can abandon it when he talks about religion and not even realize that he has done so. If one needed good evidence of how religious faith undermines scientific and rational thinking, this book is Exhibit A.

Even many religious people are going to be somewhat uncomfortable with his attempt at synthesizing religious beliefs with science. For starters, he dismisses creationism, especially young earth creationism (YEC), as harming religion by requiring its adherents to hold on to beliefs that are manifestly contradicted by facts, thus being anti-science and inviting ridicule.

This is not much of a surprise. Most sophisticated religious believers find young earth creationists to be an embarrassment and distance themselves from that movement.

More surprising is his complete rejection, like that of another religious biologist Kenneth Miller, of intelligent design (ID) creationism as well. He points out, correctly, that ID is a 'God of the gaps' theory that postulates supernatural intervention for phenomena that science cannot currently explain. He points out that such arguments have failed in the past as science was able to explain those earlier gaps and that ID is failing now as the gaps it invokes (the bacterial flagellum, blood-clotting cascade processes) are also being steadily being understood.

The perceived gaps in evolution that ID intended to fill with God are instead being filled by advances in science. By forcing this limited, narrow view of God's role, Intelligent Design is ironically on a path toward doing considerable damage to faith . . . [This] ship is not headed to the promised land; it is headed instead to the bottom of the ocean. If believers have attached their last vestiges of hope that God could find a place in human existence through ID theory, and that theory collapses, what then happens to faith? (p. 259-260)

So if he rejects both YEC and ID, what exactly does he believe? The next post will examine this.

POST SCRIPT: The perfect gift for Dad

Father's Day (another holiday cynically designed to get people to spend money on junk) is coming up and people everywhere are wondering what would be the best gift to give their dear old dad. Dave Barry has completely captured my sentiments and the sentiments of many other fathers on what they really want for this day, their birthday, and other celebratory occasions.


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I wonder why Collins did not, as Clarence Edward Dutton did in the Grand Canyon, name that waterfall Trimurti or some such thing!

I also have a hard time buying this tale about coming to "theism". Almost every born-again or evangelical who wears his faith on his sleeve has a story like that - about being indifferent, even rebellious towards god and finally accepting him. There is such a template - Augustine, and an even older template for these stories - the fables that are narrated about Buddha. At least in the case of Buddha he wasn't preaching a faith. In contrast people of faith (if we could call them that for their frequent references to god, spirituality etc.,) who have moved mountains in their lifetime - Gandhi or Dr. King - offer us no such conversion stories. Are we missing something?

Posted by kural on June 9, 2008 12:20 PM


I know what you mean. I have personally known people who became born again and said things about their previous life that did not seem to be consistent with what I knew about them.

But Collins's testimony rang true to me. He did not strike me as someone seeking to make himself the story. The book is not really about him, although he does insert some personal stories. I think he is the real thing.

Posted by Mano on June 9, 2008 01:45 PM

Conversion story writing/reading is a past time for many, particularly those who like the ol' "warm fuzzies".

On the other hand, I actually know someone whose idea of a good time is sitting around reading deconversion stories.

I also find deconversion stories much more fun than the more sanctimonious conversion stories. Even though many of us talk about the rational reasons to be an atheist, often the actual deconversion event is just as irrational and "religious looking" as the apparent conversion event.

Bring on the warm fuzzies!

Posted by Jared on June 9, 2008 02:38 PM


Most conversions from one view to another are rarely the product of a carefully thought out decision. The actual moment of conversion may well be irrational in that sense. I suspect that the seeds of the conversion have been planted usually much earlier, the process has continued often subconsciously, and the person may only be able to reconstruct the reasons for the conversion much later.

Posted by Mano on June 10, 2008 08:23 AM