The Language of God by Francis Collins. Book review


I enjoyed The Language of God, by Francis Collins, the head of the US government’s part of Genome project that unravelled the genetic blueprint of humanity. But I’m afraid I did not like the book for the reasons Collins seemed to be hoping for. He was encouraging those with mechanistic and scientific perspectives to consider his “Theistic Evolution” as a way to reconcile scientific fact and a belief in God. As philosophy / theology I think the book was pretty weak – it was a thoughtful and heartfelt personal journey to a belief in God, but little more than that.

The subtitle promises evidence for belief but Collins offers anecdotes, personal feelings, and CS Lewis quotes. Fine, but for the reasons I go into below I want some gosh darn burning bushes, thank you, and think that without them his argument is very weak.

Collins does do an excellent job as scientist. First, he very effectively demolishes “young earth creationism” where proponents maintain the earth is less than 10,000 years old, as a very naive view. Next he tackles “Intelligent Design” and actually made me less sympathetic to this approach than I’d been before, suggesting it’s a “god of the gaps” hypothesis that is already wearing down in the face of increasing understanding of the Darwinian evolutionary processes it claims to challenge . To Collins the scientific evidence is overwhelming and clear – basic chemistry and physics plus Darwinian style evolution explain pretty much all the organisms on the planet. I’m comfortable with that view because I think it springs from a combination of common sense observations and reason.

Much of the book is summarized in Collins’ key notions of Theistic Evolution. I’m comfortable with the science stuff but I simply don’t understand two things that seem to resonate so strongly with him, and I think with many thoughtful people of faith. The first is that morality is a sign of God rather than a product of evolutionary and social forces over time. The second is that God has a personal relationship with humans and cares about us. Here are my concerns about those two ideas:

Problem idea number 1: Morality has not and could not have evolved in our species from the same sorts of natural forces that evolved arms and legs and brains and babies.

The concepts of morality that are so often cited as evidence of God seem to me instead to be pretty good evidence of social evolution, especially when viewed over time since the ideas about personal freedoms and responsibility and what constitutes immoral acts have changed so much.

The biological structures in humans are very, very complex and required millions of years of natural selection. Rather than pushing us to perfection they pushed us *away* from failure. Once we had the power to reason and think we started to approach our evolutionary survival battles using social relationships and rule systems which evolved into current codes of conduct aka “morality”. Sometimes these battles required a loser and this leads to the selfish motivations so prevalent in humanity. But it’s also reasonable to assume that wanting to “win” would lead us to look for “win win” situations rather than “lose lose” or even “I win you lose”. Economists call this “optimizing” and I think a rational being is going to logically seek “optimal” relationships even if selfishness is the primary driver.

These optimal relations = morality are characterized by many of the principles we claim to hold dear like life, liberty, happiness, do unto others, no adultery, etc. However, as with biological evolution I think one suggestion that morality has evolved rather than been “handed down” to us from above is how defectively and subjectively we observe morality in our daily lives. If it was an objective truth from the mind of God it seems we’d have fewer moral disputes and transgressions.

We fail in many basic tests such as human kindness, but more importantly those of us in affluent societies don’t do much to share our resources or (more importantly) train others to implement systems that would better their lives on their own. But even this morality is subjective. For example well-meaning people can’t even agree on how to improve the standard of living in sub Saharan Africa. Some say it’s immoral not to fight global warming and work for less corporate involvement in poor countries. I’d say we need more corporate stuff to raise the standards. For many the corporate systems are an immoral form of organization, yet I’d argue that corporations are a good and moral way to organize business activity.

Most agree that we all have a moral imperative to take action on some things, but we would not agree in many cases about what things need the action. And this happens when people share a lot of ultimate objectives. When we bring in fundamentally different moral systems the objective morality argument seems to break down even further.

Bring in the sociopathic types of “morality” such as militant violence in the name of religion and you have our fellow humans suggesting that killing is fine if it leads to certain forms of governments. It’s not reasonable (maybe I should say it’s not “enough”) to simply discard those views as defective products of God’s free will experiments. They are moral codes just like yours or mine, yet they are very, very different.

Clearly morality is most adequately explained as a somewhat subjective thing. Even those few things that we overwhelmingly agree about seem to me to fall into categories that would be powerful selection forces over time. Preserving children and human rights, for example. Yet even those simple moral precepts seem to break down quickly. Taliban morality says it’s wrong to educate a female child, Cheney thinks torture is OK in several circumstances. If morality is objective then where is the rule book? The Bible, Koran, Torah don’t offer consistent guidance by any stretch of the imagination, so we are left with human interpretations of morality.

Problem idea number 2: God has a personal relationship with all of us, cares about our well being, and wants us to know him.

First, I don’t think one can reasonably challenge the idea that there *may be a God* outside of the physical world we observe – a prime mover or passive observer God. I’m even OK if you say God is out there all over the place as a manifesation of physical laws that govern things but he is very *passive* about things and not really a “conscious” God, just an all powerful collection of forces. I also won’t challenge that maybe God started off the show and then cut us loose and now has other business to attend to so he’s not around much if at all. HOWEVER what I think is *not* supportable is the assertion that God “cares” about us in the personal sort of way we understand from human to human interactions. Not supportable is the idea that God wants us to know he’s out there, and cares about us, but provides no clear and powerful scientific evidence for his existence. Where is God’s upside in this approach if he really wants us to know him and believe in him?

If God *cares* about us, and wants us to believe in him, and wants us to thrive, why is he such an invisible parent? I’m somewhat familiar with arguments that suggest God felt free will was important, and Jesus and other prophets have been sent as “proof” of God, presumably because they could relate to humans better than God could if he appeared himself. But these really all beg the key question. Why aren’t there more burning bushes? Why in this world of God’s creation and love, if God *cares* about us and *cares* whether we believe in him, would he not make the evidence so overwhelming as to be “obvious” to Richard Dawkins and millions of other doubters? Agnostics and atheists are not bad people, and are not blind to evidence, and most would welcome even a modest presentation by God that would settle the issue powerfully in God’s favor. Some would suggest “hey, the evidence is everywhere – you just need to open your eyes to it!”, but this is not reasonable, because the things we observe every day are overwhelmingly within the province of scientific explanation. If God wants us to know him he’ll need to do a bit more than just show us the world we can already explain and see without reference to God. Again, what is the downside here? What is the *problem* that happens if God makes his presence known clearly by scientific means? Why is God so shy?

Much has been written explaining scenarios that contain a caring God but in which God’s presence is not made overwhelmingly clear with burning bushes and such. Very few seem to tackle what I think is a key question – why is God such an absent and even abusive parent? We would call it child abuse if a parent sat on the sidelines and let their children fend for themselves in a hostile world, never identifying themselves clearly and providing no more guidance to their children than to the kids down the street. I’ve heard that you can attribute all of the sufferering in the world to humans and their free will, which I’m told God values. Yet those same people say God values and desires us to know him in a personal way, and he does provide us with plenty of evidence of his existence. God is either OK providing us with evidence or he is not. Why, if God so cares about us and wants us to know him does he not simply make a great cosmic presentation which clearly articulates those things he thinks are important? Many would then use their free will to conclude the evidence favored God. A few would not, but on balance God’s objectives of more global harmony and more morality would be better preserved and free will would be left intact. I think some would suggest “Hey, God wants you to come to know him without all that fanfare!”. But that’s actually nonsensical because it’s basically saying that there is enough information put out there by God for *some people* to come to terms with God on a personal level, but there is not enough information for those who want clean scientific evidence for belief. What’s the downside of a few burning bushes?

To me the answer seems clear – if there is a God, his personal relationship to us is very passive.

Charlie Rose Interview:

http://www.charlierose.com/guests/francis-collins

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About JoeDuck

Internet Travel Guy, Father of 2, small town Oregon life. BS Botany from UW Madison Wisconsin, MS Social Sciences from Southern Oregon. Top interests outside of my family's well being are: Internet Technology, Online Travel, Globalization, China, Table Tennis, Real Estate, The Singularity.
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8 Responses to The Language of God by Francis Collins. Book review

  1. Iceage says:

    I just came across this book at the bookstore and went looking for a book review before I buy it.

    This is a very thoughtful review. More importantly you bring into focusing perhaps the two most difficult problems of a traditional Christian religious world-view in the 21st century.

    Concerning the win-win basis of morality. I recently read a good book on this very subject: Non-Zero by Robert Wright. The point is that non-zero relationships drive increasing complexity and interdependence which leads to the emergence of the bedrock of ethical principles – empathy and the ethic of reciprocity – “it was in the cards” he keeps noting throughout the book.

    You second thought also resonates with my own conclusions.

    “Why, if God so cares about us and wants us to know him does he not simply make a great cosmic presentation which clearly articulates those things he thinks are important?”

    Great question! Why would God value faith, why are those blessed who believe without seeing. After all faith is fickle and results in people arriving at widely difference conclusions.

  2. Wendy says:

    Good review. You may be interested in joining us on http://www.Goodreads.com in our group..Atheists and Skeptics. This group is open to anyone ..including theists of course for dialogue,intelligent thoughtful comments,book reviews and recommendations.

  3. horatiox says:

    Actually I have more respect for authentic theologians, and even El Papa, more than I do for the corporate-atheist crowd of Dawkins and the rest: and that respect holds even though Dawkins (not to say his intellectual mentor Bertrand Russell) checkmates a priest in under 20 moves.

    Which is to say, yes, Dawkins makes an important if obvious point (at least to anyone who has bothered reading Russell, SJ Gould or even Voltaire) regarding a lack of empirical evidence which could establish the existence of God. Most theologians would probably grant that point, and other skeptical arguments (even Kant, that supposed religious metaphysician, granted that there were no convincing arguments for the existence of a monotheistic God).

    That apparent lack of evidence (some might say the Himilayas are a type of evidence, tho’) does not, however, disprove religious concepts across the board, and in a sense barely scratches the surface of the “religious question”. Religion (whether monotheistic, or otherwise) has something to do with Justice and a type of “spiritual accountability,” for one. It’s rather difficult for most humans to think of Hitler, or even Dick Cheney as just a poorly-conditioned primate. Aren’t most Kossacks assuming some objective realm of Justice holds when they post their daily Cheney as Herman-Goering-on-acid pic?? Methinks they izz. The blogger-leftists are theologians-by-implication (if not platonists), then, when discussing the GOP; they shift back to Darwin, Dawkins, and the DLC (or, say, Pink Floyd–deep dewd!) when needed to argue for secularism, the inhumanity of man, etc.

    Marx noted this typical inconsistency of bourgeois liberals: they will go on and on about the need for secularism, Darwin, even atheism, yet when their own values (political, cultural, economic, etc.) are attacked or under pressure they return to their religious opiates (i.e, Obama seems quite the leftist, yet marches in step with fundamentalists–they might be black, and somewhat anti-war, but fundies anyways).

  4. SamO says:

    There is a problem with burning bushes. Yes, it would cause many more people to believe in a God, but its the way in which they would come to the belief that is the problem. It would be coercion plain and simple. In Moses day, when the existance of a God was unquestionable, the burning bush was more about getting some guy to do something outlandish than about God imposing his existance on a single lucky man in the desert of Egytp or somewhere. But now, in our day it would be much different. To be honest I rather like the fact that no mans God is currently proving Himself to me. I am living my life as I see fit and enjoying it. Aren’t you? If we wake up tomorrow to discover that a God has suddenly decided to make it fact and prove himself to all of us, what choice would we have but to begrudgingly go buy a Bible or a Tora or whatever and start obeying this God? Depending on which God it turns out to be I would either shortly commit suicide -knowing my entire life is completely pointless or I would quickly become a very obedient little follower to this God. Doing whatever it takes to reap whatever good He had to offer me. Oh yes, I would game Him to the best of my ability if possible! I would go about it exactly like a robot tho on this earth, for the rest of my life, missing my old life but obeying perfectly none the less! If this was a God’s intent then why wouldnt he just create obedient subjects? Wouldnt that be much easier than trying to fill a Heaven with people who choose Him without coercion? I and you still have a choice… thanks to no God damn burning bushes. Hope it stays that way right???

  5. BackItUpWithExperience says:

    Just because you took high school biology and aced those Punnett Squares, doesn’t mean you can debate a Scientific Genius like Francis Collins.
    I always find people who are so desperate to denounce God, Jesus, heaven, etc. so pathetic. They insist that He doesn’t exist, practically while foaming at the mouth – so desperate to disprove his existence – it makes me wonder WHY? Why isn’t it anyone’s life-mission try to prove Allah doesn’t exist? Or the gods of any other religions? More importantly, why do they make such an effort to disprove God’s existence while Christians don’t radically do experiments and desperately try to prove that He DOES? The answer is simple: when a man is certain and confident about his beliefs, he doesn’t fly off the handle when there is someone with a different opinion. Christians experience God every day. Unfortunately, for those who never try to know Jesus or the Blessed Mother, they will never understand this. Instead they’ll just ignorantly call names like ‘Bible-thumper’, or ‘Jesus Freak’ or hundreds of others. It’s pathetic. Give God a genuine chance for a month – go to church, read the New Testament, etc.. If you’re a genuine scholar, you should be willing to consider new ideas. Within a month, you’ll have the proof you need that He is there. And He’ll accept you whenever you stop blindly insisting that He doesn’t exist and open up to the possibility that He does.

  6. horatiox says:

    Actually Mr. Duck hinted at one big problem with the monotheistic God-Hypothesis (it’s a traditional skeptical point, which predates Doc Dawkins by centuries): “If God *cares* about us, and wants us to believe in Him, and wants us to thrive, why is he such an invisible parent???”

    A fortiori, why does He allow Stalins, Hitlers, Pol Pots, etc as well as nuclear weapons, natural disasters, if not chaos and entropy itself? Many believers out in consumerland refuse to contemplate what a monotheistic God really would involve: it involves belief in a King-like Being who has no problem creating a world (and really human history itself) with untold pain and suffering.

    (yes, how obvious. As obvious as a tidal wave hitting indonesia, and 250,000+ deaths. The fundies usually quiet after such events, or solemnly intone, “He works in mysterious ways.” BS. He doesn’t work, because “He” is not out there, and if He was, He’s indistinguishable from the Devil…..)

    Of course, attending Pastor Billy Bob’s Baptist church and singin’ along the choir has little or no relation to upholding the message of the New Testament (assuming that it is authentic, at least for sake of argument……..)

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