September 2006

Barbara J. King


The Science and Spirit of Francis S. Collins

Listening to Clay Jenkinson pretend to be Thomas Jefferson on NPR the other day, a guilty pleasure of mine, I heard “Jefferson” say that enlightened discussion has nearly disappeared from American conversation. When, he asked, did you last encounter a person discussing abortion in a thoughtful way? Or refusing to go beyond labeling George Bush as either an idiot or a good president forced to govern in the face of opposing idiocy?

Overcoming my instinct to spew out my L-word opinions about these touchy issues, I listened, because I’ve been searching for a book about religion and science that is thoughtful in Jenkinson’s sense. This would be a book that refuses to sneer, or to try, in a rush toward happy harmony, to reconcile views that are irreconciliable. (Plenty of those books are around: check out my earlier columns.) 

Oh yes, and the sought-after book must be readable. I am partway into J. Wentzel van Huyssteen’s Alone in the World? Human Uniqueness in Science and Theology, and as masterful as his ideas are, no one could confuse van Huyssteen with an author who reaches out toward a wide public. These two sentences of his are not atypical: “I have rejected all forms of foundationalism, but I have also argued against extreme forms of deconstructive postmodernism and the adoption of relativist forms of nonfoundationalism or contextualism as reactions against univeralist notions of rationality. Over against the objectivism of foundationalism and the extreme relativism of most forms of nonfoundationalism, a postfoundationalist notion of rationality helps us to acknowledge contextuality, the shaping role of tradition and of interpreted experience, while at the same time enabling us to reach out beyond our own groups, communities, and cultures, in plausible forms of inter-subjective, cross-contextual, and cross-disciplinary conversations.” Any Jargonsluts out there?

Me, I just want a conversation with an author, in my head, that leads to some new insights about religion and science. I picked up The Language of God most curious to discover whether a volume that is blurbed by Republican former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and by South African Nobel Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu -- not to mention by singer Naomi Judd -- might fit the bill.

It does. To be scrupulously accurate, it almost, just almost does, but it’s the closest thing in forever. Francis S. Collins has written with humanity, with respect, and most importantly, with depth and accessibility. It matters not a whit whether I, or other readers, agree with him on every point; what matters is the intelligence and nuance at work here.

Collins is best known for leading the International Human Genome Project (IHGP), the public consortium of scientists (matched against private-sector Celera Genomics, headed by Craig Venter) who labored intensively to decode the human DNA sequence. This work is typically explained in species-wide terms terms (“the human genome”), but as an anthropologist I cannot help but point out that the IHGP’s sequencing was performed on DNA from only a few persons.

In any case, as he recounts in The Language of God, Collins stood alongside President Bill Clinton (and Venter) in 2001, when Clinton announced the completion of the draft DNA sequence, the “most wondrous map ever produced by humankind.” But with that accolade Clinton did not stop; standing in the East Room of the White House, he remarked, “we are learning the language in which God created life.”

Collins tells the story of how he gradually came to believe that science and faith may enrich each other. As a youngster, he was home-schooled, but not from parental religious fervor: “Faith was not an important part of my childhood,” he says. An agnostic in college, he became convinced during graduate work in chemistry that “everything in the universe could be explained on the basis of equations and physical principles.” Collins embraced what he now calls “my childish atheism” at that point.

Next came medical school; an immersion in medical genetics; and a “thoroughly terrifying experience” when, in a conversation with a patient, it hit him that he had “avoided any serious consideration that God might be a real possibility.” 

From this point, writing in sparkingly clear terms, Collins explores science and God. He is obviously in love with science, and knows that science’s future is too splendid for easy acceptance of God-of-the-gaps arguments, the kind where God is trotted out to explain every single thing that science cannot explain: “Faith that places God in the gaps of current understanding about the natural world may be headed for crisis if advances in science subsequently fill those gaps.” Indeed, Collins’s vision of God is bigger than that, for God, he writes, is a being “unlimited by time and space… who takes personal interest in human beings.”

What Collins does best is to explain his views on where religion and science can be brought together, and where they cannot. Explaining what scientists know about the 14-billion-year old Big Bang moment of the universe’s creation, for example, he says, “The Big Bang cries out for a divine explanation. It forces the conclusion that nature had a defined beginning. I cannot see how nature could have created itself. Only a supernatural force that is outside of time and space could have done that.”

But, thankfully, Collins refuses “to gloss over all challenges and areas of discord.” Young Earth Creationism, the idea that all species including humans were divinely created to populate an Earth only 10,000 years old, “has reached a point of intellectual bankruptcy… Its persistence is thus one of the great puzzles and great tragedies of our time.” (Let’s affix THAT as a sticker on every public-science textbook in the country!) Further, the ideas that comprise Intelligent Design are “a scientific dead end.” (Okay, make that two stickers.) 

“The problem for many believers, of course,” he writes, “is that the conclusions of evolution appear to contradict certain sacred texts that describe God’s role in the creation of the universe, the earth, all living things, and ourselves.” Collins discusses Islam, Judaism, and Christianity here briefly, and invokes St. Augustine to take readers through a detailed argument for why sacred literalism is not necessary for people of faith. I was surprised that he did not cite in this context the wonderful books by Catholic theologian John Haught (Deeper than Darwin; Is Nature Enough?).

Instead of literalism, Collins advocates theistic evolution, a position he wants to rename BioLogos: “BioLogos doesn’t try to wedge God into gaps in our understanding of the natural world; it proposes God as the answer to questions science was never intended to address, such as ‘How did the universe get here?’ ‘What is the meaning of life?’ ‘What happens to us after we die?'”

Collins’s take on how people may come to rationally know God involves the Moral Law, or “the law of right behavior” that he sees as unique to humans: “The concept of right and wrong appears to be universal among all members of the human species (though its application may result in wildly different outcomes).” Although he admits that this law is “broken with astounding regularity,” it remains absolutely central for Collins: “After twenty-eight years as a believer, the Moral Law still stands out for me as the strongest signpost to God.” 

Every day, through TV news or the pages of the New York Times, I learn of more hate-filled atrocities, worldwide. When Collins insists that we separate the ideals of faith from the behavior of individual people or of organized religion, I get stuck. If the Moral Law is mostly an abstraction, how does it signpost to God? I don’t know. But I do admire Collins’s forthrightness in setting forth his conviction on this point, and also his joy and hope in laying out the ideas of BioLogos. (I say again, read John Haught too!)

My only serious complaint is the breakdown of Collins’s modesty and openness when it comes to agnosis and atheism; this is why The Language for God is the almost-book of my search. For Collins does more than merely reject his own agnostic stance or look back upon his own brand of atheism as “childish.” He asserts that “It is a rare agnostic who has made the effort” to fully consider all of the evidence for and against the existence of God, a judgment both dismissive and irritating. How the heck would Collins know how deeply agnostics have weighed this evidence, in their minds and hearts? Further, he insists that atheism is “not logically defensible.” I’m not sure what a litmus test of “logic” might be for Collins. No logical argument can prove that God is real, Collins acknowledges, but at the same time, he sees “no logical reason why” religious miracles might not occur on rare occasions.

The bottom line is this: In a book that clearly aims for openness and fairness, why not extend the bounty to agnostics and atheists, instead of labeling them as illogical people who haven’t made an effort to believe what Collins himself believes?

Still, in the time of Thomas Jefferson or in our own time, a 98% thoughtful book is a pretty terrific thing. I recommend The Language of God most highly.   

--The Zygon Center has invited Barbara J. King to speak about religion and science in Chicago this month.