Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Book Review: The Language of God

I grew up in a faith that often derailed evolution as an atheist view of how the universe came into being.  It was the godless scientist who wanted to eliminate all traces of a divine being as the source of creation.  Therefore, we must go the other extreme by reading into Genesis a very literal interpretation, some would even say a scientific interpretation, of the creation of the universe.  In The Language of God author, scientist and Christ-follower Francis S. Collins tries to bring a synthesis to evolution and Christian belief.  Collins was involved in the Human Genome Project that mapped out the “language of God” within human DNA.  In his experience as a scientist he wants to bring an end to the creation / intelligent design / evolution debate by exposing the strengths and weaknesses of these views and then concluding how evolution and Christian faith must be compatible if we accept that all truth is God’s truth. 

            Collins understands that there are some very strong personalities that have taken positions on this debate as a reason to “prove” their faith.  Atheists have stated that to accept evolution one must be atheistic.  Some evangelicals have made creationism a tenant of their faith were to question it is to question your own faith.  But Collins explains that science has its limits.  He states that the “ . . . DNA sequence alone, even if accompanied by a vast trove of data on biological function, will never explain certain special human attributes, such as the knowledge of the Moral law and the universal search for God.” (p. 140)  Science helps us to understand our world but there are things that go beyond science that point to a God who loves us. 

            Collins also argues that science is not the enemy of religion.  He says that “ . . . the idea that scientific revelations would represent an enemy in that pursuit is ill conceived.  If God created the universe, and the laws that govern it, and if He endowed human beings with intellectual abilities to discern its workings, would He want us to disregard those abilities? Would He be diminished or threatened by what we are discovering about His creation?”  (p. 153). These are really good questions to wrestle with.  I have often struggled with what I believe when it comes to the origins of life.  I have read some of the leading atheists who use evolution as a basis to bash religion.  But I have also sat in “creation science” classes were I felt like all it was, was a knee-jerk reaction to evolution.  In both cases, a person is starting with a specific belief system and then forcing the science to say what they want it to say.  So I have often been very hesitant to take a firm position in this debate.  Ironically, Collins started out as an atheist and it was through his pursuit of science that eventually led him to faith in God.  And it was this faith that brought an explanation to the things that science could not prove, and also a greater appreciation for what he discovered through the sciences.

            Collins takes on the main proponents of atheism, creationism and intelligent design to arrive at the conclusion of theistic evolution or better yet a term that he prefers “Biologos”.  So here are my favorite quotes!

Collins on atheism

The major and inescapable flaw of Dawkins’s claim that science demands atheism is that it goes beyond the evidence. If God is outside of nature, then science can neither prove nor disprove His existence. Atheism itself must therefore be considered a form of blind faith, in that it adopts a belief system that cannot be defended on the basis of pure reason.” (p. 165)   

Science cannot be used to justify discounting the great monotheistic religions of the world, which rest upon centuries of history, moral philosophy, and the powerful evidence provided by human altruism.  It is the height of scientific hubris to claim otherwise.  But that leaves us with a challenge: if the existence of God is true (not just tradition, but actually true), and if certain scientific conclusions about the natural world are also true (not just in fashion, but objectively true), then they cannot contradict each other.  A fully harmonious synthesis must be possible. (p. 169)

Collins on Creationism:

Many believers in God have been drawn to Young Earth Creationism because they see scientific advances as threatening to God.  But does He really need defending here? Is not God the author of the laws of the universe? Is He not the greatest scientist? The greatest physicist? The greatest biologist? Most important, is He honored or dishonored by those who would demand that His people ignore rigorous scientific conclusions about His creation? Can faith in a loving God be built on a foundation of lies about nature? (p. 176)

. . . by any reasonable standard, Young Earth Creationism has reached a point of intellectual bankruptcy, both in its science and in its theology. Its persistence is thus one of the great puzzles and great tragedies of our time. By attacking the fundamentals of virtually every branch of science, it widens the chasm between the scientific and spiritual worldviews, just at a time where a pathway toward harmony is desperately needed.  By sending a message to young people that science is dangerous, and that pursuing science may well mean rejecting religious faith, Young Earth Creationism may be depriving science of some of its most promising future talents.  But it is not science that suffers most here.  Young Earth Creationism does even more damage to faith, by demanding that belief in God requires assent to fundamentally flawed claims about the natural world. (p. 177)

Collins on Intelligent Design:

. . . scientifically, ID fails to hold up, providing neither an opportunity for experimental validation nor a robust foundation for its primary claim of irreducible complexity.  More than that, however, ID also fails in a way that should be more of a concern to the believer that to the hard-nosed scientist.  ID is a “God of the gaps” theory, inserting a supposition of the need for supernatural intervention in places that its proponents claim science cannot explain. . . .  Furthermore, ID portrays the Almighty as a clumsy Creator, having to intervene at regular intervals to fix the inadequacies of His own initial plan for generating the complexity of life.  For a believer who stands in awe of the almost unimaginable intelligence and creative genius of God, this is a very unsatisfactory image. (p. 193-194)

Collins on Theistic Evolution:

I do not believe that the God who created all the universe, and who communes with His people through prayer and spiritual insight, would expect us to deny the obvious truths of the natural world that science has revealed to us, in order to prove our love for Him. In that context, I find theistic evolution, or BioLogos, to be by far the most scientifically consistent and spiritually satisfying of the alternatives. This position will not go out of style or be disproven by future scientific discoveries. It is intellectually rigorous, it provides answers to many otherwise puzzling questions, and it allows science and faith to fortify each other like two unshakable pillars, holding up a building called Truth. (p. 210)

Collins’ Conclusion:

It is time to call a truce in the escalating war between science and spirit.  The war was never really necessary. Like so many earthly wars, this one has been initiated and intensified by extremists on both sides, sounding alarms that predict imminent ruin unless the other side is vanquished. Science is not threatened by God; it is enhanced. God is most certainly not threatened by science; He made it all possible. So let us together seek to reclaim the solid ground of an intellectually and spiritually satisfying synthesis of all great truths.  (p. 233-234)

Overall, this has been a great book to read.  I have slowly let go of a literal interpretation of Genesis ever since seminary.  It was there that we were shown how Genesis 1 and 2 were never meant to be taken as science.  It followed more in the vein of poetic literature.  Also, we were introduced to several other creation stories from other cultures and religions.  And then the kicker was studying the Hebrew and understanding the ways that this passage can be interpreted.  To force Genesis 1 and 2 into a very literal interpretation make the passage become something it was never meant to be. 

But I also struggled with evolution.  I became very comfortable with the concept of intelligent design during the 90’s.  But as Collins explains, current scientific progress has done serious damage to many of their claims.

Another area I really struggled with was the outspoken atheists who used evolution as a bully pulpit to attack religion.  It is easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to any who vehemently attack our faith. 

But to finally read someone who tries to synthesis religious and scientific truth so that both fields of truth are respected, honored and compliment each other was refreshing. 

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wrestles with the issues of creationism, intelligent design and evolution.  Collins is respectful and kind to all views but he does pick apart the weaknesses in the creationist and intelligent design views while advocating for the overwhelming weight of evidence that supports theistic evolution.  I would recommend that you read this with an open mind and a deep respect for a man whose life has been immersed in the sciences.  This is not an atheist blowhard or a crazed fundamentalist.  This is a believer in Christ and a brilliant scientist in his own work.  It is a great read.  

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