The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief

Author: Francis S. Collins
Date: 2006
Publisher: Free Press, New York
ISBN: 0-7432-8639-1
Reviewed by: Allan H. Harvey, steamdoc@aol.com


Review

I wonder if Francis Collins chose his rather inaccurate subtitle, or had it imposed on him. The subtitle makes it sound like an evidentialist apologetics book, perhaps of the "Reasons to Believe" genre. While there is some apologetic material, it is mostly recycled C.S. Lewis. The main area where Collins contributes is the compatibility of modern science (particularly evolution) with theistic belief, and critique of the positions of those who would drive a wedge between science and faith. This emphasis is fine, but for the sake of truth in advertising I would have wished for a less misleading subtitle, like "Science and Faith in Harmony."

A consistent strength of The Language of God is that it is very personal. The author, a noted geneticist and director of the Human Genome Project, states up front his desire to disarm the combatants in the "battle" between science and faith that is mistakenly pursued by some of his scientific colleagues and many of his fellow believers. Throughout the book, Collins conveys the pain he feels when people try to make science and faith into enemies.

Collins also shares his personal journey; the first chapter is devoted to his transformation (while in medical school) from atheism to theism. This material is part testimony and part apologetics, with the apologetics leaning heavily on the moral law argument as expounded by C.S. Lewis. While many people do not find that argument as compelling as Collins does, one can't blame him for emphasizing it given its role in his own journey. The second chapter answers a few common objections to theism; this material sometimes seems superficial but one can't ask for much depth in a brief chapter. I did like his analogy of "pure water" in "rusty containers" in talking about the evil done in the name of religion.

The next three chapters give a well-written overview of natural history, starting at the level of the universe, then looking at organisms (from microbes to man), and finally looking at the genome. The Big Bang and the Anthropic Principle are invoked as suggestive of theism, but Collins refrains from putting too much weight on these. The biological chapters provide a concise summary (not as thorough as Darrel Falk's Coming to Peace with Science) of the overwhelming evidence that evolution has happened (especially the way genetics has confirmed the theory), along with frequent reminders that this in no way excludes God from being the Author of life in all its wondrous intricacy and diversity. These chapters also contain the first of several warnings against the "God of the Gaps" error: "Faced with incomplete understanding of the natural world, believers should be cautious about invoking the divine in areas of current mystery, lest they build an unnecessary theological argument that is doomed to later destruction."

The next few chapters are the meat of the book, discussing and critiquing approaches to apparent conflicts between science and faith. The material is introduced by a chapter describing current controversies and using the Galileo affair to illustrate how an unwise approach to these issues can damage the church.

The first "option" analyzed includes atheism and agnosticism. Collins adeptly points out that it is senseless to consider atheism a logical consequence of science, throwing in a nice quote from Stephen J. Gould for good measure. Collins shows some sympathy for agnosticism, but warns against holding an agnostic position as a way of avoiding the hard work of considering ultimate questions.

Option 2 in Collins' classification is "Creationism," by which he mostly means the young-Earth variety. He does not bother with a detailed critique, merely stating how overwhelming the scientific evidence is against such a position, how it is not demanded by the Bible, and how the "appearance of age" fallback position to which creationists are increasingly resorting is inconsistent with the Biblical picture of God. I could not agree more when he says, "... 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." The chapter concludes with a heartfelt plea to his fellow Evangelicals to cease from basing the faith on this flawed foundation.

Option 3 is the Intelligent Design (ID) movement, which gets slightly more sympathy. After describing ID briefly, Collins argues that it falls short scientifically, giving cases where evolutionary explanations are emerging for favorite ID examples like the bacterial flagellum. He also objects to the way the Designer can be just another God of the Gaps. It is not clear here that Collins appreciates the distinction between ID as a pursuit of knowledge that might be helpful to faith (which I would not object to), and ID pursued as a theological necessity where the truth of theism depends on their arguments being right. It is only the latter form that makes the "God of the Gaps" error; unfortunately it is this abominable "evolution must be wrong in order for theism to be true" form that is dominant in churches and in the propaganda of major promoters of ID like Phil Johnson and the Discovery Institute.

Collins describes his own view by the term "BioLogos," meant to convey the idea "that God is the source of all life and that life expresses the will of God." He gives a reasonable but unremarkable defense of the position more commonly known as "theistic evolution" (which Collins acknowledges is a poor name, hence his invention of another term).

A final chapter recounts more of his personal journey to the Christian faith, exhorting Christians to be unafraid of scientific knowledge, and exhorting scientists to consider that the world of faith may also have valuable truth to offer. An Appendix gives a perspective on some bioethics issues. While this is somewhat disconnected from the rest of the book, readers will benefit from Collins' expertise and thoughtful insight as he considers these issues from a Christian perspective.

While there are many good aspects to this book, overall I was mildly disappointed. Admittedly, I went in with high expectations, having seen smaller samples of insightful writing from Collins. To use a sports metaphor, I was hoping for a home run but instead got a single. Still a positive contribution, but not the major blow I expected.

The primary place where Collins fell short is exactly where his book was most needed -- reaching his fellow Evangelical Christians who may be carried along by the harmful anti-science "warfare" that is prevalent today. Several aspects of Collins' writing undermine the impact he might have had with this audience.

First, Collins avoids writing from an explicitly Christian position for most of the book. While one can understand the desire to avoid making readers from other religious traditions feel left out, the Evangelical reader could give up partway through the book, seeing no evidence that it comes from a committed Christian viewpoint.

Second, Collins fails to address effectively the issues of Biblical interpretation that relate to origins and evolution. Evangelicals will not be convinced by a position unless a case is made that it is consistent with the Bible. Many authors (Meredith Kline, Henri Blocher, Conrad Hyers, etc.) have done solid exegesis to show that Genesis should not be taken as a scientific description, but Collins makes no contact with any of this work. His writing in this area amounts to waving his hands and saying "it sounds like allegory to me," which will not impress Evangelicals.

Third, there are places where he carelessly words things in ways that hurt his cause. For example, Collins repeatedly uses the term "allegory" to describe interpretations of the early chapters of Genesis that depart from wooden literalism. Not only is that word technically inaccurate, but it is a huge red flag for the conservative Evangelicals who most need to hear his message. Choosing a different word like "figurative" would reduce the chance of being dismissed as a liberal with a low view of Scripture. Citing Paul Tillich is another small thing that will undermine credibility with those readers.

Despite these ways in which Collins shoots himself in the foot in trying to reach Evangelicals, The Language of God is still worth reading. As a resource for showing the compatibility of science with Christian faith, it is not bad, but there is better material to be found. Probably the main value of the book is the personal aspect, as it shows the compatibility of science and faith in the life of the distinguished scientist who wrote it.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this review are the opinion of the author of this review alone and should not be taken to represent the views of any other person or organization.

Review written November 2006.
Page last modified November 8, 2006