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Book Reviews

Francis Collins: The Language of God

Book Review:

The Language of God:  A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief

by Francis S. Collins, published by Free Press New York.  2006, 234 pages of text,  37 pages of Appendices, 8 pages of notes, 7 pages of Reading Group Guide.  ISBN 978 1 4165 4274 2

Francis Collins is the head of the Human Genome Project.  He is a geneticist who has moved from being an agnostic to a convinced atheist to a Christian believer.

The book is an interesting weaving together of the story of his faith in Christ with the story of the development of science, especially genetics. However Collins purpose is more than to describe events and science. He makes a plea that science and faith can both be understood as aspects of God's truth.

The first part of the book describes Collins own changes in belief. He then provides a number of Christian answers to common objections from atheistic scientists: religion as wish-fulfilment; the harm done in the name of religion; why a loving God allows suffering; can a rational person believe in miracles.

In Part 2 he deals with what he calls the Great Questions of Human Existence. He has a very helpful chapter on the Origins of the Universe (a big bang, cosmology, the formation of the solar system and quantum mechanics). This discussion includes some tantalising descriptions in the gaps in present knowledge. However he cautions about fitting God into the gaps of our knowledge. He is strongly against a "god of the gaps" theology.  Collins also distinguishes questions which science may be able to answer from ones which it cannot answer. So the question of what happened before the big bang at this stage is outside the realm of observational science.

His chapter on microbiology and the origins of life on earth takes up a number of issues and objections from theists. He discusses Paley's argument from design, the problem of showing how DNA and RNA developed, the "Cambrian explosion" of the fossil record, and briefly looks at Darwin. The chapter ends with a discussion of heredity and a very good explanation of the structure of DNA. Collins argues that all the wonderful diversity that science is discovering is further cause to stand in awe of God.

Perhaps the most interesting section concerns the human genome project. This is in part a personal history of research Collins has been intimately associated with. However it is in this material that many of the perceived threats to faith are exposed.

It is this perceived threat that Collins is concerned to clarify. In the third section of the book he deals with a number of options for responding to the data of science and the claims of faith. Option One he calls Atheism and Agnosticism (where Science trumps Faith). In this he takes issue with Edward Wilson and Richard Dawkins as two representatives of anti-supernaturalism, especially focussing on bad science and ideology posing as science.

Option Two is Creationism (Where Faith trumps Science).  He regards Young Earth Creationism as lacking almost any true scientific foundation. He also helpfully (in my view) points out that biblical interpretation does not require this thesis, and in fact that this view of the creation accounts in the Bible is quite recent.  He is sympathetic however to the concern of evangelical Christians to hold their ground against liberal interpretations of the Bible - however he thinks this is not the way to do it with respect to science.

Option Three is Intelligent Design (Where Science needs Divine Help). Although attractive at first sight, Collins thinks ID fails to qualify as a scientific theory.  He also thinks that many examples of irreducible complexity may not turn out to be irreducible after all. On a theological level he argues that ID is really a "God of the gaps" theory, and therefore will do damage to faith as the gaps are filled in by science.

Option Four he calls BioLogos (Where Science and Faith are in Harmony). Collins argues for a view that could be called "theistic evolution". He answers various objections and explains how this view fits in with aspects of the creation stories in the Bible (including a comment on where Adam and Eve's children found their wives and husbands).

Collins is not an argumentative writer. He writes as an evangelical Christian who has come to trust Christ from a position of convinced atheism. He also writes as a good scientist. One of his concerns is that data should be looked at objectively, and he is able to argue against both theistic and atheistic scientists whose science fails empirical tests.  He writes warmly of those Christians who sincerely seek to hold to biblical truths. His concern is to show a way forward that does justice to genuine empirical science that is discovering God's truth in nature, and at the same time to provide a genuinely biblical way of understanding the biblical record so that Christians don't have to construct theological schemes that necessitate bad science.

Some will find this book challenging. Others will find it liberating. It is written irenically and evangelistically (as the sub-title suggests). It is also very interesting with lots of personal stories and insights into modern scientific discoveries.

Dale Appleby

October 2007

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