Editor’s Note: We’re continuing to look at Francis Collins’ book The Language of God, other posts here.
From Atheism to Belief
Collins opens his book The Language of God with a look at his journey “from atheism to belief.” Raised on a dirt farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, Collins grew up without spirituality being an important part of his life, recalling “an upbringing that was quite conventionally modern in its attitude toward faith – it just wasn’t very important.” (An attitude I can thoroughly relate to, having grown up in a similarly “modern family.”)
After earning his PhD in physical chemistry at Yale, he turned his attention towards biology by enrolling in medical school at UNC in Chapel Hill. Considering himself an atheist at this point, a simple question from a dying patient thoroughly challenged his beliefs (or lack-there-of).
According to Collins:
My most awkward moment came when an older woman, suffering daily from severe untreatable angina, asked me what I believed. It was a fair question; we had discussed many other important issues of life and death, and she had shared her own strong Christian beliefs with me. I felt my face flush as I stammered out the words “I’m not really sure.” Her obvious surprise brought into sharp relief a predicament that I had been running away from for nearly all of my twenty-six years: I had never really seriously considered the evidence for and against belief.
That moment haunted me for several days. Did I not consider myself a scientist? Does a scientist draw conclusions without considering the data? Could there be a more important question in all of human existence than “Is there a God?” And yet there I found myself, with a combination of willful blindness and something that could only be properly described as arrogance, having avoided any serious consideration that God might be a real possibility.
Suddenly all my arguments seemed very thin, and I had the sensation that the ice under my feet was cracking. This realization was a thoroughly terrifying experience. After all, if I could no longer rely on the robustness of my atheistic position, would I have to take responsibility for actions that I would prefer to keep unscrutinized? Was I answerable to someone other than myself? The question was now too pressing to avoid.
Following this encounter, Collins investigated the major religions of the world, eventually stumbling upon a book from C.S. Lewis called Mere Christianity. The argument from Mere Christianity that challenged Collins the most was the argument from the Moral Law. The opening pages of Lewis’ book describe this law:
Every one has heard people quarreling. Sometimes it sounds funny and sometimes it sounds merely unpleasant; but however it sounds, I believe we can learn something very important from listening to the kind of things they say. They say things like this: ‘How’d you like it if anyone did the same to you?’–‘That’s my seat, I was there first’–‘Leave him alone, he isn’t doing you any harm’–Why should you shove in first?’–‘Give me a bit of your orange, I gave you a bit of mine’–‘Come on, you promised.’ People say things like that every day, educated people as well as uneducated, and children as well as grown-ups.
Now what interests me about all these remarks is that the man who makes them is not merely saying that the other man’s behaviour does not happen to please him. He is appealing to some kind of standard of behaviour which he expects the other man to know about. And the other man very seldom replies: ‘To hell with your standard.’ Nearly always he tries to make out that what he has been doing does not really go against the standard, or that if it does there is some special excuse. He pretends there is some special reason in this particular case why the person who took the seat first should not keep it, or that things were quite different when he was given the bit of orange, or that something has turned up which lets him off keeping his promise. It looks, in fact, very much as if both parties had in mind some kind of Law or Rule of fair play or decent behaviour or morality or whatever you like to call it, about which they really agreed. And they have. If they had not, they might, of course, fight like animals, but they could not quarrel in the human sense of the word. Quarreling means trying to show that the other man is in the wrong. And there would be no sense in trying to do that unless you and he had some sort of agreement as to what Right and Wrong are; just as there would be no sense in saying that a footballer had committed a foul unless there was some agreement about the rules of football.
Where did the Moral Law come from? Finding no satisfactory explanation in Darwinian evolution for its presence (especially when considering selfless altruism, which Collins describes as “a scandal to reductionist reasoning”), Collins became stunned by the logic of Lewis’ straightforward explanation:
If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe – no more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house. The only way in which we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way. And that is just what we do find inside ourselves. Surely this ought to arouse our suspicious?
Collins comments that this Moral Law, which had been “hiding in [his] own heart as familiar as anything in daily experience,” “shone its bright white light into the recesses of [his] childish atheism,” forcing him to consider its origin, and ultimately bringing him to consider the question: “Was this God looking back at me?”
According to Collins:
I had started this journey of intellectual exploration to confirm my atheism. That now lay in ruins as the argument from the Moral Law (and many other issues) forced me to admit the plausibility of the God hypothesis. Agnosticism, which had seemed like a safe second-place haven, now loomed like the great cop-out it often is. Faith in God now seemed more rational than disbelief.
Personal Reflections & a Challenge
Like Collins, I grew up in a household without any real consideration of spirituality or religion, and like Collins I found myself a non-believer in God upon entering college (I described myself as a “hardcore agnostic,” believing that one could not know whether or not God exists), and finally, like Collins, I was deeply touched by the writings of C.S. Lewis upon my initial conversion into faith in Jesus (though unlike Collins, I came into faith after trying to prove to some friends that Christianity was a lie and their faith was in vain).
I invite you to take the journey that Collins, I, and countless others have undertaken, and seriously consider the evidence for the existence of God from the Moral Law and elsewhere. But do not take on this search with your eyes closed and ears blocked, convincing yourself that you’re really considering the questions, but never actually softening your heart enough to really look at the evidence. Collins described his state as one of “a combination of willful blindness and something that could only be properly described as arrogance” when he was asked about his beliefs regarding God, where are you?
The launch of BioLogos from Francis Collins resulted in fierce criticism from David Klinghoffer of the Discovery Institute (Dr. Brown’s review of Klinghoffer’s book “Why The Jews Rejected Jesus” can be found here). He wrote the following concerning theistic evolution on May 28th for Evolution News & Views:
Collins and Giberson are sincere Evangelical Christians — as far as I, a Jew, can tell — and undoubtedly innocent of all guile, but they represent an insidious trend in religious and intellectual life. This genuine opiate of the masses works as a stupor-inducing fog, enveloping the debate about intelligent design versus Darwinism. The fog lulls you with the thought that between the idea of design in nature, and that of no design in nature, there is actually no need to make a choice.
As the battle over human origins continues, I thought it would be worthwhile to look through Collins’ book “The Language of God” and present some of his ideas for thought and dicussion over the next few weeks as I read through it.
The book’s introduction includes a wonderful section concerning the presentation of Dr. Collins’ most well known work, the Human Genome Project, to the world:
But the part of his speech that most attracted public attention jumped from the scientific perspective to the spiritual. “Today,” [Clinton] said, “we are learning the language in which God created life. We are gaining ever more awe for the complexity, the beauty, and the wonder of God’s most divine and sacred gift.”
Was I, a rigorously trained scientist, taken aback at such a blatantly religious reference by the leader of the free world at a moment such as this? Was I tempted to scowl or look at the floor in embarrassment? No, not at all. In fact I had worked closely with the president’s speechwriter in the frantic days just prior to this announcement, and had strongly endorsed the inclusion of this paragraph. When it came time for me to add a few words of my own, I echoed this sentiment: “It’s a happy day for the world. It is humbling for me, and awe-inspiring, to realize that we have caught the first glimpse of our own instruction book, previously known only to God.”
What was going on here? Why would a president and a scientist, charged with announcing a milestone in biology and medicine, feel compelled to invoke a connection with God? Aren’t the scientific and spiritual worldviews antithetical, or shouldn’t they at lest avoid appearing in the East Room together? What were the reasons for invoking God in those two speeches? Was this poetry? Hypocrisy? A cynical attempt to curry favor from believers, or to disarm those who might criticize this study of the human genome as reducing humankind to machinery? No. Not for me. Quite the contrary, for me the experience of sequencing the human genome, and uncovering this most remarkable of all texts, was both a stunning scientific achievement and an occasion of worship.
Reading this made my heart leap. Yes! This is what true scientific discovery and the pursuit of truth is about. Peering deeper into the wondrous design of the Universe and the design of man is cause for worshiping He that is the author of life. For “in Him we live and move and have our being.”
Below is a video of Collins on CNN discussing his journey into faith: [Link to Video]