The Believer-Scientist (Part 1)

Book #2: The Language of God by Francis Collins

The last book I reviewed for this blog espoused the glories of evolutionary biology and alluded to how it might render the religious perspective on the nature and origins of life unnecessary and undesirable.

And now for something completely different.

The Language of God takes the perspective that religion and science need not be at odds because they are trying to answer different questions. Collins, who terms himself a “believer-scientist,” was the head of the Human Genome Project, mapping out the genetic code that makes us who we are at the most basic level. This perspective certainly gives Collins a unique lens on creation, as he has become familiar with the language that made humanity. As an evangelical Christian scientist, Collins termed this code ‘the language of God.’

I say that Collins is an evangelical Christian; by his own admission in the book, that is true.  This does not, however, devalue his perspective on religion and science. My more liberal readers need not fear that Collins is a Young Earth Creationist or even an advocate of Intelligent Design theory. In fact, he does as thorough a job debunking those as he does atheism and agnosticism. Collins takes a stance that he calls “theistic evolution” or “BioLogos,” in which he basically argued that God established the creation mechanisms for the world and knew what the end result would be, but allowed the creation to be an ongoing process through evolution.

I find myself drawn to this sort of conclusion, which seems to be a solid middle ground between faith and science, but as I read I also found myself perturbed by Collins’s approach to theology. He emphasizes the existence of a Moral Law as a reason for believing in God, and certainly overuses C.S. Lewis quotes to make his theological points. You’d think that Mere Christianity was a book of the Bible from reading the way Collins writes about its author.

(Side note: I also strongly disagreed with Collins’s characterization of the Gospels as eyewitness accounts of Jesus’s life. The Gospel of Mark, which was the earliest, was published around 66 C.E., at least 30 years after Jesus died. Highly unlikely that any of them were actually there for the events of Jesus’s life. This is a nit-picking disagreement, but one which matters to me.)

My issue is not with C.S. Lewis himself entirely; his is clear thinking and writing that contributed powerfully to Christian thought. And I certainly understand that he was influential on the faith process of Francis Collins. I do, however, think that Lewis (and by extension, Collins) create false dichotomies at times– such as the idea that Jesus could not possibly be *just* a good human teacher; he must either be what he claimed, the Son of God, or crazy, or a liar.

Both Lewis and Collins also strongly imply (or state outright) that the existence of morality demands the existence of a God. This is an issue that I am looking forward to reading more about, because my thinking to date suggests that while morality is an argument for the existence of God, God need not necessarily be the origin of morality. At any rate, it’s a thought-provoking question that I look forward to pursuing more.

The Language of God by Francis Collins is worth reading, but I have to admit that I didn’t like it quite as much as I expected. I agreed with his portrait of theistic evolution and the opportunities it gave for reconciling science and faith, but was largely unpersuaded– and sometimes was disappointed– by his theology. As I learned early in my academic writing career, overemphasis on one source weakens an argument, and the way Collins overused C.S. Lewis quotes was greatly disappointing. Perhaps once again we have a classic case of the brilliant scientist who makes a sub-par theologian.

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Survival of the Nicest?

I’m working on my second book for this project– Francis Collins’ The Language of God.  After finishing the Dawkins book I felt the need to take a detour into what for me is less heavy reading– namely, Ted Kennedy’s memoir True Compass and Brian McLaren’s manifesto for progressive Christianity, A New Kind of Christianity. I imagine this will become necessary along the way to provide a mental break as I process reflections on this important topic. I have also, however, found that this project keeps relating to my other reading. Kennedy and McLaren have both made their peace with the intersection of science and religion– Kennedy as a public servant and devout Catholic, McLaren as a former English literature professor, turned pastor, turned prophet-of-the-new-church.

But I digress. Along with my books, I make a habit of reading articles from the New York Times and other publications every day via Google Reader. A little while ago, I came across this op-ed piece by columnist David Brooks, whose thoughtfulness I have always appreciated even though I do not always agree with his conclusions.

For those readers who might be worried about filling up their NYT monthly quotas too soon, in a column entitled “Nice Guys Finish First,” Brooks summarized a series of new books detailing the relationship between evolution and cooperation. He argued that “the human mind veered away from that of other primates. We are born ready to cooperate, and then we build cultures to magnify that trait.”

This article caught my attention because it raises an interesting point: why would human beings be wired to cooperate in a story dominated by the traditional “survival of the fittest” narrative? If competition to be the strongest and the fastest and the best got us to where we are today, why would humans have become a species so inclined (usually) to cooperate with one another? Sports and other competitive activities aside, we know when it is best to cooperate. Brooks cites the example of how an infant of twelve months will inform others about something by pointing, something that no monkey will do. I prefer to think of the role-playing game I played with some of my friends the other night, in which the narrator kept trying to get us to “separate” but we refused to do it, and which we won by playing a cooperative game of Jenga (long story).

The conclusion that Brooks reached in his column was interesting: “For decades, people tried to devise a rigorous “scientific” system to analyze behavior that would be divorced from morality. But if cooperation permeates our nature, then so does morality, and there is no escaping ethics, emotion, and religion in our quest to understand who we are and how we got this way.”

I have mixed feelings about this– on the one hand, I agree with Brooks that divorcing ethics and morality and religion from how we became who we are today is a bad idea. Ignoring or minimizing the impact of any of these things eliminates an essential part of the human experience. On the other hand, I’m not necessarily convinced that science shouldn’t try to explain these things– science is a quest for answers, and these are big questions that need to be asked. In the case of the cooperative instinct, the “survival of the fittest” principle doesn’t necessarily mean an instinct to fight– apparently somewhere along the line, it turned out that the most appropriately cooperative person WAS the “fittest.” These things aren’t mutually exclusive.

That cooperation is a positive trait that could have developed by evolutionary means, I (in my humble, nonscientific way) have no doubt. I also do not doubt that “ethics, emotion, and religion” have a role to play in the “quest to understand who we are and how we got this way.” But I still am not sure that I agree with the way Brooks reached his conclusions, and it still fails to reconcile the tension between science and religion. And so the quest continues.

“There is grandeur in this view of life.”

Book #1: The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins

This past spring I attended an event hosted by the rationalists and atheists’ club at my alma mater– a club with which I was not involved, being a longtime Methodist. This event, however, I did not want to pass up– a Q&A with Richard Dawkins, the famed atheist and evolutionary biologist.

The Q&A was indeed fascinating, as Dawkins answered questions that ranged from the funniest piece of hate mail Dawkins had ever received (“I hope you get hit by a church van”) to whether it is actually possible to disprove the existence of God (no, but the rationale in favor of God’s existence is “spectacularly unimpressive”). I walked away from the event with the impression that Dawkins lived up to his reputation: erudite, intelligent, arrogant, a brilliant evolutionary biologist, and not much of a theologian.

When I decided to start this project, it felt only right to being reading with one of Dawkins’s books. I attended an evangelical Christian high school where “intelligent design” was the dominant paradigm in science classes, though we did learn some evolutionary biology, and was well schooled in the literature supporting creationism. It seemed only right that I begin my reading about God and science by engaging with the ideas of a man who is utterly devoted to evolution by natural selection, and who uses those views to criticize religious thought.

I chose to read The Greatest Show on Earth for a few reasons, but primarily because it is more focused on science than on religion. I thought it would be good to get a basic grounding in evolutionary science before moving on to books with a somewhat more theological angle. This proved to be a good choice.

Dawkins the writer is just as erudite as Dawkins the speaker– perhaps even more so. He explains complex biological concepts in a methodical way, taking great length to describe experiments that he deems essential to understanding evolutionary biology. The complexity of his topic is reflected in the fact that the reader (or at least, this reader) may not walk away understanding the intricacies of everything Dawkins says. This is understandable. I may never be able to explain the ins and outs of molecular clocks and the fossil record. But after reading Dawkins’s book I understand why they are important.

All that being said, this is also a book that is intended to combat the 40% of Americans who refuse to believe in evolution by natural selection. That is a big part of the reason for its style and step-by-step explanations. It also explains the constant jibes at people who advocate creationism– though I was impressed by the fact that Dawkins did differentiate up front between religious people and creationists. It is indeed very important to understand that while (presumably) all creationists are religious people, not all religious people are creationists (in the anti-evolution sense of the term). I do not think that a creationist who picked up this book and actually read it would necessarily be convinced by Dawkins’s arguments– in fact there’s a good chance that they would be too offended to make it past the first chapter. So perhaps it would be more accurate to say that The Greatest Show on Earth could serve to provide evidence for someone who was already at least mostly convinced of the legitimacy of evolutionary biology. It is certainly here that he finds his greatest success.

For purposes of this heavily scientific book, Dawkins mostly avoids making arguments about philosophy or theology, leaving that for other books such as The God Delusion and Unweaving the Rainbow (the latter of which I plan to read during this project at some point). This is a good thing, since I was personally dissatisfied with his reasoning whenever Dawkins attempted to tackle theological issues. Most notably, I was dissatisfied with his attempts to explain away the problem of pain and other issues of theodicy toward the end of his book. This is partly due to the fact that he did not allow enough space to analyze these themes, and partly because they are philosophical questions that (in my opinion) don’t necessarily fit in an analysis of evolutionary biology. They are certainly challenging, and the way Dawkins set up his argument he had to address them, but his conclusions were not satisfying.

The Greatest Show on Earth is, without a doubt, Richard Dawkins’ love letter to evolutionary biology. The primary impression that the reader can take away from reading this book is a sense of the pure joy that Dawkins and his fellow scientists have in their subject. It is a beautiful and touching homage to the wonder of science and in the ability to explain the world around us, deserving as an heir to the Darwin quote with which Dawkins began his final chapter: “There is grandeur in this view of life.”

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.

I’m sure that everyone has heard by now that the world did not, in fact, end on Saturday May 21, 2011, as was predicted by Harold Camping and his followers.

I must admit that I felt an odd blend of emotions in the lead-up to and aftermath of Saturday… a mix of theological revulsion, pity for the followers who had quit their jobs and caused strife in their families, thorough amusement at the Twitter and Facebook responses I was reading (#RapturePickupLines, anyone?), and a weird fascination with how the whole thing was happening.

By way of a news update, yesterday Camping announced that May 21 was more of a “spiritual” coming of Christ (more than another Saturday?) and that a merciful God must have decided to spare the world five months of Tribulation…but that his prediction that the whole world will end on October 21 was still correct. Here we go again.

Among the more interesting pieces I’ve found since Saturday are two responses to Camping from figures who have been fairly active in debates over the role of religion: John Shelby Spong, the ultra-liberal former Episcopal Bishop, and Richard Dawkins, the famed atheist and evolutionary biologist. In these pieces, Spong claims that Christianity should not be identified with Camping’s “nonsense,” and that science explains the end of the world. Meanwhile, Dawkins writes that science explains the end of the world and that anything taught by religious “traditions” is nonsense.

I was fascinated by the fact that, while the spirit in which the message is conveyed differs, Spong and Dawkins were basically expressing the same idea. Religions should not be troubling themselves with something like the end of the world, because science has already been explaining it. There is empirical evidence for how and (roughly) when the world is going to end, so these predictions of the Rapture are hogwash. (Incidentally, the Rapture is hogwash for more than one reason– I recommend this article from Methodist pastor Mark Schaefer for an in-depth explanation.)

I tend to agree with Dawkins and Spong that religion should not be troubling themselves with expecting the end of the world. First of all, it is both morbid and useless to worry over something that you cannot control. Second, and more importantly, the end-of-the-world mindset can encourage people to forget about responsibilities in the here and now. It broke my heart to read a story in the New York Times about a family in which the parents believed in the May 21 prophecy and the kids didn’t, in which one of the kids no longer felt motivated to pursue future plans– not because he believed the world was going to end, but because he no longer felt support from his parents for his hopes and aspirations. This is just wrong.

Expecting the end of the world can also lead to nihilistic politics that absolve us of our responsibilities to each other and to the earth. What would motivate us to care, if the world is just going to end soon anyway? Ironically enough, these sorts of policies make it more likely that humanity will destroy itself sooner versus later. As Spong wrote in his article, “Human life will come to an end a lot sooner if politicians lead us into either nuclear holocaust or environmental disaster.”

It is precisely this reality that religion should be fighting against. Religion should be a voice against dangerous (and anti-scientific) mindsets that would hasten the end of the world simply by believing it is imminent. Maybe the Biblical statement that “none shall know the day or hour” was meant to stop us from worrying about the problems of what is to come in the distant future, and keep us focused on solving problems that affect real people in the present and immediate future.

In the beginning…

God created the heavens and the earth. So says the beginning of the book of Genesis. As most people with half an ear open will be aware, though, not everyone believes this to be true. In fact, the large majority of the credible scientific community (and a fair chunk of the theological community) would disagree with a literal reading of the Genesis 1 story. When combined with the roughly 40% of Americans who deny the theory of evolution, we have the makings of a deeply contentious relationship between science and religion.

It is this contention that sparked the idea for this project. In conversations with some of my atheistic friends, I have been told that religion and science– most specifically, evolution and creationism– are irreconcilable. The ideas are too disparate, the methods are too opposite, I am told. They are different in every possible way. They may be right, but I am not willing to concede the point without examining the ideas further.

I am a progressive Christian, a United Methodist, and a longtime student of the humanities. Unlike many of the people whose books I will be reading, I do not have any formal training in science or theology; however, I have a deep appreciation for both, and I want to know more. I want to develop my own ideas by reading what others have said. To do this, I will be reading and responding to books by people from all sides– evolutionary biologists and theologians, atheists and evangelicals and everywhere in between.

I believe common ground can be found. I believe that an intrinsic sense of wonder is shared by both scientists and people of faith, and that this commonality means that science and religion need not be permanently at odds. I could be wrong. This is my quest to find out.