Book Review: The Language of God by Francis S. Collins


The year 2006 saw the publication of two very different books about the God hypothesis: the evolutionary zoologist and prominent atheist, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and the physician-geneticist Francis Collins’ The Language of God.

Collins is best known for his leadership of the Human Genome Project which published a first draft of the entire human genome back in 2000. In The Language of God he recounts how he was not brought up in any particular faith by his parents and went on to regard himself as an atheist as he became an adult. In his late twenties, however, he came across the book Mere Christianity by the Oxford academic C.S. Lewis which made a deep impression on Collins and he thereafter became a committed Christian.

Collins was clearly impressed by the Moral Law argument advanced by C.S. Lewis and quotes a passage from Mere Christianity as follows:

“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 suspicions?” (p29)

How does Collins seek to reconcile science with religion? In recent years a number of scientists and philosophers – perhaps influenced by evolution denial amongst some evangelical Christian groups along the violent fanaticism of some Muslim groups – have argued for the need to “outgrow” religious beliefs and they ascribe it to an earlier phase of humanity’s development which we need to move on from. This line of argument views religious beliefs as being our first attempt at understanding the world around us but that it has now been superceded by the outstanding success over the past four centuries of science and the scientific method.

As a scientist who has helped map the genetic blueprint of humanity, Collins accepts and welcomes the knowledge and understanding that science has given us, but argues that religion can help provide answers to key questions that all of us have and that science cannot possibly answer.

“Science is the only reliable way to understand the natural world, and its tools when properly utilised can generate profound insights into material existence. But science is powerless to answer questions such as “Why did the universe come into being?” “What is the meaning of human existence?” “What happens after we die?” One of the strongest motivations of humankind is to seek answers to profound questions, and we need to bring all the power of both the scientific and spiritual perspectives to bear on understanding what is both seen and unseen.” (p6)

But what about the passages in the Bible in the Book of Genesis about the creation of the world? A literal interpretation of those passages has led many – predominantly American Christians to believe that the earth was created just over six thousand years ago, as opposed to around 4.5 billion years ago as discovered by science. Collins urges Christians not to take a literal approach to those passages and strongly argues for an allegorical/poetic interpretation which lays greater stress on the larger picture i.e. that the universe had a beginning and was willed into being by a Creator. The consequences of the Big Bang theory – which also postulates that the universe came into being at the very start of time – are “electrifying” for believers according to Collins.

“I cannot see how nature could have created itself. Only a supernatural force that is outside of space and time could have done that.” (p67)

Dawkins would call this the Argument from Personal Incredulity or also a God of the Gaps approach – just because science cannot currently answer a specific question – in this case what brought about the Big Bang – it is tantamount to giving up to just say “Well, God did it.”

In the end it all seems to boil down to whether you think science can in principle discover what caused the Big Bang or whether you think it is – as it currently seems – beyond the limit of what science can discover about the universe?

Collins comes down firmly on the side of believing that there are limits to what science can discover about the universe and argues that faith in science and faith in God can be combined harmoniously to answer our deepest questions.

“The God hypothesis solves some deeply troubling questions about what came before the Big Bang, and why the universe seems to be so exquisitely tuned for us to be here.” (p81)

Interestingly, at the end of 2006, the year of the publication of Collins’ The Language of God and Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Time magazine set up a debate between the two writers and published a special edition entitled “God vs Science”. The debate between the two – which is well worth studying – can be read at this link.

I have not found much useful material in English by contemporary Muslims about science and the God hypothesis and I do wonder what that says about the current state of the Muslim world. Thankfully, there are some thoughtful Christian scientists who have shared their ideas with us and I think the world is a better place because of them.


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2 Responses to Book Review: The Language of God by Francis S. Collins

  1. Brendan says:

    Thanks Inayat, very interesting and helpful. For believers in the creator God there is a case to be made for evolutionary development as a much greater miracle than literalists’ argue for. The extraordinarily slow development and minuscule changes enabled by a God who makes human consciousness possible while remaining outside of human time frames is surely more awe inspiring than any 6 day light show !

  2. truthaholics says:

    Reblogged this on | truthaholics.

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