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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Book Review: Francis Collins's The Language of God

Here's a nice review I did of Francis Collins's book, The Language of God for Faith Today. I've offered some critical comments as well, in a longer review, principally because I think Collins dropped the ball on dealing with the claims of evolutionary psychology and the issues in modern genetics. But if what you want is a book for a teenager or young adult that shows that a prominent scientist can be a Christian, Collins' book is a good choice. The kid isn't going to know about stuff like that, not for years anyway.

Come to think of it, while I'm here, here's the review I did of Collins's book for ChristianWeek, which doesn't post my work online:
Is the language of God really in our genome?

by Denyse O'Leary

James Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix pattern of our DNA, was the first head of the Human Genome Project. He was a man with little time for religion. Indeed, in 2003, he and his fellow helix discoverer Francis Crick took the opportunity of the 50th anniversary celebration of their historic discovery to attack religion. Watson recalled for the media that he stopped attending Mass at the onset of World War II, because "I came to the conclusion that the church was just a bunch of fascists that supported Franco." He also noted, "Every time you understand something, religion becomes less likely." (Telegraph, March 22, 2003)

Watson quit his post in 1992 and was succeeded by Francis Collins. In terms of religious faith, Collins has traced the opposite path. He has now written The Language of God (Free Press, 2006), explaining how he, an agnostic life scientist, came to believe in God.

Collins' parents were hippie freethinkers on a hardscrabble farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Life was fun and creativity flourished but, he recalls, "faith was not an important part of my childhood."A comfortable agnostic in university, he found little reason to question his disinterest in questions of faith until he entered medicine. There he had to confront not mere ideas about life, death, and suffering, but their reality on a daily basis.

As a 26-year-old medical student, he recalls, "I witnessed numerous cases of individuals whose faith provided them with a strong reassurance of ultimate peace, be it in this world or the next, despite terrible suffering that in most instances they had done nothing to bring on themselves." Then, an old woman asked him point blank what he believed and he did not know. But he determined to find out.

Unsurprisingly, Cliff's Notes on world religions did not help Collins much; they amounted to no more than a lot of information about what other people believed without the living examples that he had already seen for himself. So he confronted a local Methodist minister, who suggested C.S. Lewis'Mere Christianity. From Lewis, Collins first grasped the significance of the Moral Law: that instinctive sense we all have of right and wrong. This Moral Law, he decided, comes from God. It cannot be accounted for by the assertion that altruism helps the fittest to survive. (Indeed, it would be far easier to demonstrate the opposite.)

Collins' highly readable account of his conversion left me uneasy at times. The premise that a scientist can, after all, be a man of faith suffers from a key limitation: It implies that being a scientist gives one special insight into the experiences that are relevant to faith. But does it?

The apostle Paul certainly did not think so. He wrote, "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities his eternal power and divine nature have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse." (Rom 1:20, NIV)

Without excuse? Yes. Even if we flunked Grade 10 science, we are without excuse if we do not see God's greatness in his creation. Ignoring "the glory of the immortal God," Paul goes on to warn, pagan hearts glorify natural impulses at best (Venus, Mars) or brute forces at worst (crocodile gods, beetle gods) (See vv. 21 23.)

Of course, science can be a way of worshipping the true God. Collins' comment on the completion of the Human Genome Project contrasts starkly with Watson's anniversary remarks: "For me, as a believer, the uncovering of the human genome sequence held additional significance. This book was written in the DNA language by which God spoke life into being. I felt an overwhelming sense of awe in surveying this most significant of all biological texts."

Okay, but Watson reads the same genome as Collins, and yet he does not believe. There is a way to understand this: Collins did not start his journey of faith as a result of anything he learned in the human genome, but because of what he learned from Christians facing death. He vowed to find the source of their spiritual power. And he who seeks finds. That said, Collins' book is lucidly and entertainingly written, and highly recommended for the science buff on your Christmas list.

Journalist Denyse O'Leary ( is the author of By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), an overview of the intelligent design controversy and co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain (Harper: March, 2007).

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