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    Sunday, November 19, 2006

    Let Us Sing the Language of God: There has been a resurgence recently of the idea that religion and science are incompatible. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has made an extremely successful career of promoting this idea (and at the same time single-handedly done the most harm to the public perception of the theory of evolution by casting it as incompatible with anything but atheism.) Last week's Time magazine cover was devoted to the issue. God vs. Science, they called it. But it was really Richard Dawkins vs. Francis Collins, best known for mapping the human genome. Dr. Collins comes out the better of the two in the Time magazine debate. Unlike Professor Dawkins, he at least appears open-minded and never resorts to name-calling.

    Why would Time ask these two to square off ? Because they've both recently published books on God and religion. Dawkins's book is The God Delusion ; Collins's book is The Language of God.

    I haven't read The God Delusion, but philosopher Thomas Nagel provides an excellent critique here. I have read The Language of God and I wish it were better. Not that there aren't parts of the book that are just as good as his magazine debate performance - there are. Some parts are even better. It's just that there are also a good deal of tangential digressions to wade through before getting to the meat of his argument. In short, the book could have used a good editing.

    A strong editor, for example, would have pointed out that although the story of his discovery of the cystic fibrosis gene mutation is fascinating, it doesn't add significantly to his argument in favor of God and science. It would be better left to a future memoir, as would the song it inspired:

    At a subsequent gathering of thousands of CF researchers, families, and clinicians, I wrote a song to commemorate the gene discovery. ...Though my guitar skills are only modest, I find great joy in those moments where people raise their voices together....I found myself unable to hold back the tears as these legions of good people rose from their seats and sang along with the chorus:

    Dare to dream, dare to dream,
    All our brothers and sisters breathing free.
    Unafraid, our hearts unswayed,
    Till the story of CF is history.


    Ned Flanderish outbursts of song aside, Dr. Collins is not your typical cartoon Christian. He was home-schooled by bohemian, atheist parents who only sent him to church so he could learn muscic by singing in the choir - explicitly warning him not to take the sermons seriously. It wasn't until he was 27 and well on the path of his career in science and medicine that he turned to God.

    Although he describes himself as an evangelical Christian, a better term would be non-denominational. His path to religion was not the traditional evangelical epiphany, but a more gradual embrace based on his exposure to Western philosophy, theology, people of faith, and yes - science and medicine. And while he may love to evangelize the achievements of genomic medicine, he's decidedly uncomfortable evangelizing his Christian faith, admitting to "trepidation" at offering an explanation for choosing Christianity over Deism because of the "strong passions" it may incite.

    He is, however, very good at explaining the basic genetics of human evolution. And he provides a lucid explanation of why "intelligent design" theory is an inadequate response to atheistic evolution. This may be his most important contribution to the public debate between religion and science - the explanation that you don't have to be an atheist to believe in evolution. If only that explanation could get more attention from the mainstream media. Collins subscribes to what he calls BioLogos - a new name he coined for theistic evolution- the belief that evolution is God's chosen method of creating life. This is not the same as Intelligent Design, though you might think so if, like me, your exposure to ID has only been through mainstream media accounts. As Collins points out, Intelligent Design holds that life is just too complex to be explained by natural selection, therefore, there must be an Intelligent Designer who stepped in at the right place and the right time to make the various complex biological machines a reality - what Collins often refers to as a "God of the gaps." In BioLogos, however, God is an evolutionist:

    ...I found this elegant evidence of the relatedness of all living things an occasion of awe, and came to see this as the master plan of the same Almighty who caused the universe to come into being and set its physical parameters just precisely right to allow the creation of stars, planets, heavy elements, and life itself.

    Will the The Language of God convince an atheist that God exists? Probably not. But it might convince him that God is not his enemy.
     

    posted by Sydney on 11/19/2006 09:07:00 AM 4 comments

    4 Comments:

    You know those little metal fishy stickers people place on the back of their cars? Someday I'm going to get a Darwin amphibian and an Icthus and have them kiss on the bumper.

    Collin's stance is old hat for us Catholics.

    By Anonymous Danie, at 4:57 PM  

    You know those little metal fishy stickers people place on the back of their cars? Someday I'm going to get a Darwin amphibian and an Icthus and have them kiss on the bumper.

    Collin's stance is old hat for us Catholics.

    By Anonymous Danie, at 4:58 PM  

    Why do we insist on "proving" God's existence to the atheists, "proving" one god is better than another, or "proving" atheism to believers? I suspect that our world will continue to be a violent place until we are guided by internal principle, rather than controlled by fear of reprisal (whether from an unseen god or an all-too-visible constabulary). Given our history, I fear we will all experience Armageddon-- in whatever guise we envision it-- long before we mature to the point of self governance.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:07 AM  

    Doom,

    I often have that same fear - that we'll just blow ourselves up before we ever reach our full potential. But, it's my Christian faith that keeps me from giving into that fear and feeling that we're all doomed. I truly believe that "His Kingdom will have no end."

    There may be some bad times ahead - the end of civilization as we know it maybe- but I believe that no matter what happens, something better will rise from the ashes and we will continue to evolve, or mature as you put it. But I believe in the end love will triumph over hate, good over evil, freedom over slavery, justice over injustice. I doubt it will be in our lifetime, or even that of our grandchildren, but someday we'll evolve into a better world.

    By Blogger sydney, at 8:41 PM  

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