God and science: You just can’t please everyone
A Review of Francis Collins’s The Language of God
By Steve Fuller
From NewScientist 26 August 2006, p. 48.
Denying the real conflict between religion and science is a sure formula for confusion, finds STEVE FULLER.
Let me start by declaring an interest: I am that Steve Fuller who gave evidence for the defence in the trial over whether intelligent design should be taught alongside evolution in school in Dover, Pennsylvania, last year. And books like this persuade me that I did the right thing.
*The Language of God* is by Francis S. Collins, director of the Human Genome Project for the U.S. National Institutes of Health. He became a born-again Christian after reading C. S. Lewis’s *Mere Christianity* as a biochemistry graduate student. Collins is now part of the American ScientificAffiliation, a group of 3000 Christians which aims to render science consistent with its beliefs.
Collins’s mission is to deny any real conflict between God and Darwin. He wants to square things for scientists who don’t want intelligent design on their doorstep but who also don’t want to examine their own beliefs too closely. Collins’s comprehensive but exclusive training in the hard sciences may explain his belief in a God who communicates plainly through natural sciences but who refuses to cooperate with social sciences, and such biologically inflected fields as sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. These latter fields, Collins asserts, would reduce “the existence of the moral laws and the universal longing for God” to culturally specific or deeply genetic survival strategies.
In trying to accommodate too many camps, Collins ends up mired in confusion. Ironically, rather like Richard Dawkins, he treats religions equally, thereby homogenising them. Collins promotes “theistic evolution,” a philosophy sufficiently devoid of controversy, if not content, to be “espoused by many Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Christians, including Pope John Paul II.” It amounts to a treaty with God, whereby science does the “how” and religion the “why” of reality.
Dawkins and Collins clearly need a lesson in social science. The idea that, say, Hinduism and Islam can be lumped together is left over from 19th-century attempts to understand how complex social relations survived long stretches of time without the modern nation state. Repeating this idea uncritically in 2006 when we know better is bizarre.
As is Collins’s refusal to deal with Christianity’s uniqueness in being both most inspirational and most resistant to science. On the one hand, Christians extended the Biblical entitlement of humanity to understand and exercise dominion over nature. On the other, they baulked at theories such as Darwinism that failed to put humans on top. The alleged war between science and religion has really been a fight over the soul of Christianity.
For all their faults, intelligent-design theorists grasp this much better than Collins. Immanuel Kant argued that moral law is no more and no less than our private imitation of God’s enforcement of physical law. Subsequently, as our understanding of nature changed, our relationship to each other changed too. So when intelligent-design theorists think of a Darwinist, they don’t imagine a Collins, who see evolutionary theory as a boon to medicine. Rather, they see an animal-rights protestor who wonders, on good Darwinian but anti-Christian grounds, why human comfort has priority over animal suffering.
Collins is most interesting when he deals with his fellow Christians head-on. He invokes St. Augustine’s *The Literal Meaning of Genesis,* a treatise that still sets the standard for sophisticated exegesis. Collins interprets Augustine as saying that Genesis should not be read literally in matters that stray beyond its remit. However, devout Bible readers like Newton did not read either Genesis or Augustine that way. They simply inferred that “literal” does not mean simple-minded. From nature to the Bible, God’s works can be understood only in the original, be that mathematics and DNA, or Hebrew and Aramaic.
* Steve Fuller is professor of sociology at the University of Warwick, U.K. his book, *Dissent Over Descent: Evolution’s 500 year war on intelligent design,* is out next year.