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Book review: “The Language of God” and the language of men – genome mapper Francis Collins on his faith

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Here is my review of Francis Collins’ The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Free Press, New York, 2006), with a look at the other reviews.

Collins is a snapshot in time: the Christian scientist reassuring everyone that materialist science is no threat  – on the very eve of the big blowout. Some might think I haven’t been nice enough to him. Well, if nice is all you want … next time ask Mary Poppins to write a review.


Part One:How genome mapper Collins became a Christian

Collins owes his conversion to C.S. Lewis, but he typifies the petering out of Lewis’ legacy. Too many people have relied on Lewis and too few have followed in his path of rigorous argument.

Part Two: Does it matter that genome mapper Francis Collins became a Christian?

Now, if Collins did not claim to be a Christian, none of that would be any problem at all. He could safely dismiss it all as rot. But he is claiming to be one, and therein lies the difficulty with all these acres of moral squishiness.

Part Three: The key weaknesses, as spotted by reviewers

The country that Collins would like to roam with Lewis no longer exists.

Part Four: The scribbling tribe of reviewers divides into several parts

Collins’ book was very widely reviewed, as might be expected, and reactions fell into three broad predictable camps – but also one quite interesting fourth one.

Part Five: But, in the end, what choice did Collins really have?

In the event, here is what he did: He avoided courting the disaster that would ensue if he found design in life forms. He did not find it there, where he works. He says he found it in outer space, where he does not work and will not really be expected to defend the proposition seriously. He is a loyal follower and deserves well of the people who will find no legitimate reason to attack him for anything he has said.

I can't help but feel bad for Collins. The sense I get is that he - as Denise pointed out, I believe - wants to defuse conflict between atheists (large in number, I read) in the scientific community, and theists both inside and outside of that community. It's very christian, in fact - a desire for peace. But the result has been atheists angry that Collins can give credence to religion by being a believer while at the same time being a prominent scientist, and theists upset that Collins is a believer while (to them, unfairly) casting aside their arguments to appease the consensus of the PZ Myers like crowd. He doesn't want to be the guy who, say.. goes against Dawkins and says, 'Even with all science set aside, you're full of it.' nullasalus
Thanks for your question, ajl. Lewis is still relevant, but the debate has moved on. For example, long after Lewis' heyday, a busload of cranks hove into town, prophesying in Darwin's name - claiming to discern everything from why children do not like vegetables to why the United States does not make war on Canada by looking deep into their fantasies about the lives of our paleolithic ancestors. At one time, those sorts of people examinedthe entrails of goats, but we are much sophisticated now, and we don't ever make a mess like that on the good carpet. My criticism of Collins is that he abruptly dismisses a huge literature that, however nonsensical, requires more consideration than he gives it. I suspect that that is because he relies so heavily on Lewis. Several other reviewers picked up on the same problem, writing from various angles. I recommend the late David Stove's Darwinian Fairy-Tales, to supplement Lewis and bring you up to date. Stove skewers evo psycho and his book has, I understand, just been reprinted - deservedly so. - d. O'Leary
Denyse, Thanks for a comprehensive review of LoG. I had one question after reading your review. You seem to be saying (perhaps I missed the nuances) that Lewis' arguments on moral law are now somewhat dated. Do you think that Lewis' arguments have been addressed and vanguished by naturalists? I always assumed that most arguments against his treatise have not really addressed his fundamental question,l but dealt with peripheral issues or just basic handwaving. Its the same with Paley. Naturalists attack his logic skills, but have never really answered his fundamental question: what if you see a watch in nature... I always likened it to bringing fencing equipment to a gunfight and then claiming victory because you have better style points :-) So, before I break out some of Lewis' books again, I wanted to know if you think they are still relevant ajl

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