Review: ‘The Language of God’

I recently read The Language of God. Every once in a while I read something from the other side of the religious or political divide, typically the popular books that arise in conversation. This one interested me because it was written by a serious scientist, geneticist Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project. I wanted to see how it would differ from others I read (Lewis, Strobel, Zacharias, McDowell, Little, Haught, and so forth).

You have to give Collins credit for his full embrace of the discoveries of human science. He includes a long, enthusiastic defense of evolution, dismantles the “irreducible complexity” myth, and the science he cites is largely accurate (the glaring exception being his assertion that humans are the only creatures that help each other when there’s no benefit or reward for doing so, an idea ethology has entirely blown up). He also dismisses Paley’s dreadful “Watchmaker” analogy, sternly warns against the equally unwise “God of the Gaps” argument (lack of scientific knowledge = evidence for God), stands against literal interpretations of the bible, and (properly) discourages skeptics from claiming evolution literally disproves a higher power. Some of this is different compared to the other writers above, and unexpected.

Unfortunately, Collins engages in many of the same practices the other authors do: unproven or even false premises that lead to total argumental collapse (there’s zero evidence that deep down inside all humans have the same ideas of right and wrong, if only we would listen to the “whisper” of the Judeo-Christian deity), argument by analogy, and other logical fallacies. Incredibly, he even uses the “God of the Gaps” argument, not even 20 pages before his serious warning against it (we don’t know what came before the Big Bang, what caused it, whether multiple universes exist, whether our one universe bangs and crunches ad infinitum…therefore God is real). The existence of existence is important to think about, and perhaps we do have a higher power to thank, but our lack of scientific knowledge isn’t “evidence for belief,” as the subtitle puts it. It’s “nonevidence” for belief. It’s “God of the Gaps.” The possibility of God being fictional remains, as large as ever. Overall, Collins doesn’t carry over principles very well, seeing the weakness of analogy, “God of the Gaps,” and literal biblical interpretations but using them anyway (it is possible Genesis has untruths, but of course not the gospels). Weird, contradictory stuff.

Overall, the gist of the book is “Here are amazing discoveries of science, but you can still believe in God and that humans are discovering God’s design.” Which is fine. While trust in science forces the abandonment of literal interpretations of ancient texts (first man from dirt, first woman from rib, birds being on earth before land animals, etc.), faith and science living in harmony isn’t that hard. You say “God did it that way” and move on. Evolution was God’s plan, and so forth. That’s really all the chapters build toward (Part 2, the science-y part, has three chapters: the origins of the universe chapter builds toward the “We don’t know, therefore God” argument, while the life on Earth and human genome chapters conclude with no argument at all, just the suggestion that “God did it that way.” I found this unsettling. In any case, “evidence for belief” wasn’t an accurate subtitle, as expected).

Finally, I was disappointed Collins didn’t dive deeper into his conversion to the faith, a subject that always interests me. He cites just one (poor) argument from C.S. Lewis that caused him to change his mind about everything, the right and wrong proposition mentioned above. I would have liked more of his story.