Review: “The Language of God” by Francis S. Collins

I ran across this at the library a couple of weeks ago, and snatched it up. I had read brief interviews with Dr. Francis S. Collins, leader of the Human Genome Project, and I had seen snippets from essays he’d written. He’s a world-renowned scientist who is unabashedly Christian, so I figured he would have an interesting perspective.

I was right. “The Language of God” is a very engaging book, well written and thoughtful.

The subtitle on the hard-cover copy I picked up, “A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief” is just a tad misleading. Collins does indeed present evidence for belief, just not scientifically-tested evidence — and I think he’d be among the first to acknowledge that. So if you’re picking up the book hoping to see that a precise measurement of the speed of an electron proves hands-down that God exists, you won’t find it in this book.

What you will find, however, is a very intelligent guy making an intelligent case for religious belief alongside a passionate defense of doing science the right way — observation, hypothesis, test and repeat, show your work, answer the questions, test and repeat, more observation, test and repeat, experiment, test test test test and so on. Collins’ Christianity is very important to him, and so is the scientific method. Nothing he’s learned in science has given Collins any reason to doubt his faith, and he does his science in such a way as to keep his faith from leading him around by the nose.

All in all, after reading this book I get the feeling Collins would be a fascinating person to sit down and drink a beer with. He apparently plays a pretty mean guitar, too.

Collins’ evidence for belief amounts to philosophical arguments based on the existence of basic bottom-line morality and on the pretty much universal desire among humankind to relate to something more, something spiritual, something beyond. Neither is a particularly new argument, but neither is a particularly bad argument. It’s far from a slam-dunk, but Collins’ treatment of both arguments is even-handed and not preachy. He tells you how he came to believe, rather than tell you why you’re a moron if you don’t believe. Indeed, to me it seems Collins’ primary goal in this book is not to convince readers to join him in faith, but to demonstrate that science need not be seen as an enemy to faith.

I think Collins succeeds, but my perspective is that of a scientifically-minded, tries-to-be-spiritually-open-minded reader. A reader coming from a faith tradition that includes belief in a literal holy book might not find Collins convincing.

Along the way, Collins discusses his team’s work on the Human Genome Project and how it relates to both evolution theory and to his sense of wonder and faith. He also discusses Darwin, Galileo, Intelligent Design, Creationism, theistic evolution and more. If you’re wondering, he finds the evidence for evolution to be compelling, the evidence for Young Earth Creationism to be completely made up and the scientific case for Intelligent Design to be lacking to date.

Collins also includes chapters on bioethics matters such as abortion, cloning, in vitro fertilization and stem-cell research. In some cases, he raises more questions than he answers — which is understandable since much of this stuff is still on the frontiers of ethics and medical knowledge. I think Collins makes a great case for both science and faith to play co-equal roles in figuring all this stuff out and settling on intelligent policy.

Despite the weighty topics, Collin’s book is a fairly breezy read — far less pedantic and far more accessible, in my opinion, than “God’s Universe” by Owen Gingerich. Gingerich, a Harvard astronomer who also isn’t shy about his belief in God, isn’t quite the writer Collins proves to be. Collins makes his science easier for a layman to grasp.

I doubt Collins will win converts to Christianity with this book, but I don’t think such is his goal. I’m not sure he’ll change the minds of people who think much of modern science is atheistic bunk, either. He does make a convincing case that one does not have to surrender rationality to believe in God, and I think his book is well worth a read. I think it would be particularly valuable to people who have sat on the sidelines of the whole science vs. religion fracas, especially if the sometimes shrill voices from both sides have been a big turn-off. Collins provides a rare and important voice in these discussions — a bona fide scientist with a bona fide Christian faith.

— Steve

P.S. I hope your Christmas was fabulous. Once New Year’s Day arrives, I’ll try to be more diligent about posting here. I have a cool new vampire book to tell you about, some great beers I’ve uncorked recently, another poetry sale to brag about and some other stuff going on — so stay tuned.

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