Francis Collins is the director of the National Institute of Health in America and previously led the Human Genome Project. He’s widely considered to be one of the greatest scientists of his generation. He was awarded the National Medal of Science for his work on the Human Genome Project.
His book, The Language of God, has sat on my shelf for a few months without me having had the opportunity to delve into it in any great depth. This week has afforded me some time to return to it and I thought I’d pluck out some excerpts for the website. It has an unpromising title, a worse front cover (they have, wisely, updated it) and a seriously undersold description of Collins as merely a ‘scientist’. But it’s a brilliant read.
Collins describes how he grew up in North Carolina in a family with no particular interest in religion. He tells how he journeyed from agnostic to atheist by the time he began to study chemistry at college. He writes:
So I gradually shifted from agnosticism to atheism. I felt quite comfortable challenging the spiritual beliefs of anyone who mentioned them in my presence, and discounted such perspectives as sentimentality and outmoded superstition.
A few years into his studies, he got married and had a daughter which, he says, made him more sociable and gave him a desire to contribute something to humanity. He switched the focus of his studies and enrolled in medical school. While working with seriously and terminally ill patients as a trainee physician, he was provoked by these encounters to consider faith in God. One particular woman had a profound effect on him:
My most awkward moment came when an older woman suffering daily from severe untreatable angina, asked me what I believed… I felt flushed as I stammered out the words “I’m not really sure.”
Although he’d dedicated his most recent years to the search for knowledge, he realised he’d never applied his thirst for inquiry into the question of God.
I found myself, with a combination of willful blindness and something that could only be properly described as arrogance, having avoided any serious consideration that God might be a real possibility. This realization was a thoroughly terrifying experience.
Collins was jolted into investigating religion and the possibility of God. A study of world religions didn’t help him much. A friend gave him a copy of the book, Mere Christianity, by the Oxford professor, CS Lewis. It presents evidence for the existence of God in an effort to tackle some of the arguments against the plausibility and truthfulness of Christianity.
Lewis’ treatment of the subject of morality made a strong impression on Collins. The title of book one of Mere Christianity is “Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe.”
“The concept of right and wrong appears to be universal among all members of the human species (though its application may result in wildly different outcomes).”
Ideas of right and wrong prevail in all societies but, he says, there is no sociobiological reason for this to be the case:
“Agape, or selfless altruism, presents a major challenge for the evolutionist. It is quite frankly a scandal to reductionist reasoning. It cannot be accounted for by the drive of individual selfish genes to perpetuate themselves.”
Collins concludes his introductory chapter, From Atheism to Belief, describing how the presence of morality in human societies should cause each of us to wonder about morality’s origins:
“If the law of Human Nature cannot be explained away as cultural artefact or evolutionary by-product, then how can we account for its presence? There is truly something unusual going on here. To quote Lewis, “If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself ot us as one of the facts inside the universe – no more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house. The only way in which we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way. And that is just what we do find inside ourselves. Surely this ought to arouse our suspicions?” Encountering this argument at age twenty-six, I was stunned by its logic.”
Francis Collins, The Language of God, is available in all the usual (online) places.