Talking to the middle ground

CollinsBookThe mainstream media are covering intelligent debate over religion and science. And it's about time. Former Time religion correspondent Richard Ostling, now with The Associated Press, wrote an excellent news article focusing on the arguments of Francis S. Collins, author of the recently published book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. Ostling appropriately recognized that Collins' faith is a news story unto itself, considering that he is one of the world's leading biologists and leader of the Human Genome Project.

Much of the media's reporting on science and religion has focused on controversial school-board decisions and federal funding of forums and research papers. The stories are full of high emotion, distinctive sides and bomb-throwing statements. A story on Collins and his work is not likely to produce that level of controversy, despite his highly intelligent work on combining the controversial areas of faith and science:

He asks scientific skeptics to investigate God with the same open-minded zeal they apply to the natural world, saying that there's no incompatibility between belief and scientific rigor.

He tells fellow evangelicals that opposition to evolution -- whether based in the biblical literalism of creationists or "intelligent design" arguments -- undermines the credibility of faith. He finds the first line of thought "fundamentally flawed" and says the second builds upon gaps in evidence that scientists are likely to fill in.

The audience of 200 at [a Williams College conference sponsored by the C.S. Lewis Foundation] gave Collins's views a respectful reception, in contrast to the frosty reaction he got when he said at a national meeting of Christian physicians that the evidence for evolution is "overwhelming."

But scientists are probably the tougher audience. According to Nature, the weekly science journal, "many scientists disagree strongly" with Collins-style arguments, and critics think "more talk of religion is the last thing that science needs."

CollinsLabCollins' arguments are drawing a good deal of attention, largely because of his book. In a Time review, David Van Biema argues that the book is "enlightening but not always convincing." (The New York Times reviewed Collins' book alongside books by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Owen Gingerich, Joan Roughgarden, E.O. Wilson and Louis Wolpert.) The pace of Collins' writing is closer to position statements than arguments that can sustain, Van Biema argues, and the book is most interesting when he criticizes creationists:

His insights on the nature of a God-science overlap, while fresh, are celebratory rather than investigative, budgeting relatively little space to wrestle with instances when the conjunction of the two can induce the philosophical bends (such as faith's understanding of God's place outside human time).

The book seems liveliest when Collins turns his guns from atheists on the left to creationists and intelligent designers on the right, urging the abandonment of what he feels are overliteral misreadings of Scripture. "I don't think God intended Genesis to teach science," he says, arguing that "the evidence in favor of evolution is utterly compelling." He has little patience with those who say evolution is just a theory, noting that in his scientific world the word theory "is not intended to convey uncertainty; for that purpose a scientist would use the word hypothesis." The book is hard on intelligent design, heaping scientific doubt on its key notion of "irreducible complexity" in phenomena like blood clotting, and theological scorn on its ultimate implications ("I.D. portrays the Almighty as a clumsy Creator, having to intervene at regular intervals to fix the inadequacies of His own initial plan ... this is a very unsatisfactory image").

That is not the argument his publisher has chosen to emphasize, or his book's subtitle would be flipped to read A Believer Presents the Evidence for Science. But it may be the one with the best prospects. Students of the debate note that atheists are more dogmatically opposed to God than Evangelicals are to evolution, if only because aggressive creationism is neither a long-standing evangelical position nor a unanimous one. According to Edward Larson, a Pulitzer-prizewinning historian of the evolution debate at the University of Georgia, American support for it, now near 50%, hovered around 30% as recently as 1960. Today, Larson says, "it's a dynamic situation, with no unanimity." Evolution is taught at some Christian colleges.

Collins, according to the Time piece, has regular talks with Prison Fellowship's Chuck Colson. And Collins is attempting to move him away from his hardline intelligent design stance. I find this quite significant. While it may appear that Collins takes heavy heat from both sides of the debate, scientists opposed to intelligent design clearly respect his opinions, as do those fighting to supplant evolutionary theory with some form of intelligent design theory. With someone of Collins' stature in the middle, how far apart are the two sides?

The statistics cited in the Ostling article are compelling. If 40 percent of scientists are religious, then why don't we hear their perspectives more often in news articles? Why has this debate always been so polarized?

Journalists covering the evolution vs. intelligent design/creation wars should place Collins high on their list of sources to call next time a school board attempts to overturn a school's teachings in the name of the Bible. Or the next time they hear a scientist trash religion for failing to support their work. An intelligent, respected scientist who can speak knowledgably on matters of faith is an invaluable source for understanding what has for years been a yawning gap between two of the most influential groups in American society.

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