Conversion Experiences

Larry Moran has an excellent review of Francis Collins’ silly book The Language of God. You don’t really appreciate Ken Miller until you have contemplated the far daffier arguments made by Collins. Moran writes:

The second persuasive argument is the presence in all of us of a God-shaped vacuum. What the heck is that, you might ask? C.S. Lewis supplies the answer. It’s the sensation of longing for something greater than ourselves. It’s the “joy” you feel when you read a good poem, listen to Beethoven, or view the beauty of nature. The emptiness we are all supposed to feel cries out for an explanation, “Why do we have a ‘God-shaped’ vacuum in our hearts and minds unless it is meant to be filled?” (p. 38)

Apparently, there is no conflict between being a scientist and believing in such silly nonsense. Apparently, scientists don’t have to ask the hard questions like, does everyone really feel this longing? Do Buddhists in China feel it? Do atheists lead miserable lives because they can never fill the void in their hearts?

As Maxwell Smart would say, “The old God-shaped vaccum in the heart trick.”

I’ve heard this argument so many times that I guess there must be something to it. All I can say is that I am not aware of such a hole in my own heart. If your heart suffers from such a defect, by all means fill it with whatever fairy tales get the job done. Just don’t try filling school curricula with those same fairy tales.

Moran mentions that Collins was affected greatly by the writings of C.S. Lewis. That reminded me of a recent post at Uncommon Descent, from GilDodgen:

I was once debating “evolution” with a friend, and I was spouting all the platitudes I had been taught. He said, “Look, rather than debating me, why don’t you read a book, Evolution, A Theory in Crisis, by Michael Denton”? I assumed that it would be some nonsensical religious hogwash, but I was in for a big surprise.

I devoured the book in a couple of days, and when I was finished I slapped myself on the forehead and thought, “I’ve been conned all my life!” My atheism was quickly unraveling.

Dodgen goes on to talk about how harmful atheism is, and how he is determined to help a friend’s son recover from the delusion, ruthlessly promoted by the public schools, that evolution is a pretty mifty little theory. Read it at your own peril.

These comments struck me because I read several of C.S. Lewis’ books, and Michael Denton’s book, early on in my research into these areas. I knew little more than the basics of evolutionary theory when I read Denton’s book, but even that was enough for me to see through most of his arguments. Any time he was discussing a subject I knew something about, I could see that he was wrong. (For example, he devotes a chapter to one of those laughable probability arguments anti-evolutionist’s are so fond of.) That didn’t make me optimistic that the remaining chapters were any better.

Likewise for C.S. Lewis’ arguments. Mere Christianity was a revelation for me just as surely as it was for Collins, but not for the same reason. For me the revelation was that I had been giving Christians too much credit. Lewis’ arguments struck me as simply foolish. For example, arguing that we must choose between liar, lunatic or lord in assessing the claims of Jesus Christ simply ignores the possibiltiy that what is reported in the New Testament is not always an accurate depiction of what Jesus actually said. Yet that is one of Lewis’ main arguments.

It’s hard for me to understand people like Dodgen and Collins. I was initially impressed with some of Henry Morris’ books, but I didn’t slap my forehead and make major changes in my life. Instead I suspended judgement until I had read some replies to Morris’ work. I suspect that for both gentlemen there was something more to their conversions than rational contemplation of rival arguments.


  1. #1 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    December 12, 2006

    I read The Twilight of Evolution by Henry Morris recently. It was bad. His understanding of the second law of thermodynamics was just plain wrong. He thought that organisms violate the 2LOT, but that this is acceptable because it is only temporary. I know that organisms do not violate the 2LOT at all; they are constantly eating food and expelling waste, surviving quite well without violating any laws of nature at all.

    I think it’s sad that someone would fall so completely for C.S. Lewis apparently without bothering to check how well the arguments had held up since. I only read a couple chapters of Mere Christianity and was able to spot weaknesses.

  2. #2 Tyler DiPietro
    December 12, 2006

    I read the review earlier, and agree wholeheartedly with Moran. Collins’ book is such a silly trifle that it is barely worth bothering with, but I admire Moran’s ability to suffer through an provide us with an entertaining review.

    I had the same experience as you with creationist and religious books. I, as someone who was raised in a secular household and never attended church, was genuinely curious about religion in my early-mid teens. So naturally, I sought out the material that some people recommended, one of which was Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict. Not only was I left unimpressed by the arguments, it pretty much drove me headlong into my current atheism.

    That’s one of the reasons I have to laugh whenever someone claims that atheists are just extremely biased against religion because they’re angry at “God”. Quite the opposite, in fact. I was someone who was interested but ended up turned off due the extreme stupidity of what was claimed.

  3. #3 J. J. Ramsey
    December 12, 2006

    Jason Rosenhouse: “I’ve heard this argument so many times that I guess there must be something to it.”

    Part of it is that the more well-known atheists tend to be the ones with a reputation for being smug or bellicose. In some cases it’s deserved, and in other cases, such as Dawkins, the situation is more mixed. (A recent YouTube showed a Dawkins that I’d like to see more of.) Part of it is that if one is an atheist in an emotional crisis, one is likely to see oneself as evidence for the God-shaped hole contention. Part of it is that life sometimes just hurts and and feeling that it somehow ought to be better turns into wishful thinking that maybe there’s a solution to the hurt.

    BTW, as I’m sure you can tell from the comments, I was not nearly as impressed with Moran’s review. He had an outline of a good review, but he got careless.

  4. #4 Marshall
    December 13, 2006

    I studied Pascal in college, and the “god-shaped void” always came up, but I always thought of it as a “void-shaped god.” We find explanations to the unknown by creating gods. That’s why so many ancient gods are nature-based – they were confronted with natural phenomenon every day that they could not explain, so it must have been a supernatural being who caused it. Sort of sounds like Intelligent Design, doesn’t it…..

  5. #5 Tyler DiPietro
    December 13, 2006

    I studied Pascal in college, and the “god-shaped void” always came up, but I always thought of it as a “void-shaped god.”

    The problem with the “god-shaped void” argument is that our particular religious beliefs are almost certainly a product of socio-cultural conditioning. While some behavioral geneticists and cognitive scientists have argued that people have an innate predisposition to believe in the supernatural, there almost certainly is no innate predisposition for monotheism. Rather than having a “god-shaped void”, many Chinese traditionalist would have a “Tao-shaped void”, and perhaps Indian traditionalists would have an “all-encompassing godhead (Brahma)-shaped void”

    In addition, our predisposition to believe in supernaturalism has several proposed, naturalistic explanations: a deficiency in our ability to infer from certain observed patterns, a misfiring byproduct of our ability to empathize and socialize, etc. There is no reason to infer a supernatural conclusion from it.

  6. #6 Greta Christina
    December 13, 2006

    “I studied Pascal in college, and the “god-shaped void” always came up, but I always thought of it as a “void-shaped god.”"

    Yes. Exactly. Thank you, Marshall.

    I do experience the void: the hole in my heart, the sense of longing that Francis Collins and C.S. Lewis are talking about. I think a lot of people do. And I think non-believers need to pay more attention to it. We’re not going to get very far unless we look carefully at what it is that believers get out of their experience of belief.

    But it’s hardly evidence of God. It could very easily be just part of the wiring of our human brain, either a result of evolution or an accidental byproduct of it. (I’m inclined to think the former — for a lot of people, that void is a big part of what makes us such restless, searching strivers — but who knows.)

    Perhaps more to the point, I don’t only experience the void — I experience the rare sense of transcendence and epiphany that, for a fleeting moment, makes me feel like the void is filled. And I don’t believe in God, or have any experience of God when these moments happen. (They most often happen either when I’ve just finished writing something difficult and good, or when I’m looking at trees. Go figure.)

    So does that mean I have a tree-shaped hole in my heart, or an essay-and-dirty-story shaped hole? And if so, does that prove that the Unmoved Mover, the creator and shaper of all existence, is a tree, an essay, or a dirty story?

  7. #7 SLC
    December 13, 2006

    Denton seems to have considerably shifted his position since his first book was written. Based on a 2002 interview he gave to the Un. of California extension service, his current position seems to be that he accepts the first 4 elements of Ernst Mayrs’ 5 part theory of evolution in their entirety. He still is not convinced that natural selection is entirely responsible for speciation but admits that it is currently the only theory that explains anything and that he has nothing better to offer (apparently, he rejects intelligent design as an explanation).

  8. #8 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    December 13, 2006

    So does that mean I have a tree-shaped hole in my heart, or an essay-and-dirty-story shaped hole?

    If you have any shape of hole in your heart, you should check into a clinic ASAP and talk to a surgeon. I’m surprised you can find the energy to post on the Internets.

  9. #9 Robert O'Brien
    December 13, 2006

    I have not read Collins’ book, nor have I read anything by C.S. Lewis (I did not care for the Narnia movie but that is not necessarily representative of his Narnia books and it is not representative of his other works in any event.) However, I agree that objective morality exists and that biology is unequal to the task of explaining it or consciousness. (I am aware of sociobiology, but I view it as glorified haruspicy.)

  10. #10 Greta Christina
    December 14, 2006

    “However, I agree that objective morality exists and that biology is unequal to the task of explaining it or consciousness.”

    If by “objective morality” you mean “morality that exists in all human cultures, and has done so for all of human history”… well, if that does exist (and I’m not sure it does — anthropologists to the rescue, please!), then evolutionary biology is more than equal to the task of explaining it. Humans are a social species, and like other social species, we’ve evolved ways of dealing with our social peers that foster the survival and health of our group and thus promote the survival of our progeny. No great mystery, actually.

    As for consciousness (and free will — that’s my own personal bugaboo of the week!) I agree that those are currently unexplained by biology. But the fact that it’s unexplained today doesn’t mean it’s unexplainable. I continue to be astonished at the things we understand today — big, life-changing, self-and-universe-defining things — that we didn’t understand 50 or 20 or even 10 years ago.

  11. #11 Robert O'Brien
    December 14, 2006


    I am a Platonic Idealist so I had something else in mind re: objective morality. I would say all cultures depart from the ideal but not to the same extent. :)

  12. #12 Jason Rosenhouse
    December 14, 2006


    I had the same reaction to Josh McDowell’s book. It’s definitely another one I could have used to illustrate my point. I often listened to McDowell’s radio program when I lived in Kansas. Not very impressive.


    Void shaped God. Good one! I might have to use that line myself someday.