Christianity Today has posted this interview with Francis Collins. Collins’ goal is to persuade us that evolution and Christianity are compatible. Let’s see if he’s right:
How does evolution fit with your Christian faith?
[Evolution] may seem to us like a slow, inefficient, and even random process, but to God–who’s not limited by space or time–it all came together in the blink of an eye. And for us who have been given the gift of intelligence and the ability to appreciate the wonders of the natural world that he created, to have now learned about this evolutionary creative process is a source of awe and wonder. I find these discoveries are completely compatible with everything I know about God through the Scriptures.
Let’s take this in order. However things seem to God, the fact remains that from a human viewpoint evolution is precisely the slow, inefficient and random process it appears to be. Certainly when compared to the alternative approach, in which God simply poofs us into existence, at any rate. Worse, evolution proceeds in a manner that requires huge amounts of suffering, torture and death. It is a process that flouts standard moral intuitions at every turn. And, if the conventional understanding of the process is correct, then it does not lead to human-like intelligence as its inevitable endpoint.
I once heard Hank “The Bible Answer-Man” Hanegraaf describe theistic evolution as the worst of all worlds: Not only do you have evolution, but now you’re making God responsible for it as well. He’s right about this. It is well-nigh impossible to reconcile a God of infinite love and justice with evolution by natural selection. Collins’ proposed reconcililation, like all such proposals, does not confront the problem squarely.
Moving on, I suppose it’s matter of taste what inspires awe and wonder. Evolution by itself is pretty cool. It does give you pause to marvel that a process as profligate and wasteful as evolution ever leads to anything good at all. But as a window into the workings of God’s mind I’m left unimpressed. When I learn that upwards of 99% of all species that have ever lived are now extinct, that the survivors have earned their place only by being more brutal and merciless than their competitors, and that the rare instances of cooperation and altruism in nature ultimately turn out to have selfish motives, I do not think of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God as the source of it all. It is a mystery to me how anyone can see God in all that carnage.
Collins’ last statement is simply false. Evolution and its related sciences are not completely compatible with everything we learn about God through the Scriptures. For example, the first chapter of Genesis outlines a crystal clear story of the creation of the universe that is in conflict with the scientific picture at almost every turn. The fundamentalists are not wrong to find that signficant.
If evolution is true, don’t atheists have a point?
No. To simply rule out of order any questions that go beyond the natural world is a circular argument. This leaves out profoundly important spiritual questions, such as why we are here, if there is a God, and what happens after we die. Those are questions that science is not really designed to answer. You have to look in another place, using another kind of approach. And for me that’s faith.
The point that atheists have, thanks to evolution, is that the argument from design as applied to the biological world is invalid. This kills the most persuasive reason ever offered for believing in God. It also reveals that the natural world is created via a process of misery, pain and bloodsport, which, as already noted, is hard to reconcile with a God of love.
Atheists do not rule questions that go beyond the natural world to be out of order. They claim merely that it is significant that we haven’t a shred of evidence for the existence of anything beyond the natural world. If Collins finds it satisfying to resolve ultimate questions by faith then he is free to do so. But he shouldn’t be surprised that to the rest of us it looks like he is just making it up as he goes along.
Why did you write this book?
I encounter many young people who have been raised in homes where faith was practiced and who have encountered the evidence from science about the age of the earth and about evolution and who are in crisis. They are led to believe by what they are hearing from atheistic scientists on the one hand and fundamentalist believers on the other that they have to make a choice. This is a terrible thing to ask of a young person.
Some of them simply walk away from both, convinced that science is godless and that faith is not to be trusted, because it asks them to disbelieve facts that now seem absolutely incontrovertible. This is an unnecessary choice. I don’t think our future will be well served by having either science or faith win this battle.
My heart goes out to sincere believers who feel threatened by evolution and who feel that they have to maintain their position against it in order to prove their allegiance to God. But if God used this process and gave us the chance to discover it, then it seems anachronistic, to say the least, that we would feel we have to defend him against our own scientific conclusions. God is the author of all truth. You can find him in the laboratory as well as in the cathedral. He’s the God of the Bible; he’s the God of the genome. He did it all.
P. Z. Myers has already shredded this one. I’ll simply make one further comment regarding that last paragraph.
I find it amusing that Collins accuses atheists of ruling certain questions out of bounds. Actually, it is he who refuses to consider certain important possibilities. His argument here only makes sense if you take it for granted that God exists. If you assume that God exists and that He created the universe, then it is, indeed, unreasonable to feel he has to be defended against scientific findings.
But what if we don’t take theism as our starting point?
What if our scientific findings point to the very real possibility of God’s nonexistence? What if we find that (a) There is no need to invoke supernatural forces to explain natural history and (b) Science provides positive evidence against the possibility of a just and loving God by showing that natural history is shaped by the awfulness previously described? Now Collins’ argument looks pretty silly, don’t you think?
Atheists are not the ones refusing to confront difficult questions. Rather, it is people like Collins who offer facile reconciliations of science and religion. Your average young-Earther provides far more sophisticated arguments on this subject than Collins.
If evolution and the Christian faith go together, then what’s all the fuss about?
One of the main reasons I wrote The Language of God was to try to put forward a comfortable synthesis of what science teaches us about the natural world and what faith teaches us about God. Yet it seems to be a pretty well kept secret these days that the scientific approach and the spiritual approach are compatible. I think we’ve allowed for too long extreme voices to dominate the stage in a way that has led many people to assume that’s all there is. The thesis of my book is that there is no need for this battle. In fact, it’s a destructive battle. And we as a society would be well served to recover that happy middle ground where people have been for most of human history.
Such nonsense. Well kept secret? Please. The argument we atheists get fed more than any other is that in arguing with fundamentalists we are treating only a caricature of religion, and that the serious version made its peace with science long ago. It is the people who make the self-evident point that evolution and Christianity are in conflict who are admonished to keep their mouths shut.
The extreme voices dominate the stage? There are far more books, newspaper op-eds and television appearances devoted to presenting the facile, accommodationist view than there are to the extreme views. When Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris present the atheist case forcefully, and have their books spend many weeks on the bestseller lists, that’s big news. (And of course, they are immediately bashed for criticizing the fundamentalist version of religion, when everyone knows that real religion is peaceful and science-loving.)
It’s a destrucitve battle? Indeed it is, but, at the risk of being childish, who started it? All science has ever done to religion is to uncover certain facts that are difficult to reconcile with baseless religious dogmas. In return, religion has used its considerable societal influence to stand in science’s way at almost every turn. And please, no lectures about the importance of the church in getting organized science off the ground. The days when scientific invesitgation can live comfortably with divine revelation have long passed. Any warm feelings between the two went out the window as soon as science started discovring things undreamed of by the theologians.
The middle ground is where most people have always been? When science was in its infancy and everything remained mysterious, perhaps. But since then the demographics have changed considerably. The fact is that the middle-ground is untenable, and Collins’ arguments to the contrary are unpersuasive. It might be nice if everyone chose to live there nonetheless, but the fact remains that most people are more willing than Collins to face reality.