a book review of
The Language of Ignorance
by Francis Collins
reviewed by Sam Harris
www.truthdig.com/, Aug 15, 2006
In this essay, the bestselling secularist
author of "The End of Faith" delivers a scathing review
of "The Language of God," a new book by Human Genome
Project head Francis Collins that attempts to demonstrate a harmony
between science and evangelical Christianity.
Francis Collins-physical chemist, medical
geneticist and head of the Human Genome Project-has written a
book entitled "The Language of God." In it, he attempts
to demonstrate that there is "a consistent and profoundly
satisfying harmony" between 21st-century science and evangelical
Christianity. To say that he fails at his task does not quite
get at the inadequacy of his efforts. He fails the way a surgeon
would fail if he attempted to operate using only his toes. His
failure is predictable, spectacular and vile. "The Language
of God" reads like a hoax text, and the knowledge that it
is not a hoax should be disturbing to anyone who cares about the
future of intellectual and political discourse in the United States.
Most reviewers of "The Language of
God" seem quite overawed by its author's scientific credentials.
This is understandable. As director of the Human Genome Project,
Collins participated in one of the greatest scientific achievements
in human history. His book, however, reveals that a stellar career
in science offers no guarantee of a scientific frame of mind.
Lest we think that one man can do no lasting harm to our discourse,
consider the fact that the year is 2006, half of the American
population believes that the universe is 6,000 years old, our
president has just used his first veto to block federal funding
of embryonic stem-cell research on religious grounds, and one
of the foremost scientists in the land has this to say, straight
from the heart (if not the brain):
As believers, you are right to hold fast
to the concept of God as Creator; you are right to hold fast to
the truths of the Bible; you are right to hold fast to the conclusion
that science offers no answers to the most pressing questions
of human existence; and you are right to hold fast to the certainty
that the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted.
God, who is not limited to space and time,
created the universe and established natural laws that govern
it. Seeking to populate this otherwise sterile universe with living
creatures, God chose the elegant mechanism of evolution to create
microbes, plants, and animals of all sorts. Most remarkably, God
intentionally chose the same mechanism to give rise to special
creatures who would have intelligence, a knowledge of right and
wrong, free will, and a desire to seek fellowship with Him. He
also knew these creatures would ultimately choose to disobey the
According to Collins, belief in the God
of Abraham is the most rational response to the data of physics
and biology, while "of all the possible worldviews, atheism
is the least rational." Taken at face value, these claims
suggest that "The Language of God" will mark an unprecedented
breakthrough in the history of ideas. Once Collins gets going,
however, we realize that the book represents a breakthrough of
After finding himself powerless to detect
any errors in the philosophizing of C.S. Lewis (a truly ominous
sign), Collins describes the moment that he, as a scientist, finally
became convinced of the divinity of Jesus Christ:
On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking
in the Cascade Mountains the majesty and beauty of God's creation
overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful
and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew
the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass
as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ.
If this account of field research seems
a little thin, don't worry-a recent profile of Collins in Time
magazine offers supplementary data. Here, we learn that the waterfall
was frozen in three streams, which put the good doctor in mind
of the Trinity __It is at this point that thoughts of suicide
might occur to any reader who has placed undue trust in the intellectual
integrity of his fellow human beings. One would hope that it would
be immediately obvious to Collins that there is nothing about
seeing a frozen waterfall (no matter how frozen) that offers the
slightest corroboration of the doctrine of Christianity. But it
was not obvious to him as he "knelt in the dewy grass,"
and it is not obvious to him now. Indeed, I fear that it will
not be obvious to many of his readers.
If the beauty of nature can mean that
Jesus really is the son of God, then anything can mean anything.
Let us say that I saw the same waterfall, and its three streams
reminded me of Romulus, Remus and the She-wolf, the mythical founders
of Rome. How reasonable would it be for me to know, from that
moment forward, that Italy would one day win the World Cup? This
epiphany, while perfectly psychotic, would actually put me on
firmer ground than Collins-because Italy did win the World Cup.
Collins' alpine conversion would be a ludicrous non sequitur even
if Jesus does return to Earth trailing clouds of glory.
While the mere sighting of a waterfall
appears to have been sufficient to answer all important questions
of theology for Collins, he imagines himself to be in possession
of further evidence attesting to the divinity of Jesus, the omnipotence
of God and the divine origin of the Bible. The most compelling
of these data, in his view, is the fact that human beings have
a sense of right and wrong. Collins follows Lewis here, as faithfully
as if he were on a leash, and declares that the "moral law"
is so inscrutable a thing as to admit of only a supernatural explanation.
According to Collins, the moral law applies exclusively to human
Though other animals may at times appear
to show glimmerings of a moral sense, they are certainly not widespread,
and in many instances other species' behavior seems to be in dramatic
contrast to any sense of universal rightness.
One wonders if the author has ever read
a newspaper. The behavior of humans offers no such "dramatic
contrast." How badly must human beings behave to put this
"sense of universal rightness" in doubt? And just how
widespread must "glimmerings" of morality be among other
animals before Collins-who, after all, knows a thing or two about
genes-begins to wonder whether our moral sense has evolutionary
precursors in the natural world? What if mice showed greater distress
at the suffering of familiar mice than unfamiliar ones? (They
do.) What if monkeys will starve themselves to prevent their cage-mates
from receiving painful shocks? (They will.) What if chimps have
a demonstrable sense of fairness when receiving food rewards?
(They have.) Wouldn't these be precisely the sorts of findings
one would expect if our morality were the product of evolution?__
Collins' case for the supernatural origin
of morality rests on the further assertion that there can be no
evolutionary explanation for genuine altruism. Because self-sacrifice
cannot increase the likelihood that an individual creature will
survive and reproduce, truly self-sacrificing behavior stands
as a primordial rejoinder to any biological account of morality.
In Collins' view, therefore, the mere existence of altruism offers
compelling evidence of a personal God. (Here, Collins performs
a risible sprint past ideas in biology like "kin selection"
that plausibly explain altruism and self-sacrifice in evolutionary
terms.) A moment's thought reveals, however, that if we were to
accept this neutered biology, almost everything about us would
be bathed in the warm glow of religious mystery. Forget morality-how
did nature select for the ability to write sonnets, solder circuit
boards or swing a golf club? Clearly, such abilities could never
be the product of evolution. Might they have been placed in us
by God? Smoking cigarettes isn't a healthy habit and is unlikely
to offer an adaptive advantage-and there were no cigarettes in
the Paleolithic-but this habit is very widespread and compelling.
Is God, by any chance, a tobacco farmer? Collins can't seem to
see that human morality and selfless love may be derivative of
more basic biological and psychological traits, which were themselves
products of evolution. It is hard to interpret this oversight
in light of his scientific training. If one didn't know better,
one might be tempted to conclude that religious dogmatism presents
an obstacle to scientific reasoning.
Having established that our moral sensitivities
are God-given, Collins finds himself in a position to infer the
nature of our Creator: _
And if that were so, what kind of God
would this be? Would this be a deist God, who invented physics
and mathematics and started the universe in motion about 14 billion
years ago, then wandered off to deal with other, more important
matters, as Einstein thought? No, this God, if I was perceiving
him at all, must be a theist God, who desires some kind of relationship
with those special creatures called human beings, and has therefore
instilled this special glimpse of Himself into each one of us.
This might be the God of Abraham, but it was certainly not the
God of Einstein. Judging by the incredibly high standards of the
Moral Law this was a God who was holy and righteous. He would
have to be the embodiment of goodness. Faith in God now seemed
more rational that disbelief.
I hope the reader will share my amazement
that passages like this have come from one of the most celebrated
scientists in the United States. I find that my own sense of the
moral law requires that I provide a few more examples of Collins'
skill as a philosopher and theologian
On the question of why God simply doesn't
provide better evidence for his existence:
If the case in favor of belief in God
were utterly airtight, then the world would be full of confident
practitioners of a single faith. But imagine such a world, where
the opportunity to make a free choice about belief was taken away
by the certainty of the evidence. How interesting would that be?
One is tempted to say that it might be
more "interesting" than a world unnecessarily shattered
by competing religious orthodoxies and religious war, only to
be followed by an eternity in hell for all those who believe the
wrong things about God. But, to each his own.
How does Collins settle the problem of
theodicy-the mystery of why there is evil and misfortune in a
world created by an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly benevolent
God? He takes it very much in stride:
Science reveals that the universe, our
own planet, and life itself are engaged in an evolutionary process.
The consequences of that can include the unpredictability of the
weather, the slippage of a tectonic plate, or the misspelling
of a cancer gene in the normal process of cell division. If at
the beginning of time God chose to use these forces to create
human beings, then the inevitability of these other painful consequences
was also assured. Frequent miraculous interventions would be at
least as chaotic in the physical realm as they would be in interfering
with human acts of free will.
But why was God obliged to make cell division
susceptible to the perversity of cancer? And why couldn't an all-powerful,
all-knowing, perfectly benevolent God perform as many miracles
as He wanted? There isn't time to entertain such questions, however,
as Collins must solve all outstanding problems in the science
The Big Bang cries out for a divine explanation.
It forces the conclusion that nature had a defined beginning.
I cannot see how nature could have created itself. Only a supernatural
force that is outside of space and time could have done that.
It is worth pointing out the term "supernatural,"
which Collins uses freely throughout his book, is semantically
indistinguishable from the term "magical." Reading his
text with this substitution in mind is rather instructive. In
any case, even if we accepted that our universe simply had to
be created by an intelligent being, this would not suggest that
this being is the God of the Bible, or even particularly magical.
If intelligently designed, our universe could be running as a
simulation on an alien supercomputer. As many critics of religion
have pointed out, the notion of a Creator poses an immediate problem
of an infinite regress. If God created the universe, what created
God? To insert an inscrutable God at the origin of the universe
explains absolutely nothing. And to say that God, by definition,
is uncreated, simply begs the question. (Why can't I say that
the universe, by definition, is uncreated?) Any being capable
of creating our world promises to be very complex himself. As
the biologist Richard Dawkins has observed with untiring eloquence,
the only natural process we know of that could produce a being
capable of designing things is evolution.
Any intellectually honest person must
admit that he does not know why the universe exists. Secular scientists,
of course, readily admit their ignorance on this point. Believers
like Collins do not.
The major and inescapable flaw of [the]
claim that science demands of atheism is that it goes beyond the
evidence. If God is outside of nature, then science can neither
prove nor disprove His existence. Atheism itself must therefore
be considered a form of blind faith, in that it adopts a belief
system that cannot be defended on the basis of pure reason.
Is disbelief in Zeus or Thor also a form
of "blind faith"? Must we really "disprove"
the existence of every imaginary friend? The burden of producing
evidence falls on those making extravagant claims about miracles
and invisible realities. What is more, there is an enormous difference
between acquiring a picture of the world through dispassionate,
scientific study and acquiring it through patent emotionality
and wishful thinking-and only then looking to see if it can survive
contact with science.
Consider the following fact: Ninety-nine
percent of the species that have ever lived on Earth are now extinct.
There are two very different questions one could ask about a fact
of this sort, if one wanted to assess the reasonableness of believing
in God. One could ask, "Is this fact compatible with the
existence of an omnipotent, omniscient and compassionate God?"
Or, one could ask, "Does this fact, alone or in combination
with other facts, suggest that an omnipotent, omniscient and compassionate
God exists?" The answer to the first question is always,
"Well, yes-provided you add that God's will is utterly mysterious."
(In the present case, He may have wanted to destroy 99% of his
creatures for some very good reason that surpasses our understanding.)
The answer to the second question is "absolutely not."
The problem for Collins is that only the second question is relevant
to our arriving at a rational understanding of the universe. The
fact that a bowdlerized evangelical Christianity can still be
rendered compatible with science (because of the gaps in science
and the elasticity of religious thinking) does not mean that there
are scientific reasons for being an evangelical Christian.
Collins' sins against reasonableness do
not end here. Somewhere during the course of his scientific career,
he acquired the revolting habit of quoting eminent scientists
out of context to give an entirely false impression of their religious
beliefs. Misappropriation of Einstein and Hawking, while common
enough in popular religious discourse, rises to level of intellectual
misconduct when perpetrated by a scientist like Collins. Where
either of these physicists uses the term "God"-as in
Einstein's famous "God does not play dice"-he uses it
metaphorically. Any honest engagement with their work reveals
that both Einstein and Hawking reject the notion of Collins' God
as fully as any atheist. Collins suggests otherwise at every opportunity.
In his role as Christian apologist, Collins
also makes the repellent claim that "the traditional lore
about Galileo's persecutions by the Church is overblown."
Lest we forget: Galileo, the greatest scientist of his time, was
forced to his knees under threat of torture and death, obliged
to recant his understanding of the Earth's motion, and placed
under house arrest for the rest of his life by steely-eyed religious
maniacs. He worked at a time when every European intellectual
lived in the grip of a Church that thought nothing of burning
scholars alive for merely speculating about the nature of the
stars. As Collins notes, this is the same Church that did not
absolve Galileo of heresy for 350 years (in 1992). When it did,
it ascribed his genius to God, "who, stirring in the depths
of his spirit, stimulated him, anticipating and assisting his
intuitions." Collins clearly approves of this sordid appropriation,
and goes on to say that all the fuss about Galileo was, in the
end, unnecessary, because "the claims that heliocentricity
contradicted the Bible are now seen to have been overstated."
(And what if they weren't overstated? What then?) It is simply
astonishing that a scientist has produced such a pious glossing
of the centuries of religious barbarism that were visited upon
generations of other scientists.
If one wonders how beguiled, self-deceived
and carefree in the service of fallacy a scientist can be in the
United States in the 21st century, "The Language of God"
provides the answer. The only thing that mitigates the harm this
book will do to the stature of science in the United States is
that it will be mostly read by people for whom science has little
stature already. Viewed from abroad, "The Language of God"
will be seen as another reason to wonder about the fate of American
society. Indeed, it is rare that one sees the thumbprint of historical
contingency so visible on the lens of intellectual discourse.
This is an American book, attesting to American ignorance, written
for Americans who believe that ignorance is stronger than death.
Reading it should provoke feelings of collective guilt in any
sensitive secularist. We should be ashamed that this book was
written in our own time.
Sam Harris is the author of the international
bestseller "The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future
of Reason." He is a graduate in philosophy from Stanford
University and has studied both Eastern and Western religious
traditions, along with a variety of spiritual disciplines, for
Harris is now completing a doctorate in
neuroscience, studying the neural basis of belief, disbelief and
uncertainty with functional magnetic resonance imaging. His work
has been discussed in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times,
the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, The Economist,
The Guardian, The Independent, The Globe and Mail, The Toronto
Star and many other journals. Harris makes frequent appearances
on television and radio to discuss the risks that religion poses
to modern societies. "The End of Faith" won the 2005
PEN Award for Nonfiction. Several foreign editions are in press.
Sam Harris page