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Issue Date:  October 6, 2006

By Francis S. Collins
Free Press, 294 pages, $26
Worshiping the God of the genome


Fierce battles between science and faith are nothing new. After all, when Galileo said that Earth revolved around the sun, he was brought before the Roman Inquisition in 1633 and forced to deny his findings because they contradicted church teachings.

Nearly four centuries later, many Christians are wrapping themselves in the cloak of creationism and thereby dismissing scientific findings supporting the theory of evolution.

Francis S. Collins argues in his compelling new book that this deep divide could be repaired if only science and religion would stick to their respective areas of expertise. Science can tell us much about the physical world, but it cannot explain where the universe came from or what happens to people after death. Likewise, religion, which requires a leap of faith, cannot unravel the mysteries of the physical world.

Dr. Collins has superb credentials for tackling this sticky subject, which continues to stir passions on both sides. He is both a respected scientist, having led the groundbreaking Human Genome Project, and also a Christian with strong religious convictions.

During his student years, he became an agnostic and later an atheist. While he was in medical school, an elderly patient asked him about his religious views. Dr. Collins was stumped. He suddenly realized that he had failed to think seriously about the possible existence of a Supreme Being. He consulted a Methodist minister, who handed him a copy of Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. Dr. Collins devoured the book, which he quotes frequently in The Language of God.

The Big Bang, evolution and DNA can be challenging subjects, but Dr. Collins adeptly translates arcane science into easily understood terms. He describes the arduous effort to decode the gene sequencing in each human cell. If printed in book form, the sequence, consisting of 3 billion characters, would reach to the top of the Washington Monument.

Scientists say the universe dates to the Big Bang 14 billion years ago, but Dr. Collins argues that the Big Bang “cries out for a divine explanation. ... I cannot see how nature could have created itself. Only a supernatural force that is outside of space and time could have done that.”

Dr. Collins guides readers through difficult scientific concepts in cosmology, genetics and evolution, maintaining that there is no inherent conflict “between the idea of a creator God and what science has revealed.”

Science has not explained how life began on Earth, he says, although there is no doubt that once life began, evolution led to increasingly complex organisms, including humans. He finds it “almost incomprehensible” that in an intellectually and technologically advanced nation such as the United States, about 45 percent of adults, according to polls, believe the Bible should be read literally, that God created the universe in six 24-hour days and that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. Scientists say it is about 4.5 billion years old.

As an alternative to creationism and intelligent design, Dr. Collins endorses the theory of theistic evolution, which accepts Darwin’s findings while positing that humans are “unique in ways that defy evolutionary explanation and point to our spiritual nature.” As evidence, he cites the existence of a universal moral law and an intuitive search for God throughout history.

A decade ago, Pope John Paul II endorsed such a balance of evolution and spirituality, saying that evolution can explain the origin of the human body, although “the spiritual soul is created directly by God.”

Evolution, Dr. Collins says, cannot explain the altruistic impulse, “the voice of conscience calling us to help others even if nothing is received in return.”

He quotes C.S. Lewis, who said that God uses conscience “as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way.” That made sense to Dr. Collins, who concluded that the existence of a universal moral law “demanded a serious consideration of its origin. Was this God looking back at me?”

Near the end of this wise and timely book, Dr. Collins proposes a truce in the escalating war between science and spirit: “Science is not threatened by God; it is enhanced. God is most certainly not threatened by science; he made it all possible.”

Finally, Dr. Collins urges scientists not to reject God as “an outmoded superstition,” while he implores believers not to spurn science as “dangerous and untrustworthy.”

“The God of the Bible,” he concludes, “is also the God of the genome. He can be worshiped in the cathedral or in the laboratory. His creation is majestic, awesome, intricate and beautiful -- and it cannot be at war with itself. Only we imperfect humans can start such battles. And only we can end them.”

Bill Williams is a retired editorial writer and religion book reviewer for the Hartford Courant in Hartford, Conn.

National Catholic Reporter, October 6, 2006

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