Thinking Outside the Box- Winter 2007
Can anyone prove the existence of God? Theologians have been obsessed with this project for the past two thousand years.
When gods began, nobody had to prove their existence. People believed that the gods were as real as the land they farmed and the family that nurtured them. Proving their existence would have seemed silly.
But excessive touting led some people to claim that their god was the one and only god. Even more touting led passionate devotees to claim that the one god made and managed everything. Because flattery costs nothing, the one god ended up being all-mighty, all-perfect, and all-good. An Almighty God is responsible for everything. And if he is all-good, he uncomfortably ends up being responsible for evil. In a polytheistic world, undeserved suffering can always be blamed on an enemy god. But the divine dictatorship of monotheism offers no such alternative. God needs apologists to rescue his reputation and to explain away his “bad behavior.”
Now, theology starts out with a certain level of absurdity. It is the only discipline I know that needs to prove the existence of its subject matter. Ichthyologists do not spend their time proving the existence of fish. Ornithologists would feel ridiculous having to prove the existence of birds. Anthropologists would laugh if asked to prove the existence of people. But theologians have no sense of humor.
Modern science has not been friendly to either God or theology. Most scientists are consistent empiricists. They require more than faith or wishing to demonstrate the existence of anything. They have discovered no substantial, or even modest, evidence to demonstrate that a Moral Creator and Manager of the Universe exists. Like the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1801), they find most of the traditional arguments for the existence of God to be flawed.
Francis Collins is a famous scientist. He was the chief of the Human Genome Project. But he is also a believer in God. He is a believer in a personal God who loves and cares for his creation. He is also a believing Christian, the child of eccentric freethinkers, a man who freely chose the Christian faith. In his latest bestseller, The Language of God (Free Press, 2006), he plays the role of a theologian.
Can a famous Christian scientist playing theologian do what Kant was unable to do? Can he prove the existence of God and simultaneously rescue God’s moral reputation? Can he prove the existence of a God who loves all human creatures and who wants to rescue them from undeserved suffering?
Many Christians who bought Collins’ book were conservative Christians who hoped that he would place the endorsement of science on their problematic beliefs. But he is an enormous disappointment to the religious right. He repudiates creationism as unscientific. He endorses Darwinian evolution as valid, accepts the principle of natural selection, and rejects Intelligent Design. Collins endorses all of modern cosmology, with its “Big Bang” explosion and its fourteen billion- year-old universe. A scientific atheist would be very comfortable with most of his conclusions.
One would expect something fiercely original from a man of Collins’ caliber. But his presentation is disappointing. It is a rehash of familiar arguments offered by former skeptics who embraced God and Christianity. Much of his case is derived from the writings of C. S. Lewis, a clever Anglican apologist, who was the rage among sophisticated defenders of religion in the 1930s. Lewis’ audiences were people who feared Communism and who imagined that faith would provide a firm resistance.
Collins embraces all the old stale theological tricks of conventional theologians. He denounces science because it cannot answer the question “Why did the universe come into being?” But this question has a premise. The hidden premise is that the universe must have a purpose. But what if the universe has no purpose? What if it was not created? What if it emerged by chance with no conscious intervention? What if there is no Why, only How? Science is perfectly capable of handling the How.
Collins maintains that the natural world cannot be the foundation of morality. Only God can. But ethics did not arise in a vacuum, a proclamation from a mountain top. All animals living in groups depend for their survival on the survival of their group, whether they are ants, wolves, baboons, or people. To imagine that human ethics has no connection to our animal past, to assert that guilt has no genetic basis, to claim that love is not rooted in human survival but is a message from beyond space and time is to abandon reason. The moral law is not some prescription for love and compassion floating around in some supernatural never-never land. It is one of evolution’s children in the relentless struggle for genetic survival. The love of strangers is new. It competes with the old fear and hatred of outsiders. That is why it is so difficult. But the love of family is old. It is the foundation of all other love. If God championed the moral law, he most likely learned about it from humans and other animals.
Collins insists that the desire for God is evidence that He exists. It is hard to believe that Collins said this. Wishing obviously makes it so. If I want and need immortality, then I am immortal. If I want and need to be strong, then I am strong. If I want and need God then God exists. Why else would I long for him if he was not there?
Collins asserts that God cannot prevent human suffering because he gave human beings free will. People are responsible for what they do because they have free will. God could do nothing to prevent the Holocaust because he gave Hitler and his cohorts the wonderful gift of free will. What silliness! Intervening to prevent a person from harming others other does not deprive the criminal of his free will. It is an act of compassion. It is the moral demand that God presumably makes on all human beings. Why will God not do what he requires humans to do? A God who uses the excuse of human free will to stand as a spectator before human suffering lacks moral authority. Love by determinism is better than hate by free will. Collins discloses his daughter’s traumatic and tragic rape. What a horrible injustice! But no – Collins transforms tragedy into absurdity. Invoking one of the age-old apologies for God’s bad behavior; Collins justifies the event. He describes how much he learned from his daughter’s suffering. God uses his innocent daughter and her suffering to teach her father to forgive a criminal. What next? Plane crashes in which hundreds die, so that the survivors can be ennobled by their pain?
The last absurdity is the Anthropic Principle. The Anthropic Principle maintains that God created the universe in order to arrange for human intelligence. There are many moments in the past fourteen billion years when a different turn of events would have precluded the appearance of our solar system, the planet Earth, and the air pocket on the surface of our planet that makes human life possible. Collins asserts that these amazing coincidences are not coincidences. They are the evidence of God’s deliberate plan and of God himself. But the Anthropic Principle reduces God to an incompetent bungler. If God’s intention is to create human intelligence why would he force human intelligence to undergo the ghastly process of evolution, with all its struggle, suffering, and enormous waste? The Anthropic Principle is like the Charles Lamb story where you arrange for roast pork by placing a pig in a house and burning the whole house down.
Collins’ book fills me with great sadness. Why would a brilliant biologist risk his intellectual credibility by consenting to play the part of C. S. Lewis’ parrot? That he is a nice man is clear. That Collins is a wise man is doubtful.