12/08/2011 | Share this article: View CommentsBy WizenedSage (Galen Rose) ~
How does an eminent physician/scientist convince himself that there is a god and that Christianity makes sense? This is the kind of thing I think about a lot. It’s fairly easy to understand how the common man and woman is sucked into Christianity, since most are indoctrinated when they are small and primed by nature to believe authority figures. However, it’s not so easy to understand how a scientist, an atheist (or so he claims), trained in the critical thinking required by science, comes to be a believer as an adult. When confronted with such a case, one has to consider that perhaps there really are logical reasons for belief in gods and Christianity.
The life of Francis Collins presents us with an excellent case study. Collins is a physician and geneticist who headed the US Government’s National Center for Human Genome Research, which, along with Craig Venter’s private project, decoded the human genome into its 3 billion base pairs. He then was appointed Director of the National Institutes of Health in 2009. He is also the author of “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief” (2007).
I am currently reading, “Socrates in the City; Conversations on ‘Life, God, and Other Small Topics’” which is a collection of speeches by prominent theists in an ongoing New York City forum, edited by Eric Metaxas. In Collins’ speech, he says he was not raised in a family where faith was considered particularly important, and grew further from faith over time. As a grad student, he considered himself an atheist.
In studying medicine, he saw many who were facing death, some of whom seemed to be at peace. He decided that he wouldn’t be able to do that. He would be terrified and angry. This is the beginning of his emotional slide into Christianity.
One day, after telling him about her faith, a patient asked him what he believed. “I realized that my atheism had never really been based upon a real consideration of the evidence for and against the existence of god.” Remember this statement; he has said here, quite emphatically, that the evidence matters. Collins says he then embarked on a search to learn what believers believed, and why they believed it. “Over those two years, I discovered that I had missed out on a profoundly compelling series of arguments which indicate that atheism is, in fact, the least rational of all choices.”
I’m not kidding here, he really said that. He argues that science provides no answers to some very powerful, important questions, such as “Why am I here?” and “What does love mean?” Then there are, “What happens after I die?” and “Is there a god?” “So,” he says, “if you’re going to be an atheist, you basically have to decide those are irrelevant.” Now where in hell did he get that idea? We atheists think those questions are irrelevant? Did you know that? Did he ever actually ask one? Those questions are obviously as important to the average atheist as they are to the faithful. The difference is that we accept that there may be no answers to be found in the real world. Collins, however, was unwilling to accept this uncertainty. The questions do not become irrelevant just because they currently have no answers.
However, the fact that Collins could not accept the uncertainty surrounding these questions ultimately becomes the reason he turned to Christianity. It was not because he found strong intellectual arguments for the existence of god, or the Jesus as savior story, it was because he needed some sort of closure.
In his speech, Collins says that C.S. Lewis’ argument in “Mere Christianity” of the “inexplicable” presence of the knowledge of right and wrong in humans was a clincher for him. He says, “I was compelled by that argument at age twenty-six. I am compelled by it today.” This is despite the fact that primatologists, evolution researchers, psychologists, and others have established beyond a reasonable doubt that right and wrong, or basic morality, can be found in many higher animals, as well as humans, and has been shown to be evolution’s answer to the problem of how basically selfish individuals can learn to work together for greater species efficiency.
While Collins acknowledges this to some extent, he claims that it doesn’t explain why someone would risk his life for another who was not related. Simple answer: if one lives day after day with a concern for and sympathy for others, why should we expect him to stop and compute whether he is related before making a split decision to aid someone, whatever the risk. Soldiers commonly perform such acts of heroism for non-relatives. And some of us commonly feel ourselves to be linked at a deep level with all of humanity.
Collins also toys with scientific indicators that there must be a god. For example, he goes on at some length with the “fine-tuning of the universe” argument. Of course, like all other proponents of that argument, that I’m aware of, he totally ignores the question that if the universe is too complex to exist without a creator, then why doesn’t the creator, likewise, need a creator? His cure for the complex universe problem is to assume something of even greater complexity did it. This reminds me of the puddle who looked about at his surroundings and said, “Wow! This hole in the ground fits me exactly! It’s just deep enough, and long enough, and wide enough, and with every curve just right to fit me. This can’t be chance. Someone must have created this perfect hole for me!”
Collins accepts the big bang and evolution as scientifically sound theories. However, he makes some mighty big assumptions. He says, “Almighty god, who is not limited in space and time, created our universe 13.7 billion years ago with its parameters precisely tuned to allow the development of complexity . . . “ So, how does he know that god is not limited by space and time? Well, because god must be outside nature in order to have created it. But this seems to be saying that the creator must be outside space and time, therefore the universe could have been created by a god, because he is outside space and time. He uses one assumption as evidence for another, so to speak.
So, Collins likes to argue that science can point to god, but he admits that that is not how he got there. In an interview with Steve Paulson for Salon.com in 2006, Collins said:
“Nobody gets argued all the way into becoming a believer on the sheer basis of logic and reason. That requires a leap of faith. And that leap of faith seemed very scary to me. After I had struggled with this for a couple of years, I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains on a beautiful fall afternoon. I turned the corner and saw in front of me this frozen waterfall, a couple of hundred feet high. Actually, a waterfall that had three parts to it — also the symbolic three in one. At that moment, I felt my resistance leave me. And it was a great sense of relief. The next morning, in the dewy grass in the shadow of the Cascades, I fell on my knees and accepted this truth — that God is God, that Christ is his son and that I am giving my life to that belief.”
Well, how can you argue with a “revelation” like that? Frozen waterfalls are beautiful, so there is a god, and Christ is his son. I wonder what he would have thought if he had turned that corner and seen the ravaged, dismembered dead body of a rape victim. Would this have convinced him that there was no god? I don’t think so. He would have found such “evidence” irrelevant, because it did not support what he wanted to believe.
Here we have the ultimate admission. Collins didn’t come to Christianity through reason, but despite it. His decision was first, last, and always, emotional.
Remember, this is a man who said that he knew of arguments which showed atheism to be the “least rational of all choices.” Yet, when he gets to the end of the road of reason, he sees that it doesn’t go any farther, so he just leaps. He simply decides that if he can’t get to where he wants to be with logic, then he will go with wishful thinking. And he is convinced that’s a more rational choice! He claims atheists think the big questions are irrelevant. Yet, here he makes a bald-faced admission that he thinks the truth is irrelevant. He simply decides to assume to be true that which he wishes to be true, and makes his leap. To one standing on the outside looking in, this borders on insanity.
Collins came to Christianity via a leap of faith. He never talks about why he didn’t take a leap into Islam or Hinduism. Since the facts can’t prove any one of these religions over another, we must assume that it was only because he knows less about those religions. And this, of course, is why there is such an excellent correlation of geography and religion in this world. This is what most theists do; they take a leap of faith into the family religion, or the most common local religion.
In reading Collins’ speech, and reading about him, I have come to the conclusion that honest, intelligent believers generally know why they believe. They believe for emotional reasons, because they needed answers to life’s most difficult questions and their religion provided them.
In ancient times, just as today, religion filled a need for those who don’t deal well with uncertainty. Ancient man had no science and lived in a brutal, dangerous world, and the uncertainties of it were just too much to bear. He needed answers, and they were not forthcoming from the world, so he made them up. The world exists because an invisible, all-knowing and all-powerful god made it. Humans exist because that god needed someone to worship him. Humans needed to obey god’s wishes because if they did, their god would protect them, and if they didn’t, they would be severely punished.
Ah, now we have reasons for why the world is as it is. Of course those reasons are all purely hypothetical and untestable, but they are reasons just the same. For many, this is enough. It seems there are only a small percentage of us who are even more uncomfortable with answers which just don’t add up. For us, that’s worse than no answers.
The Francis Collins story suggests to me that Christianity is a dim nightlight for the emotionally immature. It helps many to cope with the darkness of those ultimate questions, “Why are we here?” and “What comes after this?“