Where faith meets science

By  Cyril Jones-Kellett, Catholic News Service
  • December 19, 2006
 The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, by Francis S. Collins (Free Press  304 pages, hardcover, $32.95).

The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins (Houghton Mifflin, 288 pages, hardcover, $35.95).

Challenging Nature: The Clash of Science and Spirituality at the New Frontiers of Life, by Lee M. Silver (Ecco, 464 pages, hardcover, $34.95).

The relationship between science and religion is the focus of a small swarm of new books. Almost all of these books are written by scientists, suggesting that the scientific community is feeling some pressure to articulate just how its work relates to religion.

The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief by Francis S. Collins (the man who mapped the human genome) is the effort of one very well-respected scientist to tamp down the sense of strain in the science/religion relationship.

His essential argument is simple — faith and science are both reasonable. In fact, he writes that "of all the possible worldviews, atheism is the least rational." There are great rewards and important truths revealed to those who embrace both faith and science.

Collins' writing is accessible to the general reader, but it does not scrimp on the hard questions, most of which he answers artfully and lucidly. Collins uses his own story of wandering and conversion as a template for talking about how a person might reasonably become both a lover of God and of science.

A shortcoming is that while Collins writes beautifully, even movingly, about science and faith, he is not adept at ethics. This harms his efforts when he ventures into areas such as embryonic stem-cell research. He does not understand — and so speaks unconvincingly — about the moral objections to the use of embryonic humans as objects.

Collins does a great service, however, in showing that there is no necessary connection between great science and religious skepticism. In fact, discoveries such as the Big Bang Theory, as he points out, are often stunning in their harmony with traditional religious belief.

Taking the opposite approach to the religion/science question is biologist Richard Dawkins, whose publisher calls him the world's foremost atheist. Dawkins writes in The God Delusion that he hopes "religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down."

Sadly, his hope may be fulfilled in some cases because Dawkins is a deft and passionate propagandist. Those who are vulnerable to quasi-scientific browbeating might just find him convincing, though his inability to focus an argument will leave many others scratching their heads.

Take his explanation for why atheism cannot be equated to religious fundamentalism: "Doesn't your hostility (to religion) mark you out as a fundamentalist atheist," comparable to the wingnuts of the Bible Belt? he asks himself.

His answer: Religious people believe in holy books without reason; "by contrast, what I, as a scientist, believe (for example, evolution) I believe not because of reading a holy book, but because I have studied the evidence."

The logic here is that when Dawkins believes things, he does so as a scientist, which means apparently that the little people aren't supposed to notice when he simply changes the subject from atheism to evolution. This lack of intellectual discipline plagues the book.

Still, the reader approaches the crucial chapter "Why There Almost Certainly Is No God" with some hope that Dawkins will stop the endless weaving and bobbing and make something like a methodical argument. Hope goes unrewarded.

What Dawkins succeeds in doing is to show that various weak arguments against atheism are in fact weak, which is all fine. But it is something less than what he promised — a case against God.

To prove that there is no God, he needs to explain where the universe came from. What he comes up with is that the universe came from nowhere.

Dawkins will have to write a much more convincing book if he is serious about getting religious people to give up on God.

The stakes in this argument over science and religion become most clear in a book that can only be described as ghoulish — Lee M. Silver's Challenging Nature: The Clash of Science and Spirituality at the New Frontiers of Life.

Silver is a molecular biologist who believes that outdated notions of spirituality are holding humanity back from really exploring the frontiers of biology. He sees nothing wrong with — and in fact celebrates — human cloning, human-animal hybridization, the genetic manipulation of humans, embryo farming and a whole host of innovations that most people quite reasonably find profoundly troubling.

He fantasizes throughout the book that he and people like him don't need the old strictures. They are ready for a new kind of world. In his world humans are just another species after all, and morality based on belief in a spiritual world is the excuse of cowards.

This denigration of human personhood accompanied by an exaltation of the raw power of scientific know-how is eerily reminiscent of the doctors of the German Weimar Republic. The pride of the scientist that the human condition can be mightily improved by an army of brave new people in clean white coats (so long as inconvenient morality can be brushed aside) brought us to the depravities of Nazism the last time it erupted.

One shudders to think what is coming.

(Jones-Kellett is editor of The Southern Cross, newspaper of the diocese of San Diego.)

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