Thursday, January 18, 2007

Science and Religion In Peaceful Co-existence

As I have stated many times, the National Geographic Magazine is ostensibly a snooty liberal activist publication. But it is well written, well laid out, and includes some of the best photographic essays in print. I have written a couple of posts about NGM’s column Voices, which each month features an interview with some eminent personality in the realm of things deemed important by the National Geographic Society.

The February edition is not online yet, so I cannot link to it. But the edition includes an interview with Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project. Collins, who was once described as an atheist and says he was long an agnostic, became an Evangelical Christian in 1978. Last year he released a book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, which challenges the view that science and religion are mutually exclusive.

Collins’ interviewer, John Horgan, considers himself a well studied agnostic. He has dabbled in a variety of religions. If you peruse Horgan’s writings, it seems that this very bright fellow is still trying to find himself. In keeping with NGM’s deep and long held bias against good old American religion (NGM regularly celebrates religion, but only when it significantly departs from American cultural norms), the interview takes a sustained antagonistic tone. In many ways, Horgan’s questioning seems like little more than anti-religious sniping.

Collins, however, acquits himself quite well and comes across as amicable and reasonable. He says, for example, that while he has no problem with rare miracles “at moments of great significance,” as a scientist he sets his “standards for miracles very high.” No faith healing at the tent revival for Dr. Collins. Horgan says that miracles “make God seem too capricious.” Collins says that as a physician he’s never seen a miraculous healing and doesn’t expect to, but doesn’t deny the existence of rare miracles.

As a believer myself, I wonder if Collins has set his standard for miracles too high. I believe that God’s most common pattern is to weave his miracles into life in such a way that they seem almost imperceptible. It is up to us to open our eyes and express appreciation. Perhaps only stunning events can be miracles to Collins. Collins later suggests that he believes God works through normal scientifically proven processes, so perhaps he and I actually agree. Maybe I’m just stuck on semantics here.

Discussing his acceptance of Christ, Collins says that like many others in the scientific community he used to be “a casual agnostic.” I take that to mean that he accepted agnosticism out of lassitude. He says that this type of lazy approach “has not been arrived at by a careful examination of the evidence.” In other words, Collins is saying that he believes that a careful study of the evidence leads to leads to the conclusion that God exists.

Collins takes a dim view of what he thinks is the manipulative nature of some prayers. He says, “Prayer for me is much more a sense of trying to get into doing rather than telling Almighty God what he should be doing. Look at the Lord’s Prayer. It says, “Thy will be done.” It wasn’t, “Our Father who art in heaven, please get me a parking space.””

I think Collins both hits the nail on the head and somewhat misses the boat at the same time. Prayer is all about the supplicant’s relationship with God and learning how to comply with God’s will. But many scriptures command us to pray for what we need and want. We are also taught that we should try to conform our prayers to that which God desires for us. We get better at this as we develop our relationship with God. But being imperfect, we can sometimes ask for blessings without knowing whether they fit into God’s will or not. In that case, the faithful person accepts that God will answer the prayer in the way that an all-knowing and all-loving God knows is best. Through a lifetime of prayer, one can graduate from the selfish and childish prayer to the enduring and divine.

Horgan lumps all religion into one basket with the Islamic radical nut jobs, a common practice among anti-religionists. Collins adroitly responds that “we shouldn’t judge pure truths of faith by the way they are applied any more than we should judge the pure truth of love by an abusive marriage. … We shouldn’t blame faith for the ways people distort it and misuse it.” Some would take exception with that, suggesting that the application of the belief demonstrates the its true nature. Still, Collins has a point. Taking his analogy, just as it’s ridiculous to suggest that marital love cannot exist simply because some abusive marriages exist, it’s also ridiculous to say God can’t exist simply because some religionists are evil and/or misguided.

Collins agrees with Horgan that the problem with a God that permits evil to occur “is the most fundamental question that all seekers have to wrestle with.” But Collins says that “if our ultimate goal is to grow, learn, and discover things about ourselves and things about God, then unfortunately a life of ease is probably not the way to get there.” He firmly believes that God gave us the gift of free will as an integral part of that process. He opines, “If God had to intervene miraculously every time one of us chose to do something evil, it would be a very strange, chaotic, unpredictable world.” He holds that God cannot be blamed for bad choices people make. In other words, people are ultimately responsible for their own choices. Some philosophers partially or fully reject this concept.

But human evil is not the major issue to Collins. He says that people harmed by natural events, such as a tornado or tsunami, are harder to explain. Horgan quotes two people that think that reason should, therefore, dictate that God is incompetent. Collins responds, “An alternative is the notion of God being outside of nature and time and having a perspective of our blink-of-an-eye existence that goes both far back and far forward. … There can be reasons for terrible things happening that I cannot know.”

Scientists’ whole job is to figure out the unknown, so it is difficult for some of them to accept the idea that some things might never be knowable to us. A dose of humility might help that. If we accept our perspective limitations, it is apparent that the logic flow that seemingly unearned misfortune necessarily leads to the conclusion that God can’t exist only works when combined with arrogance.

When asked whether his work in genetics might undermine his belief in free will, Collins seems to almost laugh. He says that we are not “helpless marionettes being controlled by strings made of double helices.” He notes that twins with identical DNA “often don’t behave alike or think alike.” This shows “the importance of the learning experience—and free will.”

Collins thinks that the Darwinian explanations of altruism fall short of explaining how it works in real life, where “some people sacrificially give of themselves to those that are outside of their group and with whom they have absolutely nothing in common.” But he adds that he’s not hanging his faith on this single point.

In light of Collins’ involvement in human genetics, Horgan raises the specter of the brave new world of genetic meddling that would create super humans. Collins says, “That outcome would bother me.” But he then goes on to say that “we’re so far away from that reality that it’s hard to spend a lot of time worrying about it, when you consider all the truly benevolent things we could do in the near term.”

In response to Horgan’s suggestion that the need for religion would disappear if science eliminated suffering, Collins says that regardless of what medical and scientific advances occur, “we will probably still figure out ways to argue with each other and sometimes to kill each other….” He doesn’t believe “we’ll ever figure out how to stop humans from doing bad things to each other.” In other words, Collins seems to agree with Horgan that religion exists only as a counterpoint to human suffering. This will seem familiar to those that hold that God’s plan requires “opposition in all things.”

I found this interview interesting and refreshing. In the face of trial-lawyer-like anti-religious questioning, Francis Collins demonstrates that a person can reasonably accept and be deeply involved with both God and science. Indeed, it would seem that science can only be used as the great anti-religion by those with a specific anti-religious agenda. Rather than being a cudgel with which to beat religionists, science is a tool that can fit together quite nicely with religious faith.


beepbeepitsme said...

RE: freewill

Freewill - "Turn or Burn"

Jared* said...

I didn't see Horgan as antagonistic per se. Sure, the questions are tough (they actually could have been tougher) but the topic matter demands them, especially in a popular science magazine and in the wake of books by Dawkins, Harris, etc.

Scott Hinrichs said...

I reread the article and can see your point of view that Horgan wasn't antagonistic. However, the whole approach and tone came across (at least to me) as, "Dude, this is the most bizarre thing in the world -- someone that strongly believes in both science and religion!" The attitude was like that of the curator of a freak show at the circus showing his audience some strange and unnatural thing.