July 14, 2006 -- From the time Copernicus proved Ptolemy wrong that the earth did indeed orbit around the sun, scientific reason has found itself at odds with religion. In his new book, "The Language of God," geneticist Francis S. Collins explains through personal testimony why faith and reason can and do coexist peacefully, and how one actually complements the other.
Below is an excerpt.
ON A WARM SUMMER DAY just six months into the new millennium, humankind crossed a bridge into a momentous new era. An announcement beamed around the world, highlighted in virtually all major newspapers, trumpeted that the first draft of the human genome, our own instruction book, had been assembled.
The human genome consists of all the DNA of our species, the hereditary code of life. This newly revealed text was 3 billion letters long, and written in a strange and cryptographic four-letter code. Such is the amazing complexity of the information carried within each cell of the human body, that a live reading of that code at a rate of one letter per second would take thirty-one years, even if reading continued day and night.
Printing these letters out in regular font size on normal bond paper and binding them all together would result in a tower the height of the Washington Monument. For the first time on that summer morning this amazing script, carrying within it all of the instructions for building a human being, was available to the world.
As the leader of the international Human Genome Project, which had labored mightily over more than a decade to reveal this DNA sequence, I stood beside President Bill Clinton in the East Room of the White House, along with Craig Venter, the leader of a competing private sector enterprise. Prime Minister Tony Blair was connected to the event by satellite, and celebrations were occurring simultaneously in many parts of the world.
Clinton's speech began by comparing this human sequence map to the map that Meriwether Lewis had unfolded in front of President Thomas Jefferson in that very room nearly two hundred years earlier. Clinton said, "Without a doubt, this is the most important, most wondrous map ever produced by humankind."
But the part of his speech that most attracted public attention jumped from the scientific perspective to the spiritual. "Today," he said, "we are learning the language in which God created life. We are gaining ever more awe for the complexity, the beauty, and the wonder of God's most divine and sacred gift."
Was I, a rigorously trained scientist, taken aback at such a blatantly religious reference by the leader of the free world at a moment such as this? Was I tempted to scowl or look at the floor in embarrassment? No, not at all. In fact I had worked closely with the president's speechwriter in the frantic days just prior to this announcement, and had strongly endorsed the in- clusion of this paragraph. When it came time for me to add a few words of my own, I echoed this sentiment: "It's a happy day for the world. It is humbling for me, and awe-inspiring, to realize that we have caught the first glimpse of our own instruction book, previously known only to God."
What was going on here? Why would a president and a scientist, charged with announcing a milestone in biology and medicine, feel compelled to invoke a connection with God? Aren't the scientific and spiritual worldviews antithetical, or shouldn't they at least avoid appearing in the East Room together? What were the reasons for invoking God in these two speeches? Was this poetry? Hypocrisy? A cynical attempt to curry favor from believers, or to disarm those who might criticize this study of the human genome as reducing humankind to machinery? No. Not for me. Quite the contrary, for me the experience of sequencing the human genome, and uncovering this most remarkable of all texts, was both a stunning scientific achievement and an occasion of worship.
Many will be puzzled by these sentiments, assuming that a rigorous scientist could not also be a serious believer in a transcendent God. This book aims to dispel that notion, by arguing that belief in God can be an entirely rational choice, and that the principles of faith are, in fact, complementary with the principles of science.
This potential synthesis of the scientific and spiritual worldviews is assumed by many in modern times to be an impossibility, rather like trying to force the two poles of a magnet together into the same spot. Despite that impression, however, many Americans seem interested in incorporating the validity of both of these worldviews into their daily lives. Recent polls confirm that 93 percent of Americans profess some form of belief in God; yet most of them also drive cars, use electricity, and pay attention to weather reports, apparently assuming that the science undergirding these phenomena is generally trustworthy.
And what about spiritual belief amongst scientists? This is actually more prevalent than many realize. In 1916, researchers asked biologists, physicists, and mathematicians whether they believed in a God who actively communicates with humankind and to whom one may pray in expectation of receiving an answer. About 40 percent answered in the affirmative. In 1997, the same survey was repeated verbatim -- and to the surprise of the researchers, the percentage remained very nearly the same. So perhaps the "battle" between science and religion is not as polarized as it seems? Unfortunately, the evidence of potential harmony is often overshadowed by the high-decibel pronouncements of those who occupy the poles of the debate.
Bombs are definitely being thrown from both sides. For example, essentially discrediting the spiritual beliefs of 40 percent of his colleagues as sentimental nonsense, the prominent evolutionist Richard Dawkins has emerged as the leading spokesperson for the point of view that a belief in evolution demands atheism. Among his many eye-popping statements: "Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence. . . . Faith, being belief that isn't based on evidence, is the principal vice of any religion."
On the other side, certain religious fundamentalists attack science as dangerous and untrustworthy, and point to a literal interpretation of sacred texts as the only reliable means of discerning scientific truth. Among this community, comments from the late Henry Morris, a leader of the creationist movement, stand out: "Evolution's lie permeates and dominates modern thought in every field. That being the case, it follows inevitably that evolutionary thought is basically responsible for the lethally ominous political developments, and the chaotic moral and social disintegrations that have been accelerating everywhere. . . .When science and the Bible differ, science has obviously misinterpreted its data."
This rising cacophony of antagonistic voices leaves many sincere observers confused and disheartened. Reasonable people conclude that they are forced to choose between these two unappetizing extremes, neither of which offers much comfort. Disillusioned by the stridency of both perspectives, many choose to reject both the trustworthiness of scientific conclusions and the value of organized religion, slipping instead into various forms of antiscientific thinking, shallow spirituality, or simple apathy. Others decide to accept the value of both science and spirit, but compartmentalize these parts of their spiritual and material existence to avoid any uneasiness about apparent conflicts. Along these lines, the late biologist Stephen Jay Gould advocated that science and faith should occupy separate, "non-overlapping magisteria." But this, too, is potentially unsatisfying. It inspires internal conflict, and deprives people of the chance to embrace either science or spirit in a fully realized way.
So here is the central question of this book: In this modern era of cosmology, evolution, and the human genome, is there still the possibility of a richly satisfying harmony between the scientific and spiritual worldviews? I answer with a resounding yes! In my view, there is no conflict in being a rigorous scientist and a person who believes in a God who takes a personal interest in each one of us. Science's domain is to explore nature. God's domain is in the spiritual world, a realm not possible to explore with the tools and language of science. It must be examined with the heart, the mind, and the soul -- and the mind must find a way to embrace both realms.
I will argue that these perspectives not only can coexist within one person, but can do so in a fashion that enriches and enlightens the human experience. Science is the only reliable way to understand the natural world, and its tools when properly utilized can generate profound insights into material existence.
But science is powerless to answer questions such as "Why did the universe come into being?" "What is the meaning of human existence?" "What happens after we die?" One of the strongest motivations of humankind is to seek answers to profound questions, and we need to bring all the power of both the scientific and spiritual perspectives to bear on understanding what is both seen and unseen. The goal of this book is to explore a pathway toward a sober and intellectually honest integration of these views.
The consideration of such weighty matters can be unsettling. Whether we call it by name or not, all of us have arrived at a certain worldview. It helps us make sense of the world around us, provides us with an ethical framework, and guides our decisions about the future. Anyone who tinkers with that worldview should not do it lightly. A book that proposes to challenge something so fundamental may inspire more uneasiness than comfort. But we humans seem to possess a deepseated longing to find the truth, even though that longing is easily suppressed by the mundane details of daily life. Those distractions combine with a desire to avoid considering our own mortality, so that days, weeks, months, or even years can easily pass where no serious consideration is given to the eternal questions of human existence. This book is only a small antidote to that circumstance, but will perhaps provide an opportunity for self-reflection, and a desire to look deeper.
First, I should explain how a scientist who studies genetics came to be a believer in a God who is unlimited by time and space, and who takes personal interest in human beings. Some will assume that this must have come about by rigorous religious upbringing, deeply instilled by family and culture, and thus inescapable in later life. But that's not really my story.
PART ONE The Chasm Between Science and Faith
From Atheism to Belief
MY EARLY LIFE WAS UNCONVENTIONAL in many ways, but as the son of freethinkers, I had an upbringing that was quite conventionally modern in its attitude toward faith -- it just wasn't very important. I was raised on a dirt farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. The farm had no running water, and few other physical amenities. Yet these things were more than compensated for by the stimulating mix of experiences and opportunities that were available to me in the remarkable culture of ideas created by my parents.
They had met in graduate school at Yale in 1931, and had taken their community organizing skills and love of music to the experimental community of Arthurdale, West Virginia, where they worked with Eleanor Roosevelt in attempting to reinvigorate a downtrodden mining community in the depths of the Great Depression.
But other advisers in the Roosevelt administration had other ideas, and the funding soon dried up. The ultimate dismantling of the Arthurdale community on the basis of backbiting Washington politics left my parents with a lifelong suspicion of the government. They moved on to academic life at Elon College in Burlington, North Carolina. There, presented with the wild and beautiful folk culture of the rural South, my father became a folksong collector, traveling through the hills and hollows and convincing reticent North Carolinians to sing into his Presto recorder. Those recordings, along with an even larger set from Alan Lomax, make up a significant fraction of the Library of Congress collection of American folksongs.
When World War II arrived, such musical endeavors were forced to take a backseat to more urgent matters of national defense, and my father went to work helping to build bombers for the war effort, ultimately ending up as a supervisor in an aircraft factory in Long Island.
At the end of the war, my parents concluded that the highpressure life of business was not for them. Being ahead of their time, they did the "sixties thing" in the 1940s: they moved to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, bought a ninety-five-acre farm, and set about trying to create a simple agricultural lifestyle without use of farm machinery. Discovering after only a few months that this was not going to feed their two adolescent sons (and soon another brother and I would arrive), my father landed a job teaching drama at the local women's college. He recruited male actors from the local town, and together these college students and local tradesmen found the production of plays was great fun. Faced with complaints about the long and boring hiatus in the summer, my father and mother founded a summer theater in a grove of oak trees above our farmhouse.
The Oak Grove Theater continues in uninterrupted and delightful operation more than fifty years later.
I was born into this happy mix of pastoral beauty, hard farmwork, summer theater, and music, and thrived in it. As the youngest of four boys, I could not get into too many scrapes that were not already familiar to my parents. I grew up with the general sense that you had to be responsible for your own behavior and your choices, as no one else was going to step in and take care of them for you.
Like my older brothers, I was home-schooled by my mother, a remarkably talented teacher. Those early years conferred on me the priceless gift of the joy of learning. While my mother had no organized class schedule or lesson plans, she was incredibly perceptive in identifying topics that would intrigue a young mind, pursuing them with great intensity to a natural stopping point, and then switching to something new and equally exciting. Learning was never something you did because you had to, it was something you did because you loved it.
Faith was not an important part of my childhood. I was vaguely aware of the concept of God, but my own interactions with Him were limited to occasional childish moments of bargaining about something that I really wanted Him to do for me. For instance, I remember making a contract with God (at about age nine) that if He would prevent the rainout of a Saturday night theater performance and music party that I was particularly excited about, then I would promise never to smoke cigarettes.
Sure enough, the rains held off, and I never took up the habit. Earlier, when I was five, my parents decided to send me and my next oldest brother to become members of the boys choir at the local Episcopal church. They made it clear that it would be a great way to learn music, but that the theology should not be taken too seriously. I followed those instructions, learning the glories of harmony and counterpoint but letting the theological concepts being preached from the pulpit wash over me without leaving any discernible residue.
When I was ten, we moved in town to be with my ailing grandmother, and I entered the public schools. At fourteen, my eyes were opened to the wonderfully exciting and powerful methods of science. Inspired by a charismatic chemistry teacher who could write the same information on the blackboard with both hands simultaneously, I discovered for the first time the intense satisfaction of the ordered nature of the universe. The fact that all matter was constructed of atoms and molecules that followed mathematical principles was an unexpected revelation, and the ability to use the tools of science to discover new things about nature struck me at once as something of which I wanted to be a part. With the enthusiasm of a new convert, I decided my goal in life would be to become a chemist. Never mind that I knew relatively little about the other sciences, this first puppy love seemed life-changing.
In contrast, my encounters with biology left me completely cold. At least as perceived by my teenage mind, the fundamentals of biology seemed to have more to do with rote learning of mindless facts than elucidation of principles. I really wasn't that interested in memorizing the parts of the crayfish, nor in trying to figure out the difference between a phylum, a class, and an order. The overwhelming complexity of life led me to the conclusion that biology was rather like existential philosophy: it just didn't make sense. For my budding reductionist mind, there was not nearly enough logic in it to be appealing. Graduating at sixteen, I went on to the University of Virginia, determined to major in chemistry and pursue a scientific career. Like most college freshmen, I found this new environment invigorating, with so many ideas bouncing off the classroom walls and in the dorm rooms late at night. Some of those questions invariably turned to the existence of God. In my early teens I had had occasional moments of the experience of longing for something outside myself, often associated with the beauty of nature or a particularly profound musical experience. Nevertheless, my sense of the spiritual was very undeveloped and easily challenged by the one or two aggressive atheists one finds in almost every college dormitory. By a few months into my college career, I became convinced that while many religious faiths had inspired interesting traditions of art and culture, they held no foundational truth.
THOUGH I DID NOT KNOW the term at the time, I became an agnostic, a term coined by the nineteenth-century scientist T. H. Huxley to indicate someone who simply does not know whether or not God exists. There are all kinds of agnostics; some arrive at this position after intense analysis of the evidence, but many others simply find it to be a comfortable position that allows them to avoid considering arguments they find discomforting on either side. I was definitely in the latter category. In fact, my assertion of "I don't know" was really more along the lines of "I don't want to know." As a young man growing up in a world full of temptations, it was convenient to ignore the need to be answerable to any higher spiritual authority.
I practiced a thought and behavior pattern referred to as "willful blindness" by the noted scholar and writer C. S. Lewis. After graduation, I went on to a Ph.D. program in physical chemistry at Yale, pursuing the mathematical elegance that had first drawn me to this branch of science. My intellectual life was immersed in quantum mechanics and second-order differential equations, and my heroes were the giants of physics -- Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and Paul Dirac. I gradually became convinced that everything in the universe could be explained on the basis of equations and physical principles.
Reading the biography of Albert Einstein, and discovering that despite his strong Zionist position after World War II, he did not believe in Yahweh, the God of the Jewish people, only reinforced my conclusion that no thinking scientist could seriously entertain the possibility of God without committing some sort of intellectual suicide.
And so I gradually shifted from agnosticism to atheism. I felt quite comfortable challenging the spiritual beliefs of anyone who mentioned them in my presence, and discounted such perspectives as sentimentality and outmoded superstition.
Two years into this Ph.D. program my narrowly structured life plan began to come apart. Despite the daily pleasures of pursuing my dissertation research on theoretical quantum mechanics, I began to doubt whether this would be a lifesustaining pathway for me. It seemed that most of the major advances in quantum theory had occurred fifty years earlier, and most of my career was likely to be spent in applying successive simplifications and approximations to render certain elegant but unsolvable equations just a tiny bit more tractable.
More practically, it seemed that my path would lead inexorably to a professor's life of delivering an interminable series of lectures on thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, presented to class after class of undergraduates who were either bored or terrified by those subjects.
At about that same time, in an effort to broaden my horizons, I signed up for a course in biochemistry, finally investigating the life sciences that I had so carefully avoided in the past. The course was nothing short of astounding. The principles of DNA, RNA, and protein, never previously apparent to me, were laid out in all of their satisfying digital glory. The ability to apply rigorous intellectual principles to understanding biology, something I had assumed impossible, was bursting forth with the revelation of the genetic code. With the advent of new methods for splicing different DNA fragments together at will (recombinant DNA), the possibility of applying all of this knowledge for human benefit seemed quite real. I was astounded. Biology has mathematical elegance after all. Life makes sense.
At the same time, now only twenty-two but married with a bright and inquisitive daughter, I was becoming more social. I had often preferred to be alone when I was younger. Now, human interaction and a desire to contribute something to humanity seemed ever more important. Putting all of these sudden revelations together, I questioned everything about my previous choices, including whether I was really cut out to do science or carry out independent research. I was just about to complete my Ph.D., yet after much soul-searching, I applied for admission to medical school. With a carefully practiced speech, I attempted to convince admissions committees that this turn of events was actually a natural pathway for the training of one of our nation's future doctors. Inside I was not so sure. After all, wasn't I the guy who had hated biology because you had to memorize things? Could any field of study require more memorization than medicine? But something was different now: this was about humanity, not crayfish; there were principles underlying the details; and this could ultimately make a difference in the lives of real people.
I was accepted at the University of North Carolina. Within a few weeks I knew medical school was the right place for me. I loved the intellectual stimulation, the ethical challenges, the human element, and the amazing complexity of the human body. In December of that first year I found out how to combine this new love of medicine with my old love of mathematics. An austere and somewhat unapproachable pediatrician, who taught a grand total of six hours of lectures on medical genetics to the first-year medical student class, showed me my future.
He brought patients to class with sickle cell anemia, galactosemia (an often-fatal inability to tolerate milk products), and Down syndrome, all caused by glitches in the genome, some as subtle as a single letter gone awry.
I was astounded by the elegance of the human DNA code, and the multiple consequences of those rare careless moments of its copying mechanism. Though the potential to actually do anything to help very many of those afflicted by such genetic diseases seemed far away, I was immediately drawn to this discipline. While at that point no shadow of possibility of anything as grand and consequential as the Human Genome Project had entered a single human mind, the path I started on in December of 1973 turned out fortuitously to lead directly into participation in one of the most historic undertakings of humankind.
This path also led me by the third year of medical school into intense experiences involving the care of patients. As physicians in training, medical students are thrust into some of the most intimate relationships imaginable with individuals who had been complete strangers until their experience of illness. Cultural taboos that normally prevent the exchange of intensely private information come tumbling down along with the sensitive physical contact of a doctor and his patients. It is all part of the long-standing and venerated contract between the ill person and the healer. I found the relationships that developed with sick and dying patients almost overwhelming, and I struggled to maintain the professional distance and lack of emotional involvement that many of my teachers advocated.
What struck me profoundly about my bedside conversations with these good North Carolina people was the spiritual aspect of what many of them were going through. I witnessed numerous cases of individuals whose faith provided them with a strong reassurance of ultimate peace, be it in this world or the next, despite terrible suffering that in most instances they had done nothing to bring on themselves. If faith was a psychological crutch, I concluded, it must be a very powerful one. If it was nothing more than a veneer of cultural tradition, why were these people not shaking their fists at God and demanding that their friends and family stop all this talk about a loving and benevolent supernatural power?
My most awkward moment came when an older woman, suffering daily from severe untreatable angina, asked me what I believed. It was a fair question; we had discussed many other important issues of life and death, and she had shared her own strong Christian beliefs with me. I felt my face flush as I stammered out the words "I'm not really sure." Her obvious surprise brought into sharp relief a predicament that I had been running away from for nearly all of my twenty-six years: I had never really seriously considered the evidence for and against belief.
That moment haunted me for several days. Did I not consider myself a scientist? Does a scientist draw conclusions without considering the data? Could there be a more important question in all of human existence than "Is there a God?" And yet there I found myself, with a combination of willful blindness and something that could only be properly described as arrogance, having avoided any serious consideration that God might be a real possibility.
Suddenly all my arguments seemed very thin, and I had the sensation that the ice under my feet was cracking. This realization was a thoroughly terrifying experience. After all, if I could no longer rely on the robustness of my atheistic position, would I have to take responsibility for actions that I would prefer to keep unscrutinized? Was I answerable to someone other than myself? The question was now too pressing to avoid.
At first, I was confident that a full investigation of the rational basis for faith would deny the merits of belief, and reaffirm my atheism. But I determined to have a look at the facts, no matter what the outcome. Thus began a quick and confusing survey through the major religions of the world. Much of what I found in the CliffsNotes versions of different religions (I found reading the actual sacred texts much too difficult) left me thoroughly mystified, and I found little reason to be drawn to one or the other of the many possibilities. I doubted that there was any rational basis for spiritual belief undergirding any of these faiths. However, that soon changed. I went to visit a Methodist minister who lived down the street to ask him whether faith made any logical sense. He listened patiently to my confused (and probably blasphemous) ramblings, and then took a small book off his shelf and suggested I read it.
The book was "Mere Christianity" by C. S. Lewis. In the next few days, as I turned its pages, struggling to absorb the breadth and depth of the intellectual arguments laid down by this legendary Oxford scholar, I realized that all of my own constructs against the plausibility of faith were those of a schoolboy. Clearly I would need to start with a clean slate to consider this most important of all human questions. Lewis seemed to know all of my objections, sometimes even before I had quite formulated them. He invariably addressed them within a page or two. When I learned subsequently that Lewis had himself been an atheist, who had set out to disprove faith on the basis of logical argument, I recognized how he could be so insightful about my path. It had been his path as well.
The argument that most caught my attention, and most rocked my ideas about science and spirit down to their foundation, was right there in the title of Book One: "Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe." While in many ways the "Moral Law" that Lewis described was a universal feature of human existence, in other ways it was as if I was recognizing it for the first time.
To understand the Moral Law, it is useful to consider, as Lewis did, how it is invoked in hundreds of ways each day without the invoker stopping to point out the foundation of his argument. Disagreements are part of daily life. Some are mundane, as the wife criticizing her husband for not speaking more kindly to a friend, or a child complaining, "It's not fair," when different amounts of ice cream are doled out at a birthday party. Other arguments take on larger significance. In international affairs, for instance, some argue that the United States has a moral obligation to spread democracy throughout the world, even if it requires military force, whereas others say that the aggressive, unilateral use of military and economic force threatens to squander moral authority.
In the area of medicine, furious debates currently surround the question of whether or not it is acceptable to carry out research on human embryonic stem cells. Some argue that such research violates the sanctity of human life; others posit that the potential to alleviate human suffering constitutes an ethical mandate to proceed. (This topic and several other dilemmas in bioethics are considered in the Appendix to this book.) Notice that in all these examples, each party attempts to appeal to an unstated higher standard. This standard is the Moral Law. It might also be called "the law of right behavior," and its existence in each of these situations seems unquestioned.
What is being debated is whether one action or another is a closer approximation to the demands of that law. Those accused of having fallen short, such as the husband who is insufficiently cordial to his wife's friend, usually respond with a variety of excuses why they should be let off the hook. Virtually never does the respondent say, "To hell with your concept of right behavior."
What we have here is very peculiar: the concept of right and wrong appears to be universal among all members of the human species (though its application may result in wildly different outcomes). It thus seems to be a phenomenon approaching that of a law, like the law of gravitation or of special relativity. Yet in this instance, it is a law that, if we are honest with ourselves, is broken with astounding regularity.
As best as I can tell, this law appears to apply peculiarly to human beings. Though other animals may at times appear to show glimmerings of a moral sense, they are certainly not widespread, and in many instances other species' behavior seems to be in dramatic contrast to any sense of universal rightness. It is the awareness of right and wrong, along with the development of language, awareness of self, and the ability to imagine the future, to which scientists generally refer when trying to enumerate the special qualities of Homo sapiens.
But is this sense of right and wrong an intrinsic quality of being human, or just a consequence of cultural traditions? Some have argued that cultures have such widely differing norms for behavior that any conclusion about a shared Moral Law is unfounded. Lewis, a student of many cultures, calls this "a lie, a good resounding lie. If a man will go into a library and spend a few days with the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, he will soon discover the massive unanimity of the practical reason in man. From the Babylonian Hymn to Samos, from the laws of Manu, the Book of the Dead, the Analects, the Stoics, the Platonists, from Australian aborigines and Redskins, he will collect the same triumphantly monotonous denunciations of oppression, murder, treachery and falsehood; the same injunctions of kindness to the aged, the young, and the weak, of almsgiving and impartiality and honesty." In some unusual cultures the law takes on surprising trappings -- consider witch burning in seventeenth-century America. Yet when surveyed closely, these apparent aberrations can be seen to arise from strongly held but misguided conclusions about who or what is good or evil. If you firmly believed that a witch is the personification of evil on earth, an apostle of the devil himself, would it not then seem justified to take such drastic action?
Let me stop here to point out that the conclusion that the Moral Law exists is in serious conflict with the current postmodernist philosophy, which argues that there are no absolute rights or wrongs, and all ethical decisions are relative. This view, which seems widespread among modern philosophers but which mystifies most members of the general public, faces a series of logical Catch-22s. If there is no absolute truth, can postmodernism itself be true? Indeed, if there is no right or wrong, then there is no reason to argue for the discipline of ethics in the first place.
Others will object that the Moral Law is simply a consequence of evolutionary pressures. This objection arises from the new field of sociobiology, and attempts to provide explanations for altruistic behavior on the basis of its positive value in Darwinian selection. If this argument could be shown to hold up, the interpretation of many of the requirements of the Moral Law as a signpost to God would potentially be in trouble -- so it is worth examining this point of view in more detail.
Consider a major example of the force we feel from the Moral Law -- the altruistic impulse, the voice of conscience calling us to help others even if nothing is received in return. Not all of the requirements of the Moral Law reduce to altruism, of course; for instance, the pang of conscience one feels after a minor distortion of the facts on a tax return can hardly be ascribed to a sense of having damaged another identifiable human being.
First, let's be clear what we're talking about. By altruism I do not mean the "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" kind of behavior that practices benevolence to others in direct expectation of reciprocal benefits. Altruism is more interesting: the truly selfless giving of oneself to others with absolutely no secondary motives. When we see that kind of love and generosity, we are overcome with awe and reverence. Oskar Schindler placed his life in great danger by sheltering more than a thousand Jews from Nazi extermination during World War II, and ultimately died penniless -- and we feel a great rush of admiration for his actions. Mother Teresa has consistently ranked as one of the most admired individuals of the current age, though her self-imposed poverty and selfless giving to the sick and dying of Calcutta is in drastic contrast to the materialistic lifestyle that dominates our current culture.
In some instances, altruism can extend even to circumstances where the beneficiary would seem to be a sworn enemy. Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, tells the following Sufi story.
Once upon a time there was an old woman who used to meditate on the bank of the Ganges. One morning, finishing her meditation, she saw a scorpion floating helplessly in the strong current. As the scorpion was pulled closer, it got caught in roots that branched out far into the river. The scorpion struggled frantically to free itself but got more and more entangled. She immediately reached out to the drowning scorpion, which, as soon as she touched it, stung her. The old woman withdrew her hand but, having regained her balance, once again tried to save the creature. Every time she tried, however, the scorpion's tail stung her so badly that her hands became bloody and her face distorted with pain. A passerby who saw the old woman struggling with the scorpion shouted, "What's wrong with you, fool! Do you want to kill yourself to save that ugly thing?" Looking into the stranger's eyes, she answered, "Because it is the nature of the scorpion to sting, why should I deny my own nature to save it?"
This may seem a rather drastic example -- not very many of us can relate to putting ourselves in danger to save a scorpion. But surely most of us have at one time felt the inner calling to help a stranger in need, even with no likelihood of personal benefit. And if we have actually acted on that impulse, the consequence was often a warm sense of "having done the right thing."
C. S. Lewis, in his remarkable book "The Four Loves," further explores the nature of this kind of selfless love, which he calls "agape" (pronounced ah-GAH-pay), from the Greek. He points out that this kind of love can be distinguished from the three other forms (affection, friendship, and romantic love), which can be more easily understood in terms of reciprocal benefit, and which we can see modeled in other animals besides ourselves. Agape, or selfless altruism, presents a major challenge for the evolutionist. It is quite frankly a scandal to reductionist reasoning.
It cannot be accounted for by the drive of individual selfish genes to perpetuate themselves. Quite the contrary: it may lead humans to make sacrifices that lead to great personal suffering, injury, or death, without any evidence of benefit. And yet, if we carefully examine that inner voice we sometimes call conscience, the motivation to practice this kind of love exists within all of us, despite our frequent efforts to ignore it.
Sociobiologists such as E. O. Wilson have attempted to explain this behavior in terms of some indirect reproductive benefits to the practitioner of altruism, but the arguments quickly run into trouble. One proposal is that repeated altruistic behavior of the individual is recognized as a positive attribute in mate selection. But this hypothesis is in direct conflict with observations in nonhuman primates that often reveal just the opposite -- such as the practice of infanticide by a newly dominant male monkey, in order to clear the way for his own future offspring.
Another argument is that there are indirect reciprocal benefits from altruism that have provided advantages to the practitioner over evolutionary time; but this explanation cannot account for human motivation to practice small acts of conscience that no one else knows about. A third argument is that altruistic behavior by members of a group provides benefits to the whole group. Examples are offered of ant colonies, where sterile workers toil incessantly to create an environment where their mothers can have more children. But this kind of "ant altruism" is readily explained in evolutionary terms by the fact that the genes motivating the sterile worker ants are exactly the same ones that will be passed on by their mother to the siblings they are helping to create. That unusually direct DNA connection does not apply to more complex populations, where evolutionists now agree almost universally that selection operates on the individual, not on the population. The hardwired behavior of the worker ant is thus fundamentally different from the inner voice that causes me to feel compelled to jump into the river to try to save a drowning stranger, even if I'm not a good swimmer and may myself die in the effort. Furthermore, for the evolutionary argument about group benefits of altruism to hold, it would seem to require an opposite response, namely, hostility to individuals outside the group. Oskar Schindler's and Mother Teresa's agape belies this kind of thinking. Shockingly, the Moral Law will ask me to save the drowning man even if he is an enemy.
If the Law of Human Nature cannot be explained away as cultural artifact or evolutionary by-product, then how can we account for its presence? There is truly something unusual going on here. To quote Lewis, "If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe -- no more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house. The only way in which we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way. And that is just what we do find inside ourselves. Surely this ought to arouse our suspicions?"
Encountering this argument at age twenty-six, I was stunned by its logic. Here, hiding in my own heart as familiar as anything in daily experience, but now emerging for the first time as a clarifying principle, this Moral Law shone its bright white light into the recesses of my childish atheism, and demanded a serious consideration of its origin. Was this God looking back at me?
And if that were so, what kind of God would this be? Would this be a deist God, who invented physics and mathematics and started the universe in motion about 14 billion years ago, then wandered off to deal with other, more important matters, as Einstein thought? No, this God, if I was perceiving Him at all, must be a theist God, who desires some kind of relationship with those special creatures called human beings, and has therefore instilled this special glimpse of Himself into each one of us. This might be the God of Abraham, but it was certainly not the God of Einstein.
There was another consequence to this growing sense of God's nature, if in fact He was real. Judging by the incredibly high standards of the Moral Law, one that I had to admit I was in the practice of regularly violating, this was a God who was holy and righteous. He would have to be the embodiment of goodness. He would have to hate evil. And there was no reason to suspect that this God would be kindly or indulgent. The gradual dawning of my realization of God's plausible existence brought conflicted feelings: comfort at the breadth and depth of the existence of such a Mind, and yet profound dismay at the realization of my own imperfections when viewed in His light. I had started this journey of intellectual exploration to confirm my atheism. That now lay in ruins as the argument from the Moral Law (and many other issues) forced me to admit the plausibility of the God hypothesis. Agnosticism, which had seemed like a safe second-place haven, now loomed like the great cop-out it often is. Faith in God now seemed more rational than disbelief.
It also became clear to me that science, despite its unquestioned powers in unraveling the mysteries of the natural world, would get me no further in resolving the question of God. If God exists, then He must be outside the natural world, and therefore the tools of science are not the right ones to learn about Him. Instead, as I was beginning to understand from looking into my own heart, the evidence of God's existence would have to come from other directions, and the ultimate decision would be based on faith, not proof. Still beset by roiling uncertainties of what path I had started down, I had to admit that I had reached the threshold of accepting the possibility of a spiritual worldview, including the existence of God.
It seemed impossible either to go forward or to turn back. Years later, I encountered a sonnet by Sheldon Vanauken that precisely described my dilemma. Its concluding lines: Between the probable and proved there yawns A gap. Afraid to jump, we stand absurd, Then see behind us sink the ground and, worse, Our very standpoint crumbling. Desperate dawns Our only hope: to leap into the Word That opens up the shuttered universe. For a long time I stood trembling on the edge of this yawning gap. Finally, seeing no escape, I leapt. How can such beliefs be possible for a scientist? Aren't many claims of religion incompatible with the "Show me the data" attitude of someone devoted to the study of chemistry, physics, biology, and medicine? By opening the door of my mind to its spiritual possibilities, had I started a war of worldviews that would consume me, ultimately facing a take-noprisoners victory of one or the other?