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 newmillennium, humankind crossed a bridge into a momentousnew era. An announcement beamed aroundthe world, highlighted in virtually all major newspapers, trumpetedthat the first draft of the human genome, our own instructionbook, 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 billionletters long, and written in a strange and cryptographicfour-letter code. Such is the amazing complexity of the informationcarried within each cell of the human body, that a livereading of that code at a rate of one letter per second wouldtake thirty-one years, even if reading continued day and night.
Printing these letters out in regular font size on normal bondpaper and binding them all together would result in a tower theheight of the Washington Monument. For the first time on thatsummer morning this amazing script, carrying within it all ofthe instructions for building a human being, was available tothe world.
As the leader of the international Human Genome Project,which had labored mightily over more than a decade to revealthis DNA sequence, I stood beside President Bill Clinton in theEast Room of the White House, along with Craig Venter, theleader of a competing private sector enterprise. Prime MinisterTony Blair was connected to the event by satellite, and celebrationswere occurring simultaneously in many parts of the world.
Clinton's speech began by comparing this human sequencemap to the map that Meriwether Lewis had unfolded in front ofPresident Thomas Jefferson in that very room nearly two hundredyears earlier. Clinton said, "Without a doubt, this is themost important, most wondrous map ever produced by humankind."
But the part of his speech that most attracted publicattention jumped from the scientific perspective to the spiritual."Today," he said, "we are learning the language in which Godcreated life. We are gaining ever more awe for the complexity,the beauty, and the wonder of God's most divine and sacredgift."
Was I, a rigorously trained scientist, taken aback at such ablatantly religious reference by the leader of the free world at amoment such as this? Was I tempted to scowl or look at thefloor in embarrassment? No, not at all. In fact I had workedclosely with the president's speechwriter in the frantic days justprior to this announcement, and had strongly endorsed the in-clusion of this paragraph. When it came time for me to add afew words of my own, I echoed this sentiment: "It's a happy dayfor the world. It is humbling for me, and awe-inspiring, to realizethat we have caught the first glimpse of our own instructionbook, previously known only to God."
What was going on here? Why would a president and a scientist,charged with announcing a milestone in biology andmedicine, feel compelled to invoke a connection with God?Aren't the scientific and spiritual worldviews antithetical, orshouldn't they at least avoid appearing in the East Room together?What were the reasons for invoking God in these twospeeches? Was this poetry? Hypocrisy? A cynical attempt tocurry favor from believers, or to disarm those who might criticizethis study of the human genome as reducing humankind tomachinery? No. Not for me. Quite the contrary, for me the experienceof sequencing the human genome, and uncovering thismost remarkable of all texts, was both a stunning scientificachievement and an occasion of worship.
Many will be puzzled by these sentiments, assuming that arigorous scientist could not also be a serious believer in a transcendentGod. This book aims to dispel that notion, by arguingthat belief in God can be an entirely rational choice, and thatthe principles of faith are, in fact, complementary with the principlesof science.
This potential synthesis of the scientific and spiritual worldviewsis assumed by many in modern times to be an impossibility,rather like trying to force the two poles of a magnet togetherinto the same spot. Despite that impression, however, manyAmericans seem interested in incorporating the validity of bothof these worldviews into their daily lives. Recent polls confirmthat 93 percent of Americans profess some form of belief inGod; yet most of them also drive cars, use electricity, and payattention to weather reports, apparently assuming that the scienceundergirding these phenomena is generally trustworthy.
And what about spiritual belief amongst scientists? This isactually more prevalent than many realize. In 1916, researchersasked biologists, physicists, and mathematicians whether theybelieved in a God who actively communicates with humankindand 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 ofthe researchers, the percentage remained very nearly the same.So perhaps the "battle" between science and religion is notas polarized as it seems? Unfortunately, the evidence of potentialharmony is often overshadowed by the high-decibel pronouncementsof 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 ofhis colleagues as sentimental nonsense, the prominent evolutionistRichard Dawkins has emerged as the leading spokespersonfor the point of view that a belief in evolution demandsatheism. Among his many eye-popping statements: "Faith is thegreat cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think andevaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps becauseof, the lack of evidence. . . . Faith, being belief that isn'tbased on evidence, is the principal vice of any religion."
On the other side, certain religious fundamentalists attackscience as dangerous and untrustworthy, and point to a literalinterpretation of sacred texts as the only reliable means of discerningscientific truth. Among this community, comments fromthe late Henry Morris, a leader of the creationist movement,stand out: "Evolution's lie permeates and dominates modernthought in every field. That being the case, it follows inevitablythat evolutionary thought is basically responsible for the lethallyominous political developments, and the chaotic moral and socialdisintegrations that have been accelerating everywhere. . . .When science and the Bible differ, science has obviously misinterpretedits data."
This rising cacophony of antagonistic voices leaves manysincere observers confused and disheartened. Reasonable peopleconclude that they are forced to choose between these twounappetizing extremes, neither of which offers much comfort.Disillusioned by the stridency of both perspectives, manychoose to reject both the trustworthiness of scientific conclusionsand the value of organized religion, slipping instead intovarious forms of antiscientific thinking, shallow spirituality, orsimple apathy. Others decide to accept the value of both scienceand spirit, but compartmentalize these parts of their spiritualand material existence to avoid any uneasiness aboutapparent conflicts. Along these lines, the late biologist StephenJay Gould advocated that science and faith should occupy separate,"non-overlapping magisteria." But this, too, is potentiallyunsatisfying. It inspires internal conflict, and deprives people ofthe chance to embrace either science or spirit in a fully realizedway.
So here is the central question of this book: In this modernera of cosmology, evolution, and the human genome, is therestill the possibility of a richly satisfying harmony between thescientific and spiritual worldviews? I answer with a resoundingyes! In my view, there is no conflict in being a rigorous scientistand a person who believes in a God who takes a personal interestin each one of us. Science's domain is to explore nature.God's domain is in the spiritual world, a realm not possible toexplore with the tools and language of science. It must be examinedwith the heart, the mind, and the soul -- and the mindmust find a way to embrace both realms.
I will argue that these perspectives not only can coexistwithin one person, but can do so in a fashion that enriches andenlightens the human experience. Science is the only reliableway to understand the natural world, and its tools when properlyutilized 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 meaningof human existence?" "What happens after we die?" One of thestrongest motivations of humankind is to seek answers to profoundquestions, and we need to bring all the power of both thescientific and spiritual perspectives to bear on understandingwhat is both seen and unseen. The goal of this book is to explorea pathway toward a sober and intellectually honest integrationof these views.
The consideration of such weighty matters can be unsettling.Whether we call it by name or not, all of us have arrivedat a certain worldview. It helps us make sense of the worldaround us, provides us with an ethical framework, and guidesour decisions about the future. Anyone who tinkers with thatworldview should not do it lightly. A book that proposes tochallenge something so fundamental may inspire more uneasinessthan comfort. But we humans seem to possess a deepseatedlonging to find the truth, even though that longing iseasily suppressed by the mundane details of daily life. Thosedistractions combine with a desire to avoid considering ourown mortality, so that days, weeks, months, or even years caneasily pass where no serious consideration is given to the eternalquestions of human existence. This book is only a small antidoteto that circumstance, but will perhaps provide anopportunity for self-reflection, and a desire to look deeper.
First, I should explain how a scientist who studies geneticscame to be a believer in a God who is unlimited by time andspace, and who takes personal interest in human beings. Somewill assume that this must have come about by rigorous religiousupbringing, deeply instilled by family and culture, andthus inescapable in later life. But that's not really my story.
PART ONEThe Chasm Between Science and Faith
From Atheism to Belief
MY EARLY LIFE WAS UNCONVENTIONAL in many ways, butas the son of freethinkers, I had an upbringing thatwas quite conventionally modern in its attitude towardfaith -- 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 physicalamenities. Yet these things were more than compensated for bythe stimulating mix of experiences and opportunities that wereavailable to me in the remarkable culture of ideas created bymy parents.
They had met in graduate school at Yale in 1931, and hadtaken their community organizing skills and love of music tothe experimental community of Arthurdale, West Virginia,where they worked with Eleanor Roosevelt in attempting toreinvigorate a downtrodden mining community in the depths ofthe Great Depression.
But other advisers in the Roosevelt administration hadother ideas, and the funding soon dried up. The ultimate dismantlingof the Arthurdale community on the basis of backbitingWashington politics left my parents with a lifelong suspicionof the government. They moved on to academic life at Elon Collegein Burlington, North Carolina. There, presented with thewild and beautiful folk culture of the rural South, my father becamea folksong collector, traveling through the hills and hollowsand convincing reticent North Carolinians to sing into hisPresto recorder. Those recordings, along with an even larger setfrom Alan Lomax, make up a significant fraction of the Libraryof Congress collection of American folksongs.
When World War II arrived, such musical endeavors wereforced to take a backseat to more urgent matters of nationaldefense, and my father went to work helping to build bombersfor the war effort, ultimately ending up as a supervisor in anaircraft factory in Long Island.
At the end of the war, my parents concluded that the highpressurelife of business was not for them. Being ahead of theirtime, they did the "sixties thing" in the 1940s: they moved to theShenandoah Valley of Virginia, bought a ninety-five-acre farm,and set about trying to create a simple agricultural lifestylewithout use of farm machinery. Discovering after only a fewmonths that this was not going to feed their two adolescentsons (and soon another brother and I would arrive), my fatherlanded a job teaching drama at the local women's college. Herecruited male actors from the local town, and together thesecollege students and local tradesmen found the production ofplays was great fun. Faced with complaints about the long andboring hiatus in the summer, my father and mother founded asummer theater in a grove of oak trees above our farmhouse.
The Oak Grove Theater continues in uninterrupted and delightfuloperation more than fifty years later.
I was born into this happy mix of pastoral beauty, hardfarmwork, summer theater, and music, and thrived in it. As theyoungest of four boys, I could not get into too many scrapesthat were not already familiar to my parents. I grew up with thegeneral sense that you had to be responsible for your own behaviorand your choices, as no one else was going to step inand take care of them for you.
Like my older brothers, I was home-schooled by mymother, a remarkably talented teacher. Those early years conferredon me the priceless gift of the joy of learning. While mymother had no organized class schedule or lesson plans, shewas incredibly perceptive in identifying topics that would intriguea young mind, pursuing them with great intensity to anatural stopping point, and then switching to something newand equally exciting. Learning was never something you didbecause you had to, it was something you did because youloved it.
Faith was not an important part of my childhood. I wasvaguely aware of the concept of God, but my own interactionswith Him were limited to occasional childish moments of bargainingabout something that I really wanted Him to do for me.For instance, I remember making a contract with God (at aboutage nine) that if He would prevent the rainout of a Saturdaynight theater performance and music party that I was particularlyexcited about, then I would promise never to smoke cigarettes.
Sure enough, the rains held off, and I never took up thehabit. Earlier, when I was five, my parents decided to send meand my next oldest brother to become members of the boyschoir at the local Episcopal church. They made it clear that itwould be a great way to learn music, but that the theologyshould not be taken too seriously. I followed those instructions,learning the glories of harmony and counterpoint but letting thetheological concepts being preached from the pulpit wash overme without leaving any discernible residue.
When I was ten, we moved in town to be with my ailinggrandmother, and I entered the public schools. At fourteen, myeyes were opened to the wonderfully exciting and powerfulmethods of science. Inspired by a charismatic chemistry teacherwho could write the same information on the blackboard withboth hands simultaneously, I discovered for the first time the intensesatisfaction of the ordered nature of the universe. The factthat all matter was constructed of atoms and molecules thatfollowed mathematical principles was an unexpected revelation,and the ability to use the tools of science to discover newthings about nature struck me at once as something of which Iwanted to be a part. With the enthusiasm of a new convert, Idecided my goal in life would be to become a chemist. Nevermind that I knew relatively little about the other sciences, thisfirst puppy love seemed life-changing.
In contrast, my encounters with biology left me completelycold. At least as perceived by my teenage mind, the fundamentalsof biology seemed to have more to do with rote learning ofmindless facts than elucidation of principles. I really wasn't thatinterested in memorizing the parts of the crayfish, nor in tryingto figure out the difference between a phylum, a class, and anorder. The overwhelming complexity of life led me to the conclusionthat biology was rather like existential philosophy: itjust didn't make sense. For my budding reductionist mind, therewas not nearly enough logic in it to be appealing. Graduating atsixteen, I went on to the University of Virginia, determined tomajor in chemistry and pursue a scientific career. Like mostcollege freshmen, I found this new environment invigorating,with so many ideas bouncing off the classroom walls and in thedorm rooms late at night. Some of those questions invariablyturned to the existence of God. In my early teens I had had occasionalmoments of the experience of longing for somethingoutside myself, often associated with the beauty of nature or aparticularly profound musical experience. Nevertheless, mysense of the spiritual was very undeveloped and easily challengedby the one or two aggressive atheists one finds in almostevery college dormitory. By a few months into my collegecareer, I became convinced that while many religious faiths hadinspired interesting traditions of art and culture, they held nofoundational 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 knowwhether 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 positionthat allows them to avoid considering arguments they finddiscomforting on either side. I was definitely in the latter category.In fact, my assertion of "I don't know" was really morealong the lines of "I don't want to know." As a young mangrowing up in a world full of temptations, it was convenient toignore 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 physicalchemistry at Yale, pursuing the mathematical elegance that hadfirst drawn me to this branch of science. My intellectual life wasimmersed in quantum mechanics and second-order differentialequations, and my heroes were the giants of physics -- AlbertEinstein, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and Paul Dirac. I graduallybecame convinced that everything in the universe couldbe explained on the basis of equations and physical principles.
Reading the biography of Albert Einstein, and discovering thatdespite his strong Zionist position after World War II, he did notbelieve in Yahweh, the God of the Jewish people, only reinforcedmy conclusion that no thinking scientist could seriouslyentertain the possibility of God without committing some sortof intellectual suicide.
And so I gradually shifted from agnosticism to atheism. Ifelt quite comfortable challenging the spiritual beliefs of anyonewho mentioned them in my presence, and discounted such perspectivesas sentimentality and outmoded superstition.
Two years into this Ph.D. program my narrowly structuredlife plan began to come apart. Despite the daily pleasures ofpursuing my dissertation research on theoretical quantum mechanics,I began to doubt whether this would be a lifesustainingpathway for me. It seemed that most of the majoradvances in quantum theory had occurred fifty years earlier,and most of my career was likely to be spent in applying successivesimplifications and approximations to render certain elegantbut unsolvable equations just a tiny bit more tractable.
More practically, it seemed that my path would lead inexorablyto a professor's life of delivering an interminable series of lectureson thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, presentedto class after class of undergraduates who were either bored orterrified by those subjects.
At about that same time, in an effort to broaden my horizons,I signed up for a course in biochemistry, finally investigatingthe life sciences that I had so carefully avoided in the past.The course was nothing short of astounding. The principles ofDNA, RNA, and protein, never previously apparent to me, werelaid out in all of their satisfying digital glory. The ability to applyrigorous intellectual principles to understanding biology, somethingI had assumed impossible, was bursting forth with therevelation of the genetic code. With the advent of new methodsfor splicing different DNA fragments together at will (recombinantDNA), the possibility of applying all of this knowledge forhuman benefit seemed quite real. I was astounded. Biology hasmathematical elegance after all. Life makes sense.
At the same time, now only twenty-two but married with abright and inquisitive daughter, I was becoming more social. Ihad often preferred to be alone when I was younger. Now,human interaction and a desire to contribute something tohumanity seemed ever more important. Putting all of these suddenrevelations together, I questioned everything about my previouschoices, including whether I was really cut out to doscience or carry out independent research. I was just about tocomplete my Ph.D., yet after much soul-searching, I applied foradmission to medical school. With a carefully practiced speech,I attempted to convince admissions committees that this turn ofevents was actually a natural pathway for the training of one ofour nation's future doctors. Inside I was not so sure. After all,wasn't I the guy who had hated biology because you had tomemorize things? Could any field of study require more memorizationthan medicine? But something was different now: thiswas about humanity, not crayfish; there were principles underlyingthe details; and this could ultimately make a difference inthe lives of real people.
I was accepted at the University of North Carolina. Within afew weeks I knew medical school was the right place for me. Iloved the intellectual stimulation, the ethical challenges, thehuman element, and the amazing complexity of the humanbody. In December of that first year I found out how to combinethis new love of medicine with my old love of mathematics. Anaustere and somewhat unapproachable pediatrician, whotaught a grand total of six hours of lectures on medical geneticsto 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), andDown syndrome, all caused by glitches in the genome, some assubtle 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 momentsof its copying mechanism. Though the potential to actually doanything to help very many of those afflicted by such geneticdiseases seemed far away, I was immediately drawn to this discipline.While at that point no shadow of possibility of anythingas grand and consequential as the Human Genome Project hadentered a single human mind, the path I started on in Decemberof 1973 turned out fortuitously to lead directly into participationin one of the most historic undertakings of humankind.
This path also led me by the third year of medical schoolinto intense experiences involving the care of patients. Asphysicians in training, medical students are thrust into some ofthe most intimate relationships imaginable with individualswho had been complete strangers until their experience of illness.Cultural taboos that normally prevent the exchange of intenselyprivate information come tumbling down along with thesensitive physical contact of a doctor and his patients. It is allpart of the long-standing and venerated contract between the illperson and the healer. I found the relationships that developedwith sick and dying patients almost overwhelming, and I struggledto maintain the professional distance and lack of emotionalinvolvement that many of my teachers advocated.
What struck me profoundly about my bedside conversationswith these good North Carolina people was the spiritualaspect of what many of them were going through. I witnessednumerous cases of individuals whose faith provided them witha strong reassurance of ultimate peace, be it in this world or thenext, despite terrible suffering that in most instances they haddone nothing to bring on themselves. If faith was a psychologicalcrutch, I concluded, it must be a very powerful one. If it wasnothing more than a veneer of cultural tradition, why werethese people not shaking their fists at God and demanding thattheir friends and family stop all this talk about a loving andbenevolent supernatural power?
My most awkward moment came when an older woman,suffering daily from severe untreatable angina, asked me what Ibelieved. It was a fair question; we had discussed many otherimportant issues of life and death, and she had shared her ownstrong Christian beliefs with me. I felt my face flush as I stammeredout the words "I'm not really sure." Her obvious surprisebrought into sharp relief a predicament that I had been runningaway from for nearly all of my twenty-six years: I had neverreally seriously considered the evidence for and against belief.
That moment haunted me for several days. Did I not considermyself a scientist? Does a scientist draw conclusions withoutconsidering the data? Could there be a more important questionin all of human existence than "Is there a God?" And yet there Ifound myself, with a combination of willful blindness and somethingthat could only be properly described as arrogance, havingavoided any serious consideration that God might be a real possibility.
Suddenly all my arguments seemed very thin, and I hadthe sensation that the ice under my feet was cracking.This realization was a thoroughly terrifying experience. Afterall, if I could no longer rely on the robustness of my atheistic position,would I have to take responsibility for actions that I wouldprefer to keep unscrutinized? Was I answerable to someone otherthan myself? The question was now too pressing to avoid.
At first, I was confident that a full investigation of the rationalbasis for faith would deny the merits of belief, and reaffirmmy atheism. But I determined to have a look at the facts,no matter what the outcome. Thus began a quick and confusingsurvey through the major religions of the world. Much of what Ifound in the CliffsNotes versions of different religions (I foundreading the actual sacred texts much too difficult) left me thoroughlymystified, and I found little reason to be drawn to one orthe other of the many possibilities. I doubted that there was anyrational basis for spiritual belief undergirding any of thesefaiths. However, that soon changed. I went to visit a Methodistminister who lived down the street to ask him whether faithmade any logical sense. He listened patiently to my confused(and probably blasphemous) ramblings, and then took a smallbook off his shelf and suggested I read it.
The book was "Mere Christianity" by C. S. Lewis. In the nextfew days, as I turned its pages, struggling to absorb the breadthand depth of the intellectual arguments laid down by this legendaryOxford scholar, I realized that all of my own constructsagainst the plausibility of faith were those of a schoolboy.Clearly I would need to start with a clean slate to consider thismost important of all human questions. Lewis seemed to knowall of my objections, sometimes even before I had quite formulatedthem. He invariably addressed them within a page or two.When I learned subsequently that Lewis had himself been anatheist, who had set out to disprove faith on the basis of logicalargument, I recognized how he could be so insightful about mypath. It had been his path as well.
The argument that most caught my attention, and mostrocked my ideas about science and spirit down to their foundation,was right there in the title of Book One: "Right and Wrongas a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe." While in many waysthe "Moral Law" that Lewis described was a universal feature ofhuman existence, in other ways it was as if I was recognizing itfor the first time.
To understand the Moral Law, it is useful to consider, asLewis did, how it is invoked in hundreds of ways each day withoutthe 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 kindlyto a friend, or a child complaining, "It's not fair," when differentamounts of ice cream are doled out at a birthday party. Otherarguments take on larger significance. In international affairs,for instance, some argue that the United States has a moral obligationto spread democracy throughout the world, even if itrequires military force, whereas others say that the aggressive,unilateral use of military and economic force threatens tosquander moral authority.
In the area of medicine, furious debates currently surroundthe question of whether or not it is acceptable to carry out researchon human embryonic stem cells. Some argue that suchresearch violates the sanctity of human life; others posit thatthe potential to alleviate human suffering constitutes an ethicalmandate to proceed. (This topic and several other dilemmas inbioethics are considered in the Appendix to this book.)Notice that in all these examples, each party attempts toappeal to an unstated higher standard. This standard is theMoral 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 anotheris a closer approximation to the demands of that law. Those accusedof having fallen short, such as the husband who is insufficientlycordial to his wife's friend, usually respond with avariety of excuses why they should be let off the hook. Virtuallynever does the respondent say, "To hell with your concept ofright behavior."
What we have here is very peculiar: the concept of rightand wrong appears to be universal among all members of thehuman species (though its application may result in wildly differentoutcomes). It thus seems to be a phenomenon approachingthat of a law, like the law of gravitation or of specialrelativity. Yet in this instance, it is a law that, if we are honestwith ourselves, is broken with astounding regularity.
As best as I can tell, this law appears to apply peculiarly tohuman beings. Though other animals may at times appear toshow glimmerings of a moral sense, they are certainly notwidespread, and in many instances other species' behaviorseems to be in dramatic contrast to any sense of universalrightness. It is the awareness of right and wrong, along with thedevelopment of language, awareness of self, and the ability toimagine the future, to which scientists generally refer when tryingto enumerate the special qualities of Homo sapiens.
But is this sense of right and wrong an intrinsic quality ofbeing human, or just a consequence of cultural traditions?Some have argued that cultures have such widely differingnorms for behavior that any conclusion about a shared MoralLaw is unfounded. Lewis, a student of many cultures, calls this"a lie, a good resounding lie. If a man will go into a library andspend a few days with the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics,he will soon discover the massive unanimity of the practicalreason in man. From the Babylonian Hymn to Samos, from thelaws of Manu, the Book of the Dead, the Analects, the Stoics,the Platonists, from Australian aborigines and Redskins, he willcollect the same triumphantly monotonous denunciations ofoppression, murder, treachery and falsehood; the same injunctionsof kindness to the aged, the young, and the weak, ofalmsgiving and impartiality and honesty." In some unusual culturesthe law takes on surprising trappings -- consider witchburning in seventeenth-century America. Yet when surveyedclosely, these apparent aberrations can be seen to arise fromstrongly held but misguided conclusions about who or what isgood or evil. If you firmly believed that a witch is the personificationof evil on earth, an apostle of the devil himself, would itnot then seem justified to take such drastic action?
Let me stop here to point out that the conclusion that theMoral Law exists is in serious conflict with the current postmodernistphilosophy, which argues that there are no absoluterights or wrongs, and all ethical decisions are relative. Thisview, which seems widespread among modern philosophersbut which mystifies most members of the general public, facesa series of logical Catch-22s. If there is no absolute truth, canpostmodernism itself be true? Indeed, if there is no right orwrong, then there is no reason to argue for the discipline ofethics in the first place.
Others will object that the Moral Law is simply a consequenceof evolutionary pressures. This objection arises from thenew field of sociobiology, and attempts to provide explanationsfor altruistic behavior on the basis of its positive value in Darwinianselection. If this argument could be shown to hold up,the interpretation of many of the requirements of the Moral Lawas a signpost to God would potentially be in trouble -- so it isworth examining this point of view in more detail.
Consider a major example of the force we feel from theMoral Law -- the altruistic impulse, the voice of conscience callingus to help others even if nothing is received in return. Notall of the requirements of the Moral Law reduce to altruism, ofcourse; for instance, the pang of conscience one feels after aminor distortion of the facts on a tax return can hardly be ascribedto a sense of having damaged another identifiablehuman being.
First, let's be clear what we're talking about. By altruism Ido not mean the "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" kindof behavior that practices benevolence to others in direct expectationof reciprocal benefits. Altruism is more interesting:the truly selfless giving of oneself to others with absolutely nosecondary motives. When we see that kind of love and generosity,we are overcome with awe and reverence. Oskar Schindlerplaced his life in great danger by sheltering more than a thousandJews from Nazi extermination during World War II, and ultimatelydied penniless -- and we feel a great rush of admirationfor his actions. Mother Teresa has consistently ranked as one ofthe most admired individuals of the current age, though herself-imposed poverty and selfless giving to the sick and dying ofCalcutta is in drastic contrast to the materialistic lifestyle thatdominates our current culture.
In some instances, altruism can extend even to circumstanceswhere the beneficiary would seem to be a swornenemy. Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, tells the followingSufi story.
Once upon a time there was an old woman whoused to meditate on the bank of the Ganges. Onemorning, finishing her meditation, she saw a scorpionfloating helplessly in the strong current. As thescorpion was pulled closer, it got caught in rootsthat branched out far into the river. The scorpionstruggled frantically to free itself but got more andmore entangled. She immediately reached out tothe drowning scorpion, which, as soon as shetouched it, stung her. The old woman withdrew herhand but, having regained her balance, once againtried to save the creature. Every time she tried,however, the scorpion's tail stung her so badly thather hands became bloody and her face distortedwith pain. A passerby who saw the old womanstruggling with the scorpion shouted, "What'swrong with you, fool! Do you want to kill yourselfto save that ugly thing?" Looking into the stranger'seyes, she answered, "Because it is the nature of thescorpion to sting, why should I deny my own natureto save it?"
This may seem a rather drastic example -- not very many of uscan relate to putting ourselves in danger to save a scorpion.But surely most of us have at one time felt the inner calling tohelp a stranger in need, even with no likelihood of personalbenefit. And if we have actually acted on that impulse, the consequencewas often a warm sense of "having done the rightthing."
C. S. Lewis, in his remarkable book "The Four Loves," furtherexplores the nature of this kind of selfless love, which he calls"agape" (pronounced ah-GAH-pay), from the Greek. He pointsout that this kind of love can be distinguished from the threeother forms (affection, friendship, and romantic love), whichcan 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 forthe evolutionist. It is quite frankly a scandal to reductionist reasoning.
It cannot be accounted for by the drive of individualselfish genes to perpetuate themselves. Quite the contrary: itmay lead humans to make sacrifices that lead to great personalsuffering, injury, or death, without any evidence of benefit. Andyet, if we carefully examine that inner voice we sometimes callconscience, the motivation to practice this kind of love existswithin all of us, despite our frequent efforts to ignore it.
Sociobiologists such as E. O. Wilson have attempted to explainthis behavior in terms of some indirect reproductive benefitsto the practitioner of altruism, but the arguments quicklyrun into trouble. One proposal is that repeated altruistic behaviorof the individual is recognized as a positive attribute in mateselection. But this hypothesis is in direct conflict with observationsin 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 reciprocalbenefits from altruism that have provided advantages to thepractitioner over evolutionary time; but this explanation cannotaccount for human motivation to practice small acts of consciencethat no one else knows about. A third argument is thataltruistic behavior by members of a group provides benefits tothe whole group. Examples are offered of ant colonies, wheresterile workers toil incessantly to create an environment wheretheir mothers can have more children. But this kind of "ant altruism"is readily explained in evolutionary terms by the factthat the genes motivating the sterile worker ants are exactly thesame ones that will be passed on by their mother to the siblingsthey are helping to create. That unusually direct DNA connectiondoes not apply to more complex populations, where evolutionistsnow agree almost universally that selection operates onthe individual, not on the population. The hardwired behaviorof the worker ant is thus fundamentally different from the innervoice that causes me to feel compelled to jump into the river totry to save a drowning stranger, even if I'm not a good swimmerand may myself die in the effort. Furthermore, for the evolutionaryargument about group benefits of altruism to hold, itwould seem to require an opposite response, namely, hostilityto individuals outside the group. Oskar Schindler's and MotherTeresa's agape belies this kind of thinking. Shockingly, theMoral Law will ask me to save the drowning man even if he isan enemy.
If the Law of Human Nature cannot be explained away ascultural artifact or evolutionary by-product, then how can weaccount for its presence? There is truly something unusualgoing on here. To quote Lewis, "If there was a controllingpower outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as oneof the facts inside the universe -- no more than the architect of ahouse could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in thathouse. The only way in which we could expect it to show itselfwould be inside ourselves as an influence or a command tryingto get us to behave in a certain way. And that is just what we dofind inside ourselves. Surely this ought to arouse our suspicions?"
Encountering this argument at age twenty-six, I wasstunned by its logic. Here, hiding in my own heart as familiar asanything in daily experience, but now emerging for the firsttime as a clarifying principle, this Moral Law shone its brightwhite light into the recesses of my childish atheism, and demandeda serious consideration of its origin. Was this Godlooking back at me?
And if that were so, what kind of God would this be? Wouldthis be a deist God, who invented physics and mathematics andstarted the universe in motion about 14 billion years ago, thenwandered off to deal with other, more important matters, asEinstein thought? No, this God, if I was perceiving Him at all,must be a theist God, who desires some kind of relationshipwith those special creatures called human beings, and hastherefore instilled this special glimpse of Himself into each oneof us. This might be the God of Abraham, but it was certainlynot the God of Einstein.
There was another consequence to this growing sense ofGod's nature, if in fact He was real. Judging by the incrediblyhigh standards of the Moral Law, one that I had to admit I wasin the practice of regularly violating, this was a God who washoly and righteous. He would have to be the embodiment ofgoodness. He would have to hate evil. And there was no reasonto suspect that this God would be kindly or indulgent. The gradualdawning of my realization of God's plausible existencebrought conflicted feelings: comfort at the breadth and depth ofthe existence of such a Mind, and yet profound dismay at therealization of my own imperfections when viewed in His light.I had started this journey of intellectual exploration to confirmmy atheism. That now lay in ruins as the argument fromthe Moral Law (and many other issues) forced me to admit theplausibility of the God hypothesis. Agnosticism, which hadseemed like a safe second-place haven, now loomed like thegreat cop-out it often is. Faith in God now seemed more rationalthan disbelief.
It also became clear to me that science, despite its unquestionedpowers in unraveling the mysteries of the natural world,would get me no further in resolving the question of God. If Godexists, then He must be outside the natural world, and thereforethe tools of science are not the right ones to learn about Him.Instead, as I was beginning to understand from looking into myown heart, the evidence of God's existence would have to comefrom other directions, and the ultimate decision would be basedon faith, not proof. Still beset by roiling uncertainties of whatpath I had started down, I had to admit that I had reached thethreshold 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 thatprecisely described my dilemma. Its concluding lines:Between the probable and proved there yawnsA gap. Afraid to jump, we stand absurd,Then see behind us sink the ground and, worse,Our very standpoint crumbling. Desperate dawnsOur only hope: to leap into the WordThat opens up the shuttered universe.For a long time I stood trembling on the edge of this yawninggap. Finally, seeing no escape, I leapt.How can such beliefs be possible for a scientist? Aren'tmany claims of religion incompatible with the "Show me thedata" attitude of someone devoted to the study of chemistry,physics, biology, and medicine? By opening the door of mymind to its spiritual possibilities, had I started a war of worldviewsthat would consume me, ultimately facing a take-noprisonersvictory of one or the other?