Excerpt: "The Language of God"

ByABC News via logo
July 14, 2006, 12:06 PM

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

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.