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The Language of God, Chapter 6

By B.J. Marshall

Collins begins Part III of his book, entitled “Faith in Science, Faith in God,” by trying to wrap his mind around why evolution is so difficult for some religious people to get. He recalls an experience where he was at a men’s dinner at a Protestant church discussing how faith and science can mesh. All was well until the senior pastor was asked whether he believed in the literal story of Genesis. The priest carefully chose his words to give a non-answer any politician would be proud of. This prompts Collins to lament: if evolution is so well attested, why is it so hard for people to accept it?

He provides two possible answers: 1) it takes such a long time for evolution to occur that people have a hard time comprehending it, and 2) it seems to contradict the role of a supernatural creator. For his first point, Collins draws a comparison between evolution on earth and a clock, pointing out that, if the earth was formed at 12:00:01 a.m., humans would not have come onto the scene until about 11:59 p.m. For his second point, Collins talks about the creation myths (yes, both of them) in Genesis. To stress the idea that these myths might just be “poetic and even allegorical description” (p.151), he points out some odd things in the stories: Genesis 1 has vegetation showing up three days before humans, while Genesis 2 has humans first; if the sun was not created until the third day, what exactly does the notion of “day” mean? There are lots of contradictions in Genesis that Collins doesn’t cover, but he’s clearly asserting his view that Genesis ought not be taken literally.

When discussing Genesis and all its various interpretations he mentions St. Augustine, who wrote five analyses of the Genesis accounts:

With these facts in mind, I have worked out and presented the statements of the book of Genesis in a variety of ways according to my ability; and, in interpreting words that have been written obscurely for the purpose of stimulating our thought, I have not brashly taken my stand on one side against a rival interpretation which might possibly be better. (p.152)

It’s amazing to me how the Augustine quote Collins pulls parallels the politically adroit Protestant pastor in his non-answer. After writing five analyses on the subject, all Augustine can do is give one big shrug? I find it disappointing sthat the preeminent Doctor of the Church couldn’t take a stand on what interpretation might be better. Although, given how violent the church has been throughout history, maybe it was better for him to not ruffle feathers by saying it’s all a crock of bull. But what’s the pastor’s excuse – a need to protect his organization’s dependence on dogma?

Collins recounts the problems the church had with heliocentricity in a way to show that this story – science vs. dogma – has been done before. Although scriptural passages speak of how the earth is an immovable foundation, Collins notes that the scientific correctness of the heliocentric view won out despite strong theological objections. Showing the church’s strong stance toward science, the Dominican Father Caccini insisted that “geometry is of the devil” and “mathematicians should be banished as the authors of all heresies” (p.155). Collins wonders whether evolution can be harmonized with the Bible just as heliocentricity was. Collins ends his introduction with exhortation from Augustine’s De Genesi ad Litteram to say something like, “Hey, Christians. You’re really making yourselves look bad when you don’t face the indisputable facts.”

If [non-Christians] find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books and matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learned from experience in the light of reason?

Quick answer, St. Augustine? We won’t. Even if Christians had their views right about a range of topics from the efficacy of prayer to heal their kids to evolution and cosmology, that still wouldn’t warrant our belief in the resurrection or the walking zombie hordes that accompanied it. We arrived at our understanding of the efficacy of prayer, evolution, and most everything about objective reality through reason and evidence; and our views are provisional based on new evidence that comes to light. I’m doubtful that reason and evidence can get me to buy the resurrection, talking donkeys, zombie hordes, or the existence of a deity.

The next few chapters in this section explore what Collins sees as possible responses to the contentious interaction between the theory of evolution and faith in God:

  • Chapter 7 – Option 1: Atheism and Agnosticism (When Science Trumps Faith)
  • Chapter 8 – Option 2: Creationism (When Faith Trumps Science)
  • Chapter 9 – Option 3: Intelligent Design (When Science Needs Divine Help)
  • Chapter 10 – Option 4: BioLogos (Science and Faith in Harmony)

Given Collins’ options with respect to science and faith, and how he sees evolution as just an example of how God operates in the world, I’m more likely to see Option 4 as “When Faith Needs Scientific Help.” But even that position is rife with problems since it presupposes that faith is something that needs helping. It’s as if people cling to their baseless dogma so tenaciously that they can’t budge; all they can do is try to reconcile scientific discoveries to their flawed worldview.

Other posts in this series:

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...