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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Francis S. Collins "The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief" A Review.

Francis S. Collins' "The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief" is an excellent book that should be read by virtually all audiences, adolescent to adult. It's easy to read, and it addresses issues of great import. Francis S. Collins provides a reader-friendly, and yet authoritative, refutation of public figures working to create conflict in religion and science by distorting the true meaning of religion and science. Given the import of these issues, the book's readability and the authority of Francis S. Collins, I can't recommend this book highly enough.

Francis S. Collins, MD, PhD, is director of the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health. He led the Human Genome Project. This places him in the very top tier of scientists, worldwide, alive today. Given that he presided over the groundbreaking mapping of the human genome, his name will live in science history for as long as that history is written.

Francis S. Collins is a Christian. He was not raised a Christian; as he recounts in this book, his parents were "unconventional" "freethinkers," social activists, farmers, and college professors. He was "vaguely aware of the concept of God," but his parents told him that "theology should not be taken too seriously" (11-14). He came to his Christian faith through years of search and study.

Given Collins' status, and his intellect, he could have written an arcane book that would wow critics and scholars but that few busy people could get through. Collins seems aware of such books; he makes a comment about how many people bought one famous, and yet notoriously difficult, bestseller, v. how many people actually read that bestseller cover-to-cover (60).

One of the great beauties, and gifts, of this book is its simplicity and humility. Collins addresses some of the weightiest questions any human will ever consider – Is there a God? Is that God knowable? What does God want from us? Why is there suffering? What are the ethics of manipulation of human cells for medical purposes? – with the simplest of language, and no more words than is absolutely necessary. In a breathtaking passage, Collins talks of the rape of his own daughter (44), and how that has affected his relationship with God. His words are straightforward and sparse, and no less profound or unforgettable for their simplicity or brevity.

I have had misgivings about stem cell research and Intelligent Design, but have doubted what I've read on these topics in other sources because authors came across as being so wedded to their own point of view, and hostile, and often contemptuous, of others' points of view, that their words lacked credibility. Collins addresses both of these controversial matters, and given his quiet, humble, authoritative voice, and ethical approach, he changed my mind on both.

As part of his humble approach, Collins frequently defers to other authors. When he wants to emphasize a point he is making, he marshals apt quotes from others, including CS Lewis, Augustine, Annie Dillard and Stephen Hawking. I liked this feature. It emphasizes how prominent figures throughout our history have wrestled with questions of faith. Though it may seem so to the individual seeker, persons seeking spiritual truth are not inventing the wheel. I especially appreciated Augustine's words, written centuries before Darwin, on the appropriate interpretation of Genesis (151-152).

There are shrill and powerful voices in the world today insisting that persons of faith are all dangerous obscurantists and enemies of decent society. It is argued that persons of faith must be unintelligent, and that atheists are, in comparison, "bright." Oxford Biology Professor Richard Dawkins has stated, "faith is one of the world's great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate." Some of this rhetoric is reminiscent of the chilling hate mongering produced by persons like Alfred Rosenberg. In such times as these, Francis S. Collins' "The Language of God" could not be more important.

This review was posted on Amazon in August, 2006.

A personal note: When I was trying to find a publisher for "Save Send Delete," I sent excerpts to Francis S. Collins. He and I have never met. He'd never heard of me. He read my pages and encouraged me warmly and tried to help me out. We've exchanged occasional emails in the years since then. Dr. Collins has been unfailingly polite and encouraging to me.

Being an unknown writer is a very punishing life. Many of the people one meets are rude and even exploitative. I can't say how exceptional Dr. Collins has been. He exemplifies the beliefs he espouses, and I admire him tremendously for that.

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