Collins’ Casuistry

I like to think of myself as an open-minded kind of chap.  I’ll listen to an argument, consider it, and having sifted the possibilities make up my mind.  I bow before evidence and logic.

So it pains me to learn that certain prejudices are obviously integral parts of my intellectual character.

Metaphorically, the realisation works like this: I’m speeding along, and then I see a corner.  I change down into third to take the bend with a bit of tyre-squealing, controlled drifting élan, and in the next moment I’m struggling out from behind the air-bag, stepping over fragments of bodywork, wiping blood from my brow and looking up at the great big structure I’ve crashed into.  It turns out to have been hewn from granite in the shape of the word BIAS.

Yesterday, on the way home from an outing that I’d rather not talk about in detail, I picked up a copy of Francis Collins’ The Language of God.  At three dollars, it seemed like a bargain (op-shop).  And so it was, I suppose.  Until I started reading it.

Collins is a fine scientist.  Very fine.  Let that be understood as my position from the outset.

As successor to James Watson as ‘Director of the National Center for Human Genome Research’, Collins was at the helm when the Human Genome Project burst into brain-bending fruition.  He brought the whole thing in under time and under budget too.  Kudos all round.  But Collins isn’t just a scientist.

Oh no.

He’s a sincere true believer as well.  And there my quarrel with him begins.

Collins writes brilliantly and penetratingly on science.  He really does.  Have a look at this little snippet, for example:

‘For the first million years after the Big Bang, the universe expanded, the temperature dropped, and nuclei and atoms began to form.  Matter began to coalesce into galaxies under the force of gravity.  It acquired rotational motion as it did so, ultimately resulting in the spiral shape of galaxies such as our own.  Within those galaxies local collections of hydrogen and helium were drawn together, and their density and temperature rose.  Ultimately nuclear fusion commenced.’

So far as concise, evocative and informative prose on matters of physics that I’ll never understand in mathematical form goes, that takes some beating.

So why doesn’t Collins write like this all the time?  Why isn’t that sort of lucidity and concision always in evidence?

I’m afraid the reason why is closely connected to Collins’ faith.  Here he is on religious matters, dealing with the idea that the sins of churchmen ought not to be blamed on their faiths:

‘The pure, clean water of spiritual truth is placed in rusty containers, and the subsequent failings of the church down through the centuries should not be projected onto the faith itself, as if the water had been the problem.’

Do you see the difference?  We go from concrete notions to stale and suppurating metaphors: that might just say something about the language of faith, come to think of it.

Have a look at some of these sentences:

‘if the most important decision we are to make on this earth is a decision about belief, and if the most important relationship we are to develop on this earth is a relationship with God…’

‘If, like me, you admit that there might exist something or someone outside of nature, then there is no logical reason why that force could not on rare occasions stage an invasion.’

‘If God is the ultimate embodiment of omnipotence and goodness…’

‘If one is willing to accept the possibility of the supernatural…’

Notice anything consistent about them?  If you did, you’re pretty close to seeing what’s wrong with Collins’ style: it cringes even as he’s trying to mount a clarion call.

Perhaps this is just my bias ruling me, but I want to hear something concrete when people purport to be discussing important questions.  One of the few beliefs I share with theists is the conviction that whether god exists or not is the most important question humans can ponder: so why can’t they put a bit of effort into their arguments?  Why must they interminably perform these soft-shoe shuffles on quicksand?

I pity theists: I really do.  It can’t be easy to support the unsupportable.  And it’s hard not to flinch with embarrassment on their behalf as they continue to waffle away describing their castles in the sky.

I try really hard to be open minded about theistic arguments.  I do.  I read them when I find them, I consider them.  I’ve even read C S Lewis on the subject of theism – and trust me: that’s no picnic.  But each time I come to the conclusion that they’re all talking through their hats.  And more, they generally make asses of themselves.  Balaam’s asses of themselves, if you like.

Have a look at this, from Collins.  The context, lest I be thought to be distorting things, is a discussion of the ‘Moral Law’ which then leads to the problem of evil.  Collins believes that even when the moral law misfires, it is still proof that morality must be the innovation of a deity:

‘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 us skip over that if, if we may: you already know what the ‘drastic action’ is, don’t you?  We all know what kind of ‘drastic action’ was taken against ‘witches’ (and incidentally, still is).  Now ask yourself: is such action justified, whatever is ‘firmly believed’?

If you’ve got a scintilla of moral feeling, your answer will be a resounding ‘No’.  As it should be.  And you’ll note that your moral sense is in direct conflict with the well known (but rarely quoted from the pulpit) verse of Exodus: ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.’ (22:18)

Being fond of Lewis, Collins can’t stop quoting him.  I particularly like this passage, in which Lewis is grappling with free will and theodicy:

“meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly aquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words ‘God can.’  Nonsense remains nonsense, even when we talk it about God.”

Damn straight.

I myself have had enough of the nonsense.  I won’t be finishing Collins’ book.  I can’t bear it.  Call me biased if you will, but I’ve had enough of bullshit, cant and sophistry.

In a dialogue known as the Meno my ultimate intellectual hero, Socrates, insists that

‘if we believed that we must try to find out what is not known, we should be better and braver and less idle than if we believed that what we do not know it is impossible to find out and that we need not even try.’

Religions stifle curiosity by dressing up ignorance as certainty: this is true of all of them.  When someone says ‘God did it’ they have explained nothing and are in fact actively encouraging a cessation of inquiry.

Let’s finish with something more bracing: something clear and solid and dependable.  Here’s another intellectual hero of mine, Bertrand Russell, from Why I’m Not A Christian:

‘We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world – its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, and its ugliness; see the world as it is, and be not afraid of it.  Conquer the world by intelligence, and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it.  The whole conception of God is a conception derived from the ancient Oriental despotisms.  It is a conception quite unworthy of free men.  When you hear people in church debasing themselves and saying that they are miserable sinners, and all the rest of it, it seems contemptible and not worthy of self-respecting human beings.  We ought to stand up and look the world frankly in the face.  We ought to make the best we can of the world, and if it is not so good as we wish, after all it will still be better than what these others have made of it in all these ages.  A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past, or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men.  It needs a fearless outlook and a free intelligence.  It needs hope for the future, not looking back all the time towards a past that is dead, which we trust will be far surpassed by the future that our intelligence can create.’


One response to “Collins’ Casuistry

  1. I saw an amazing documentary on child witches in Nigeria a while ago… Can’t remember who made it though.
    This Collins fellow sounds pretty unsure of exactly what he’s arguing for.
    I’m not religious, but I have a certain amount of respect for people who believe whole-heartedly. And especially those people who believe in ways that actually make religion compatible with the real day-to-day world. There are scientists who believe that what they see through the microscope IS God. That he appears to us in nature and the laws of the universe. This, being ultra-poetic, I can get behind. It’s pretty and it doesn’t deny science and all it’s done (not that I’m entirely for science either).
    What I can’t get behind is people who appologise for their faith while writing a book about it.

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