May 31st 2007 From The Economist print edition
A writer who believes in science not God; a scientist who believes in both. But why are they that way? Nobody knows
SINCE arguments about God have run for thousands of years, it is a little peculiar to ascribe overwhelming importance to the publication of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” in 1859. Yet the book did have a soul-sapping effect on unsuspecting Christians. In “Father and Son”, a memoir about loss of faith published anonymously in 1907, Edmund Gosse describes how it drove his father, himself an eminent zoologist, to take him to live on top of a cliff, cutting him off from the world in an attempt to protect him from this heretical notion. The plan didn’t work. Some spirit of rebellion stirred in the son, sending his mind wandering during marathon prayer sessions, and he broke free in his teenage years. His father, disappointed, stuck with the God of Abraham.
Looking at the recent crop of books on God and religion, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that whether people end up like Mr Gosse or like his father depends on whether they have an intrinsic feeling for religion or not. Christopher Hitchens, a polemicist whose tone is that of an erudite straight-talker, does not. Like Mr Gosse, he started non-belief young. Near the beginning of “God is Not Great” he describes his rebellion when confronted with an effusive divinity teacher at school who pointed to the beauty of hedgerows in the English countryside as evidence of His creation. Mr Hitchens has been skewering the syllogistic arguments of the religious in the name of science ever since.
Francis Collins, on the other hand, has it. Like Mr Gosse senior, Mr Collins is a scientist and a Christian. He confronts Darwin daily in his work as head of the human genome project. He writes well about how, as the code on which DNA is written began to reveal itself, his faith and sense of wonder increased. He stood by Bill Clinton (and worked with his speechwriters) when the then American president talked about DNA as “the language in which God wrote creation”. Mr Collins has no time for intelligent design but conceives God to be of the non-interfering sort, a kind of divine CCTV camera. Yet he believes that Jesus was His son and he prays regularly.
Belief in God and subscription to a religion are not quite the same thing, although both books treat them as if they were. Mr Hitchens makes the untestable case that the world would be better off without religion altogether. Stupid religious people would stop fighting stupid religious wars and a new enlightenment would ensue. The book is entertaining, meandering and at times disingenuous. Nobody ever went to war for atheism, says Mr Hitchens. But atheists tend to find other reasons to kill each other. To the objection that irreligious fascists and communists found plenty of non-religious reasons for murder in the 20th century, Mr Hitchens retorts that these beliefs were types of secularised religion, and as such do not count.
What is missing from the book is much sense of what a world without religion, or one that had not had religion in it, might look like. Lots of the principles that Mr Hitchens holds dear, like tolerance and justice, are secularised versions of religious ideas. Religious folk often do the right thing for what Mr Hitchens would call the wrong reasons. Taking faith away would in many cases take away the will to do them. That cost is worth considering.
Mr Collins argues for what he calls “theistic evolution”, which he reckons is yet to catch on because it has such a terrible name. Though the mechanism of the origin of life is unknown, he says, once evolution was under way no special supernatural intervention was required. As for those parts of the Old Testament that bend the laws of physics, they are symbolic and should be read as such.
This is a God that would be almost as unfamiliar to Edmund Gosse’s father, to John Calvin or the pope as it would to a Roman sacrificing a bull to Mithras. And for all their clarity, Mr Collins’s arguments about why he believes in God do little to explain why he is a Christian. To understand that, it is probably enough to look at the Gosse family and conclude that either you get it or you don’t.
Read the book here (at Project Gutenburg)
Posted on June 6th, 2007