Collins, Francis S. The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. New York: Free Press, 2007. ISBN. 0743286391
The following are discussion questions for “The Language of God” that I created for the monthly meeting of of the Atheist Christian Book Club. For information on the Atheist Christian Book Club you can go to the website or seek us out on Facebook.
CHAPTER 1: FROM ATHEISM TO BELIEF
Collins says that for him agnosticism was a place of retreat where he wouldn’t actually have to seriously consider the evidence for or against belief. That is obviously not true of those in this book group, but do you think it is generally true for most agnostics? Is agnosticism a position that is held in order to avoid the question of God’s existence altogether?
Collins writes that the Moral Law was the primary thing that made him reconsider his atheism. What about those in our book group. Is there a “one thing” that creates cognitive dissonance and makes the atheists in the group pause to reconsider?
CHAPTER 2: THE WAR OF THE WORLDVIEWS
A similar question for the Christians; is there a question that makes you uncomfortable with your faith? Collins talks about four questions that he struggled with during the early days of his newfound belief. Is there a question like that that makes the Christians in the group sometimes doubt? If not currently, was there a question you struggled with at some time in your life?
Collins lists four difficult questions that he struggled with as a new believer; (1) Isn’t the idea of God just wish-fulfillment?, (2) What about all the harm done in the name of religion?, (3) Why would a loving God allow suffering in the world?, and (4) How can a rational person believe in miracles? Were you satisfied with the answers Collins has arrived at and shares here?
CHAPTER 3: THE ORIGINS OF THE UNIVERSE
Collins writes, “Immanuel Kant wrote: “Two things fill me with constantly increasing admiration and awe, the longer and more earnestly I reflect on them: the starry heavens without and the Moral Law within.” I have heard some former atheist/agnostics similarly indicate that these two things, nature and the moral law, seemed to be ever present in the back of their mind/heart as an indication that there had to be something more than just the material even when they were most intellectually opposed to the idea of God. I’m curious if those two concerns have any influence on the atheists/agnostics in our book group?
Collins writes, “Based on these and other observations, physicists are in agreement that the universe began as an infinitely dense, dimensionless point of pure energy. The laws of physics breakdown in this circumstance, referred to as a “singularity.” Is there the same kind of unanimity among the members of this book group as there seems to be among physicists? Collins seems to think that the question of origins hinges upon the question “What happened before the Big Bang?” Would the book club members agree?
Collins’ timeline (number of years) differs from some of the Christians in the room. For those who hold to a young earth theory of creation, how important do you think it is to adhere to a “thousands of years” formula instead of a “millions or billions of years” formula?
The question of old earth vs. young earth is primarily a discussion held within the camp of Christianity. However, how does it affect those of you who are atheistic/agnostic?
Collins writes of the Anthropic Principle, that “The existence of a universe as we know it rests upon a knife edge of improbability.” (page 73) This same fine-tuning argument also had an influence on the author of a previous book we read, Anthony Flew. The author gives three possibilities; (1) an infinite number of universes, (2) we are just very, very lucky, or (3) The precise tuning of all of the physical constants and physical laws to make intelligent life possible is not an accident, but reflects the action of the one who created the universe in the first place. What do you think?
Collins quotes a number of famous scientists who believe that “”It would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun in just this way, except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us.” (pages 75ff). Do you think that Stephen Hawking, Freeman Dyson, Arno Penzias and other such scientists (such as Collins, himself) forfeit their scientific bona fides by taking such a position?
The author claims that “there is nothing inherently in conflict between the idea of a creator God and what science has revealed.” Do you agree or disagree with him? Why? (page 81) The author further claims that “the opening words of Genesis (“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”) are entirely compatible with the Big Bang.” Do you agree or disagree with him? (pages 82-83)
CHAPTER 4: LIFE ON EARTH – OF MICROBES AND MEN
Collins says that “no serious scientist would currently claim that a naturalistic explanation for the origin of life is at hand” but warns Christians not to result to a God of the gaps apologetic. He encourages them to adopt an approach using “positive reasons, based on knowledge, rather than default assumptions based on (a temporary) lack of knowledge.” However, for those of you who are atheists, does “the inability of modern science to develop a statistically probable mechanism” for the origin of life give you any intellectual pause? (pages 92-93)
Collins writes, “No serious biologist today doubts the theory of evolution to explain the marvelous complexity and diversity of life. In fact, the relatedness of all species through the mechanism of evolution is such a profound foundation for the understanding of all biology that it is difficult to imagine how one would study life without it.” Is this true? Are there no serious biologists that doubt the theory of evolution? Is Collins being fair to those who disagree with him on this matter? (page 99)
CHAPTER 5: DECIPHERING GOD’S INSTRUCTION BOOK – THE LESSONS OF THE HUMAN GENOME
Collins asserts that the difference between macroevolution and microevolution is “increasingly seen to be artificial. But then to illustrate it is a distinction without a difference he uses the example of a stickleback fish with armor becoming a stickleback fish without armor. I think most critics of Darwinism would find this example not to be compelling. A fish becomes a fish. A virus becomes a slightly different virus. How is this evidence for the “tree of life”? Was his example sufficient for you to think that the distinction between macroevolution and microevolution is “arbitrary”? (pages 131-132)
In reference to similarities between human and mouse genomes, Collins writes, “This evidence alone does not, of course, prove a common ancestor; from a creationist perspective, such similarities could simply demonstrate that God used successful design principles over and over again. As we shall see, however, and as was foreshadowed above by the discussion of “silent” mutations in protein-coding regions, the detailed study of genomes has rendered that interpretation virtually untenable—not only about all other living things, but also about ourselves.” Do you think that the evidence provided by Collins actually supports his claim that it is untenable to believe that God used successful design principles over and over again? (pages 133-137)
Does Collins provide compelling evidence from genetic similarities to prove that humans and other life forms have a common ancestor? (pages 137- 142)
CHAPTER 6: GENESIS, GALILEO, AND DARWIN
Collins writes about the emotional distance between Christian believers who are adherents of Darwinism and those who reject this biological theory. What do you think about this? Is it difficult for these to “sides” to coexist in theological harmony? (pages 145-147)
CHAPTER 7: OPTION 1 – ATHEISM AND AGNOSTICISM (WHEN SCIENCE TRUMPS FAITH)
Collins writes about the hostility between some believers and unbelievers. How common is this? Why do you think this is so? (pages 159ff)
The author of our book quotes Dawkins as saying, “”It is fashionable to wax apocalyptic about the threat to humanity posed by the AIDS virus, ‘mad cow’ disease, and many others, but I think a case can be made that faith is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.” Do the atheists in our group believe that faith is evil? (page 163)
Collins quotes Stephen Jay Gould as saying that since “Science can work only with naturalistic explanations; it can neither affirm nor deny” the existence of God. Do you agree with Gould? (page 166)
The author refers to four different groups:
1. Strong Atheists = have a firm conviction that no deities exist.
2. Weak Atheism = the absence of belief in the existence of a God or gods
3. Strong Agnostics = believes there is no way that human kind will “ever” know if there is a God
4. Weak Atheists = believes only that it is not possible to know “yet” whether or not there is a God
What is the composition of atheists/agnostics in our group in regard to these four descriptions?
CHAPTER 8: OPTION 2 – CREATIONISM (WHEN FAITH TRUMPS SCIENCE)
Does Collins accurately reflect the beliefs of most Young Earth Creationists when he claims that they believe in Microevolution, which he defines as small changes within a species, but do not believe in Macroevolution, which he describes as one species evolving into another species? Many of the young earth creationists that I know are much more flexible with the definition of Microevolution, and define it as changing from one genus, or one order, into another genus or order. (page 172) Does this matter, or is this a distinction without a difference?
Is Collins being a bit hysterical when he declares that should YEC scientific claims be true then, “it would lead to a complete and irreversible collapse of the sciences of physics, chemistry, cosmology, geology, and biology.”? (page 174) He makes it sound down right apocalyptic; are YEC that dangerous?
CHAPTER 9: OPTION 3 – INTELLIGENT DESIGN (WHEN SCIENCE NEEDS DIVINE HELP)
Collins asserts that if the logic of Intelligent Design “truly had merit on scientific grounds, one would expect that the rank and file of working biologists would also show interest in pursuing these ideas, especially since a significant number of biologists are also believers.” (page 187) However, haven’t historians of science like Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) written that just the opposite is true? Does not history tell us that science that none of the revolutionary paradigmatic changes that science has undergone were quickly accepted on the basis of reason/evidence alone? Is head-counting an appropriate way to determine truth?
Collins claims that ID is a God of the gaps theory and that science is busily filling in those gaps with things other than God, and thus the theory is collapsing. If so, what then happens with faith? (page 195)
CHAPTER 10: BIOLOGOS (SCIENCE AND FAITH IN HARMONY)
Within Christianity there is frequently contentious debates among believers about what is the right approach/beliefs regarding creation. How do those of you who are atheists react when you witness such debates?
Collins points out that BioLogos is not a scientific theory? (page 204) Does that seem like a copout for a group of scientists to be organizing around a non-scientific theory?
CHAPTER 11: TRUTH SEEKERS
Collins tells his conversion story in the final chapter. We have on several occasions honestly discussed the question, “What would it take for you to become a person of faith?” and “What would it take for you to become a disbeliever?” Has this book modified your answers to these questions?
One of the previous books we discussed was written by the world’s leading intellectual atheist and documented his conversion to theism. This book was written by the person who may be the world’s leading medical geneticist and why he is a Christian. Has the stature of these two authors provoked any intellectual movement from those of you who are atheists?
DID ANYONE HAVE A CHANGE OF OPINION (ABOUT ANYTHING) AS A RESULT OF READING THIS BOOK? HAS ANYONE CHANGED AS A RESULT OF THE YEAR WE HAVE SPENT READING AND DISCUSSING TOGETHER?
Supplementary note: Several of the atheistic authors we have read in our book group have indicated that all inerrantists believe in a young earth. This is not true. For a survey of the different viewpoints of inerrantists you can read the following short article: