The Language of God: From Atheism to Belief

June 5th, 2009 by

Editor’s Note: We’re continuing to look at Francis Collins’ book The Language of God, other posts here.

From Atheism to Belief

Collins opens his book The Language of God with a look at his journey “from atheism to belief.” Raised on a dirt farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, Collins grew up without spirituality being an important part of his life, recalling “an upbringing that was quite conventionally modern in its attitude toward faith – it just wasn’t very important.” (An attitude I can thoroughly relate to, having grown up in a similarly “modern family.”)

After earning his PhD in physical chemistry at Yale, he turned his attention towards biology by enrolling in medical school at UNC in Chapel Hill. Considering himself an atheist at this point, a simple question from a dying patient thoroughly challenged his beliefs (or lack-there-of).

According to Collins:

My most awkward moment came when an older woman, suffering daily from severe untreatable angina, asked me what I believed. It was a fair question; we had discussed many other important issues of life and death, and she had shared her own strong Christian beliefs with me. I felt my face flush as I stammered out the words “I’m not really sure.” Her obvious surprise brought into sharp relief a predicament that I had been running away from for nearly all of my twenty-six years: I had never really seriously considered the evidence for and against belief.

That moment haunted me for several days. Did I not consider myself a scientist? Does a scientist draw conclusions without considering the data? Could there be a more important question in all of human existence than “Is there a God?” And yet there I found myself, with a combination of willful blindness and something that could only be properly described as arrogance, having avoided any serious consideration that God might be a real possibility.

Suddenly all my arguments seemed very thin, and I had the sensation that the ice under my feet was cracking. This realization was a thoroughly terrifying experience. After all, if I could no longer rely on the robustness of my atheistic position, would I have to take responsibility for actions that I would prefer to keep unscrutinized? Was I answerable to someone other than myself? The question was now too pressing to avoid.

Following this encounter, Collins investigated the major religions of the world, eventually stumbling upon a book from C.S. Lewis called Mere Christianity.  The argument from Mere Christianity that challenged Collins the most was the argument from the Moral Law. The opening pages of Lewis’ book describe this law:

Every one has heard people quarreling. Sometimes it sounds funny and sometimes it sounds merely unpleasant; but however it sounds, I believe we can learn something very important from listening to the kind of things they say. They say things like this: ‘How’d you like it if anyone did the same to you?’–‘That’s my seat, I was there first’–‘Leave him alone, he isn’t doing you any harm’–Why should you shove in first?’–‘Give me a bit of your orange, I gave you a bit of mine’–‘Come on, you promised.’ People say things like that every day, educated people as well as uneducated, and children as well as grown-ups.

Now what interests me about all these remarks is that the man who makes them is not merely saying that the other man’s behaviour does not happen to please him. He is appealing to some kind of standard of behaviour which he expects the other man to know about. And the other man very seldom replies: ‘To hell with your standard.’ Nearly always he tries to make out that what he has been doing does not really go against the standard, or that if it does there is some special excuse. He pretends there is some special reason in this particular case why the person who took the seat first should not keep it, or that things were quite different when he was given the bit of orange, or that something has turned up which lets him off keeping his promise. It looks, in fact, very much as if both parties had in mind some kind of Law or Rule of fair play or decent behaviour or morality or whatever you like to call it, about which they really agreed. And they have. If they had not, they might, of course, fight like animals, but they could not quarrel in the human sense of the word. Quarreling means trying to show that the other man is in the wrong. And there would be no sense in trying to do that unless you and he had some sort of agreement as to what Right and Wrong are; just as there would be no sense in saying that a footballer had committed a foul unless there was some agreement about the rules of football.

Where did the Moral Law come from? Finding no satisfactory explanation in Darwinian evolution for its presence (especially when considering selfless altruism, which Collins describes as “a scandal to reductionist reasoning”), Collins became stunned by the logic of Lewis’ straightforward explanation:

If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe – no more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house. The only way in which we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way. And that is just what we do find inside ourselves. Surely this ought to arouse our suspicious?

Collins comments that this Moral Law, which had been “hiding in [his] own heart as familiar as anything in daily experience,” “shone its bright white light into the recesses of [his] childish atheism,” forcing him to consider its origin, and ultimately bringing him to consider the question: “Was this God looking back at me?”

According to Collins:

I had started this journey of intellectual exploration to confirm my atheism. That now lay in ruins as the argument from the Moral Law (and many other issues) forced me to admit the plausibility of the God hypothesis. Agnosticism, which had seemed like a safe second-place haven, now loomed like the great cop-out it often is. Faith in God now seemed more rational than disbelief.

Personal Reflections & a Challenge

Like Collins, I grew up in a household without any real consideration of spirituality or religion, and like Collins I found myself a non-believer in God upon entering college (I described myself as a “hardcore agnostic,” believing that one could not know whether or not God exists), and finally, like Collins, I was deeply touched by the writings of C.S. Lewis upon my initial conversion into faith in Jesus (though unlike Collins, I came into faith after trying to prove to some friends that Christianity was a lie and their faith was in vain).

I invite you to take the journey that Collins, I, and countless others have undertaken, and seriously consider the evidence for the existence of God from the Moral Law and elsewhere. But do not take on this search with your eyes closed and ears blocked, convincing yourself that you’re really considering the questions, but never actually softening your heart enough to really look at the evidence.  Collins described his state as one of “a combination of willful blindness and something that could only be properly described as arrogance” when he was asked about his beliefs regarding God, where are you?

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