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The Language of God
by francis s. collins
free press, 304 pages, $26

“Today we are learning the language in which God created life.” With these words, President Clinton announced one of the great feats of modern science, the mapping of the human genome. Standing next to him in the East Room of the White House was the leader of the Human Genome Project, Francis S. Collins. 

Collins has now written a book, The Language of God, but it is not the sort of book one might have expected him to write, for only a small part is devoted to the genome project. Rather, Collins has written the story of his other great discovery: the discovery not of new truths but of old truths. It is the story of how and why he came to believe in God.

As such, this book is almost unique. There are many conversion stories and many scientific autobiographies, but few books in which prominent scientists tell how they came to faith. If nothing else, Collins’ book gives the lie, in most spectacular fashion, to the claim made by Richard Dawkins in an interview not long ago: “You won’t find any intelligent person who feels the need for the supernatural,” Dawkins declared, “unless [he was] brought up that way.”

Francis Collins was not brought up that way; his family’s view was that religion “just wasn’t very important.” Almost the only contact Collins had with religion as a child was singing in the choir at the local Episcopal church, where his parents had sent him to learn music with the admonition that he shouldn’t take the theology too seriously. After discovering, in high-school science classes, “the intense satisfaction of the ordered nature of the universe,” Collins entered the University of Virginia at the age of sixteen to major in chemistry. Up to then, he had given little thought to religion, though in his early teens he had had “occasional moments of . . . longing for something outside myself,” most often associated with profound experiences of nature or of music. Exposed to the challenges of “one or two aggressive atheists” in his dorm, however, he quickly concluded that no religion had any “foundational truth.”

The mathematical elegance of physics drew him into physical chemistry, where he was “immersed in quantum mechanics and second-order differential equations” and “gradually became convinced that everything in the universe could be explained on the basis of equations and physical principles.” Discovering that Einstein, one of his heroes, had not believed in the God of the Jewish people, Collins concluded that “no thinking scientist” could take the idea of God seriously, and he “gradually shifted from agnosticism to atheism.”

While working on his doctorate at Yale, Collins happened to take a course in biochemistry and was “astounded” by DNA and proteins “in all of their satisfying digital glory.” It was a “revelation” to him that mathematics and “rigorous intellectual principles” could be applied to biology, a field he had previously disdained. Around this time, however, he began to wonder how he could “make a difference in the lives of real people” and whether he was cut out for a life of research. And so, just before completing his degree in chemistry, he switched to medical school.

It was in medical school that his atheism suffered a blow: “I found the relationships [I] developed with sick and dying patients almost overwhelming.” The strength and solace so many of them derived from faith profoundly impressed him and left him thinking that “if faith was a psychological crutch . . . it must be a very powerful one.” His “most awkward moment” came when an older woman, suffering from a severe and untreatable heart problem, asked him what he believed. “I felt my face flush as I stammered out the words ‘I’m not really sure.’” Suddenly it was brought home to him that he had dismissed religion without ever really considering—or even knowing—the arguments in its favor. How could someone who prided himself on his scientific rationality do that? He was deeply shaken and felt impelled to carry out an honest and unprejudiced examination of religion. Attempts to read the sacred scriptures of various world religions left him baffled, however, so he sought out a local Methodist minister and asked him point-blank “whether faith made any logical sense.” The minister took a book down from his shelf and handed it to him. It was C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.

Lewis gave Collins a simple, though crucial, insight: God is not a part of the physical universe and therefore cannot be perceived by the methods of science. Yet God speaks to us in our hearts and minds, both in such “longings” for the transcendent as Collins had himself experienced and in the sense of objective right and wrong, “the Moral Law.” A key aspect of this moral sense is “the altruistic impulse, the voice of conscience calling us to help others even if nothing is received in return.” Such altruism, says Collins, “is quite frankly a scandal for reductionist reasoning,” for it goes directly contrary to the selfishness of the “selfish gene.”

Collins reviews some of the attempts to explain altruism in evolutionary terms. One theory is that our primate ancestors rated altruism a positive attribute in potential mates. Another is that altruism provided survival advantages to its practitioners through “indirect reciprocal benefits.” A third is that altruism benefited the whole group in which it was prevalent rather than the individuals who practiced it. Collins explains why none of these theories works. He then goes on to discuss several common objections to belief in God that troubled him at first but to which he was able to find satisfactory answers with the help of Lewis and other Christian writers. Collins presents these answers in clear, simple, and appealing language. Their power lies not only in strength of argument but also in their personal character, as when he discusses the problem of evil in the context of a tragedy that befell his own daughter.

Collins also examines what science has to say about the origins of the universe, life, and human beings. As he traces the history of the universe, he points to three discoveries that bolster the case for a creator. One is the “existence of mathematical principles and order in creation,” laws whose “mathematical representation invariably turns out to be elegant, surprisingly simple, and even beautiful.” Another is the Big Bang, the putative beginning of the universe about fourteen billion years ago. And a third is the remarkable concatenation of “anthropic” coincidences and fine-tunings in the laws of physics that made possible the evolution of life.

It is interesting that Collins, a biologist, should take most of his “evidence for belief” from physics. As someone who came to biology through the physical sciences, he is obviously keenly aware of what Pope Benedict has called “the mathematical structure of matter, its intrinsic rationality, . . . the Platonic element in the modern understanding of nature.” One notes, by contrast, that some of the biologists who are most outspoken in their atheism have come from a background in zoology rather than the physical sciences. It may be that the scientists most susceptible to crude materialism are those who know the least about matter.

The physics and cosmology in the book are well done, but Collins’ discussion of the Big Bang is open to several criticisms. It is not quite accurate to say that the Big Bang “forces the conclusion that nature had a defined beginning.” Most physicists and cosmologists think it possible that the Big Bang was only the beginning of one phase of the universe’s history; the conclusion that the universe had a beginning at some point (whether at the Big Bang or earlier) is not yet forced by the physics alone. Collins also too simply equates the creation of the universe with the fact that it had a beginning in time. Even a universe that had no beginning in time would still require its existence to be explained. And finally, there are points at which Collins seems to speak of the Big Bang as miraculous in the sense that the laws of physics broke down there, which is very doubtful. To be fair, these are issues that may be too subtle for a satisfactory treatment in a book aimed at such a wide audience. And Collins’ main point is certainly valid: Nature could not have created itself, and the Big Bang, by underlining the contingency of the world’s existence, supports the idea of creation.

As Collins moves from discussing the origin and development of the physical universe to the origin and development of life, he must enter on the battle-scarred terrain of evolution, a subject that takes up most of the latter half of the book. Here his message and his primary audience change. Up to this point he has been speaking on behalf of religious belief. He now turns around and speaks to his fellow Christians, especially his fellow evangelicals, on behalf of evolution. His fundamental purpose, however, remains the same: “to call a truce in the escalating war between science and spirit,” a war that “was never really necessary” but “was initiated and intensified by extremists on both sides.”

Collins is appalled that “Young Earth Creationism is the view held by approximately 45 percent of Americans” and that “many evangelical Christian churches are aligned” with it. The persistence of this view, which is at once so theologically simplistic and scientifically indefensible, is “one of the great puzzles and tragedies of our time.” The danger is not to science but to faith: “Young people brought up in homes and churches that insist on Creationism sooner or later encounter the overwhelming scientific evidence in favor of an ancient universe and the relatedness of all living things through the process of evolution and natural selection. What a terrible and unnecessary choice they then face!”

In his appeal to young-earth creationists, Collins deploys both scientific and theological arguments. Though the evidence for evolution comes from many directions, he naturally focuses on the recent, powerful evidence that comes from studying the genomes of different species, evidence that, he says, “could fill hundreds of books of this length.” One of the examples he gives is the existence of “pseudogenes.” These are genes that have suffered mutations that “turn their script into gibberish” and render them defunct. “The human gene known as caspase-12, for instance, has sustained several knockout blows, though it is found in the identical relative location in the [genome of the] chimp. The chimp caspase-12 works just fine, as does the similar gene in nearly all mammals.” If the body of man did not evolve, but was formed as the young-earth creationists believe, then “why would God have gone to the trouble of inserting such a non-functional gene in this precise location?”

In Collins’ view, the Intelligent Design movement, unlike young-earth creationism, “deserves serious consideration” scientifically. Nonetheless, he sees it as a misguided and doomed effort that is, ironically, “on a path toward doing considerable damage to faith.” It is driven by a fear that Darwinism is incompatible with biblical belief and is an attempt “to find a scientifically respectable alternative.”

Collins argues forcefully that Darwinian evolution is, in fact, perfectly compatible with biblical faith. He avoids the trap into which so many liberal theologians have fallen: thinking that the lesson of evolution is that everything evolves, including God. Collins sees clearly that the key to harmonizing Darwinian evolution with Jewish and Christian faith is through the traditional teaching, so profoundly elaborated by St. Augustine, that God is outside time: “If God is outside of nature, then He is outside of space and time. In that context, God could in the moment of creation of the universe also know every detail of the future. That could include the formation of the stars, planets, and galaxies, all of the chemistry, physics, geology, and biology that led to the formation of life on earth, and the evolution of humans . . . . In that context, evolution could appear to us to be driven by chance, but from God’s perspective the outcome would be entirely specified. Thus, God could be completely and intimately involved in the creation of all species, while from our perspective, limited as it is by the tyranny of linear time, this would appear a random and undirected process.” With the aid of St. Augustine and C. S. Lewis, Collins knocks down one theological objection to Darwinian evolution after another.

For reasons that are unclear, Collins chooses to end his book with a lengthy appendix on medical-ethics issues, in which he defends certain positions that are necessitated neither by science nor religion. Not only does this run counter to the aims of the rest of the book, but the level of argument by which he attempts to justify “somatic cell nuclear transfer,” a form of cloning, hardly does him credit.

Still, The Language of God is a book of enormous value. At a time when so many people on both sides are trying to foment a conflict between science and religion, Collins is a sorely needed voice of reason. His book may do more to promote better understanding between the worlds of faith and science than any other so far written. I suspect that Collins himself would regard that as an achievement no less important than the one for which he was honored six years ago in the East Room of the White House.

Stephen M. Barr is a theoretical particle physicist at the Bartol Research Institute of the University of Delaware and author of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith.

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