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Decoding the Language of God: Can a Scientist Really Be a Believer?

DECODING THE LANGUAGE OF GOD: Can a Scientist Really Be a Believer? by George C. Cunningham. New York: Prometheus Books, 2010. 247 pages. Paperback; $18.00. ISBN: 9781591027669.

Francis Collins' The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence For Belief (2006) dropped like a bomb on the American scene. When has a scientist of such national prominence given his "personal testimony" and offered a case for Christian faith, and how he relates this faith to his scientific life? The Language of God appeared at a time when the so-called "new atheists," R. Dawkins (2006), S. Harris (2006), D. Dennett (2006), and C. Hitchens (2007), were prominent in the media. That flood continues.

It was a field day for reviewers, bloggers left and right, Christians of all flavors, the press, and talk shows. After a couple of years of public discussion, things quieted down until Collins was nominated by President Obama to head the National Institutes of Health. The pundits re-emerged to consider whether the "Christian" Collins was worthy of filling the post. The New York Times cited his significant scientific and administrative achievements but warned readers that "praise for Dr. Collins was not universal or entirely enthusiastic," because of his book and public discussion about his conversion experience and his "evangelism." Nonetheless, he was readily sworn in as Director on August 17, 2009.

Now Cunningham, the retired chief of the Genetic Disease Branch of the California State Department of Health Services, weighs in on the discussion:
 I found Collins' arguments and "evidence" that religious
 beliefs can be reconciled with scientific truth,
 unconvincing. I focus on the evidence that Collins
 uses to support his belief that Jesus Christ is the
 creator God who desires fellowship with humankind.
 Collins' book attempts to convince readers of
 two propositions: first, it is rational to believe in a
 personal God who desires fellowship with humans
 and second, this personal God is the historic Jewish
 teacher, Jesus. I intend to show how Collins' attempt
 fails and to demonstrate that no one can simultaneously
 accept belief in a personal God and still claim
 to be a logical and rational scientist without engaging
 in magical thinking. (P. 14)

 ... the arguments he uses are not rational, logical, or
 consistent with modern science. In truth, they are
 rationalizations for blind, unsupported, faith. (P. 15)

While using Collins as the prototype for believing scientists, Cunningham includes K. Miller (2007), F. Ayala (2007), D. Falk (2004), J. Roughgarden (2006), and C. S. Lewis (Collins' hero) as guilty of the same flaws.

Evangelist Cunningham asks his readers "to set aside a lifetime of cherished beliefs for a few moments and approach the discussion in this text with as open a mind as they can. To seek true knowledge one must question the unquestionable and challenge the unchallengeable"(p. 21). Perhaps know the unknowable? (Reviewer)

Cunningham argues against the core beliefs of typical evangelicals--the divinity of Jesus, the Bible as a reliable moral guide, miracles, the efficacy of prayer, and an afterlife of reward and punishment--in short, against a supernatural reality (p. 25).

His chapter "From Belief to Atheism" recounts a tale of a bright, depression-era, Catholic boy brought up in the arms of the church struggling with "the idea of a personal God, virgin birth, resurrection, and to reconcile God with the existence of so much evil and the negative effects of religious excess" (p. 30). Abandoning his faith, he stopped attending mass after undergraduate school. Like Collins, he moved from a PhD program to medical school. There, Collins was challenged by the religious questions asked by his patients, but Cunningham found no answers in religion (p. 32). In 1965 he joined the California State Department of Public Health to initiate a Hereditary Defects Unit, finding opportunity "to influence the health and welfare of literally millions of newborns and their families" (p. 33).

He begins with a chapter "Evidence and Rules of Engagement" which sets forth the traditional ways that scientists go about their work. He finds Collins lacking in the use of "references, sources, clear definitions, and omitting and underanalyzing crucial evidence" (p. 35). Was Collins writing the end--all in apologetics? (No). Could he have been more careful? (Maybe). Collins is also judged lacking in terms of valid evidence--of "failing (along with the greatest philosophers and theologians in history to produce a valid logical proof of the existence of the supernatural being called God" (pp. 42-3). At one point, the author chides the Apostle Paul for misusing the word "evidence" (p. 38).

Chapter three addresses what Collins called four "particularly vexing" barriers to belief by scientists: (1) wish fulfillment (a Freudian wish for a perfect father in place of imperfect human fathers), (2) harms done by religion, (3) the existence of evil, and (4) miracles. Cunningham knocks down Collins' use of the moral argument by questioning its existence, and then suggesting that moral law might be an unintended consequence of evolution (p. 88). He errs in stating that the divine was "suddenly added into first-century humans" (p. 89). Collins is tarred with "God of the Gaps" thinking even when expressing openness to new evidence, while Cunningham offers a similar pious hope for further evidence against an interventionist deity.

The chapter "Cosmology--Origin of the Universe" finds The Language of God woefully deficient on the Big Bang, and anthropic coincidences.
 Answering all the interesting questions about the
 universe is an impossibly high standard, but surely
 science has the best answers to date. Does religion
 provide satisfying answers ...? The recurring answer
 that an incomprehensible god did it is an answer
 that explains nothing. It's like the answer. It's magic."
 (PP. 112-3)

Cunningham has a field day in "The Bible" chapter. In his Catholic youth, he was taught that the Bible was to be interpreted by the church, not by individuals as the cafeteria Christianity offered by Protestants. He gleefully notes Isaac Asimov's quip, "Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived" (p. 117), and notes, "It is almost certain that Paul had an attack of temporal lobe epilepsy on the road to Damascus and experienced visual and auditory hallucinations presumably sometime after Jesus' death" (pp. 125-6). Many of the usual objections are trotted out along with some modern twists of interpretation.

Chapters seven and eight pose naturalism vs. supernaturalism. The Language ofGod is found wanting along both lines. For Cunningham,
 The impossibility of God, most especially a personal
 God, has been reduced to a point close to absolute
 certainty. In the end, it is the evidence and methods
 of science that provide satisfying natural explanations
 for the universe. (P. 179)

Cunningham discusses the problems of being made in the image of God. He concludes, "There is no way to communicate with an impersonal god, even if such a god exists, it is irrelevant to humans because it does not care what they do during their brief lives" (p. 222).

While I find little to commend in this work, the ASA reader may find it useful to brush up on contemporary atheistic ploys and reflect on the ever challenging place of apologetics, personal experience, Scripture, and the Holy Spirit in our witness for the Gospel.

For the Apostle Paul, "I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith" (Eph. 3:16-17, NIV).

Reviewed by John W. Haas Jr., Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Gordon College, Wenham, MA 01984.
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Author:Haas, John W., Jr.
Publication:Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2011
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