Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Francis Collins - Posterboy of TE?

I wrote this last year for a laugh and thought it might have a home here. Certainly not a scholarly piece by any means, but worth writing (especially as problems with Word are preventing me from posting a piece on ammonites):

Whenever a prominent scientist with devout faith is needed to show that modern science (or specifically evolution) and Christianity are not at odds, Francis Collins is trotted out. It is something even I am guilty of and his credentials as a geneticist are the main reason, followed closely by his passion. Is he really a valid representative once we strip away his title of 'Head of the Human Genome Project'? (I wrote this before he took his recent position)

His book, "The Language of God" was the first I read on the topic of science and faith, one I still often recommend. My faith was fresh and science had become interesting again after several stagnant (teenage) years. I loved it. Going back to it now though and I feel I was a tad naive. It does have strengths though, which is why I recommend it.

His arguments for evolution are solid, perhaps the strongest point of the book. He efficiently provides evidence for it whilst dismissing the claims of creationists and ID. He also, in my mind, successfully shows that science and faith are not irreconcilable, and does so in an easy to read style.

My first issue came at a point where I found Open Theism very interesting and persuasive. The concept of God outside of time was not one I was prepared to declare (I still occasionally have issues with it) which renders many of Collins' points useless, as he puts a lot of emphasis on it. That said, it is the position of most Christians, so not a big issue.

A more important issue came when I looked into C. S. Lewis. Collins incessantly quotes Lewis like an amorous teenager talking about their crush. Lewis has some excellent quotes, but his theology is rather limited and often cannon-fodder for intellectual atheists. Collins never considers counter arguments, he simply repeats Lewis parrot fashion. The 'poster boy' of TE (or Biologos in Collins' terminology) needs to be a free-thinker, if Collins really is one then he doesn't always come across as such.

Another issue is his dependence on anthropic fine tuning. I found it enthralling when I first encountered it, however, I have come to realise that is is not evidence of God. Instead it provides internal consistency for a theist. Sometimes Collins appears to acknowledge this; other times he harps on about it. This may be a personal nit-pick, but it is one point where he gets repetitive (which is sadly a trend in TE).

Not uncommon to evangelicals, he has an obsession with atheists. He often takes the Alister McGrath route of talking about his atheistic past as thought it makes him an authority. Oddly, I (who have never been an atheist) feel he doesn't know much about atheism, especially when he labels them fundamentalists. It appears 'know thine enemy' was lost on him, he thinks he knows them better than they know themselves.

Another point of issue is not academic by any means. He is cheesy. He likes to whip out his guitar and sing his own songs. I'm not into happy clappy stuff like this, it makes me cringe. I would not be surprised if non-Christians simply vomited at this.

In his favour though, he has brought awareness to this position. He has also recently provided the Biologos website which is proving to be a useful resource for theistic evolutionists. It is like an anti-AiG, addressing many tough questions comprehensively. It also contains the work of multiple authors, so is not simply a regurgitation of his book (though it does appear to give only him the title 'Dr' when mentioned).

There are others who would be better suited. Kenneth Miller is often mentioned, his books are often recommended by atheists too. His first book, "Finding Darwin's God" covers more topics in greater details than "The Language of God" and most criticisms of it have sounded shrill, often erecting straw men. Miller has shown to have a better grasp, though perhaps he is lesser known. Other good choices are scientists who have become theologians, Alister McGrath is perhaps the best known, but John Polkinghorne is a favourite of mine and Dennis Lamoreaux may be an excellent choice (if a 'poster-boy' is even needed that is).

Maybe I will have to simply live with the fact that the most famous proponent of TE is Francis Collins. His scientific credentials are strong, he has brought attention to the position and has passion and drive. Hopefully critics will look beyond his easily criticised positions and at those who have better thought out their views. Like me for example.....

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