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

In his bestselling book, The Language of God, Francis Collins—the director of the National Institutes of Health and the scientist who led the Human Genome Project—attempted to harmonize the findings of scientific research with Christian belief. In this response to Collins’s work, fellow geneticist George C. Cunningham presents a point-by-pointSee more details below


In his bestselling book, The Language of God, Francis Collins—the director of the National Institutes of Health and the scientist who led the Human Genome Project—attempted to harmonize the findings of scientific research with Christian belief. In this response to Collins’s work, fellow geneticist George C. Cunningham presents a point-by-point rebuttal of The Language of God, arguing that there is no scientifically acceptable evidence to support belief in a personal God and much that discredits it.

Written with admirable clarity for the nonscientist, Decoding the Language of God covers much of the same ground addressed by Collins in his book: the origins of moral behavior, the difficulty of reconciling belief in a good God with the existence of evil. and anthropic coincidences as evidence of God as creator.
Cunningham also devotes chapters to the unreliability of the Bible as a basis for belief; the conflict between naturalistic explanations of reality, which are anchored in scientific research, and supernatural interpretations, which are not; and the many difficulties in conceptualizing the origins of the universe in terms of a personal God.

Unlike recent hostile attacks on religious belief, Cunningham’s respectful, well-reasoned discussion will appeal to open-minded people across the whole spectrum of belief and unbelief.

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Editorial Reviews

Barbara Oakley
This is a wonderful book—sound, elegant, and readable. If you are looking for a common-sense explanation for matters generally taken on faith, this is it. (Barbara Oakley, author Evil Genes and the forthcoming Pathological Altruism.)
Victor J. Stenger
The Language of God by Francis Collins is a good example of how a minority of scientists compartmentalize their thinking and blinker themselves to the contradictions between their faith and their science. This timely and complete analysis lays bare the many weaknesses in Collins thinking and the paucity of his knowledge of theology, philosophy, and any science outside of his own narrow speciality. (Victor J. Stenger, author of The New Atheists and the NY Times bestseller God: The Failed Hypothesis.)

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Can a Scientist Really Be a Believer? A Geneticist Responds to Francis Collins
By George C. Cunningham

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2010 George C. Cunningham
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59102-766-9

Chapter One


There is no harder scientific fact in the world than the fact that belief can be produced in practically unlimited quantity and intensity, without observation or reasoning, and even in defiance of both, by the simple desire to believe founded on a strong interest in believing. -George Bernard Shaw


Dr. Collins begins his book in a praiseworthy fashion by describing how he was raised and how specific people and places influenced his beliefs. Too many authors ignore the impact of these outside forces, making it difficult for readers to determine how the authors might be biased or if their work is an overreaction to some unusual occurrence in their past. Authors are humans, not disembodied, objective, and authoritative voices imparting wisdom via the printed page. To give the reader the same kind of personal insight, I begin with relevant material about my own upbringing.

In contrast to Dr. Collins's rural origins, I was raised in a city, San Francisco. I was born in 1930 in the depths of the Depression. My mother was an office worker with a high school education. She was a practicing Roman Catholic. My father was a truck driver with a third-grade education and did not practice any religion. I was the eldest of six children and, when I was young, we lived on government-funded programs of the New Deal.

Under Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal Program, the government served the interests of the common people, addressing their problems by enacting laws that established Federal Deposit Insurance to guard against failed banks; the Social Security Act to protect the old, disabled, and destitute; and the Works Projects Administration, which put the unemployed, including my Dad, back to work building bridges, tunnels, roads, sewers, water systems, libraries, parks, post offices, and airports.

I was born and baptized in the Holy Roman Catholic Church at the age of one month at St. James Church in San Francisco. Before I could walk, I accompanied my mother to mass every Sunday. And before I attended St. Agnes Catholic grammar school, I learned the classic prayers "Our Father" and "Hail Mary." The Nuns of the Presentation taught me my catechism, a series of questions and answers to be memorized: "Who made you?" "God made me." "Why did God make you?" "To know him, love him, and be happy with him in heaven." These were not simply memorized; they were emotionally accepted as true statements of fact. I made my first communion at around age seven.

After confessing my sins to the priest and doing penance to purify my immoral soul, I received what appeared to be a flat thin wafer but what I truly believed was miraculously the actual flesh of Christ. Out of respect, I would not chew the wafer, but allowed it to dissolve while I contemplated God's love and my commitment to follow his Gospel. I had my own set of rosary beads and during lapses in daily activities would finger the beads, mentally reciting "Our Fathers" and "Hail Marys." I used to get up early on Sunday to attend the 6:30 or 7 AM mass because I felt that many who came to midday mass were there to socialize and display their Sunday best and lacked the real spirit of humility and submission to divine instruction.

My beliefs were strengthened by the sacrament of Confirmation and reinforced by the Catholic ritual of making the Stations of the Cross and giving up some innocent pleasure for Lent. I continued my study and practice of Catholicism at a Jesuit high school, St. Ignatius, and received a scholarship to the Jesuit University of San Francisco. St. Ignatius of Loyola, a Spanish soldier, established the Society of Jesus as the pope's "shock troops" in the Counterreformation. The order has always had a strong educational role and emphasized defense of the faith by reasoned argument rather than by passive acceptance. The Jesuits accepted, with St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, the principle that there was only one "truth," so there could be no philosophical or scientific truth that was irreconcilable with religious truth. Respect for truth has been one of the most important legacies of my Catholic education.

However, I became uncomfortable about some aspects of my religion. For example, the doctrine of original sin troubled me. It did not seem fair and just that a loving God would punish the descendants of evildoers like Adam and Eve. Why were their innocent offspring condemned to suffer unimaginable pain eternally if they were not baptized and had not accepted Jesus?

I certainly felt no guilt from my father's actions over which I had no control, nor would I want my children punished for what I might do. What about the millions of humans who never read the Bible, never heard of Jesus, and were never baptized? This was resolved in my adolescent mind by the Catholic doctrine that there are two kinds of baptism: baptism by water, as a formal ritual; and baptism by desire. If pagans wanted to be good, they would have accepted baptism if it were made available to them. If a pagan acted in good faith in accordance with his beliefs to do good and avoid evil, he was doing all that God expected of him and was "baptized" and part of the Catholic community. Since there was no salvation outside the Catholic Church, a doctrine recently confirmed by the Vatican Council II, a similar line of reasoning applies to Protestants. To my mind, a righteous Protestant was a secret Catholic by baptism of desire. A loving God had provided a get-out-of-hell pass. Likewise, the sentencing of stillborns and newborns who die prematurely to hell was something I found difficult. Again, I found an acceptable solution; they go to Limbo, a place without pain but also without the full rapturous joy of heaven. My ideal of a loving God was preserved.

Another concern was the definition of sin. If sin was any transgression of God's law, such as dishonoring or lying to your father and mother, and all persons dying in sin suffered the torments of hell, I was at serious risk of not getting to confession in time and ending up there. This worry was eased by the doctrine that there were two kinds of sins: mortal, which was very bad and deserved hell; and venial, which was not so bad and got you into Purgatory. Purgatory was a place of suffering, but not for eternity. When you had paid for your minor transgression, you got to go to heaven. And so, by rationalization and reinterpretation, my faith remained firm.

On graduation from St. Ignatius High School, I received a scholarship to the (all-male at the time) Jesuit University of San Francisco. The small class size and easy access to instructors promoted dialogue and debate. It also promoted critical thinking and was an excellent foundation for my education. My desire to help my fellow man and relieve suffering, and my fascination with living things led me to enroll in the premedical curriculum, which exposed me to science. This college experience stimulated my lifelong curiosity and enjoyment of acquiring knowledge. The result was that, beginning in college, I found inconsistencies between my religious beliefs and what I was learning in science. For a long time, I found acceptable rationalizations or stretched my credulity to reconcile the apparently incompatible truths of science and revelation.

My high school science courses also left me with the impression that physicians were glorified mechanics who merely applied scientific knowledge and discoveries, while medical researchers undertook the real challenges by preventing and curing disease and disability. I wanted to become one of these creative researchers and discover a cure for cancer or something that was equally likely to earn me a Nobel Prize in medicine. My family's financial circumstances dictated that my education could only continue if I received financial aid. So, after I graduated from USF, I applied for as many scholarships as I could and received one to the University of Southern California in 1952.

There was no single dramatic event that caused me to lose my faith. I just found it harder and harder to rationally accept the idea of a personal God, virgin birth, and resurrection, and to reconcile God with the existence of so much evil and the negative effect of religious excess. I stopped attending mass.

At this point in my intellectual odyssey, I was interested in viruses. I believed that studying these simplest forms of life could unlock the critical difference between living and nonliving things. So, I majored in bacteriology but soon came to realize that virology was not well represented at USC at that time. My next move was to apply for financial aid from the University of California at Berkeley, where a world-class virus laboratory had been established, directed by Nobel Prize winner Wendell Stanley. In 1953, I was awarded a paid research assistant position and transferred to Berkeley.

In the course of my studies and work at the virus laboratory, I became aware of the deficiencies of academic science as a social institution. There were many instructors or assistant professors who worked for low salaries and were constantly in competition with one another for tenured appointments. I did not find my idealized concept of university scientists engaged in a collaborative, cooperative search for objective truth and knowledge.

My faculty advisor was a good example of the problem, who, having worked at several universities, had to then move on when he failed to get tenure. His plight reactivated my interest in a medical degree. Doctors have direct contact with people who can benefit from their services, can do research just as well as academic scientists, and have more independence, better security, and higher salaries.

So, in 1955, I abandoned my quest for a PhD and applied for scholarships to the major California medical schools. I was accepted at USC and Stanford, but I could not afford the tuition. I was also accepted by University of California at Los Angeles. As a California resident, tuition was affordable if I could work part-time and during summer vacations. I accepted and began my medical training there.

Collins felt challenged by the faith and religiosity of his medical school patients who asked him questions he had not previously tried to answer. In contrast, I had long recognized the importance of answering these questions and was not disturbed by other people's faith. The personal challenge I experienced was the suffering of good, innocent people, especially children, and the unanswered question, "Why does an all-powerful God permit this?" What kind of a creator would produce such an imperfect creation? In contrast to Collins, who experienced life-changing illumination while reading C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity, there was no one book that lifted my veil of ignorance and provided a definitive answer. I had read many books, including the Bible, on both sides of the God issue.

My experiences as a medical student, and probably my natural inclinations, led me to believe that I would find most satisfaction as a pediatrician. Children have more curable conditions and have their whole lives before them. They are still capable of trust and unconditional love and are generally positive and hopeful. So, upon graduation, I applied for a straight internship in pediatrics at UCLA. This decision was prompted, in part, by a dramatic case I covered during my fourth year of medical school.

I had made the mistake of lingering around the hospital after all my assignments were completed. Suddenly, the chief resident directed me to report to the operating room. There I found myself one of a large team of doctors and nurses working on an elderly man whose major artery, the aorta, had ruptured. At the time, UCLA had some of the leading cardiac surgeons, who were struggling in an abdomen full of blood to find the tear, stop the bleeding, and sew in a Dacron graft. The bleeding was massive. They transfused unit after unit of blood. Over twenty units were used and they were coming from the blood bank refrigerator without warming to room temperature, so the patient's temperature was dropping dangerously.

I stood there for what seemed like hours holding back the liver with an instrument so the surgeons could do their work. Not due to a miraculous intervention of God, but due to the skill of the surgical team, the bleeding was stopped, the new tubing was sewn into place, and the patient was moved-in critical condition, but very much alive-to the surgical ward.

I sat up in the room with this patient all night, fitfully sleeping in the chair and observing his vital signs. I reviewed his medical record and noted that he was over seventy years old and had no living family. He had failing eyesight and hearing, severe arthritis, and other chronic conditions requiring medication. We had saved his life, but what quality of life would he have? How many more years would he live? Early the following morning he became delirious, thrashing around. Despite the efforts of the emergency team, he disconnected his intravenous infusions and quickly went into shock. We tried to restart his heart and gave him infusions, but he died. This was not an emotionally positive experience. What did we have to show for all our efforts? How much good had we done? Certainly this man deserved this heroic effort, and these questions should not be misinterpreted as a criticism of the staff for providing care. I am glad that there are physicians and nurses who find this kind of activity rewarding and challenging. All I am saying is that I learned that I would rather spend my time in a different area of medicine.

In contrast, a lethargic and feverish young child was brought to the emergency room. Detecting pain when the spine was stretched, I did a spinal tap and obtained cloudy, not clear, spinal fluid. I started antibiotics immediately to treat meningitis. When I discharged this child some days later, it was with a very positive sense of accomplishment. I was personally rewarded knowing I had probably saved both his brain and his life. A lifetime of opportunities was preserved.

During my third year in medical school, I met and married a grade school teacher. After I completed my internship, I was accepted as a resident at Children's Hospital of the East Bay, and we moved back to the San Francisco Bay Area. Following my residence, I spent several years at CHEB as staff fellow doing research on iron poisoning and metabolic disorders. Then, in 1965, I joined the California Department of Public Health to initiate a Hereditary Defects Unit. I took the position because I knew I could influence the health and welfare of literally millions of newborns and their families.

I served for forty years, protecting and promoting the public health in California in the areas of maternal and child health and genetic disease. Although I retired as chief of the Genetic Disease Branch for the California Department of Public Health on December 31, 2005, I continue to educate myself on advances in scientific knowledge and continue my studies of major religions and the works of philosophers. With this brief background, you now understand the process by which I arrived at my beliefs about God. I now hope to engage you in a dialogue and analysis of what Collins feels is rational, logical, and even scientific evidence for the existence of a personal God.


Excerpted from DECODING THE LANGUAGE OF GOD by George C. Cunningham Copyright © 2010 by George C. Cunningham. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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