A case against God

Okay, so I wrote my FaithBeat column Saturday about Dr. Francis Collins, the decorated scientist who is President Obama’s choice to head the National Institutes of Health and is an outspoken believer in God as designer of the universe.

I noted on Monday an op-ed in the NYTimes by non-believer Sam Harris that questioned Collins’ fitness for the role based on his religious beliefs.

Just so happens, I got a private email from a scientist on the faculty of an Ivy League university who thinks that Collins’ case for God is a poor one and that there is no room for a personal God in the universe, based on what we know through science.

I asked this writer if LoHud could use his email as a letter to the editor, but he declined. Put it this way: He fears that believers may not respond graciously.

So I asked if I could post his thoughts right here without identifying him. He said sure.

So, in the interest of providing an alternative view (to Collins’ beliefs, as expressed in my column), here’s what the scientist wrote:

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I understand the basis for perspectives on religion offered in your column: your own beliefs. However, there are two aspects of Francis Collins’s beliefs (“Geneticist strikes balance and embraces science,” July 25, 2009) worth noting. The first, as you mention, is that Collins is an anomaly. Most scientists are atheists – for reasons that are a lot more interesting than the fact of their majority status – and an even greater proportion of the best scientists (e.g., Nobel laureates). The second is that there is a huge difference between acknowledging the possibility of phenomena beyond our present comprehension (e.g., Richard Dawkins’s stance) and accepting the God of contemporary religion. By the latter, I mean the God that not only willed the Universe into existence in the manner suggested by Collins, but the one who cares about you and me as individuals, and about our every action and challenge. That latter God is surely a human invention. Why do I think so?

In the greater scheme of things, the God of modern religion makes no sense. Please consider our context. We inhabit one small rocky planet in a galaxy composed of 100 billion stars, and in a Universe of 100 billion galaxies. Our molecular biology links us with confidence to all other life on Earth, going back at least 3.9 billion years. We’re not unique, therefore, just temporarily successful. Our very existence as a species for only 150,000 years or so depends on a huge array of contingent events over 13.7 billion years to the beginning of the Universe. Had any detail been different, there would be no you or me. (One example: The most recent mass extinction, the one that killed the dinosaurs and permitted the radiation of mammals, depended on an asteroid intersecting the Earth’s orbit within a single seven minute span. Had the asteroid been a few minutes late or early, the Earth as we know it today would be utterly different.) Conclusion: We are entirely the product of chance, not design. We’re alone, as individuals and as a species. And like all species that have gone before, our ultimate fate is extinction. The good news is that we have a life, and we can choose to do something useful with it.

That some scientists (e.g., Collins) can be aware of the above and still struggle to incorporate some concept of God into their lives is a measure not of the correctness of the God of religion, but of our innate human need for religion and of the efficiency with which religion is transmitted from one generation to another in early childhood. Scientists are after all human. So it comes as no surprise that some find it hard to escape a normal human impulse.

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He added in a final note to me:

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All of the facts are readily verifiable, though there is a plus or minus on all of the numbers …. with no bearing whatsoever on the conclusions that flow from them: 1) It is absurd (OK, not plausible) to imagine that the Universe was in some sense created for us. We are simply irrelevant at that scale, and at best, temporary residents of the Earth. 2) The beauty of nature – and it’s fabulous – relates not to design, but to the incredible array of evolutionary, chemical and physical steps needed to arrive at the present, and to the complex interactions and feedbacks that are inherent in all natural systems. I am glad that Francis Collins enjoys waterfalls. So do I.

Gary Stern

Gary Stern covered education in the Lower Hudson Valley for several years during the early 1990s. Now's he back on the beat. He believes that schools are one of the main reasons that people live around here and that educational issues -- from curriculum to financing -- are among the most challenging things that journalists can write about. He continues to be amazed by the complexity of educational jargon. Gary got his B.A. at SUNY Buffalo and his M.A. from the University of Missouri Journalism School (where his master's thesis was about the best ways to cover education). He lives in White Plains with his wife and two sons, who attend public schools.