The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

Michael Shermer’s
East Coast Book Tour

Why Darwin Matters, cover

From October 9th–October 13th, Dr. Michael Shermer will be speaking at the following venues and signing copies of his latest book Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design. Shermer is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, the Director of the Skeptics Society, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and the host of the Skeptics Distinguished Lecture Series at Caltech. He is the author of Science Friction, The Science of Good and Evil, How We Believe, Why People Believe Weird Things, In Darwin’s Shadow, Denying History, and The Borderlands of Science.

Monday, October 9th, 7:30pm
Mystic Seaport, in the River Room at the Seamen’s Inne.
Tickets $12 ($10 for members). Limited, reservations recommended.
To purchase tickets, call 888-973-2767
For more information, visit
Contact Michael O’Farrell   |   860-572-5317   |   [email protected]
Tuesday, October 10th, 12:00pm
Connecticut College, Ernst Common Room, Blaustein Humanities Center
This event is free and open to the public.
Contact Stuart Vyse, Dept. of Psych.   |   860-439-2330   |   [email protected]
Tuesday, October 10th, 6:00pm
Harvard University, Hall D, Harvard Science Center
Reception and book signing to follow at Redline Restaurant, JFK street
Co-Sponsored by the New England Skeptical Society, the Humanist Association of Massachusetts, and the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard
Contact Steven Novella   |   [email protected]
Wednesday, October 11th, 7:00pm
Shetler Studios, 244 West 54th St, 12th floor
presented by the Secular Humanist Society
Contact Conrad Claborne   |   212-288-9031   |   [email protected]
Thursday, October 12th, 12:00pm
Cato Institute,, 1000 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Lecture followed by commentary by Intelligent Design proponent Jonathan Wells.
Register online, by email [email protected],
by fax 202-371-0841, or phone 202-789-5229.
Contact David Boaz   |   202-842-0200   |   [email protected]
Thursday, October 12th, 7:30pm
Oakton High School, 2900 Sutton Road, Vienna, Virginia
presented by the National Capital Area Skeptics
For more information and directions, visit
Contact Chip Denman   |   [email protected]
Friday, October 13th, 10:30am
Swarthmore College, Scheuer Room, in Kohlberg Hall
Contact Colin Purrington   |   610-328-8621   |   [email protected]
Friday, October 13th, 7:00pm
Ethical Society Building, 1906 South Rittenhouse Square
Includes lecture, book signing, and Friday-the-Thirteenth Party.
presented by the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia
Contact Margaret Downey   |   610-793-2737   |   [email protected]
or Eric Krieg   |   [email protected]

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In this week’s eSkeptic, Robert K. Eberle reviews Francis S. Collins’s book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Free Press, 2006, ISBN 0743286391).

The Language of God
If God Could Talk What Would he Say?

book review by Robert K. Eberle

Theistic evolution, a theological sentiment that blossomed late in the 19th century as a means of believing in God while, at the same time, acknowledging the mounting and indisputable evidence of evolution, is not discussed much today. In the present debate over religion and science, the conflict is mostly between creationism (and its covert alias Intelligent Design), and the natural sciences, especially Darwin’s theory. Among scientists that believe in a god, however, there are a significant number that adhere to theistic evolution even if it is not formally espoused. The reason for this embrace is because it is one of two possible theological proposals that allows a scientist to believe in a deity without the requirement that they deny empirical evidence found in the explorations of the natural sciences.

Theistic evolution admits to such ideas as the universe had a beginning, it is about 14 billion years old, and all the life forms on Earth evolved into their present state. Even the fact that Homo sapiens evolved is not denied, although the process of evolution — including everything from the stars and planets to man — was guided by a divine will. What form this godly action takes and when and in what manner it occurs varies somewhat with proponents of this theology, but there is no real effort made to discredit a scientific theory solely because the proffered hypothesis appears to be in conflict with an interpretation of some biblical verses.

In his book, The Language of God, Dr. Francis S. Collins attempts to modernize and revitalize this theological idea by, as a start, renaming it as BioLogos, from the Greek words for “life” and “word.” He does this because, for one thing, there is a negative connotation of the words “theistic” and “evolution” among certain segments of the scientific and religious communities. Many scientists are not keen on something that is associated with science and has the word “theistic” in its title. Likewise, many devoted believers shun the word “evolution” because of the conventional wisdom that it is contrary to a belief in God. Additionally, Collins writes, consigning “one’s belief in God to an adjective suggests a secondary priority, with the primary emphasis being the noun, namely ‘evolution.’”

In any case, under any name, BioLogos or Theistic Evolution, Dr. Collins argues that this philosophy is the best way to understand the natural world that God has created. This, of course, implies the existence of a god so, in his book, Dr. Collins attempts to show that there must be a god. Once he considers that this has been established, he proceeds to show that regardless of what religion one might embrace, theistic evolution is the best way for one to understand that what we discover about our universe through science does not conflict with the nature or existence of God.

Francis Collins is a leading geneticist, a renown researcher into genetic causes of such diseases as cystic fibrosis and Huntington’s disease, and he is the head of the Human Genome Project, so one is not surprised with the solidity of the science that he uses. In fact, it is the science he employs in defense of evolution that is one of the stronger points in his book. This, of course, runs counter to the creationists and Intelligent Design crowd, and Dr. Collins confronts them head-on. With science heavily reliant on his Human Genome work, Dr. Collins demonstrates how evolution provides an explanation for such things as the structure of DNA, and it is the only theory that can do so.

Collins also turns to other natural sciences to illustrate that not only does science make better sense about the origin and development of our universe, our planet, and its biological life, but that the claims of a recent creation of the universe neither matches what is scientifically found nor, more importantly, is it good theology. If one believes in God, Collins contends, the creator of the universe as revealed by science is one that is far superior to that which is espoused by the Young Earth Creationists. This part of the book makes for enjoyable reading. Collins defends science convincingly.

It is when Dr. Collins attempts to establish that the existence of God is not only highly likely but a near certainty that his reasoning falters. To a large extent Collins relies on arguments from the works of C.S. Lewis for his justification that God must exist. He is particularly smitten by the idea of a universal Moral Law which, like Lewis, appears to him as being something that could only be divinely authored. It is obvious, Collins asserts, that something like the awareness of right and wrong has to have come from some higher power, else why would it exist across all cultures and be unique to the human species?

In fact, Collins asserts, beside this moralistic awareness, it is such things as “the development of language, awareness of self, and the ability to imagine the future” that are part of the enumeration of the specific characteristics of modern humans. The fact that language, for example, is the product of a reasoning mind that, over time, develops as a result of genetically derived mental improvements makes it difficult for the reader to accept the author’s declarations. If language is a uniquely human quality, and it has come about from genetically driven evolution, why no reasoning that provides the justification for the development of ethical behavior? To Collins, the very awareness of what is right and wrong can only be from some divine power, but his reasoning does not support it. Although elsewhere in the book he is highly critical of the “god of the gaps” argument employed by Intelligent Design creationists, who chase down the gaps in scientific knowledge to proclaim that this is where God intervenes, Collins’ deduction that evolution cannot account for the Moral Law is just another gap. He reviews some of the modern evolutionary explanations for the evolution of the moral sentiments, but he dismisses them as inadequate, and then draws his conclusion. This is the fallacy of personal incredulity — “I can’t think of how X can be explained naturally, ergo X must have a supernatural explanation.”

Collins then compounds the problem with his arguments by asserting, without foundation, that altruism is unquestionably good, and that it can only be explained by the existence of the Moral Law. The fact that the goodness of altruism is a subjective judgment and open to considerable debate is ignored. Furthermore, he never addresses the studies that have shown that altruism is not unique to the human species, and he never explains why the altruistic behavior of a member of the group could not be something that evolved, initially, simply as a necessity for the survival of the group.

Compared to his far better grounds for refuting the creationist theology, his theological arguments here are weak and nothing more than C.S. Lewis revisited. While Lewis was a literary stylist who influenced many people, some of his assumptions were flawed and Collins does nothing to improve on them. In the end we only know that Dr. Collins was impressed by what Lewis wrote to the point that he found his way to Christianity, but aside from the fact that Lewis’s arguments resonated with Collins, we are left wondering about his theistic assertions.

Collins’ arguments against atheism and agnosticism are no better. As he was enamored with Lewis in buttressing his belief in God and Christianity, he is equally passionate about rebuking the writings of such authors as Richard Dawkins for the manner in which they advocate disbelief. Unfortunately, in his haste to show Dawkins, in particular, and atheism, in general, wrong on all counts about the existence of God, he argues poorly. At one point he arrives at the non sequitur that atheism, which he claims must be considered a blind faith, cannot be defended by pure reason because science can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God.

Having proven, in his mind, that God exists and is the creator of everything in the universe, Collins proceeds to advocate the use of theistic evolution as an explanation for why science does not refute God and can be used to explain the natural world. If God does exist then it would seem that any findings of science about the nature of the world created by Him would be nothing more than discovering the truth about His creation. If the discoveries are true, they cannot refute the nature of God. On this point Collins makes a valid conclusion, one creationists would do well to contemplate. As he correctly observes, the Bible was not meant to be a geology or biology textbook, but rather a book about the nature of God. Furthermore, it was written by people who where totally ignorant of just about everything in science, and their concept of the natural world was wrong.

Beyond this, however, Collins has logical issues. Aside from his simple declarations without any foundation that he believes certain biblical stories and miracles are true, he runs into major problems. One is the claim that God knows what was, is and will be. Collins asserts that there is still free will, but fails to explain his logic for arriving at this extraordinary conclusion. Either what will be is known and fixed or it is not. An infallible god that knows what is going to happen is in conflict with the idea that there is free choice and thus a responsibility for one’s actions.

Another problem comes from his chronology of the evolved universe and his claim of an all-knowing deity. His assertion is that when God created the universe, since he knew what will be, he had to tweak the evolutionary process so that man could come into existence. In other words, the development of Homo sapiens was not a sure thing until God interceded, albeit in a way that used the natural forces He had created. Collins does not explain why it might have been that the appearance of mankind was inevitable, and God did not have to do anything other than create the Big Bang. He does write that he does not like deism because of the idea that, under such a belief, the universe was created and then God simply sat back. Nevertheless, except for his dislike of deistic theology, there is nothing logically mandatory in his arguments to require its rejection except for the need for miracles and divine interventions.

In the end the reader can only conclude that if a belief in God is necessary, theistic evolution is probably not too bad a way of reconciling science and religion if one is willing to gloss over the implications and problems with the theology. That, at least, is the hope of Francis Collins. He proposes that regardless of the belief, be it Judaism, Christianity or Islam, theistic evolution can be used to allow religion and science to act in a complementary fashion. For this declaration skeptics should be grateful to have a theist in our camp defending the virtues of science. However, Collins’ theistic arguments will not sway many nonbelievers to accept the existence of God, and fundamentalists have shown a particular penchant for being able to ignore any scientific evidence contrary to their desired belief. The Language of God is well written, and in many places quite thoughtful, but unless one is predisposed to the idea of theistic evolution, most will probably find the book unconvincing on this front.

Just Six Numbers, detail of cover

Just Six Numbers, detail of cover

Six Numbers in Search of a Theory

The following excerpt is from a recent book review by Michael Shermer of Sir Martin Rees’ book Just Six Numbers. The article, which appeared in the New York Sun on September 27th begins:

As the public spokesperson for the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine, I participate in a series of collegiate debates around the country with theologians and intelligent design advocates on the existence (or lack thereof) of a deity or intelligent designer, which may or may not be one and the same. In my opinion, the single best argument my debate opponents have is the apparently fine-tuned characteristics of nature. Indeed, they quote no less a personage than Sir Martin Rees, Britain’s Astronomer Royal, who argues in his 2000 book, Just Six Numbers, that “our emergence from a simple Big Bang was sensitive to six ‘cosmic numbers.’ Had these numbers not been ‘well tuned,’ the gradual unfolding of layer upon layer of complexity would have been quenched.”

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