Francis Collins and Karl Giberson Talk about Evolution and the Church

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March 5, 2011 Tags: Christian Unity

Today's entry was written by Karl Giberson and Francis Collins. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Francis Collins and Karl Giberson Talk about Evolution and the Church

Today we begin the first in a six part discussion between BioLogos vice-president Karl Giberson and founder Francis Collins, co-authors of The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions (note: Francis Collins' work on this project was completed prior to his appointment as director of the National Institutes of Health). The conversation first appeared as "Evolution, the Bible, and the Book of Nature" in Books and Culture and took place during a conference at Azusa Pacific University in 2008.

Karl Giberson: You are an unusual evangelical in that you don’t struggle with the relationship between evolution and your faith. Has this never been an issue for you?

Francis Collins: I had a problem in terms of the counterintuitive nature of evolution. Remember, I had no meaningful exposure to biology in my formal education until I was already a graduate student.

I learned biology in a high school class in a little town in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia—if it mentioned evolution, I don’t remember that at all. It was purely descriptive: “Here’s how we classify organisms; here’s how you memorize the parts of the crayfish;” and that’s what it was all about. I don’t think I really had much exposure to the whole concept other than just knowing “Oh yeah, there’s this vague concept that’s out there called evolution.”

I had an issue how counterintuitive it is. Almost everybody encounters this when they first bump into this concept. And it was, of course, difficult for Darwin at first, too, to get his mind around so we shouldn’t feel like we’re all so stupid, if it takes a little while! We are so tied up in our natural daily experiences that being able to imagine what could happen over hundreds of millions of years in very small increments is just not something that comes naturally.

KG: As someone who takes both the Bible and evolution seriously, is there any point when you said, “Well, wait a minute, it’s really tough to put things together at this point?” Did this harmony really just come naturally?

FC: You know, it really did come naturally. I was aware that there was an issue that some people had about this. When I became a believer at 27, the first church I went to was a pretty conservative Methodist church in this little town outside of Chapel Hill. And I’m sure there were a lot of people in that church who were taking Genesis quite literally.

I couldn’t take Genesis literally because I had come to the scientific worldview before I came to the spiritual worldview. I felt that once I arrived at the sense that God was real and that God was the source of all truth, then just by definition, there could not be an irreconcilable conflict between these perspectives. It just was a matter of working out the details. It did not seem to me that there was likely to be anything irreconcilable here, just that there had been misunderstandings along the way in terms of how people had interpreted the first book in the Bible. When I read Genesis, I had to say “I don’t know what this means here”, even before I read any commentators on it. It seemed to me that this was not a part of the Bible that read as the record of an eyewitness, so it shouldn’t therefore be taken as such.

KG: You seem like a mirror image of the fundamentalists who struggle with this. The fundamentalists grow up with a lot of confidence in the Bible and then they encounter evolution so they are bringing their prior confidence in the Bible to this new problem. You were interpreting the Bible before you knew there was a biblical issue to worry about. You had developed enough confidence in evolution so then when you read about origins in the Bible, you would read as we do today when it comes to those biblical passages that seem opposed to heliocentricity— we don’t think of a moving earth as a problem so we don’t even notice the biblical problems.

FC: Right, right. They haven’t noticed those issues because they weren’t pointed out for a long time. I will say, though, that I think evolution is a much tougher problem for a believer to get comfortable with than heliocentricity versus geocentricity. The fundamental nature of evolution is a comment on our biological nature and that’s a lot closer to the “image of God” concept than whether the earth floats around the sun or the other way around. So I don’t think it’s a perfect parallel, though I wish it were. I wish we could say, “We can get comfortable with evolution now just as easily as the church has gotten comfortable with heliocentricity.”


Karl Giberson directs the new science & religion writing program at Gordon College in Boston. He has published more than 100 articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. He has written seven books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.
Dr. Francis Collins is a physician and geneticist known for spearheading the Human Genome Project and for his landmark discoveries of disease genes. Collins founded the BioLogos Foundation in November 2007 and served as its president until August 16, 2009, when he resigned to become director of the National Institutes of Health. (Note: All blogs written by Collins were completed before accepting his duty as director of the NIH).

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leadme.org - #54363

March 14th 2011

Hi nedbrek,

Well, I’m not sure that it’s all that terribly important whether one is convinced of the existence of God at the moment they die.  Salvation and new creation are about being conformed—by the grace and power of God—into the image of Jesus Christ, and then mirroring those fruits of the Spirit to the world around us.  It seems to me that there are many atheists who are further refined in their image bearing capacities than even many Christians are.  I don’t see why—in and of itself—it’s all that important that one must professes that Jesus is Lord before they die.

I realize I’m still being somewhat indirect, but I don’t want to veer this discussion too much further off topic from the original blog post.  Perhaps we should take it offline if you’d like to keep chatting? (.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address))


ronmurp - #54433

March 15th 2011

Hi penman - #54289,

Just to be clear, I don’t consider the matter closed - e.g. check-mated.

I would ask though, do require any justification for believing at all? What is more basic than a logical conclusion, that the bible passage refers to?

“John Baillie’s “Our Knowledge of God” is very good on this.” - I’ve not read it, but presumably Baillie explains his thoughts on this matter in some way? He gives his reasons for his interpretation and explanation? He reasons? If he isn’t using a ‘scientific-style argument’, what type is he using and how does it differ?

“Ron requires belief in God’s existence to lie at the end of some chain of reasoning?” - I don’t require it to, I’m suggesting it does. I’m also suggesting the veery same reasoning begins with the belief in God’s existence.

“eg why we believe in the reality of other human persons or essential moral values.”

On persons, this is as a result of bumping into them and arguing with them - the whole human interaction experience from inside the womb until death. That seems pretty convincing on it’s own, but we could go over the philosophical foundations for that if you want. I’m stuck at my point of understanding of the philosophy there, so if you want to help me get past that we could try. 

On moral values, I don’t see them as anything other than psychological persuasions about how we want ourselves and other people to behave. I’m inclined to think they are a combination of evolved physiological and psychological emotions developed over millenia of social interaction. Our moral codes have consistencies over all humans, and variations over cultures that are consistent with this view. 

They are not inconsistent with a theistic view that includes free-will - i.e. this is what the moral codes are, be we don’t always adopt them. But I don’t find any particular religion describes them well or consistently. On top of that I think there are problems with free-will that also dissuade me from this view.

“May I not believe that the human bodies I see around me have minds - are persons, not zombies - unless I can first demonstrate it by rigorous argument?” - Yes you can believe that. It’s a good working hypothesis. But it’s not clear that we have free-will, being some sort of zombie, or an automata, is not ruled out. 

ronmurp - #54434

March 15th 2011

Hi leadme.org - #54285,

As an atheist I can see love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control as being nice to have; and I’m sure we all value these to different degrees. But some of us also have a thirst to understand - and I presume this drives as many theists as it does atheists; it’s just that we come to different conclusions, and in my case tentative conclusions, about what’s going on.

leadme.org - #54306,

“But at the end of the day, it seems to me that the endless theism vs. atheism arguments are quite beside the bigger point.”

I not only find them interesting, but I also find that religious privilege here in the UK is unreasonable. That doesn’t mean I oppose all aspects of religion. For example, I’m in touch some Church of England vicars that don’t expect the privilege either, and I do respect them as people, and I’m respectful of the pastoral care they provide to people who need it. But generally, I have both an intellectual difference with theism, and a political difference with some religions.

Gregory - #54455

March 15th 2011

“in my opinion the methodologies that have advance human understanding beyond the dark ages don’t give any reason to believe in God.” - ronmurp

One might call this a Nietzschean dilemma combined with historical determinism via Comte’s 3-stage approach. Nietzsche said, ‘the ‘methods’ are more powerful than the theories.’ However, in doing science, practitioners, who are sometimes called ‘scientists’, use methods & also hold theories about the entities, phenomena or matter that they are studying, testing, observing, etc. So the ‘methods’ are more ‘objective’ (in this framework), while the ‘theories’ are actually ‘closer’ to people’s hearts.

Comte said stage 1) theological or religious, stage 2) metaphysical, stage 3) scientific or postivistic. This is obviously a far cry from being a respectable theory today (e.g. it would result in people simply putting their heads in the sand to dismiss the ‘causally efficacious’ impact of religious beliefs on 9-11-01 or 07-07-05). 

To suggest God is merely a ‘hypothesis’ is to constrain oneself to a Nietaschean worldview. It was Nietzsche who wrote: “Everything personal is comic.”

After Polanyi’s more recent “Personal Knowledge” & the turn to (or recognition of) ‘reflexive science’ in the human-social realm, the excuse for de-personalising one-self by defraying responsibility for knowledge acquisition (& even personal knowledge production) is much weaker. Thus, the effects of employing impersonal scientific methodologies have been revealed to be ‘dehumanizing’ to the individual who uses them from the point of view that a much larger, integrated conversation is possible that involves personal knowledges, values, beliefs, etc. Granted that many scientific practitioners do accept the ‘real existence’ of these extra-scientific features of human life & seek to integrate them in their lives. These ‘personal knowledges’ according to the so-called ‘cultural universals’ include ‘religion’ (even though some people consider ‘religion’ something like a ‘swear word for idiots’, i.e. following Comte’s outdated 3-stage theory).

I appreciate ronmurp’s candid remarks about his interest in religious faith & even of his lacking grasp of this *kind* of perception of reality.

Wrt Church of England vicars & priviledge, this is considerably an ‘established vs. non-established church’ question that differs from the English N. American context (the southern part of that duo, & presumably the south & centre of that southern part being the main focus of BioLogos outreach).

I happened to be passing through London when Benedict XVI was there & I watched some of the events, services & ceremonies on BBC. On the way to the airport the next morning, the taxi driver engaged the conversation when I brought up the Westminister Abbey service. He echoed your words a fair bit, ronmurp. He said he’d ‘never been particularly religious’, but admitted that the Roman Catholic Pope had got it right on the mark with his words about spiritual apathy & social pressures. He turned reflexively on himself to say that it happens to everybody, you’re walking along the street one day, things aren’t going right, and you want to lift your petition or ‘prayer’ to a higher power. And ‘modern science’ *seems* to say it has disproven the ‘reality’ of those things & that such petitions or prayers are therefore invalid at best & absurd, perhaps insane at worst, even if it is simply the worldview of scientism that dictates the parameters.

But the taxi driver seemed to protest from his neutral, agnostic audience viewpoint that the Pope had got something right, even if he was personally against such a large ‘religious institution.’ The meaning of the message had reached him & also his wife. What would happen next (other than my atlantic flight)?

I might add that BXVI got it right also about the danger of marginalising religious ideas & people in the public sphere. & since you mention ‘political differences,’ ronmurp, here is a site worth visiting, which started with discussions of C. Taylor’s monumental “A Secular Age”, but has moved beyond that, & is produced by C. Calhoun’s SSRC in New York: http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/


ronmurp - #54479

March 15th 2011

Hi Gregory,

“To suggest God is merely a ‘hypothesis’ is to constrain oneself to a Nietaschean worldview. It was Nietzsche who wrote: “Everything personal is comic.”” - The same notion of God as hypothesis could be a compnent of many different views. That it happens to be part of a ‘Nietaschean’ view, if it is (I’m not a great fan of Nietzsche), is coincidental.

“Thus, the effects of employing impersonal scientific methodologies have been revealed to be ‘dehumanizing’ to the individual who uses them from the point of view that a much larger, integrated conversation is possible that involves personal knowledges, values, beliefs, etc.” - Is there plenty of evidence from psychology to support this? I would want plenty, because there can be a lot of variation in psychology, and one view today may be garbage tomorrow.

The ‘personal knowledges’ ideas seem really flaky to me. We know humans are pretty flawed in their sensing and thinking about the world outside the basic day-to-day stuff that our ancestors needed. There’s abundant evidence that human minds make really bad mistakes when dealing with the out of the ordinary. They can even go wrong on the day-to-day stuff quite easily. So, ‘science’ is an attempt to overcome those problems. And good science is really difficult - avoiding biases and unexpected influences. So we should be trying to use the best of ‘science’ or ‘science-like’ methodologies to figure stuff out at the edges of our understanding; and we should be doing that more, not less. Relying on ‘personal knowledges’ is just inviting more mistakes into our discovery of how the world is.

”...even of his lacking grasp of this *kind* of perception of reality.” - I would suggest we all lack other kinds of perception beyond those science has shown to be the ones we have. If science has a hard time detecting ‘other ways of knowing’, then we can pretty sure they don’t have any significant impact, if they exist at all. The fact that some theists think some other ways of knowing exists is only evidence of the fact that those theists hold those views. It says nothing about whether those ways of knowing exist or not.

”...spiritual apathy & social pressures…” - Every generation thinks the world is going to the dogs. If only we had the respect, belief, etc., of the old days. In more spiritual times there was also more repression of ideas by the various religions. That religions now see more anarchy may be a reflection of their loss of control.

“And ‘modern science’ *seems* to say it has disproven the ‘reality’ of those things ...” = You might well emphasise *seems*, as it may seem that way to some who don’t know better.

‘scientism’ is a term used by those proponents of some system who don’t like the idea of science, or particularly scientists, commenting on their world view. Science doesn’t as much dictate parameters as discover the ones that work. If you have different parameters, just show that they give reliable consistent results and you might get science to listen.

“But the taxi driver seemed to protest…” - Have you not had much experience with London taxi drivers? If the next customer was an atheists he’d have been ridiculing the pope’s visit and the tax payers’ money spent on it. Did you tip him well?

“I might add that BXVI got it right also about the danger of marginalising religious ideas & people in the public sphere.” - which is a bit rich coming from a religious organisation who gets effectively a state visit. How is that being marginalised. Of course he wants to protect religious privilege.

penman - #54545

March 16th 2011

ronmurp - #54433

This is getting long & many-branched…. Forgive me if I speak only to a few points!

1 - My belief in God does not lie at the end of a chain of reasoning. It begins in immediate consciousness. That’s NOT to say we can’t express theism in terms of an argument, but as I said elsewhere (I lose track of these threads!), the “argument” would be - in my view - abductive. Sort of Columbo-like: assume that this guy is the murderer, & all kinds of things begin to make sense.

2 - You can’t get to a belief in other persons merely by bumping into them & interacting with them. The whole question is whether the perceived entities you are bumping into & interacting with are actually persons or (eg) robots, zombies, hallucinations, holograms, projections of yourself, etc. How do you PROVE they are authentic persons with minds as real as your own? Maybe there are arguments for this, & maybe they are good. My point is that you’re entitled to believe in other persons without knowing those arguments (“within your epistemic rights” is I think how professionals put it). Virtually everyone does in fact believe in other persons without first working through philosophical arguments. Shall we say they are all sadly unjustified?

3 - John Baillie’s “Our Knowledge of God” is one of those few books that have made a landmark impact on me. Naturally I recommend it. Yes, Baillie reasons. But he doesn’t reason his way from atheism to God. He reasons about the nature of belief in God, & seeks to show that (in real life & in the bible) this belief flows from what he calls a “mediated immediacy” - roughly, God’s presence or reality given not in splendid isolation but in, with, & through created realities: self, other selves, & the natural world.

Apologies for topics not covered: pressed for time!


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