Altogether—Unbelievable! Part 1
Christian radio interview with Francis Collins and Richard Dawkins
Click here for part two of this article.
Recently, Justin Brierley1 of Premier Christian Radio,2 spoke to Francis Collins and Richard Dawkins on his weekly radio broadcast titled Unbelievable.3 Brierley has been running a series of Q&A style talks called “The Big Conversation” which draws a large audience from across the UK—his recent book about these experiences is reviewed here: Is Christianity Unbelievable?
In his introduction, Brierley makes no secret of being funded by the Templeton Foundation. This was originally set-up by philanthropist Sir John Templeton in order to promote evolution to Christians. So one has to wonder whether Brierley is himself sympathetic to theistic evolution (i.e., God used evolution to create).
Richard Dawkins was, from 1995–2008, Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at New College, Oxford University. Brierley introduced Dawkins as “a world-renowned scientist” (world-renowned atheist would be more accurate) and described his book The Selfish Gene as a “classic of evolutionary biology.” Dawkins is well known for his critiques of religion as an atheist, such as in his book The God Delusion, and his most recent books include Outgrowing God: a beginner’s guide to atheism.
Francis Collins is a leading geneticist who led the Human Genome Project. He was until recently director of the National Institutes of Health in the USA, and has recently been appointed as acting science advisor to the US president, Joe Biden. Collins is a professing Christian. In his 2006 book The Language of God: a scientist presents evidence for belief he explained from a theistic-evolutionary perspective why he believes in God, and how ‘science can be compatible with faith.’ Collins is also the founder of Biologos, an online think-tank funded by the Templeton Foundation that seeks to promote theistic evolution to churches, and attempts to thwart biblical creation.
This article, and part two, present an abridged selection of excerpts from the conversation between Brierley, Collins, and Dawkins, discussing their views on evolution and faith. These are interspersed with my own comments which provide the point of view which was absent from the discussion—biblical creation. The general tone of the show was polite, but Brierley missed many opportunities to hold Dawkins’ feet to the fire when it came to his strident atheistic comments. However, what was particularly sad, were the feeble responses from both Brierley and Collins when it came to Dawkins’ challenges of the inconsistencies of holding evolution and the Christian faith. Here, I often found myself nodding in agreement with Dawkins regarding these obvious inconsistencies.
BRIERLEY: …let’s talk about the science. You both believe in … a long evolutionary history and the way in which that genetic makeup—that makes up you me and every living thing on the earth—has a point of origin in the past. Obviously for you Richard, this is part of the reason you are an atheist? You said that “Darwin made it possible to be a[n intellectually] fulfilled atheist” because he mapped out the way in which that process of natural selection could gradually bring about the kinds of complex organisms that, for a long time, people had assumed must be the work of a Creator…?
Charles Darwin certainly did not succeed in his attempt to ‘map out the way’ natural selection could give rise to complex organisms. Natural selection can only select from genetic information that is already present, it cannot create new genetic information. Many biologists today would dispute what Brierley stated; see this review of The Altenberg 16. The very reason why neo-Darwinism (or the Modern Synthesis) was formulated (natural selection plus mutations) was because evolutionary biologists recognized natural selection alone was insufficient to account for the evolutionary process. But the Modern Synthesis itself has seriously been questioned by evolutionary biologists (discussed later).
Darwin merely observed human-guided selection in domestic animals (pigeons for example) and theorized such changes could create entirely new creatures given enough time. However, Darwin had no knowledge of DNA, genetic mutation, or of Mendelian inheritance. In his day, the idea of the simple cell was popular, but it is now known to be inconceivably complex. It is even suggested, with some merit, that Darwin plagiarised the theory of natural selection. Brierley picks up on none of this.
BRIERLEY: So I’ll start with you Francis, for where you go with that, because I’m sure that’s an argument you’ve heard many times—why God should be relegated?—there’s no need now for the ‘God explanation’ when it comes to the area of science that you’ve spent your life devoted to. And yet here you are, a very committed Christian. So just map out for us why, for you, … there is an evolutionary explanation for the development of complex life [that] does not necessarily exclude God in the process?
Brierley’s question betrays a bias, in that he doesn’t allow for creation in the way described in Genesis chapter one. Evolution is not questioned at all, thus he hands Collins a soft-ball question without any reference to the Scriptures, or the facts of science. This is really sad.
COLLINS: Well it actually makes me even more in awe of the Creator! But let me explain the argument from design which Richard talked about, which had impressed him when he was sixteen and then, sort of fell apart in the face of the evolutionary explanation. I guess that argument from design has never really grabbed me, maybe because I was already deep into the science before I started asking these questions about faith. But certainly, evolution is incredibly powerful as an explanat[ion]… to understand the amazing diversity of creatures that we see around us and that we know lived in the past. But I don’t see how that in any way excludes the possibility that there was a plan? It’s just for me a few steps further back.
Collins doesn’t tackle the biological design argument, which was brilliantly summed up by Michael Behe in his 1996 book Darwin’s Black Box (and in numerous other books since). Behe demonstrated how Darwinian evolution singularly fails to explain the origin of biochemical systems that are ‘irreducibly complex’, i.e., they need all their parts to work. For instance, multicomponent molecular machines like the bacterial flagellum motor, the ATP synthase, the kinesin motor, or topoisomerases (DNA winding engines) cannot be explained in terms of gradual ‘descent with modification.’ Behe’s later books have only strengthened the case for design (e.g., see reviews of The Edge of Evolution and Darwin Devolves). No evolutionist has advanced any workable hypothesis for how such biochemical and molecular systems could evolve in a step-by-step fashion. For instance, it can be calculated that a chain of 200 amino acids (a chain much smaller than required to construct the above mentioned machines) would take 10130 trials before the correct functioning sequence would be selected for. Therefore, even in the supposed 13.8 billion year age of the universe, Dawkins’ ‘Mount improbable’ could never be climbed.
Brierley lets Collins’ answer go unchallenged and passes the soft-ball question to Dawkins, who in turn poses a most serious challenge to theistic evolution:
DAWKINS: …let’s just stick to evolution for the moment. I think if I were God and I wanted to create life, maybe even human life, which is part of the expectation of a religious person, I think I would not use such a wasteful, long, drawn-out process. I think I would just go for it! I mean, why would you choose natural selection, which has the possibly unfortunate property that it could have come about without you? Why would God have chosen this mechanism to unfold His design? He chose the very mechanism which actually makes Him superfluous! Admittedly, He could have started it off? … God the experiment is another matter, if His aim was an experiment: “I wonder what would happen if I set up a primeval self-replicating molecule and then leave it to see what happens?”—that would be a really interesting experiment! And if God’s an experimenter, I sympathize with that. But if you wanted to make complex life, I think I wouldn’t choose that astonishingly wasteful, profligate, cruel way—natural selection is cruel!
Dawkins’ first theological argument is weak: “if I were God”—fallen, fallible humans cannot assume to know what was in the mind of the Creator (Isaiah 55:8-9). However, Dawkins’ second theological argument is fatal to Collins position, that God wouldn’t use evolution to create! Why? Because evolution requires the death of the unfit, and survival of the fittest, suffering, bloodshed; as Dawkins ably puts it: “that astonishingly wasteful, profligate, cruel way—natural selection is cruel!” Christians compromising with evolution should read Dawkins’ statement and take note, as he squarely hammers the theological nail on the head—evolution is not compatible with the goodness, holiness, and perfection of God.
Although Dawkins doesn’t quote Scripture at this point (he doesn’t recognize its authority), he is biblically correct to recognize that the God of the Bible would not use evolution to create. Scripture makes clear that death, suffering, and bloodshed came as a result of the Fall of Adam into sin. Before this, God’s creation was not marred with such horrible things. The relationship between the Fall, the Curse, and the Gospel, makes it incompatible with theistic evolution. Dawkins’ quip, that God would just “go for it” makes a profound point in terms of Creation, which sounds a lot like Dawkins sympathises with Christians who believe six-day Creation and deny evolution. As he once stated in an interview on Christian TV, such people have got it right in “seeing evolution as the enemy, whereas the more … sophisticated theologians are quite happy to live with evolution—I think they’re deluded!” (see video clip of that interview).
But the point is, God told us in His Word how He created, so both Brierley and Collins should be interacting with that, but as we shall see, sadly, they don’t. Brierley comes back to Dawkins on his point about the wastefulness and nastiness of natural selection:
BRIERLEY: Well, cruel from a human perspective, in a sense, if you put a value on it, I suppose?
It’s unfortunate that Brierley doesn’t bring things back to Scripture! What does it say? Death and suffering came as a result of human sin (cf. Genesis 2:16–17, Romans 5:12, 1 Corinthians 15:22). These were not part of the natural order for millions of years before Adam rebelled, as both atheistic evolution and theistic evolution require! Furthermore, it is God’s perspective and revelation, not human perspectives, that place value on the created order. Creation’s curse (Genesis 3) was due to God’s judgement on sin, therefore death, suffering, and cruelty, are seen as cosmologically significant. Brierley’s response to Dawkins is theologically inadequate.
DAWKINS: Oh yes, in that sense, we are human. And the suffering which comes from the fact that it’s all about competition, it’s all about evading starvation. The ones that die are the ones who are starved to death, or eaten by predators, consumed by disease. It’s not a benign process at all!
Dawkins, again, pulls-no-punches and drives his point home—and every Christian needs to recognize it! Evolution is NOT the process the God of the Bible used to create! The Bible tells us that, when He looked on His completed creation, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). If God used evolution to create, He is calling death, suffering, bloodshed, cancer, disease, and sickness all “very good”! This cannot be. The well-known cartoon of Eden built on a pile of bones makes the point well: such things are not “very good”, death came after sin! Fossils are dead things, so were formed after the Fall, and mostly were the result of Noah’s Flood—God’s global judgement on sin (Genesis 6:17). If Dawkins recognized the importance for Christian faith of compromising with evolution, then he would be a very formidable debater against theistic evolutionists. However, this may be strategic on Dawkins’ part, as theistic evolutionists are close allies to the atheist’s cause.
BRIERLEY: Francis, what Richard was saying, and I think it’s a very common question, if God were going to create life, why this process, which on the face of it takes so long, is so cruel and wasteful in many ways? And arguably, Richard says, God is somewhat superfluous, so it’s hardly as though it’s providing great evidence for a designer anyway? So where do you go?
Finally, Brierley has asked Collins the ‘$64,000 question’!
COLLINS: Um, those are all really appropriate questions and I wrestle with some of those myself! Let me point out a couple of things though. One is that I don’t think the fact that it took a long time should trouble us particularly, from God’s perspective. Yes, it’s a long time for us, but again in this view, where God is pretty much outside of space and time, it’s a ‘blink of an eye’—with full knowledge of where the outcome would occur. Also, I guess Richard, one of the things that I have come really to appreciate about this model is it says that God is really interested in order. God is not so excited about the idea of just ‘snap the fingers and then here we all are!’ God wanted a universe that was going to follow these elegant mathematical laws, which by the way, is one of those signposts that I see of an intelligence behind the universe. Einstein would have agreed with that part as well. And intelligence that also wanted it to be interesting. We could get into those constants that determine the behaviour of matter and energy that seemed to be just in this precise place to make something interesting happen. [see The universe is finely tuned for life]
So if you want to accept the idea that there is some intelligence behind here—He’s a … good mathematician and physicist and seems really interested in laws of nature and natural order. And so, if you’re going to go that way and yet you still are interested in ‘Richard Dawkins coming into being’, well evolution’s a pretty darned impressive way to get there! Yes, I get it from our ‘human perspective,’ not the way we would have done it! But, I’m always a little careful when I say “well God should have done this differently because I would have had a better plan!” And I’m me and God is God!
Sadly, Collins avoids giving any biblical answers to Dawkins’ challenges, and he completely fails to deal with the fundamental theological implications. His answer is pure flimflam. He has deftly side-stepped Brierley’s question regarding the inconsistencies of God using the wasteful, blood-drenched, death-filled process of evolution (as Dawkins rightly pointed out) to create. Collins also ignores the associated, intractable, theological contradictions between this idea and Scripture which violates the holy character of God, and places death before the Fall.
Bizarrely, for a professing Christian, Collins’ answer also seems to betray a distaste for the miraculous, in his bias towards materialistic answers. Genesis 1 outlines the supernatural events of the Creation Week, which Collins seems to flippantly allude to when he says “snap the fingers and then here we all are!” He seems to think God is not “interested” in such displays of the miraculous; on-the-contrary, such demonstrations display God’s power and bring Him glory.
Furthermore, God wanting His universe to be ordered is contingent upon His having created it first. That initial creation process involved numerous miracles (God speaking things into existence) and it was therefore not constrained by the laws that He established; and this holds true in the completed creation. Or to put it another way, God, who is Spirit, and outside of time, is not bound by time, nor by the physical laws of nature He created.
Scripture makes clear that humans were created in God’s Image as the pinnacle of His creation process in order to steward his Creation (Genesis 1:28). However, Collins’ theology at this point is unbiblical; he thinks evolution is the best way for God to cause intelligent agents to arise (humorously referring to Dawkins by name). Again, this belies the fundamental problem of a good God being the prime cause of death and suffering in His creation, as opposed to the Bible’s explanation, which is the Fall, through sin. Collins dismisses the death-before-sin problem as merely a question from a ‘human perspective’. Not so! It really is a fundamental, biblical, doctrinal issue, one that is consistently ignored by theistic evolutionists because they cannot resolve the challenge within their world-view.
Collins, and many in his Biologos organisation, commit the heresy of Pelagias (c. 354–c. 418), in denying original sin (the Fall), and many also deny the historical Adam. Evolution ultimately relegates Christ’s atoning sacrifice to irrelevance, something that American atheist G. Richard Bozarth aptly stated. Yet, here we have Collins arguing along the same lines. Dawkins is having none of Collins’ attempts to make God the author of evolution; he jumps in and states the following:
DAWKINS: …[God] really, really, gets in the way of the fact that the Darwinian explanation so beautifully does away with the need for any kind of top-down design. The Darwinian explanation is a powerful antidote to the feeling that we all have, because we’re human, that when things are complicated they need to be put together by somebody, created in a top-down design kind of way. And if you really understand that the evolutionary process starts with simplicity and builds up to complexity and elegance and beauty and strong illusion of design, then to smuggle design in again at the beginning is to betray the entire enterprise which you’ve spent so long working out and building up.
The enterprise has been, we now understand, that you don’t actually need a designer to explain complexity. It really can come about, that’s a beautiful idea, the idea that complexity and the illusion of design can happen according to the unguided laws of physics. I said ‘can happen,’ now once you’ve established it can happen, to suddenly say, oh well we better have God’ … is a betrayal of that whole argument. So I want to say that design comes in late in the universe. I fully expect that elsewhere in the universe there may be creatures far more intelligent and complex than we are, but they too will have come about by the same process of gradual, incremental, step-by-step, ‘climbing up the ramp’ change. It is a betrayal of everything that Darwinism … stands for—to smuggle in a Creator once you’ve got rid of Him, then … ‘let’s just bring Him back because it feels good to bring Him’…
One can sympathise with Dawkins’ frustration that Christians like Francis Collins try so hard to make God responsible for a process (evolution) that, in his view, makes Him entirely redundant. Unsurprisingly, however, he reveals his complete materialist bias against biological design, labelling it a “strong illusion.” He also betrays his prejudice against all the known laws of chemistry and physics that conspire against an unguided, naturalistic increase in biological complexity and information. This is something Dean Kenyon, the world’s foremost advocate of evolutionary chemical predestination (abiogenesis) recognized, and he publically recanted decades ago. Dawkins views the enterprise of science as a purely material one, so contemplating divine design is, for him, a counter-productive contradiction of materialism.
Part one of this radio-broadcast review has presented some interesting dialogue between Unbelievable host Justin Brierley, geneticist Francis Collins and outspoken atheist professor Richard Dawkins. Their discussion has emphasised the complete inadequacy of a theistic evolutionist to answer the challenges of a leading proponent of atheistic evolution, when it comes to its claims for authority regarding origins. Part two will further explore the dialogue between these three men, specifically: design arguments for the existence of God; why would God use evolution; the origins of altruism, morality, and concepts of beauty.
References and notes
- justinbrierley.com. Return to text.
- premierchristianradio.com/Shows/Saturday/Unbelievable. Return to text.
- For interested readers the whole show can be seen on YouTube: Premier Unbelievable? The Big Conversation, Episode 1, Season 4, youtu.be/SQ3EU58AzFs, 20 May 2022. Return to text.
- Dawkins, R., The Blind Watchmaker, Penguin Books, London, England, p. 6, 1991. Return to text.