This is virtually two books in one - Francis Collins' "The Language of God" and Cunningham's - as the author here cites verbatim the key points made by Collins and proceeded to refute the claims he (Collins) made. The language of Cunningham was clear, precise, and devoid of emotional terminolgy. The reader is thus able to compare the two conflicting views in a rational manner. It is the sort of book a scientist would write. Cunningham was once a Christian (Roman Catholic) and he explained in his introduction what led him to the path where he is today, an atheist so far as the Christian god was concerned. He then set out how a scientist would proceed to examine the evidence and basis for the study of whether a god of the Christian variety can exist. The choices are between reason and evidence on the one hand, and unproven, subjective beliefs in the supernatural, on the other. His main attacks against the Christian criteria of an all knowing, all powerful, and all good god were based on the problem of evil and the scientific improbability of the creation of the human race in just 10,000 years. He questioned the idea of an intelligent supernatural being creating a flawed universe for the sake of human companionship. Why, he asked would such a being feel such loneliness that he would crave the fellowship of man? He challenges the assumption that the desire for moral behaviour points to the existence of a super moral being. His analysis and study of the sole basis of Christian beliefs - the Bible - is worth the price of the book alone. The greatest Christian miracle, the Resurrection of Jesus, was described in the four Gospels (all written by unknown writers) and in complete contradiction to each other. Mark's version said that when the three women appeared at the tomb, it was already opened. Matthew embellished it by describing how the stone was rolled open in front of them. Luke made no mention of the women, and John had only Mary Magdalene visiting the tomb. All other details also were at variance with each other. Cunningham pointed out that Biblical scholars found between 200,000 to 400,000 textual versions of the Bible before the present (still varied) version churches use today. He makes the point that the inerrant word of God inexplicably led to so many different Christian versions even today Greek Orthodox has 50 books in the Old Testament, the Hebrews have 39 and the Christians have 39 plus 27 New Testaments, and the Catholics have 46 in their Bible. Cunningham's clear and detailed account refuted the idea of a "free will" defence for God. Either God knows everything in advance or he does not. Either free will is truly free or it is not. One cannot have it both ways. This is just a short synopsis of Cunningham's arguments. It is worth reading them in full. Finally, he pointed out that Christian fundamentalists among many other divergent Christian groups do not accept Collins' idea of the Christian God. So where does the Christian go from here?
In this hard-hitting exposure of a well-known scientist's magical thinking, George Cunningham is doing only what is routinely done in every science department or seminar room: he is scrutinizing ideas about the world to see if they're true. The difference, of course, is that these ideas happen to be Francis Collins's Christian beliefs as spelled out in his book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. Unlike Collins, Cunningham believes that "there is an inherent conflict between a worldview that includes the supernatural and a worldview that excludes it".
Although I was familiar with many of the arguments, and despite several flaws, I found Cunningham's approach valuable and instructive. We should never tire of enquiry, of sifting and assessing the evidence for our beliefs. In this respect, Cunningham's book could be reduced to a single sentence, which appears about two-thirds of the way in: "As a scientist I would expect Collins to be more skeptical and demand some really good evidence before he accepted the New Testament stories about Jesus as true." Quite, but this point is made all the more powerful - and Collins's faith all the more astonishing - by the preceding chapters that have detailed just how awful the evidence is. As a scientist or a witness on the stand, Collins would soon be found out. As a believer, his claims too often go unchallenged. (One occasion when Collins is challenged is caught on film in Religulous [DVD], when Bill Maher suggests that the gospels are not history, and Collins retreats into the idea that they were written "within a couple of decades" of eyewitnesses.)
There is a vague feeling among religionists that different rules apply. Science - reason, logic, evidence - is all well and good when it comes to investigating the natural world, but for knowledge of the supernatural world we must defer to revelation. But there's the rub: even if there were such a thing as revelation, we would still need the best that reason, logic, evidence has to offer to figure it out, to filter the Peter Sutcliffes from the genuine voices of God, and of course to establish the existence of a supernatural agent in the first place. In his desire to reach his particular Christian revelation, Collins ignores all the scholarship and mistakenly states, "Concerns about errors creeping in by successive copying or bad translation have been mostly laid to rest by discovery of very early manuscripts." Collins cannot afford to apply the same standards to his religious beliefs as he would in the laboratory, otherwise doubt would be cast on the accuracy of the Bible, and on the truth and believability of Christianity itself. In Cunningham's words, "The whole game is riding on it."
Why bother targeting Collins? Because he is a prominent scientist and a poster boy for the propaganda campaign that there is no conflict between science and religion. Moderate religionists "use the great and deserved respect paid to Francis Collins as a scientist to bolster their position on religion" and ignore the important fact that the vast majority of scientists are unbelievers. This is worth emphasizing, given the prejudice against unbelief that continues in many parts of the world.
There are a few errors and several statements I would take issue with. For example, the Hundred Years' War was not between Catholics and Protestants, since this war came before the Reformation, although this does not detract from Cunningham's main point that one group of Christians were praying for the slaughter of their co-religionists. (As for the utility of prayer for positive ends, I agree with Cunningham's diagnosis of uselessness: "For hundreds of years millions of people's earnest prayers for peace have not prevented wars that continue to occur with increasing brutality and casualties. Prayers have not ended cancer or prevented AIDS.") Cunningham repeats the mistaken belief that scientific knowledge "is always tentative and incomplete": much of it is, of course, but there is also much knowledge that deserves to be thought of as certain and complete, for example, parts of the atomic theory. Lastly, I'm not convinced that he has a very good grasp of the philosophical problem of free will (although, again, this doesn't really damage his main argument). He thinks that to have free will is to be able to break the "chain of cause and effect and do something totally unpredictable" and that determinism and free will are incompatible.
Cunningham concludes with a rallying call to all those scientists whose silence about their unbelief provides tacit support for the idea that religion is reasonable: "Scientists must stop being intimidated by the popular acceptance of religion and courageously and compassionately confront the use of blind, irrational, Bible-based faith to influence the lives of humans throughout the world." Given that Cunningham makes a strong case against complacency, and given he has just written a whole book attacking the personal beliefs of a named individual, it is very strange that he also resorts to calling Richard Dawkins a militant atheist and accusing him of "unrestrained hostility". Setting aside that solecism, a more fitting conclusion is Cunningham's final comparison: "For science, the ultimate value is truth; for religion, the ultimate value is unquestioning faith."