Francis Collins and the New Atheists

| By (guest author) on Reading the Book of Nature

Ted notes: This cartoon by George du Maurier from Punch magazine, 5 June 1880, p. 263, depicts a conversation in a Victorian club between “a rabid Evolutionist” on the left and “a mild Agnostic” on the right. The evolutionist resembles “Darwin’s Bulldog,” Thomas Henry Huxley, the person who coined the word “agnostic.” He “has been asserting the doctrines of his school with unnecessary violence,” prodding the agnostic to reply, “ALMOST THOU PERSUADEST ME TO BE A CHRISTIAN!” Those words directly quote Herod Agrippa II’s reply to Paul in Acts 26:28. Image courtesy of Heidelberg University Library, used under the conditions of the Creative Commons licence CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Introduction by Ted Davis

So far, Stephen Snobelen’s series on Science, Religion, and the New Atheists has examined the uses and abuses of the Conflict Thesis and the Myth of the Medieval Gap. Next, Dr. Snobelen turns his attention to some of the ways in which well-known New Atheist writers exhibit intolerance of religious beliefs, including the (for them) disturbing presence of sincere religious believers within the community of science itself. Special attention is given to Francis Collins as a lightning rod for such intolerance. Dr. Snobelen’s essay resumes after the next heading.

New Atheists, Religious Intolerance, and Science (by Stephen Snobelen)

New Atheists regularly charge “religionists” with intolerance. Previously, we saw how David Mills quantifies the Church’s intolerance in terms of an implied body count in the tens of millions. Mills also targets the Church for its putative intolerance towards science—an intolerance that he blames for a presumed 1500-year stifling of scientific progress. In God is Not Great (2007), the late Christopher Hitchens offered this description of organised religion: “Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience” (p. 56). Richard Dawkins (in)famously characterised God as the supremely intolerant being:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sado-masochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. (The God Delusion, p. 51)

It is rather striking how Dawkins and other New Atheists echo (consciously or not) the views of the second-century theologian Marcion, who condemned the God of the Old Testament as morally evil and guilty of acts of evil, such as violence and war. (For more on this point, see the Addendum below.) Atheist biblical studies scholar Hector Avalos penned an entire paper on this theme and entitled it, “Yahweh is a moral monster” (cited below). Ex-evangelical pastor Dan Barker uses the Dawkinsian line in the title of his 2016 book God: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction, for which Dawkins penned the forward. It is a common claim, often repeated.

French philosopher Michel Onfray is another illustrative case in point. The back cover of his book In Defence of Atheism: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism and Islam (English edition 2007), states that its contents document “the ravages of religious intolerance over the centuries.” True to this promise, much of Onfray’s text attacks religion for being hostile to rationality, liberty, pleasure and science. Of the latter, at the beginning of a section headed “negation of matter,” he writes, “In science the church has always been wrong about everything: faced with an epistemological truth, it automatically persecutes the discoverer” (p. 83). Always wrong about everything? This is hardly objective scholarship. Speaking specifically of Galileo, Onfray refers to him as “the emblematic representation of the church’s hatred for science and of the conflict between faith and reason” (p. 85). His claims in this section at times border on the hysterical. Introducing the Myth of the Medieval Gap, he blames the church for “twenty-five centuries of wasted opportunities for humankind.” This is an odd-sounding claim, but he presumably means to say that the Church wiped out all science since the time of the Pre-Socratic Greeks, who are often seen as the founders of science. Onfray adds: “We scarcely dare imagine how swiftly the West would have advanced without such sustained brutalization of science!” (p. 83) This is just one more example of the same historical nonsense peddled by David Mills.

For the New Atheists, then, an essential component of religion is intolerance—often of the worst possible kind. Christianity bears the brunt of this claim, although Islam by no means gets a pass. More than that, God himself is depicted as monstrously intolerant: surely, if the religion of the Bible is intolerant, so must be its God.

I previously raised a concern about the potential for New Atheist rhetoric to breed an intolerance of its own. Ironically, some of this intolerance arises from their own tendentious, exaggerated and sometimes outright erroneous accounts of Christian intolerance. I do not dispute that religious people and religious institutions, like non-religious people and non-religious institutions, have been or can be intolerant. My concern is about certain agenda-driven constructions of religion that actually generate more intolerance.

A special focus for New Atheists is the perceived intolerance of religion towards science. One aspect of this attitude is the view, often stated with perfect moral clarity, that religious scientists are somehow second-class citizens and an embarrassment to the noble ideals of the scientific community. In responding to the 1996 survey (cited below) by Edward J. Larson and Larry Witham, which showed that roughly 40% of scientists in the U.S. were theists, Oxford chemist Peter Atkins declared: “You clearly can be a scientist and have religious beliefs. But I don’t think you can be a real scientist in the deepest sense of the word because they are such alien categories of knowledge” (as quoted in another article by Larson and Witham).

Other atheists clearly share this view. Biologist and blogger PZ Myers gave a talk at the 2012 Freethought Festival entitled: “Scientists! If you’re not an atheist, you aren’t doing science right,” in which he argued for this position and also bragged about his arrogance. Commenting on the culture wars in the United States, physicist Lawrence Krauss contributed an opinion piece to The New Yorker called “All scientists should be militant atheists.” Not merely atheists, mind you, but militant atheists.

Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne Vs. Francis Collins: The Politics of (Anti-)Religious Intolerance


Ted notes: Physician and geneticist Francis Collins succeeded Nobel laureate James Watson as director of the Human Genome Project in 1993. Collins founded the BioLogos Foundation in November 2007 and served as its president until August 2009, when the Senate unanimously confirmed his presidential appointment to become director of the National Institutes of Health. (image source)


How does this kind of thinking play out in the real world? In July 2009, The New York Times published an op-ed by Sam Harris, who protested president Obama’s appointment of Francis Collins as director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Why the objection? It came down to Collins’ evangelical Christianity, which Harris believes is incompatible with science—even though Collins affirms evolution, is prolific in publishing scientific papers, and had an outstanding scientific track record as the head of the NIH’s Human Genome Project. By attacking Collins’ appointment, Harris illustrates the same Medieval intolerance for which some New Atheists have become infamous. Shouldn’t Collins be judged by his scientific credentials and administrative track record, rather than any personal beliefs he may have? Yet Harris views science narrowly as atheistic rather than religiously neutral. Religious scientists do not fit into this image. Yes, Collins has made his faith public, but how does that differentiate him from scientists like Atkins and Dawkins who engage openly in pro-atheist apologetics? One suspects that Harris would have celebrated, rather than castigated, the appointment of a public atheist to head the NIH. Should theists protest such an appointment? Liberal democracy allows people to be religious or not as they choose. In his fear-mongering, Harris shows himself illiberal, bigoted, and antagonistic to genuine pluralism.

Harris was not the only atheist to lament that appointment. Having already mocked Collins’ role in founding BioLogos, biologist and blogger Jerry Coyne has repeatedly challenged the legitimacy of Collins’ role in the NIH. His first comment came in May 2009, shortly after news began to surface that Collins might be tapped to head the NIH. The opening sentence reveals his attitude toward the role of religion in U.S. politics: “Well, we thought we’d seen the last of the theocracy of George W. Bush, but it apparently ain’t so.” Then he quotes a report in The Scientist about the potential appointment of Collins—a report that includes both praise for his scientific work from his soon-to-be predecessor Elias Zerhouni and a synopsis of Collins’ role in BioLogos and his book, The Language of God. Coyne goes on to call Collins’ book a “wacko book” and expresses misplaced concerns that Collins might divert NIH funds away from stem cell research (a poster on Coyne’s site named “Lord Kitchener” rightly pointed out that Collins is actually in favour of stem-cell research). Coyne added: “I’d be much more comfortable with someone whose only agenda was science, and did not feel compelled to set up a highly-publicized website demonstrating how he reconciles his science with Jesus.” But Coyne himself can hardly claim that his only agenda is science: is there not a double-standard when such an objection comes from the director of a research laboratory at the University of Chicago who also runs an atheistic blog? (Coyne retired from the university in 2015, but he founded the blog many years before that). Coyne ends with a call for Collins to resign as head of BioLogos if appointed to the NIH—which of course he did, although not in response to Coyne. All of this raises an interesting hypothetical question: if Coyne had been offered the top position at the NIH, would he have put his atheistic blog, “Why Evolution Is True,” in hiatus?

Coyne’s second response came after the announcement of Collins’ appointment. After stating that his “first reaction would be to give the guy a break, and take a wait-and-see attitude towards his stewardship of the NIH,” Coyne continues: “After all, he doesn’t seem to have let his superstition get in the way of his other administrative tasks, and he doesn’t seem to be the vindictive type, either. (I do have an NIH grant!)” Coyne’s mildly contemptuous tone is evinced in his use of the label “superstition” for a mainstream religion, yet he nevertheless affirms that Collins’ track record demonstrates that his faith does not in fact intrude into his management style. (Isn’t that what methodological naturalism is all about at the administrative level?) Despite this, Coyne adds that he wants “to emphasize again that the guy is deeply, deeply superstitious, to the point where, on his website BioLogos and his book The Language of God, he lets his faith contaminate his scientific views. So I can’t help but be a bit worried.” Now, Coyne’s own blog regularly interprets science in an atheistic way, and in his popular book Faith vs. Fact he attacks religion as unreason and anti-scientific, all the while presenting his case much less gently and diplomatically than Collins does his. Apart from anti-religious prejudice, who can say that Collins is a sinner and Coyne a saint?

To be fair, Coyne has not always gone negative on Collins. On at least one occasion, he doffed his cap to Collins for “going to bat for good science and humanitarian medicine,” while admiring Collins’ personal concern for the declining health of the famous atheist Christopher Hitchens, who died the following year. “Any Christian who would try to cure the world’s most vocal atheist,” Coyne confessed, “is a Christian I can appreciate.” (Wouldn’t it be interesting if Coyne looked further into the connection between Collins’ supposedly “superstitious” faith and his concern for the dying Hitchens?) And, Coyne was good enough to acknowledge Collins’ support of stem cell research despite his earlier misstatement, though not without also taking a dig at other religious people who oppose it.

For the most part, however, Coyne has attacked Collins. This includes posting Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s criticism of the NIH appointment, expressing “serious misgivings” that someone as outspoken as Collins about his religious beliefs would be “a public face of science.” Elsewhere, Coyne rails against Collins’ rejection of the Conflict Thesis and strenuously objects to National Geographic magazine for allowing Collins to “spout theology” in a short piece called: “Why I’m a man of science—and faith.” There Coyne mocks Collins’ account (in The Language of God, p. 225) of how the sight of a frozen waterfall on a nature walk helped stimulate his conversion from atheism to Christianity. Given that Coyne himself has described how his own “vague beliefs in a God were abandoned almost instantly when, at seventeen, I was listening to the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album” (Faith vs. Fact, p. xiii), one is faced with questions of fairness and consistency. In fact, these experiences of both Collins and Coyne were deeply subjective and profoundly personal: they should be respected as such. I fail to see why either authentic experience should be mocked.

After Collins released his edited book, Belief: Readings on the Reason for Faith (2010), Coyne wrote a blog entitled “Francis Collins can’t help himself,” in which he said:

I was under the impression that when Collins came aboard as NIH director, he was going to give up the public religious proselytizing, or at least his penchant for telling everyone the Good News: science proves the existence of God. I was wrong.

Since Coyne’s wish was not fulfilled, he concludes by calling for Collins’ resignation, saying, “He’s the chief government scientist, but he won’t stop conflating science and faith. He had his chance, and he blew it. He should step down.” Is Coyne saying that a Christian who heads a government scientific agency must never speak about his or her faith? Or, is the real problem (for Coyne) that an evangelical Christian can be at the top of his or her scientific field and lead a major government scientific institution—and thus show in a highly visible manner that a life of faith can be combined not only with everyday science, but with the best and most innovative science?

ADDENDUM:

Marcion of Sinope (ca. 85–160) made a radical distinction between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament, a position he set out in his treatise Antithesis. He believed the Creator God depicted in the Hebrew Scriptures is morally evil, created an imperfect (and probably evil) world, and is guilty of evil acts and inconsistencies. Marcion held that only the Father of Jesus as portrayed in the Christian Scriptures is the God of love and the true, transcendent God, who is not to be blamed for the imperfect material world. His views are similar to early Gnosticism and are generally viewed as heretical by both Catholics and Protestants.

Looking Ahead

Dr. Snobelen’s discussion of intolerance continues next week, when we cross the pond and examine some British examples.


Notes

Citations

MLA

Snobelen , Stephen. "Francis Collins and the New Atheists"
http://biologos.org/. N.p., 8 Mar. 2017. Web. 25 June 2017.

APA

Snobelen , S. (2017, March 8). Francis Collins and the New Atheists
Retrieved June 25, 2017, from http://biologos.org/blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/francis-collins-and-the-new-atheists

References & Credits

References and Suggestions for Further Reading

An earlier version of this essay was published as Stephen D. Snobelen, “Science, Religion and the New Atheism,” in The New Atheism, ed. Susan Harris (Charlottetown: St. Peter Publications, 2013), pp. 109-44. BioLogos and the author are grateful to St. Peter Publications (the only source for purchasing this book) for permission to publish this updated version online.

In addition to the sources embedded in the text, Dr. Snobelen cites:

Victor Avalos, “Yahweh is a moral monster,” in The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails (2010), ed. John W. Loftus (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2010), pp. 209-36, a response to an essay by Christian philosopher Paul Copan, “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? The New Atheists and Old Testament Ethics”, Philosophia Christi 10 (2008): 7-37.

Edward J. Larson and Larry Witham, “Scientists are still keeping the faith,” Nature 386 (2 April 1997): 435–36. That article is not available without a subscription, but readers can get a good sense of its content here, and from a subsequent article by the authors, which includes the quotation from Peter Atkins originally from Roger Highfield, “Disbelief Proves to Be a Constant Among Scientists,” Daily Telegraph, 3 April 1997, p. 4.

Dr. Snobelen wrote a letter to the New York Times replying to Sam Harris’s Op-Ed piece, but the newspaper chose not to publish it. For other reactions to Francis Collins’ appointment to the NIH, including high praise from a former NIH director, Nobel laureate Harold Varmus, see “NIH nominee draws scrutiny,” Nature 460 (16 July 2009): 310-11. In Discover magazine, Chris Mooney objected to criticism of Collins’ appointment due to his religious beliefs and asked the question: “Is non-supernaturalism being proposed as a criterion for holding a high level science policy position?” Chris Wilson wrote a fairly balanced report for Slate, despite an overly dramatic title, “Jesus goes to Bethesda.” Also see David Brown “Obama picks Francis Collins as new NIH Director,” in The Washington Post; Gardiner Harris, “For N.I.H. chief, issues of identity and culture,” in The New York Times; and Amanda Gefter, “New détente in science-religion war?,” in New Scientist.

About the Author

Dr. Snobelen's research and teaching interests include history of science (early modern and nineteenth century), science and religion, science in popular culture, the popularization of science, radical theology in the early modern period, and millenarianism. His primary research efforts are currently devoted to interpreting Isaac Newton’s theological manuscripts and understanding the relationships between Newton’s science and his religion.

Dr. Snobelen has consulted for and appeared in television documentaries on Isaac Newton, including Newton: The Dark Heretic. His most popular course is on science fiction film, which he uses to introduce historical, philosophical, and ethical themes about science and technology to undergraduates in the humanities, sciences, and engineering. He and his wife Julia have four children who help keep them grounded in the more important things of life.

 

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