Francis Collins and the Intolerance of the New Atheists

Ted DavisStephen Snobelen
on March 08, 2017

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 26:28Image courtesy of Heidelberg University Library, used under the conditions of the Creative Commons licence CC-BY-SA 3.0.

#Francis Collins and the New Atheists

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: Francis 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?


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.

#New Atheists, Science, and the Roots of Religious Intolerance

Michael Reiss and the Royal Society: Charity to All (by Stephen Snobelen)

For the New Atheists, religion must be pushed into the private sphere and separated from association with science, even while scientific atheism enjoys free reign in the public sphere while associating itself with science. A pertinent example comes from Britain’s famous Royal Society, the oldest scientific body in the English-speaking world. In 2008, Michael Reiss, a leading expert on science education who is also an ordained Anglican priest (despite having a Jewish father and an agnostic mother), was forced to resign his position as Director of Science Education at the Royal Society when it was reported that he supported the teaching of creationism in UK schools. In fact, his position had been misrepresented in the media. What he had actually said was this: rather than simply dismissing any creationist beliefs amongst students, teachers “should take the time to explain how science works and why creationism has no scientific basis.” Yet the Royal Society’s fears that the misinterpretation had “led to damage to the society’s reputation” resulted in his dismissal. The prospect of Britain’s leading scientific organisation being associated with the teaching of creationism is almost comical, but evidently the Fellows of that august institution did not see the humor in it.

The controversy arising from all of this had some supporting the need for Reiss’s resignation, but others thought the Royal Society had made a big mistake. Richard Dawkins actually sympathized somewhat with Reiss’ plight, while at the same time repeating his standard attack on “the accommodationist line,” namely, “the mantra that there is ‘no conflict’ between evolution and religion” (a view that Reiss certainly holds). Biochemist and science blogger Larry Moran, who is also no friend of religion or accommodationism, was blunter and less ambivalent than Dawkins. In his opinion, Reiss’ resignation resulted from “a witch-hunt and I deplore the actions of some of my fellow scientists.”

To be clear, Reiss is in no way a creationist himself. In 2009, he signed a letter written by a number of prominent British scientists (including Richard Dawkins!) to protest a new school curriculum that did not use the term “evolution.” The following year he debated Michael Behe on Intelligent Design. Despite Reiss’ opposition to creationism and Intelligent Design, the late chemist Sir Harry Kroto defended his firing simply because, as an ordained minister, Reiss must believe in a creator. According to Kroto, many Fellows of the Royal Society “cannot see how such a person can pontificate on how to tackle this fundamentally unresolvable conflict at the science/religion interface.” Kroto declared that Reiss, “together with all religious people – whether they like it or not, whether they accept it or not – fall at the first hurdle of the main requirement for honest scientific discussion because they accept unfound dogma as having fundamental significance.” This seems tantamount to saying that only unbelievers are really qualified to be good scientists—a claim that plainly contradicts the facts, even in our modern, highly secular age.

In the wake of his unjust dismissal, however, Reiss responded with Christian charity. As BBC journalist William Crawley reported six months later, Reiss accepted the fact that “the debacle was seen by some as an ‘own-goal’ and that his comments were used by some Creationists in the culture war between evolution and creationism.” According to Crawley, “What’s remarkable is that Michael Reiss, a soft-spoken and very thoughtful man, is clearly not interested in rhetorically punishing those who misrepresented his views, or those within the science establishment who mounted a campaign which succeeded in having him removed from his Royal Society job.” When Crawley asked Reiss “if the Royal Society was a cold house for Christians, he was quick to defend his former employer,” and equally quick “to point out that some leading British Creationists were kind enough not to try to portray him as a Creationist,” despite some confusion about that in the media. In the end, those scientists who pegged him as a creationist “had trouble understanding his personal views as entirely consistent with his life-long commitment to evolutionary biology.”

The Roots of Atheist Intolerance   

In fact, many atheist or agnostic scientists form friendships with religious scientists and show them genuine respect, even while acknowledging divergent world views, just as many religious scientists befriend and respect unbelieving colleagues. Nor do scientists have a monopoly on showing mutual respect and tolerance in the face of fundamental differences.

Sadly, such attitudes are not characteristic of the public face of New Atheism. Some New Atheist scientists and their followers have replaced respect and civility with schoolyard terms of abuse that imply enlightened superiority over their opponents. (I won’t delineate these, but they aren’t hard to find.) Name-calling might seem trivial, but it is symptomatic of a deeper problem that can distort perceptions of both religion and science. You can see the effects of this kind of rhetoric in hateful comments on YouTube, news sites and especially online atheist forums, where many of the comments consist in nothing more than sneering remarks targeted at religious beliefs and the people who hold them. I hear it in the classroom from some of my science students. I have even heard from students that science professors sometimes make disparaging comments about religion in science classes.

Ted notes: Although philosopher and historian of science Michael Ruse doesn’t believe in God, he has argued in various places that evolution and Christian faith are not necessarily incompatible. (image source)

New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, and Sam Harris want to browbeat and humiliate religious scientists in the public sphere, even while they work hard to take up residence in science as its masters. Intolerance like this may well have consequences within science as well. Does this public shaming deter some talented religious people from entering science? To what degree does it cause some already in science to internalize their faith, or contribute to some abandoning it altogether? Ironically, perhaps this New Atheist intolerance actually encourages some believing scientists to speak about their faith in public.

What are the roots of this intolerance? In attempting to police science according to their own dogmatic vision of what it should be, New Atheists go far beyond the generally accepted scientific policy of adhering to methodological naturalism; they are beginning to insist on an orthodoxy based on on metaphysical naturalism. Surely, scientists should be judged on the merits of their science and not be drummed out of the scientific elite for holding religious or metaphysical positions that differ from those of the guardians of scientific atheism. As Ted Davis has pointed out, science has existed for thousands of years and flourished in a multitude of cultural, political, and metaphysical contexts. The New Atheist view that science implies or even requires metaphysical naturalism is flatly inconsistent with the historical facts. Furthermore, in a pluralist society, methodological naturalism allows everyone of whatever world view to participate in science on an equal basis. By insisting that science requires metaphysical naturalism, the New Atheists reveal themselves to be deeply illiberal opponents of religious, philosophical and cultural pluralism.

Some New Atheists go even further, and occasionally a very troubling motive emerges. As early as 2006, Sam Harris flatly proclaimed that “Science must destroy religion,” because “irreconcilable religious commitments still inspire an appalling amount of human conflict.” Harris’ concern about the abuse of religion is certainly well placed, but religion is hardly the only cultural force capable of becoming a dangerous ideology. The lust for power and the tendency to intolerance are human weaknesses, not uniquely those of religious people. Secular politics is surely no less capable of inspiring much conflict, yet Harris seems to have a special scorn for religion—and a special confidence in science to eradicate religion.

It is science “in the broadest sense, includ[ing] all reasonable claims to knowledge about ourselves and the world,” that Harris believes “must destroy religion.” Harris is obviously ignoring the very significant fact that many religious people are highly respected scientists; he must be thinking abstractly of his ideal of a pure essence of secular science. However, it is difficult to separate his notion of science from the deep hatred of religion that he has occasionally expressed. For example, when Harris was told that his “analogy between organized religion and rape is pretty inflammatory,” he responded, “I can be even more inflammatory than that. If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion.”

The late Sir Peter Medwar (image source). Ted notes: The New Atheists don’t even speak for all scientists who don’t believe in God. Nobel Laureate biologist Peter Medawar did not believe in God, but unlike the New Atheists he did not disparage religion, partly because he recognized the inability of science to answer ultimate questions.

Nevertheless, the New Atheists may have a harder time than they wish in having their way. Even while they have been very successful in securing media coverage, even their fellow unbelievers have called out the distasteful arrogance and triumphalism that the New Atheists aren’t ashamed to hide and demonstrated that their arguments aren’t as ironclad as they want you to think. Many people also realize that just as a religious demagogue does not speak for all religion, or even a particular denomination, neither does someone like Harris, Coyne, or Dawkins speak for all atheists. And, they certainly don’t speak for all science.

For any Christian who finds the arrogance and triumphalism of the New Atheists distasteful and worthy of censure, there is a helpful opportunity for careful reflection. In what ways can a believer appear similarly arrogant and triumphalistic to non-believers? The Apostle Paul provides guidance for a course of action: “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:5-6 ESV). Similarly, Peter writes: “Do no pay others back evil for evil or insult for insult. Instead, keep blessing them …” (1 Peter 3:9 ISV). A Christian setting out to respond to the New Atheists might end up engaged in self-examination about his or her own words and deeds.

Notes & References

Table of Contents

About the Authors

  • Ted Davis

    Ted Davis

    Ted Davis is Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.
  • Stephen Snobelen

    Stephen Snobelen

    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.