Monday’s edition of The New York Times features Sam Harris weighing in on the Francis Collins debate.
The issue: Collins is a brilliant scientist/geneticist recently appointed to head the National Institutes of Health. Collins is also an evangelical Christian. Should we be concerned?
Harris answers that last question with a definitive “Yes”:
What follows are a series of slides, presented in order, from a lecture on science and belief that Dr. Collins gave at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2008:
Slide 1: “Almighty God, who is not limited in space or time, created a universe 13.7 billion years ago with its parameters precisely tuned to allow the development of complexity over long periods of time.”
Slide 2: “God’s plan included the mechanism of evolution to create the marvelous diversity of living things on our planet. Most especially, that creative plan included human beings.”
Harris goes on for a few more slides…
Then we get to the point:
There is an epidemic of scientific ignorance in the United States. This isn’t surprising, as very few scientific truths are self-evident, and many are counterintuitive. It is by no means obvious that empty space has structure or that we share a common ancestor with both the housefly and the banana. It can be difficult to think like a scientist. But few things make thinking like a scientist more difficult than religion.
As someone who believes that our understanding of human nature can be derived from neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science and behavioral economics, among others, I am troubled by Dr. Collins’s line of thinking. I also believe it would seriously undercut fields like neuroscience and our growing understanding of the human mind. If we must look to religion to explain our moral sense, what should we make of the deficits of moral reasoning associated with conditions like frontal lobe syndrome and psychopathy? Are these disorders best addressed by theology?
Harris isn’t suggesting Collins not accept the NIH position or that he never should have been appointed in the first place. He’s simply pointing out that Collins’ beliefs are troubling.
He’s right; they are.
I became an atheist over a decade ago, but it has taken me a long time to come to grips with the fact that science and religion are simply not compatible. I wanted to believe they could be — I really did — but I’m now convinced that’s not possible. Either you accept what science reveals to us wholeheartedly or you don’t (because you think God can intervene and perform “miracles” that contradict science and whatnot). You can’t have it both ways.
Despite all this, I still think Collins is a good choice for the head of the NIH because I have faith he will not use his position to evangelize and he will do what is best for science to progress.
While we’re at it, I also think Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum make a strong point when they write that atheists who say that science and religion are incompatible hurt the cause for science. But it’s not because the atheists are wrong. Instead, it’s because it’s just too hard a pill for most people to swallow.
Religious people need to come to atheism on their own, in small steps. It’s not nearly as effective to have an atheist with a megaphone pointing out that science teaches us that just about everything you know about your god is wrong. That rubs them the wrong way, even though the atheists are right.
Collins isn’t helping atheists make that case. Nor should he be.
My hope is that while in the NIH position, Christians can learn to accept certain scientific truths (like evolution occurring over millions of years) and we see fewer battles over science in the courtroom.
Meanwhile, atheists need to continue raising questions, speaking out, pointing out contradictions inherent if you accept both science and religion, and reminding others that Collins’ beliefs (in both science and religion) cannot logically be compatible.
A lot of small steps are needed, but we need to start somewhere. Collins’ position may be one way to push the dialogue in our direction.