Sam Harris Has More to Say About Francis Collins August 6, 2009

Sam Harris Has More to Say About Francis Collins

Sam Harris already published a much-discussed op-ed in The New York Times about why Francis Collins is a bad choice to head the National Institutes of Health.

Yesterday, he published a longer version of that piece on his website — it’s a much more pointed, in-depth explanation of why Collins shouldn’t be offered this job.

Here are just a couple excerpts:

Is it really so difficult to perceive a conflict between Collins’ science and his religion? Just imagine how scientific it would seem if Collins, as a devout Hindu, informed his audience that Lord Brahma had created the universe and now sleeps; Lord Vishnu sustains it and tinkers with our DNA (in way that respects the law of karma and rebirth); and Lord Shiva will eventually destroy it in a great conflagration.

Some readers will consider any criticism of Collins’ views to be an overt expression of “intolerance.” Indeed, when I published an abbreviated version of this essay in the New York Times, this is precisely the kind of negative response I received. For instance, the biologist Kenneth Miller claimed in a letter to the Times that my view was purely the product of my own “deeply held prejudices against religion” and that I opposed Collins merely because “he is a Christian.” Writing in the Guardian, Andrew Brown called my criticism of Collins a “fantastically illiberal and embryonically totalitarian position that goes against every possible notion of human rights and even the American constitution.” Miller and Brown seem to think that bad ideas and disordered thinking should not be challenged as long as they are associated with a mainstream religion and that to do so is synonymous with bigotry. They are not alone.

And there is also the not-so-surprising criticism of Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum‘s claim that the New Atheists hurt the cause of science with their rhetoric.

The first thing to notice is that Mooney and Kirshenbaum are confused about the nature of the problem. The goal is not to get more Americans to merely accept the truth of evolution (or any other scientific theory); the goal is to get them to value the principles of reasoning and educated discourse that now make a belief in evolution obligatory. Doubt about evolution is merely a symptom of an underlying problem; the problem is faith itself — conviction without sufficient reason, hope mistaken for knowledge, bad ideas protected from good ones, good ideas occluded by bad ones, wishful thinking elevated to a principle of salvation, etc. Mooney and Kirshenbaum seem to imagine that we can get people to value intellectual honesty by lying to them.

After reading all this, it’s easy to demonize Collins.

No doubt he’ll get the NIH appointment. And no doubt the people who need to read Harris’ piece won’t read it at all.

I think we have a better chance of making our case against Collins if we go after him if and when he uses his faith as motivation to give/deny grant money. I hope it doesn’t come to that.


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  • mike

    The link to the longer sam harris piece seems to not work. Did they take it down?

    Found the correct URL:

    http://www.reasonproject.org/archive/item/the_strange_case_of_francis_collins2/

  • Link fixed. Thanks!

  • Ron in Houston

    I’m confused.

    It’s not OK to discriminate against someone because they’re an atheist but it’s OK to discriminate against someone because they’re a theist?

    Maybe I’m missing something but that seems to be the general thrust of the arguments.

  • Here’s the thing. I think the guy deserves a chance at this job. I think he should be hammered the first time he behaves in an unconstitutional and pro-religious manner, absolutely. But because he has faith doesn’t mean he should be excluded. That’s something we see as atheists every day. It makes more sense to give the man a chance.

    Sorry, Sam. I don’t think this time I fully agree with you.

  • Ron in Houston:

    It’s not OK to discriminate against someone because they’re an atheist but it’s OK to discriminate against someone because they’re a theist?

    Veritas:

    But because he has faith doesn’t mean he should be excluded.

    Did anyone actually read the piece? It lists several specific beliefs that Collins holds which Harris believes will conflict with the position of NIH head. The mere fact that Collins is a theist is not the issue. The issue is very specific instances of Collins’ unscientific credulity.

    Certainly people are free to disagree with Harris on those points. But it’s completely disingenuous to sum up his thesis as “any theist is wrong for this job”.

  • What it all comes down to is can Collins do his science job, without interjecting in unnecessary religion? Past evidence would say no.

  • Ron in Houston

    John,

    I’m sorry but when you admit that “his credentials are impeccable” you’re pretty much making the case that you should exclude him because of his beliefs. This is no different than someone excluding you for your belief in the non-existence of God.

    Considering that most Christians will hold beliefs similar to Collins, Harris is in fact making the case that “any theist is wrong for this job.” Collins is, like Harris, just outspoken about his beliefs.

  • ThatOtherGuy

    I’m sorry but when you admit that “his credentials are impeccable” you’re pretty much making the case that you should exclude him because of his beliefs. This is no different than someone excluding you for your belief in the non-existence of God.

    Considering that most Christians will hold beliefs similar to Collins, Harris is in fact making the case that “any theist is wrong for this job.” Collins is, like Harris, just outspoken about his beliefs.

    Yes, but what you don’t seem to be getting is that Collins not only has beliefs that could interfere with his ability to lead a scientific organization, but has shown repeatedly in the past that he is unable to act like a professional and keep those beliefs under control while he does what he’s being paid to do. Someone with the same beliefs who was more able to control them would be better for the job, essentially, because they wouldn’t let them get in the way.

  • I take “his credentials are impeccable” to mean something like “he looks good on paper”. Dan Barker’s got impeccable credentials for being a Christian preacher, but I doubt anyone would give him the job, and I sure as hell wouldn’t blame them for it.

  • Aj

    Ron in Houston,

    …but it’s OK to discriminate against someone because they’re a theist?

    That’s clearly not the claim Sam Harris is making as has been pointed out to you.

    Considering that most Christians will hold beliefs similar to Collins, Harris is in fact making the case that “any theist is wrong for this job.”

    You’re clearly using the words “most” and “any” in an unusual manner. As discounting “most” Christians would not translate as discounting “any” Christian. You’re also using “Christian” and “theist” interchangeably when not all theists are Christians. I’d also like to point out that just because something is a majority position doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be disqualifying.

    …you’re pretty much making the case that you should exclude him because of his beliefs.

    On the condition that he is likely to let those beliefs influence him doing that job. Yes, that’s exactly the case that Sam Harris has been making in these two articles.

    This is no different than someone excluding you for your belief in the non-existence of God.

    If you exclude the various reasoning and argument that has been put forward so you can superficially reject Sam Harris’s concerns, then absolutely, it is no different. Also you’d have to make the case for such a belief to have a negative effect the same as Sam Harris has done for Francis Collin’s beliefs.

  • CatBallou

    Ron, you’re making the common mistake of referring to atheists as having “a belief in the non-existence of god.” This semantic trick allows the disingenuous to treat theism and atheism as simply two versions of the same concept, as if they were debating about vanilla versus chocolate or Chevy versus Ford.
    The absence of belief is not itself a belief. If it were, the word “belief” would have no meaning.

  • Gibbon

    Just one simple question that I doubt anyone, even Sam Harris, has ever addressed.

    Has Francis Collins ever let his religious beliefs get in the way of his practicing actual science?

  • Say you go to visit the doctor. You’re feeling unwell and need some help. Your doctor listens, thinks, and sends you off to a specialist, or to the pharmacist for some medicine or whatever. At no point is religion or belief mentioned, by you or by the doctor. The doctor acts professionally at all times and gives good advice.

    Now – it matters not if the doctor is an atheist, agnostic, deist, pantheist, theist or whatever.

    But if you visited another doctor – same advice, same health outcome, but all through the meeting you get told that you should be praying, or that we should be greatful to god for the health we have or that we all feel ill for a purpose.

    I’d say the second doctor was un-professional, and wrong to bring religion into the meeting. Even if you yourself were religious and even if you were the same denomination or attended the very same church, it would still be wrong of that doctor.

    The problem is that Collins believes that religion and science are not in conflict, and hence feels the need to interject religion where it does not belong and is not wanted, and where it is not right to interject. The problem is not that Collins is religious. It’s that he has this extra belief, the belief of co-existence, and it is that belief that he should be rightly discriminated on if he acts upon it.

  • Dan W

    I would be supportive of Collins if I could be certain he could avoid injecting his religion into his job as head of the NIH. However, previous evidence has me convinced that he cannot avoid injecting his religion where it does not belong, namely, into science.

  • Gibbon

    The problem is that Collins believes that religion and science are not in conflict,

    But the fact of the matter is, and I know that no one who is part of the atheist crusade against religion believes this; science and religion are not in conflict. The two don’t butt heads with one another. One facet of religion when abused CAN conflict with science, as is the case with creationism, but the whole system that is religion is not in any inherent way mutually exclusive with science.

    and hence feels the need to interject religion where it does not belong and is not wanted, and where it is not right to interject

    And who would be the judge of that? You perhaps? Or anyone else who has expressed negative thoughts regarding the personal life of Francis Collins? Jerry Coyne. Sam Harris. Richard Dawkins. And all those other atheists in the same camp as these three are, due to their biases against religion, hardly fit to make that judgment.

    I would be supportive of Collins if I could be certain he could avoid injecting his religion into his job as head of the NIH. However, previous evidence has me convinced that he cannot avoid injecting his religion where it does not belong, namely, into science.

    Why not take a measure of just his professional career then, without weighing it against his personal beliefs? Because it seems pretty clear that he has been professional and well disciplined in his work life. What if Obama had nominated Francisco Ayala instead of Collins? Would those criticisms still stand considering that Ayala is a former Dominican priest?

    As far as I can tell, these objections are nothing more than the products of personal feelings towards religion that many atheist have.

  • Lynet

    Although Collins holds views such as “science cannot explain human morality”, it is possible that he would recognise this religious viewpoint as unsuitable for influencing decisions when it comes to funding science. I think we should give Collins the benefit of the doubt. If we have reason to believe that his religion is affecting his funding decisions, then we will have cause for complaint, but right now I do not think we have a strong enough reason to believe that they will.

    As separate issue is the fact that Francis Collins has used his status as a scientist to advance religious positions in the public (not his professional scientific) sphere. This, however, is something that he has every right to do, and is completely ineligible as a reason to deny him this post. Even appearing to be trying to deny him a position for this reason causes atheists to lose valuable moral standing and should be avoided.

  • What Collins does with his own time and money is his own business. If he does god on company time, then he’s out of line.

    Gibbon – I don’t follow you on science and religion not being in conflict. I thought that at the base of religious belief is the supernatural and that belief is in direct contradiction to our scientific understanding of the universe around us. If you look at science as a process, a way of figuring out things around us, then saying, as some religious do, that science not only cannot, but will never explain (life, love, existence, etc.) but that religion can is a conflict with science. What am I not getting?

  • Aj

    Gibbon,

    But the fact of the matter is, and I know that no one who is part of the atheist crusade against religion believes this; science and religion are not in conflict. The two don’t butt heads with one another. One facet of religion when abused CAN conflict with science, as is the case with creationism, but the whole system that is religion is not in any inherent way mutually exclusive with science.

    a) Not like you’re going to back up this “fact of the matter” with any substance.

    b) They don’t but heads with each other, oh wait, changed your mind in the following sentence.

    c) Anything you can’t defend about religion is a “abuse” or “misuse” of religion, that’s a no true scotsman fallacy.

    d) Religious thinking is mutally exclusive with scientific thinking, that’s to say it’s incoherent, while individuals can compartmentalize religious thinking and scientific thinking. Religion doesn’t have to make claims that conflict or potentially conflict with science but the vast majority of religions do, the vast majority of religious people do make these claims.

    And all those other atheists in the same camp as these three are, due to their biases against religion, hardly fit to make that judgment.

    Biases for skepticism and rationality that make them very fit to make that judgement.

    Why not take a measure of just his professional career then, without weighing it against his personal beliefs?

    Purposely ignoring the times when Collins felt the need to bring his religious beliefs when addressing the public in his professional capacity, and the potential conflict of his religious beliefs with research that Harris has pointed out. Refute Harris’s articles and evidence supporting his claims, don’t ignore them completely and act as if you’re addressing anyone here.

  • Gibbon

    I thought that at the base of religious belief is the supernatural and that belief is in direct contradiction to our scientific understanding of the universe around us. … What am I not getting?

    What you aren’t getting is that religion is not something that is reducible to “belief in the supernatural”. This is probably due to me currently majoring in Religious Studies, but I’m under the impression that the basis of religious belief is what it says and how it is utilized in light of that interpretation, which has a high probability of varying from individual to individual. On top of that, the lecturers in my classes have made it clear that the supernatural should be avoided in trying to understand what religion is and what its function is.

    If you look at science as a process, a way of figuring out things around us, then saying, as some religious do, that science not only cannot, but will never explain (life, love, existence, etc.) but that religion can is a conflict with science.

    As far as I can tell science is a purely descriptive endeavour. It’s focused on describing the natural world and how it works, right down to the minutest detail. Science can’t be prescriptive. It can’t tell the teenage rape victim whether the morning after pill, or even an abortion, is the right thing to do. It can’t tell us which of two options is to be preferred. At most it can inform us.

    Religion on the other hand, is prescriptive-orientated. It sets us up and provides us with the means to making the right decisions for ourselves. The thing is that you can’t make the best decision without being properly informed; you need the best information available. But we know from creationism that myth can’t provide the best information, instead we should be using science as the primary source of information.

    Not like you’re going to back up this “fact of the matter” with any substance.

    Do you have any evidence to back up the claim that science and religion are inherently at odds with one another? Because I’ve been looking, and all I see are serious scholars of the subject, which neither Dawkins nor Harris are counted amongst; pointing out that the few cases of there being conflict are exceptions and not the rule. As well as that, there are countless people throughout history who managed to do science and maintain their religious convictions. Ibn al-Haythan. Al-Biruni. Galileo. Copernicus. Even Darwin. Its pretty clear that every religious scientist has managed to practice science without their religious lives getting in the way. And for a number of them, their religious devotion gave them the commitment and motivation to doing their science.

    They don’t but heads with each other, oh wait, changed your mind in the following sentence.

    I didn’t change my mind. I simply pointed out that one tiny fraction of what constitutes religion, in this case myth; can, when used or interpreted in a certain way, conflict with the findings of science. It is a matter of how one interprets that myth and what function it serves in the whole of any given religion, particularly in relation to the individual.

    Anything you can’t defend about religion is a “abuse” or “misuse” of religion, that’s a no true scotsman fallacy.

    I won’t argue with that. In retrospect I used the wrong language. And let’s not pretend that people such as you know what religion really is. Far more enlightened and educated individuals who have professionally studied religion their whole lives regard the attempt to define religion as an incredible difficult thing to do.

    Biases for skepticism and rationality that make them very fit to make that judgement.

    No. It’s their prejudices that make them unfit. It’s their tendency to prejudging religion as nothing more than supernatural belief or the teleological argument; that skews their perception of anything religious. In other words, their personal prejudices cloud their judgment and result in them having a very narrow and myopic view of religion.

    Purposely ignoring the times when Collins felt the need to bring his religious beliefs when addressing the public in his professional capacity, and the potential conflict of his religious beliefs with research that Harris has pointed out.

    So it is when he is addressing the public and not when he is actually on the job that he speaks about his religious beliefs? Any actual evidence that his religion has got in the way when he is on the job? Like when he was head of the Human Genome Project? Or perhaps any of his research that he has published? Don’t think that you can isolate religion to the private; it has a very important place in the public life of anyone who belongs to a religion.

    Refute Harris’s articles and evidence supporting his claims, don’t ignore them completely and act as if you’re addressing anyone here.

    Maybe I shouldn’t bother addressing you lot. You’ve all got your heads in the sand. How can you change the mind of someone who is dogmatically committed to their own narrow view of religion?

    But I will tell you this. I know what the deal with Francis Collins is. It’s a witch hunt. Plain and simple. A witch hunt against someone who is not going to hide their religion away simply to appease the anti-religion crusaders.

    Besides that I don’t think you guys are willing to listen to someone who is not an atheist, and in fact rejects atheism.

  • Aj

    Gibbon,

    Do you have any evidence to back up the claim that science and religion are inherently at odds with one another? Because I’ve been looking, and all I see are serious scholars of the subject, which neither Dawkins nor Harris are counted amongst; pointing out that the few cases of there being conflict are exceptions and not the rule. As well as that, there are countless people throughout history who managed to do science and maintain their religious convictions. Ibn al-Haythan. Al-Biruni. Galileo. Copernicus. Even Darwin. Its pretty clear that every religious scientist has managed to practice science without their religious lives getting in the way. And for a number of them, their religious devotion gave them the commitment and motivation to doing their science.

    I’m pretty sure I denied the claim was made by Sam Harris in the sense that you imply. The existence of religious people doing science is not evidence against Sam Harris’s claims, you’re completely missing the point. Perhaps deliberately missing the point, because you have not changed your tune even after this has been pointed out to you.

    Darwin lost his religious convictions partly because of the theory he was formulating. You can’t even come up with examples without mentioning one that conflicts with your argument. Richard Dawkins and Michael Shermer also lost their religious convictions after learning about the theory of evolution.

    Sam Harris was not saying that a religious scientist can’t practice science or that their religious devotion can’t motivate them. After saying that religious devotion can motivate someone to work on science it’s contradictory to claim it can’t effect science negatively. Perhaps if you read the article then you’d be able to argue against the points made, instead of the straw man you have erected to argue against instead. There are countless people throughout history who managed to do science and maintain their religious convictions in one area, where in other areas had very anti-scientific views. This has already been explained to you, but you refuse to acknowledge actual arguments made because you cannot respond to them while maintaining your fantasy.

    I didn’t change my mind. I simply pointed out that one tiny fraction of what constitutes religion, in this case myth; can, when used or interpreted in a certain way, conflict with the findings of science. It is a matter of how one interprets that myth and what function it serves in the whole of any given religion, particularly in relation to the individual.

    That “tiny fraction” is a majority of Christians in the United States, perhaps the majority of religious people. You said that religion doesn’t conflict with science before saying something that constitutes a part of religion does, and you think that is not a contradiction. That is a ridiculous insult to logic.

    So it is when he is addressing the public and not when he is actually on the job that he speaks about his religious beliefs? Any actual evidence that his religion has got in the way when he is on the job? Like when he was head of the Human Genome Project? Or perhaps any of his research that he has published? Don’t think that you can isolate religion to the private; it has a very important place in the public life of anyone who belongs to a religion.

    There are examples of beliefs Collins holds that potentially conflict with science that he will be involved with in his new job in the article by Sam Harris you obviously have not read. If you want past examples of Collins not doing science because of his beliefs then this is clearly not what Harris is claiming and I have already mentioned this to you. You have apparantly understood my statement but have decided to ask me to prove something that I do not claim, and was not claimed by Harris in the article either. Stop with the strawman, actually respond to the article and my comments, not projections from yourself.

    Many religious people do keep their beliefs private but we have already established that Collins can’t. As for addressing the public, I guess it’s fine to you that Collins after being introduced as the director of the Human Genome Project, and speaking as a scientist says things like this:

    Finally — and I echo what the preceding speaker said — this does get us into an area where you begin to wonder about our view of ourselves, especially our view of ourselves as it relates to God. If we are to transform our species in this wholesale way, what do we end up with?

    Maybe I shouldn’t bother addressing you lot. You’ve all got your heads in the sand.

    That’s funny coming from someone who still refuses to acknowledge what we are saying, and decides ignorance of our points is the best way to address us. Your hypocrisy in this regard is outstanding, I doubt many of us atheists would be capable of such pedantry.

  • Gibbon

    You know what, I’m not going to address you point by point; there’s nothing to achieve by doing that. How can you argue with someone who is unwilling to listen to opposing arguments? Isn’t even interested in understand the views of the other side? Until you start to essentially empathize with your opponent and truly understand them, you won’t be able to properly argue with them. And that’s the problem with the Atheist Crusade. Its members aren’t interested in properly understanding religion; their interests are instead in tearing down religion, which is in turn fuelled by the personal grudges they hold against it. Which boils down to the problem with the Atheist Crusade and why I would never support them. They’re preachy. No, scratch that. They’re proselytizers. Trying to convert as many people are possible to a different ideology: their ideology.

    By the way, if you’re going to accuse me of being ignorant of your arguments, I can just as easily say the same thing about you. You misinterpreted some of the things I said, and on at least one occasion you read something that wasn’t even in my comments.

    But if I understand you correctly, what you and the rest of the Atheist Crusade are arguing for is that because YOU can not conceive of how a single person can hold what APPEARS to be two contradictory beliefs, that therefore there is something wrong with said person? Have you ever given any serious consideration to the possibility that science and religion are not trying to solve the same questions?

    I thought science was more like a tool, or a method, for essentially painting an objective picture of the natural world? When were the goals of science ever focused on anything other than an understanding the natural world? When was science ever a world-view? That’s something from the Atheist Crusade that I can’t understand. How is science an ideology?

    Where did this belief come from, that science and religion are ideologies or philosophies that are competing for the same thing? Doesn’t the fact that individuals can subscribe to a religion and practice good and solid science, suggest that science and religion are not competing for the same thing? That each of them provides services that address different human needs?

    One more thing. And this is going to screw with your mind. Like I said, I’m not an atheist, but I don’t believe in any god. Nor am I an agnostic, or apatheist, or any of those other non-religious/non-theist labels.

  • Tom Smercak

    It is a shame that Collins falls into the same, transparent pattern as other religiously minded people who simply want to believe and will weave it to fit this harmony that clearly doesn’t exist between science and religion.  I salute his scientific mind and feel pity for his wish based religious views.  It isn’t even very complicated, from Richard Dawkins:  What reasons have we ever been given to take their claims (the religious) seriously?