What Francis Collins believes

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

Some time ago, I had a detailed critique of Francis Collins’s book The Language of God. Collins is a distinguished biologist who has done very good scientific work and successfully headed the massive Human Genome Project. However his book revealed the power of religion to turn its followers’ brains into mush when they discuss god and religion. It was an appalling exercise in logical fallacies and question-begging, using the common bait-and-switch argument style of arguing that since we have not yet explained how the world began, that meant that believing in the whole Jesus-god story was rational.

There was some controversy recently when Collins was nominated by president Obama to head the National Institutes of Health, the premier research agency that funds and guides medical research. The concern was whether Collins’s evangelical religious beliefs would influence his decisions over what science to pursue, and thus whether his nomination should be opposed.

I didn’t think he should be opposed. What a person believes is largely his or her own affair, as long as they do not use their official position to covertly advance a religious agenda. There is no evidence that Collins has done so in the past and we should assume that he will continue to maintain that distinction in the future, unless he starts giving us reason to think otherwise.

But having said that, it is interesting to revisit the question of what Collins believes in the light of his new position. Sam Harris listed a series of slides, presented in order, from a lecture on science and belief that 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.”

Slide 3: “After evolution had prepared a sufficiently advanced ‘house’ (the human brain), God gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the moral law), with free will, and with an immortal soul.”

Slide 4: “We humans used our free will to break the moral law, leading to our estrangement from God. For Christians, Jesus is the solution to that estrangement.”

Slide 5: “If the moral law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as good or evil. It’s all an illusion. We’ve been hoodwinked. Are any of us, especially the strong atheists, really prepared to live our lives within that worldview?”

What is interesting is how little there is to separate this set of beliefs from those of people like the Banana Man and Crocoduck, who are considered nutty religious fundamentalists, although Collins would be quick to disavow any similarities. Apart from the age of the universe and the inference that the human body was created by the process of evolution, everything that Collins believes could be the statement of beliefs of any Christian religious fundamentalist. And all of them are simply assertions, without a single shred of credible evidence to back up any of them.

This is why I have argued that the distinctions that are drawn by religious apologists between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ religion, between ‘moderate’ and ‘fundamental’ beliefs, are an illusion. Once you allow evidence-free, logic-free statements in any single area to come in through the door, rationality disappears through the window. As Bart Simpson said in trying to stop an argument between the followers of two religious sects, “The little stupid differences [between religions] are nothing next to the big stupid similarities.”

The final slide is particularly curious. He seems to be arguing that it would be uncomfortable to think that our sense of morality is an adaptation of evolution. Why? He does not seem to realize that we can have a sense of good and evil without god that can arise out of evolution. In fact that is a huge area of research. So yes, as a ‘strong atheist’, I have no trouble at all living with the worldview that the sense of morality that we possess is a product of evolution.

The real problem with Collins’s statement is that he does not seem to realize that a true scientist would not shy away from a conclusion just because he or she does not like it or because it violates a religious belief. In fact, we are obliged to accept even a highly unpalatable conclusion if that is what the evidence points to. Physicists have struggled with this for years when it comes to quantum mechanics and objective reality. You have to face up to facts. That is the only way to deal with reality effectively, not by indulging in wishful thinking about what you would like things to be and acting on those illusions.

Also, why should we consider ourselves to have been ‘hoodwinked’ by this discovery? That is like saying that pre-Copernican people who had believed in a geocentric universe had also been hoodwinked. When science uncovers new truths, it is not because nature somehow tricked us into our prior beliefs. They were held because of lack of evidence or ignorance.

It is amazing that a distinguished scientist like Collins can have views that differ so little from any other primitive belief in a Magic Man.

POST SCRIPT: Huxley vs. Orwell

A comparison of the differences between Aldous Huxley’s vision of the future in Brave New World and George Orwell’s in 1984. Who do you think turned out to be more prophetic?

(via Progressive Review)


  1. says

    excellent post; it describes my position completely. Yes, he has done good work and was, IMHO, a good pick for NIH. Yet some of his beliefs simply make no sense at all.

    But then again, even Newton believed in alchemy.

  2. Jared says

    Yes, but during Newton’s time there was no real distinction between alchemy and the rest of science. Also, there is no sharp demarcation for when alchemy became chemistry. Put another way, “yes, Newton was a mystic, but at the time there was a lot less evidence that mysticism was baseless.”

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