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The Strange Case of Francis Collins


Posted: August 5, 2009.

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By
Sam Harris

[Author’s Note: My recent op-ed in the New York Times, in which I questioned the appointment of Francis Collins as head of the NIH, inspired a fair amount of discussion in the media and on the Internet. As many of Collins’ defenders do not seem to be fully acquainted with his beliefs, or take it for granted that others won’t be, I have written a longer essay on the subject. While most of this material is new, a few passages were previously published.]


It is widely claimed that there can be no conflict, in principle, between science and religion because many scientists are themselves “religious,” and some even believe in the God of Abraham and in the truth of ancient miracles. Even religious extremists value some of the products of science—antibiotics, computers, bombs, etc.—and these seeds of inquisitiveness, we are told, can be patiently nurtured in a way that offers no insult to religious faith.

This prayer of reconciliation goes by many names and now has many advocates. But it is based on a fallacy. The fact that some scientists do not detect any problem with religious faith merely proves that a juxtaposition of good ideas/methods and bad ones is possible. Is there a conflict between marriage and infidelity? The two regularly coincide. The fact that intellectual honesty can be confined to a ghetto—in a single brain, in an institution, in a culture, etc—does not mean that there isn’t a perfect contradiction between reason and faith, or between the worldview of science taken as a whole and those advanced by the world’s “great,” and greatly discrepant, religions.

What can be shown by example is how poorly religious scientists manage to reconcile reason and faith when they actually attempt to do so. Few such efforts have received more public attention than the work of Francis Collins.  At the time of this writing, Collins seems destined to be the next director of the National Institutes of Health.  One must admit that his credentials are impeccable: he is a physical chemist, a medical geneticist, and the former head of the Human Genome Project. He is also, by his own account, living proof that there is no conflict between science and religion. In 2006, Collins published a bestselling book, The Language of God, in which he claims to demonstrate “a consistent and profoundly satisfying harmony” between 21st-century science and Evangelical Christianity. Let it be known that “consistency” and “harmony” can be in the eye of the beholder.

In fact, to read The Language of God is to witness nothing less than an intellectual suicide. It is, however, a suicide that has gone almost entirely unacknowledged: The body yielded to the rope; the neck snapped; the breath subsided; and the corpse dangles in ghastly discomposure even now—and yet, polite people everywhere continue to celebrate the great man’s health.

Dr. Collins is regularly praised by his fellow scientists for what he is not: he is not a “young earth creationist,” nor is he a proponent of “intelligent design.” Given the state of the evidence for evolution, these are both very good things for a scientist not to be. But as director of the institutes, Collins will have more responsibility for biomedical and health-related research than any person on earth, controlling an annual budget of more than $30 billion. He will also be one of the foremost representatives of science in the United States. For this reason, it is important to understand Collins’ religious beliefs as they relate to scientific inquiry.

Here is how Collins, as a scientist and educator, currently summarizes his understanding of the universe for the general public (what follows are a series of slides, presented in order, from a lecture 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 use 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?

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 a way that respects the law of karma and rebirth); and Lord Shiva will eventually destroy it in a great conflagration.

It is worth recalling in this context that it is, in fact, possible for a brilliant scientist to destroy his career by saying something stupid. James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, a Nobel laureate, and the original head of the Human Genome Project, recently accomplished this feat by asserting in an interview that people of African descent appear to be innately less intelligent than white Europeans. A few sentences, spoken off the cuff, resulted in academic defenestration: lecture invitations were revoked, award ceremonies cancelled, and Watson was forced to immediately resign his post as chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Watson’s opinions on race are disturbing, but his underlying point was not, in principle, unscientific. There may very well be detectable differences in intelligence between races. Given the genetic consequences of a population living in isolation for tens of thousands of years it would, in fact, be very surprising if there were no  differences between racial or ethnic groups waiting to be discovered. I say this not to defend Watson’s fascination with race, or to suggest that such race-focused research might be worth doing. I am merely observing that there is, at least, a possible scientific basis for his views. While Watson’s statement was obnoxious, one cannot say that his views are utterly irrational or that, by merely giving voice to them, he has repudiated the scientific worldview and declared himself immune to its further discoveries. Such a distinction would have to be reserved for Watson’s successor at the Human Genome Project, Dr. Francis Collins.


Early in his career as a physician, Collins encountered a woman suffering from severe angina who appeared to take great comfort in her faith. She put the young doctor on the spot by asking him what he believed. This question shook Collins to his core. He says, “suddenly all my arguments seemed very thin, and I had the sensation that the ice under my feet was cracking.” Collins assures us that up until this moment he had been a staunch atheist.

How something breaks often says a lot about what it was. Collins’s claim to have been an atheist seems especially suspect, given that he does not understand what the position of atheism actually entails. For instance:

If God is outside of nature, then science can neither prove nor disprove his existence. Atheism itself must therefore be considered a form of blind faith, in that it adopts a belief system that cannot be defended on the basis of pure reason. (Collins, 2006, p.165)

Elsewhere he says that of “all the possible worldviews, atheism is the least rational” (Ibid, p. 231). I suspect that this will not be the last time a member of our species will be obliged to make the following point (but one can always hope): disbelief in the God of Abraham does not require that one search the entire cosmos and find Him absent; it only requires that one consider the evidence put forward by believers to be insufficient. Presumably Francis Collins does not believe in Zeus. I trust he considers this skeptical attitude to be fully justified. Might this be because there are no good reasons to believe in Zeus? And what would he say to a person who claimed that disbelief in Zeus is a form of “blind faith” or that of all possible worldviews it is the “least rational”?

After being destabilized by his patient’s faith, Collins attempted to fill the God-shaped hole in his life by studying the world’s major religions. He admits, however, that he did not get very far with this research before seeking the tender mercies of “a Methodist minister who lived down the street.” In fact, Collins’ ignorance of world religion is prodigious. For instance, he regularly repeats the Christian talking point about Jesus being the only person in human history who ever claimed to be God (as though this would render the opinions of an uneducated carpenter of the 1st century especially credible). Collins seems oblivious to the fact that saints, yogis, charlatans, and schizophrenics by the thousands claim to be God at this very moment, and it has always been thus. Forty years ago, a very unprepossessing Charles Manson convinced a rather large band of misfits in the San Fernando Valley that he was both God and Jesus. (Should we consult Manson on questions of cosmology? He still walks among us—or at least sits—in Corcoran State Prison.) The fact that Collins, as both a scientist and as an influential apologist for religion, repeatedly emphasizes the silly fiction of Jesus’ singular self-appraisal is one of many embarrassing signs that he has lived too long in the echo chamber of Evangelical Christianity.

But the pilgrim continues his progress. Next, we learn that Collins’ uncertainty about the identity of God could not survive a collision with C.S. Lewis. The following passage from Lewis proved decisive:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—- on a level with the man who says He is a poached egg—- or else He would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

Collins provides this text for our contemplation and then describes how it boosted him over the church transom:

Lewis was right. I had to make a choice. A full year had passed since I decided to believe in some sort of God, and now I was being called to account. On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains during my first trip west of the Mississippi, the majesty and beauty of God’s creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ. (Ibid, p. 225)

It is simply astounding that this passage was written by a scientist with the intent of demonstrating the compatibility of faith and reason. While Collins argues for the rational basis of his faith, passages like this make it clear that he “decided” (his word) to believe in God for emotional reasons. And if we thought Collins’ reasoning could grow no more labile, he has since divulged that the waterfall was frozen into three streams, which put him in mind of the Holy Trinity.

It should be obvious that if a frozen waterfall can confirm the specific tenets of Christianity, anything can confirm anything. But this truth was not obvious to Collins as he “knelt in the dewy grass,” and it is not obvious to him now. Indeed, it does not seem to be obvious to the editors of Nature. This journal, which remains the most influential scientific publication on earth, praised Collins for engaging “with people of faith to explore how science — both in its mode of thought and its results — is consistent with their religious beliefs.” According to Nature, Collins was engaged in the “moving” and “laudable” exercise of building “a bridge across the social and intellectual divide that exists between most of US academia and the so-called heartlands.” And here is Collins, hard at work on that bridge:

As believers, you are right to hold fast to the concept of God as Creator; you are right to hold fast to the truths of the Bible; you are right to hold fast to the conclusion that science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence; and you are right to hold fast to the certainty that the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted…. (Collins, 2006, p.178)

God, who is not limited to space and time, created the universe and established natural laws that govern it. Seeking to populate this otherwise sterile universe with living creatures, God chose the elegant mechanism of evolution to create microbes, plants, and animals of all sorts. Most remarkably, God intentionally chose the same mechanism to give rise to special creatures who would have intelligence, a knowledge of right and wrong, free will, and a desire to seek fellowship with Him. He also knew these creatures would ultimately choose to disobey the Moral Law. (Ibid, p. 200-201)

Imagine: the year is 2006; half of the American population believes that the universe is 6,000 years old; our president had just used his first veto to block federal funding for the most promising medical research on religious grounds; and one of the foremost scientists in the land had that to say, straight from the heart (if not the brain).

Collins has since started an organization called the BioLogos Foundation, whose purpose (in the words of its mission statement) is to demonstrate “the compatibility of the Christian faith with what science has discovered about the origins of the universe and life.” BioLogos is funded by the Templeton Foundation, a religious organization that, because of its astonishing wealth, has managed to purchase the complicity of otherwise secular scientists as it seeks to re-brand religious faith as a legitimate arm of science.[1]

Would Collins have received the same treatment in Nature if he had argued for the compatibility between science and witchcraft, astrology, or Tarot cards? Not a chance. In fact, we can be confident that his scientific career would have terminated in an inferno of criticism.[2] 

As should come as no surprise, once the eyes of faith have opened, confirmation is everywhere. Here Collins considers whether to accept the directorship of the Human Genome Project:

I spent a long afternoon praying in a little chapel, seeking guidance about this decision. I did not “hear” God speak—in fact, I’ve never had that experience. But during those hours, ending in an evensong service that I had not expected, a peace settled over me. A few days later, I accepted the offer. (p. 119)

One hopes to see, but does not find, the phrase “Dear Diary” framing these solemn excursions from honest reasoning. Again we find a peculiar emphasis on the most unremarkable violations of expectation: Just as Collins had not expected to see a frozen waterfall, he had not expected an evensong service. How unlikely would it be to encounter an evensong service (generally celebrated just before sunset) while spending “a long afternoon praying in a little chapel”? And what of Collins’ feeling of “peace”? We are clearly meant to view it as some indication, however slight, of the veracity of his religious beliefs. Elsewhere in his book Collins states, correctly, that “monotheism and polytheism cannot both be right.” But doesn’t he think that at some point in the last thousand years a Hindu or two has prayed in a temple, perhaps to the elephant-headed god Ganesh, and experienced similar feelings of peace? What might he, as a scientist, make of this fact?[3]


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 deeply 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 (even, we have begun to see, if one is a scientist). But it would seem that few things make thinking like a scientist more difficult than religion.

Collins argues that science makes belief in God “intensely plausible”—the Big Bang, the fine-tuning of Nature’s constants, the emergence of complex life, the effectiveness of mathematics, all suggest to him that a “loving, logical, and consistent” God exists; but when challenged with alternate (and far more plausible) accounts of these phenomena—or with evidence that suggests that God might be unloving, illogical, inconsistent, or, indeed, absent—Collins declares that God stands outside of Nature, and thus science cannot address the question of His existence at all. Similarly, Collins insists that our moral intuitions attest to God’s existence, to His perfectly moral character, and to His desire to have fellowship with every member of our species; but when our moral intuitions recoil at the casual destruction of innocent children by, say, tidal wave or earthquake, Collins assures us that our time-bound notions of good and evil can’t be trusted and that God’s will is a mystery.[4]

Like most Christians, Collins believes in a suite of canonical miracles, including the virgin birth and literal resurrection of Jesus Christ. He cites N.T. Wright and John Polkinghorne as the best authorities on these matters, and when pressed on points of theology, he recommends that people read their books for further illumination. To give the reader a taste of this literature, here is Polkinghorne describing the physics of the coming resurrection of the dead:

If we regard human beings as psychosomatic unities, as I believe both the Bible and contemporary experience of the intimate connection between mind and brain encourage us to do, then the soul will have to be understood in an Aristotelian sense as the “form,” or information-bearing pattern, of the body. Though this pattern is dissolved at death it seems perfectly rational to believe that it will be remembered by God and reconstituted in a divine act of resurrection. The “matter” of the world to come, which will be the carrier of the reembodiment, will be the transformed matter of the present universe, itself redeemed by God beyond its cosmic death. The resurrected universe is not a second attempt by the Creator to produce a world ex nihilo but it is the transmutation of the present world in an act of new creation ex vetere. God will then truly be “all in all” (1Cor.15:28) in a totally sacramental universe whose divine infused “matter” will be delivered from the transience and decay inherent in the present physical process. Such mysterious and exciting beliefs depend for their motivation not only on the faithfulness of God, but also on Christ’s resurrection, understood as the seminal event from which the new creation grows, and indeed also on the detail of the empty tomb, with its implication that the Lord’s risen and glorified body is the transmutation of his dead body, just as the world to come will be the transformation of this present mortal world. [Polkinghorne JC (2003) Belief in God in an age of science. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. pp. 22-23]

These beliefs are, indeed, “mysterious and exciting.” As it happens, Polkinghorne is also a scientist. The problem, however, is that it is impossible to differentiate his writing on religion—which now fills an entire shelf of books—from an extraordinarily patient Sokal-style hoax.[5]  If one intended to embarrass the religious establishment with carefully constructed nonsense, this is exactly the sort of pseudo-science, pseudo-scholarship, and pseudo-reasoning one would employ. Unfortunately, I see no reason to doubt Polkinghorne’s sincerity. Neither, it would seem, does Francis Collins.

Even for a scientist of Collins’ stature, who has struggled to reconcile his belief in the divinity of Jesus with modern science, it all boils down to the “empty tomb.” Indeed, Collins freely admits that if all his scientific arguments for the plausibility of God were proven to be in error, his faith would be undiminished, as it is founded upon the belief, shared by all serious Christians, that the Gospel account of the miracles of Jesus is true. For a scientist, Collins speaks with remarkable naïveté about the Gospel account being the “record of eyewitnesses.” Biblical scholars generally agree that the earliest Gospel, the Gospel of Mark, was written several decades after the events it purports to describe. Of course, no one has access to the original manuscript of Mark, or of any of the other Gospels: rather, there are thousands of fragmentary copies of copies of copies, many of which show obvious errors or signs of later interpolation. The earliest of these fragments dates to second century, but for many other sections of the text we must rely on copies that were produced centuries later. One would hope that a scientist might see that these disordered and frequently discordant texts constitute a rather precarious basis for believing in the divinity of Jesus.

But the problem is actually much worse than this: for even if we had multiple, contemporaneous, first-hand accounts of the miracles of Jesus, this would still not constitute sufficient support for the central tenets of Christianity. Indeed, first-hand accounts of miracles are extremely common, even in the 21st century. I’ve met scores of educated men and women who are convinced that their favorite Hindu or Buddhist guru has magic powers, and many of the miracles that they describe are every bit as outlandish as those attributed to Jesus. Stories about yogis and mystics walking on water, raising the dead, flying without the aid of technology, materializing objects, reading minds, foretelling the future are circulating right now, in communities where the average levels of education, access to information, and skeptical doubt are far higher than we would expect of first century fishermen and goatherds.

In fact, all of Jesus’ powers have been attributed to the South Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba by vast numbers of eyewitnesses who believe that he is a living god. The man even claims to have been born of a virgin.[6] Collins’ faith is predicated on the claim that miracle stories of the sort that today surround a person like Sathya Sai Baba—and do not even merit an hour on the Discovery Channel—somehow become especially credible when set in the pre-scientific religious context of the 1st century Roman Empire, decades after their supposed occurrence, as evidenced by discrepant and fragmentary copies of copies of copies of ancient Greek manuscripts.[7]  It is on this basis that the future head of the NIH recommends that we believe the following propositions:

1. Jesus Christ, a carpenter by trade, was born of a virgin, ritually murdered as a scapegoat for the collective sins of his species, and then resurrected from death after an interval of three days.

2. He promptly ascended, bodily, to “heaven”—where, for two millennia, he has eavesdropped upon (and, on occasion, even answered) the simultaneous prayers of billions of beleaguered human beings.

3. Not content to maintain this numinous arrangement indefinitely, this invisible carpenter will one day return to earth to judge humanity for its sexual indiscretions and skeptical doubts, at which time he will grant immortality to anyone who has had the good fortune to be convinced, on mother’s knee, that this baffling litany of miracles is the most important series of truth-claims ever revealed about the cosmos.

4. Every other member of our species, past and present, from Cleopatra to Einstein, no matter what his or her terrestrial accomplishments, will be consigned to a far less desirable fate, best left unspecified.

5. In the meantime, God/Jesus may or may not intervene in our world, as He pleases, curing the occasional end-stage cancer (or not), answering an especially earnest prayer for guidance (or not), consoling the bereaved (or not), through His perfectly wise and loving agency.

How many scientific laws would be violated by such a scheme? One is tempted to say “all of them.” And yet, judging from the way that journals like Nature have treated Collins, one can only conclude that there is nothing in the scientific worldview, or in the intellectual rigor and self-criticism that gave rise to it, that casts these convictions in an unfavorable light.

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.[8]  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.”[9]  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.

There is now a large and growing literature—spanning dozens of books and hundreds of articles—attacking Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and me (the so-called “New Atheists”) for our alleged incivility, bias, and ignorance of how “sophisticated” believers practice their faith. It is often said that we caricature religion, taking its most extreme forms to represent the whole. We do no such thing. We simply do what a paragon of sophisticated faith like Francis Collins does: we take the specific truth claims of religion seriously.

Many of our critics also worry that if we oblige people to choose between reason and faith, they will choose faith and cease to support scientific research. If, on the other hand, we ceaselessly reiterate that there is no conflict between religion and science, we can hope to cajole great multitudes into accepting the truth of evolution (as though this were an end in itself). Here is a version of this charge that, I fear, most people would accept:

If the goal is to create an America more friendly toward science and reason, the combativeness of the New Atheists is strongly counterproductive. If anything, they work in ironic combination with their dire enemies, the anti-science conservative Christians who populate the creation science and intelligent design movements, to ensure we’ll continue to be polarized over subjects like the teaching of evolution when we don’t have to be. America is a very religious nation, and if forced to choose between faith and science, vast numbers of Americans will select the former. The New Atheists err in insisting that such a choice needs to be made. Atheism is not the logically inevitable outcome of scientific reasoning, any more than intelligent design is a necessary corollary of religious faith. A great many scientists believe in God with no sense of internal contradiction, just as many religious believers accept evolution as the correct theory to explain the development, diversity, and inter-relatedness of life on Earth. The New Atheists, like the fundamentalists they so despise, are setting up a false dichotomy that can only damage the cause of scientific literacy for generations to come. It threatens to leave science itself caught in the middle between extremes, unable to find cover in a destructive, seemingly unending, culture war. [Mooney C, Kirshenbaum S (2009) Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future New York: Basic Books. pp. 97-98]

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.

While it is invariably advertised as an expression of “respect” for people of faith, this accommodationism is nothing more than naked condescension, motivated by fear. Mooney and Kirshenbaum assure us that people will choose religion over science, no matter how good a case is made against religion. In certain contexts, this fear is probably warranted. I wouldn’t be eager to spell out the irrationality of Islam while standing in the Great Mosque in Mecca. But let’s be honest about how Mooney and Kirshenbaum view public discourse in the United States: watch what you say, or the Christian mob will burn down the library of Alexandria all over again. By comparison, the “combativeness” of the “New Atheists” seems entirely collegial. We merely assume that our fellow Homo sapiens possess the requisite intelligence and emotional maturity to respond to rational argument, satire, and ridicule on the subject of religion—just as they respond to these discursive pressures on all other subjects. Of course, we could be wrong. But let’s admit which side in this debate currently views our neighbors as dangerous children and which views them as adults who might prefer not to be utterly mistaken about the nature of reality.

Finally, we come to the kernel of confusion that has been the subject of this essay—the irrelevant claim that “a great many scientists believe in God with no sense of internal contradiction.”[10] The fact that certain people can reason poorly with a clear conscience—or can do so while saying that they have a clear conscience—proves absolutely nothing about the compatibility of specific ideas, goals, and modes of thought. It is possible to be wrong and to not know it (we call this “ignorance”). It is possible to be wrong and to know it, but to be reluctant to incur the social cost of admitting this publicly (we call this “hypocrisy”). And it may also be possible to be wrong, to dimly glimpse this fact, but to allow the fear of being wrong to increase one’s commitment to one’s erroneous beliefs (we call this “self-deception”). It seems clear that these frames of mind do an unusual amount of work in the service of religion.

The world’s religions are predicated on the truth of specific doctrines that have been growing less plausible by the day. While the ultimate relationship between consciousness and matter has not been entirely settled, any naïve conception of a soul can now be jettisoned on account of the mind’s obvious dependency upon the brain. The idea that there might be an immortal soul capable of reasoning, feeling love, remembering life events, etc, all the while being metaphysically independent of the brain becomes untenable the moment we realize that damage to the relevant neural circuits obliterates these specific capacities in a living person. Does the soul of a completely aphasic patient still speak and think fluently? This is like asking whether the soul of a diabetic produces abundant insulin. What is more, the specific character of the mind’s dependency on the brain suggests that there cannot be a unified subject lurking behind all of the brain’s functionally distinct channels of processing. There are simply too many separable components to perception and cognition—each susceptible to independent disruption—for there to be a single entity to stand as rider to the horse. 

The soul-doctrine suffers further upheaval in light of the fatal resemblance of the human brain to the brains of other animals. The obvious continuity of our mental powers with those of ostensibly soulless primates raises special difficulties. If the joint ancestors of chimpanzees and human beings did not have souls, when did we acquire ours?  Most religions ignore these awkward facts and simply assert that human beings possess a unique form of subjectivity that has no homolog among lower animals. Indeed, Collins asserts this. He claims that the human mind cannot be the product of the human brain or the human brain the product of unguided evolution: rather, at some glorious moment in the development of our species God inserted crucial components—including an immortal soul, free will, the moral law, spiritual hunger, genuine altruism, etc. This claim makes a mockery of whole fields of study—neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science, behavioral economics, among others—and, if taken seriously, would obliterate 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 autism, frontal lobe syndrome, and psychopathy? Are these disorders best addressed by theology?

According to Collins, the moral law applies exclusively to human beings:

Though other animals may at times appear to show glimmerings of a moral sense, they are certainly not widespread, and in many instances other species’ behavior seems to be in dramatic contrast to any sense of universal rightness.(Collins, 2006, p.23)

One wonders if the author has ever read a newspaper. The behavior of humans offers no such “dramatic contrast”‭?‬ How badly must human beings behave to put this “sense of universal rightness” in doubt? While no other species can match us for altruism, none can match us for sadistic cruelty either. And just how widespread must “glimmerings” of morality be among other animals before Collins—who, after all, knows a thing or two about genes—begins to wonder whether our moral sense has evolutionary precursors in the natural world? What if mice showed greater distress at the suffering of familiar mice than unfamiliar ones? (They do.[11]) What if monkeys will starve themselves to prevent their cage-mates from receiving painful shocks? (They will.[12]) What if chimps have a demonstrable sense of fairness when receiving food rewards? (They might.[13]) Wouldn’t these be precisely the sorts of findings one would expect if our morality were the product of evolution?

Collins’ case for the supernatural origin of morality rests on the further assertion that there can be no evolutionary explanation for genuine altruism. Because self-sacrifice cannot increase the likelihood that an individual creature will survive and reproduce, truly self-sacrificing behavior stands as a primordial rejoinder to any biological account of morality. In Collins’ view the mere existence of altruism offers compelling evidence of a personal God. But a moment’s thought reveals that if we were to accept this neutered biology, almost everything about us would be bathed in the warm glow of religious mystery. Does our interest in astronomy owe its existence to the successful reproduction of ancient astronomers? (What about the practices of celibacy and birth control? Are they all about reproduction too?) Collins can’t seem to see that human morality and selfless love may be elaborations of more basic biological and psychological traits, which were themselves products of evolution. It is hard to interpret this oversight in light of his scientific training. If one didn’t know better, one might be tempted to conclude that religious dogmatism presents an obstacle to scientific reasoning.


There are, of course, ethical implications to believing that human beings are the only species made in God’s image and vouchsafed with “immortal souls.” History shows us that concern about souls is a very poor guide to ethical behavior—that is, to actually mitigating the suffering of conscious creatures like ourselves. Concern about souls leads to concerns about undifferentiated cells in Petri dishes and to ethical qualms over embryonic stem cell research. Rather often, it leads to indifference to the suffering of animals believed not to possess souls but which can clearly suffer in ways that three-day old human embryos cannot. The use of apes in medical research, the exposure of whales and dolphins to military sonar—these are real ethical dilemmas, with real suffering at issue. Concern over human embryos smaller than the period at the end of this sentence—when, for years they have been the most promising door to medical breakthrough—is one of the many delusional products of religion, which has led to one of its many predictable failures of compassion. While Collins appears to support embryonic stem cell research, he does so after much (literal) soul-searching and under considerable theological duress. Everything he has said and written about the subject needlessly complicates an ethical question that is—if one is actually concerned about human and animal wellbeing—genuinely straightforward.

The Obama administration still has not removed the most important impediments to embryonic stem cell research—allowing funding only for work on stem cells derived from surplus embryos at fertility clinics. Such delicacy is a clear concession to the religious convictions of the American electorate. While Collins seems willing to go further and support research on embryos created through somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), he is very far from being a voice of ethical clarity in this debate. For instance, he considers embryos created through SCNT to be distinct from those formed through the union of sperm and egg because the former are “not part of God’s plan to create a human individual” while “the latter is very much part of God’s plan, carried out through the millennia by our own species and many others” (Collins, 2006, p. 256) There is little to be gained in a serious discussion of bioethics by talking about “God’s plan.” (If such embryos were brought to term and became sentient and suffering human beings, would it be ethical to kill them and harvest their organs because they had been conceived apart from “God’s plan”?) While his stewardship of the NIH seems unlikely to impede our mincing progress on embryonic stem cell research, his appointment seems like another one of President Obama’s efforts to split difference between real science and real ethics on the one hand and religious superstition and taboo on the other. 

Collins has written that “science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence” and that “the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted.” One can only hope that these convictions will not affect his judgment at the NIH. Understanding human wellbeing at the level of the brain might very well offer some “answers to the most pressing questions of human existence”—questions like, Why do we suffer? How can we achieve the deepest forms of happiness? Or, indeed, is it possible to love one’s neighbor as oneself? And wouldn’t any effort to explain human nature without reference to a soul, and to explain morality without reference to God, constitute “atheistic materialism”? Must we really entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who believes that understanding ourselves through science is impossible, while our resurrection from death is inevitable?

  1. True to form, Nature recently produced an embarrassingly supine editorial on Templeton: Templeton’s legacy. Nature 454, 253-254, (2008). Download PDF
  2. A point of comparison: the biochemist Rupert Sheldrake had his academic career decapitated, in a single stroke, by an editorial in Nature [Maddox, J. A book for burning? Nature. 293, 245-246 (1981) Download PDF] published in response to his book A New Science of Life. Sheldrake has advanced a theory of “morphic resonance” which, he believes, accounts for how living systems and other patterns in nature develop. The theory may, indeed, be utterly mistaken. But there is not a single sentence in Sheldrake’s book to rival the intellectual dishonesty that Collins achieves on nearly every page of The Language of God.
  3. I should say that I see nothing irrational in seeking the “spiritual” experiences and personal insights that lie at the core of many religions.  What is irrational, and irresponsible in a scientist and educator, is to make unjustified and unjustifiable claims about the structure of the universe, about the divine origin of certain books, and about the future of humanity on the basis of such experiences. I can also say that by the standards of any experienced contemplative, the phenomena that Collins puts forward in support of his religious beliefs scarcely merit discussion. A beautiful waterfall? An unexpected church service? A feeling of peace? The fact that these are the most salient landmarks on Collins’ journey out of bondage may be the most troubling detail in this positive sea of troubles.
  4. Collins also has a terrible habit of cherry picking and misrepresenting the views of famous scientists like Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein. For instance he writes:
    Even Albert Einstein saw the poverty of a purely naturalistic worldview. Choosing his words carefully, he wrote, “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”
    The one choosing words carefully here is Collins. Read in context, this quote reveals that Einstein did not in the least endorse theism and that his use of the word “God” was a poetical way of referring to the laws of nature. Einstein once protested being misused in this way: It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.  (Cited in Dawkins, 2006, p. 36). 
  5. In 1996, the physicist Alan Sokal submitted the nonsense paper “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” to the journal Social Text. While the paper was patently insane, this journal, which still stands “at the forefront of cultural theory,” avidly published it. The text is filled with gems like following:
    [T]he discourse of the scientific community, for all its undeniable value, cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities… In quantum gravity, as we shall see, the space-time manifold ceases to exist as an objective physical reality; geometry becomes relational and contextual; and the foundational conceptual categories of prior science—among them, existence itself—become problematized and relativized. This conceptual revolution, I will argue, has profound implications for the content of a future postmodern and liberatory science.
  6. This is actually not an uncommon claim in the history of religion, or in history generally. Even rather worldly men like Genghis Khan and Alexander were said to have been born of virgins (parthenogenesis apparently offers no guarantee that a man will turn the other cheek).
  7. The philosopher David Hume made a very nice point about believing in miracles on the basis of testimony: “no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish…” This is a good rule of thumb. Which is more likely, that Mary, the mother of Jesus, would have sex outside of wedlock and then feel the need to lie about it, or that she would conceive a child through parthenogenesis the way aphids and Komodo dragons do? On the one hand we have lying about adultery—in a context where the penalty for adultery is death—and on the other we have a woman spontaneously mimicking the biology of certain insects and reptiles. Hmm… 
  8. Of course, I also received a lot of support, especially from scientists, and even from scientists at the NIH.
  9. Miller, it should be noted, is also a believing Christian and the author of Finding Darwin’s God. For all its flaws, this book contains an extremely useful demolition of “intelligent design.”
  10. The claim is, in fact, ubiquitous. Here it is at the highest levels of scientific discourse: From a recent editorial in Nature, insisting on the reality of human evolution:
    The vast majority of scientists, and the majority of religious people, see little potential for pleasure or progress in the conflicts between religion and science that are regularly fanned into flame by a relatively small number on both sides of the debate. Many scientists are religious, and perceive no conflict between the values of their science — values that insist on disinterested, objective inquiry into the nature of the Universe — and those of their faith. [Evolution and the brain. Nature 447, 753 (2007)]
    From the National Academy of Sciences:
    Science can neither prove nor disprove religion… Many scientists have written eloquently about how their scientific studies have increased their awe and understanding of a creator…  The study of science need not lessen or compromise faith. [National Academy of Sciences, Science, evolution, and creationism.  (National Academies Press, 2008)]
  11. Langford DJ, Crager SE, Shehzad Z, Smith SB, Sotocinal SG, et al. (2006) Social modulation of pain as evidence for empathy in mice. Science 312: 1967-1970.
  12. Masserman JH, Wechkin S, Terris W (1964) “Altruistic” Behavior in Rhesus Monkeys. Am J Psychiatry 121: 584-585.
  13. Our picture of chimp notions of fairness is somewhat muddled. There is no question that they notice inequity, but they do not seem to care if they profit from it. Brosnan SF (2008) How primates (including us!) respond to inequity. Adv Health Econ Health Serv Res 20: 99-124. Jensen K, Call J, Tomasello M (2007) Chimpanzees are rational maximizers in an ultimatum game. Science 318: 107-109. Jensen K, Hare B, Call J, Tomasello M (2006) What’s in it for me? Self-regard precludes altruism and spite in chimpanzees. Proc Biol Sci 273: 1013-1021. Silk JB, Brosnan SF, Vonk J, Henrich J, Povinelli DJ, et al. (2005) Chimpanzees are indifferent to the welfare of unrelated group members. Nature 437: 1357-1359. Brosnan SF, Schiff HC, de Waal FB (2005) Tolerance for inequity may increase with social closeness in chimpanzees. Proc Biol Sci 272: 253-258.

Comments (318)

Any claims by believers that they were once atheist then regained or found religion are totally unbelievable.
An atheist would find it as easy to abandon their skepticism and rationality as a seeing person would find it to purposefully poke out their own eyes.

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2. Terry Gulliver

It does not matter if you write ten words or a thousand, THEY will read only so many as it takes to discover your allegiance, and React. Reaction precedes Action (reading). You can lead the religiose to thought but you cannot make them think. And they do not even need alcohol to sustain the the bellicosity toward Thought! I think good booze is wasted on Christians.

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3. Will Pitkin

Excellent essay. I’m working on one myself that accounts for the appearance of dreams in children about age 4 and in our species about 50k years ago and ties the phenomenon of actual dreaming (not REM sleep) to language development of sufficient complexity to sustain discourse about past and future.

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4. Morton Kurzweil

That’s a lot of words just to say that belief is an emotional bond to a self identity that a leap of faith is the choice of certainty, and that certainty is not compatible with modern science not since the time of Kepler, Descartes, Spinoza or Newton.
Belief requires conviction, a state contrary to the objectivity of scientific analysis. Belief is a hallucinatory , delusional process . It submits through emotional memory to a virtual reality. The symptoms of belief are the need for repetition and peer support to maintain a fragile attachment to a belief identity. the emotional response to any perceived attack on a belief, and the fear of personal disassociation. Fear, anger, hate, love, are expressions of belief disassociation.
Francis Collins is not the problem. The answer lies with Barack Obama, who despite all claims to the contrary persists in pandering to racial and religious
populism.

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5. consciousmess

The essence of what Sam wrote is what I thought watching Christopher Hitchens’ recent debate with Dr William Craig.  If Dr Craig is so fervent in his Christianity, why did he choose that faith and not any other?  (As they are all a priori!)

And the question I’d love to ask these highly educated theologians is “What is the soul?” because the soul has to be ‘me’ neurochemically/anatomically etc… so take a schizophrenic, or an autistic.  This completely ridicules the notion of an afterlife and I’ve never seen that question asked!!

And I follow every religious debate that occurs on the Internet daily!!

All the best to the fellow rationalists amongst you,

Jon

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6. Craftyminion

Outstanding stuff Sam. Couldn’t agree more.

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ahh…music to my ears. Thanks again Sam for another brilliant op-ed. If only more minds would come around…
In time I “pray”.

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I loved the article. As a biologist and atheist, I find it nearly impossible to reconcile science and religion, and Collins’ emotional reactions to subjective experiences, as evidence of God’s existence, are laughable.

Fortunately, here in Mexico we do not have creationism taught anywhere (as far as I know), and evolution is the accepted subject in all schools. And religion has less influence on policy (except when it has to deal with abortion) than in the U.S. It seems to be the case in Europe, as well. I can’t understand why in the U.S. there is such a strong controversy in this matter.

Now, just to clarify footnote 7 in relation to the virgin birth of Jesus: the various aspects of the virgin birth accounts were never meant to be understood literally. Luke and Matthew did not intend to give journalistic, literal accounts of Jesus’ origins. They were creating a midrash on the birth of Jesus to demonstrate the immense power of God, infused in Jesus. There are too many midrashic (interpretations based on legendary, moralizing, folkloristic, and anecdotal themes) in the Bible that… well, who cares?

So, these accounts are neither literal history, as -unfortunately-traditional Christians assume, nor are they superstition, myth, or intentional lie, as skeptics, non-Christians, and atheists assume. My mother, a historian and atheist as well, has been studying religions for more than 40 years, and it seems that in all religions people misinterpret what is supposed to be read symbolically, and instead take everything literally. And so we see the mess religions have brought to the world. What to do…?

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Excellent! Thank you Sam for all you do. And by the way, there is really no such thing as “new atheists”. I despise this term which I believe is mostly used by believers, because it attempts to give the impression that atheism is a “new, hip way of thinking”. Almost a fad…. but there is a long history of atheist thinkers, and as long as there has been theists, there has been atheists.

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You are confusing scientists with science.  Scientific method is a tool by which closer approximations to truth may be presumbably obtained.  Absolute truth being most likely unattainable.  Scientists have simply created a priesthood around this method and laud it over the rest of us to increase power and authority for their personal or institutional agendas.  The NIH is no different.  Are you trying to bring down the priesthood?  Are you trying to expose the fraud?  what is your agenda?

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11. Robert K. Selander

Bravo!

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12. Monte Barker

There are many of us out here that appreciate the reason,  courage, clarity of thought and compassion for the future of humanity that you bring to this arena, and who are just as saddened by the common human ability to disregard reason when what we want the truth to be, matters more than what the truth actually is.  Most people simply can’t comprehend just how how much damage the roots of this human proclivity, have done, and continue to do, to the foundation of what is our human potential.  Those such as yourself in the spotlight keep many more fighting in the trenches. Keep up the great and important work.

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Well done Sam!  This nomination by President Obama is perhaps the single biggest disappointment that I have with his new presidency.  I would enjoy a similar article focused on Obama, based on the cross section between his political philosophies and his religious views.

It seems fitting that he name a prominent atheist to head up his “Faith-based Initiative” programs, since there are no conflicts between science and religion.  This would ensure that all faith groups are treated fairly.

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14. Mr. Wonderful

Great essay (as always), but I fail to see what’s “insane” about the Sokal quote.  It’s dense, and the rest of his article might be nonsense, but it seems to make sense.

He seems to be saying: “The scientific community cannot claim its assertions are epistemologically superior to the claims of other communities.  In quantum gravity, geometry, and in fact all other basic categories of science, are transformed from being absolute in nature to being relative and relational.  This has important implications for all of post-modern science.”

It may be untrue, and “post-modern science” may be a nonsensical invention—and, indeed, “quantum gravity” as the paper discusses (or burlesques) it may be an absurd invention—but the selected quote makes sense.  It just makes sense using dense jargon and employing terms of dubious utility.

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15. Cameron Wilson

The scariest thing about this is that atheists somehow are continually chastised for their beliefs like they’re logically wrong even though they have mounds of physical evidence supporting their conclusions when religious people simply have to claim that God exists because they know he does.  As is always brought up, why is the Christian God any more believable than the Hindu gods, the Greek/Roman gods, Egyptian gods, etc?  There is no more credible reason to believe that the events attributed to the Christian God by Christians could not have been done by any other god or subset of gods!

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excellent read.

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It is rather odd that Sam Harris would criticize Francis Collins since Harris himself admitted that he is becoming a scientist not in order to conduct unbiased research but in order to attempt to evidence atheism.
http://atheismisdead.blogspot.com/2009/05/atheism-new-emergent-atheists-part-2-of.html

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I am glad to see Francis Collins getting the heat he deserves.

Though we have been desperate to see someone in Washington who is not a full scientific moron, we shouldn’t forget that a half-moron is also below our standards

I don’t think it matters if he is a waxing moron or a waning moron.  The important thing is that, at this moment, he is the wrong man for the job.

But this is what you get when the president tries to pick someone who will get support from both parties.  Science doesn’t do “bi-partisan”.  Obama should do all of the religious pandering on his own, and give the NIH someone who will stick to science.

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Mariano,

The blog you cited makes a poor analysis of Harris’ statement, and your summary of the contents of said blog do not even accurately reflect the poor analysis as it is.

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Sam, although I too am a skeptic of Christianity, I find your piece here disturbingly disingenous. The talk by Dr. Collins was informative and interesting. (Thank you for the link.) His talk supported the idea that Christianity is not incompatible with Science. Instead of countering that argument, you instead counter an argument of your own deivising, that Science does not prove Christianity. How absurd. Dr. Collins is asserting no such thing.  So your argument regarding Lord Brahma and Zeus is irrelevant.  His speech is about compatibilities, not proofs.
Also, you define atheism as the “disbelief in the God of Abraham”?  That’s an odd way of putting it. Atheism, is the belief in the abscence of any entity formally called God, or even in any godlke being.  And in that sense, it’s completely fair for Collins to say atheism, the absolute belief in the absolute absence of a godlike thing, is itself irrational. Only your fudging of the definition of atheism by bringing Abraham into it, allows you to come up with a good counterargument.

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21. Charles Echelbarger

This is an extremely important essay on the real danger of scientists like Collins being given huge responsibility for a part of the public interest.
Concerning the influence of C.S. Lewis’ writings on Collins, I urge everyone to read a book entitled
C.S. Lewis and the Search For Rational Religion.(Prometheus, 2008) by John Beversluis.
It is absolutely fatal to Lewis’ attempts to rationally defend Christianity. So far, this excellent book by an excellent philosopher has gone almost totally unnoticed. I wish that someone with the recognition of Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens would publish a review of Beversluis book in a widely read periodical. Otherwise, I fear that this fine book will sink into obscurity, unlike the vapid books by Lewis that are so popular even to this day.

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Very good job, Sam. There’s not a point I disagree with there, but I do think there are too many important points there to squish together into one article. Each section deserves further detailed explanation. Hey, make a book out it.

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Fantastic article.

I found two editorial mistakes, though:
* “Of course, no has access to the original manuscript of Mark, or of any of the other Gospels” lacks an “one”.
* The actual tenth footnote is missing.

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EVERYTHING EICH SAID:

“Well done Sam!  This nomination by President Obama is perhaps the single biggest disappointment that I have with his new presidency.  I would enjoy a similar article focused on Obama, based on the cross section between his political philosophies and his religious views.

It seems fitting that he name a prominent atheist to head up his “Faith-based Initiative” programs, since there are no conflicts between science and religion.  This would ensure that all faith groups are treated fairly.”

I think this is a very strong and overlooked point.  I would like to see Sam demand that the president acknowledges this particular issue, perhaps in a future op-ed piece on Obama and religion.

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(Comment #22) Lucas Said:
“Very good job, Sam. There’s not a point I disagree with there, but I do think there are too many important points there to squish together into one article. Each section deserves further detailed explanation. Hey, make a book out it.”

Lucas,
I completely agree, which leads me to the following thought:

The insane thing is that Sam has already written a book or two which thoroughly demolish religious/ faith-based ‘thinking’.  I mean seriously, what more could Sam write on the matter?  Wasn’t “Letter to a Christian Nation” a summarized form of “The End of Faith?”  Didn’t he write LTACN because every religious person who read TEOF either genuinely couldn’t understand it or disingenuously misunderstood it?  Isn’t this article an expanded version of the one he wrote on Collins a few days ago?  Did he not submit this lengthened version because of the frenzied, purposeful, and flagrant misunderstanding of his previous submission by defenders of faith in our news and media? 

Sam!  How do you not go crazy?  How many times do you need to say the same things? How many more times can you say the same things in evermore clear, reasonable, and poignant ways? Some U.S. heavyweight needs to write a feature piece that not only points out how much sense Sam makes, not only how vitally important it is to society that what he says is received, but how No One has offered any response that comes close to reasonably refuting Sam’s lucid account of reality.

Is everyone else crazy or have I lost my fucking mind here?

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26. curve_ball

Bravo, Sam. Bravo.  Fantastic essay.

I read The Language of God and found it laughable.  I voted for Obama and am still excited by the potential of his presidency.  But the appointment of Collins is a clear misstep, as Sam has so eloquently and convincingly demonstrated.

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27. Greg Foster

Stick to your guns!  I may not agree with everything but the fundamentals are all firmly in place and fully justify support for the Reason Project.

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Sam is the best. The BEST!

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29. Jim Mulick

Great essay. I was dismayed by the nomination of Collins and discussed it with my colleagues and students on the day it was announced. Most were similarly surprised to learn about Collins and his apparent intellectual blindness. I will share your essay with my students. Keep ‘em coming!

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reckoner: ‘Sam!  How do you not go crazy?  How many times do you need to say the same things? How many more times can you say the same things in evermore clear, reasonable, and poignant ways? Some U.S. heavyweight needs to write a feature piece that not only points out how much sense Sam makes, not only how vitally important it is to society that what he says is received, but how No One has offered any response that comes close to reasonably refuting Sam’s lucid account of reality.

Is everyone else crazy or have I lost my fucking mind here?’

hahaha. I remember when I first read The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation a few years ago. Back then I laboured under the impression that most people are reasonable, and will change their beliefs if confronted with good reasons against their beliefs. When that didn’t happen, I too thought ‘is everyone crazy or have I lost my fucking mind?’ 3 years later, I have come to realize that yes, many people are fucking stupid. Don’t worry; you’re not losing your mind. You’re just a rational person, living in a world where most people are not.

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I would like discussions to take place in every possible media, TV, Radio anywhere, so that the majority of those blind to the scientific evidence can be exposed to doubt. That’s the first step in the process of freeing oneself of those ridiculous beliefs.

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32. Ted Radamaker

“It is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence” 
(William K. Clifford, 1877)
Religion, faith, IS belief without evidence, not to be challenged.
Science is belief with evidence, always to be challenged.
How incompatible is that!

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Thank you Mr. Harris,
I’m not rich and I’m not particularly well educated, but
I wish there was something I could do to help you “spread the word” as it were.
It terrifies me that people like Collins are out there doing what they do.
Take care.
B

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Hold on!! Imagine that the purpose of the nomination is to encourage a discussion like this. It would be great!!

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35. Bill Pelton

Sam,
A very good article, again, as usual - well reasoned and well articulated.
Maybe the criticism of your writing is increasing because you are making more of an impact - forcing others think more deeply about their beliefs,

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Great stuff, Sam.  Francis Collins deeply disturbs me.

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37. Randall "Doc" Fleck

Thank Sam Harris for Sam Harris…

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The Spanish Inquisitors loved God. The Christians who burned witches loved God. Promoters of the Children’s Crusade loved God. Martin Luther loved God when he proposed driving the Jews out of Germany. Abraham loved God when he was willing to murder his son. Moses loved God when he ordered his soldiers to kill the older women and the male children of the Midianites, but to keep the virgin girls for themselves [Numbers 31]. In all the bloody wars between Christians and Muslims, between Protestants and Catholics, all sides love God.

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39. BillyWarhol

Scary Scary Poop Batman!  Frightening to think that such an esteemed Scientist thinks like dat but after 8 horrific Years of Bush + Brainwashed Flock nothing really Surprizes anymore!

Keep Up yer Great Work Sam + Dawkins + Hitchens + Dennett + All the Atheists bravely + courageously Enlightening People!

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http://www.reasonproject.org/archive/item/the_strange_case_of_francis_collins2/#c1557
“You’re just a rational person, living in a world where most people are not.”

Yes, believing that everyone is rational seems to be an inevitable mistake when emerging out of the Iron wall of self-deception.  But then you realize the assumption is fundamentally based on the same foundations as the assumption of a perfect Creator.  Only when you start applying the insights gained from the notion of an evolved neuron system to the way people think does the futility of this assumption become clear.

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btw I like how each post’s “link to this post” is floating inside the PREVIOUS commenter’s box.

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42. John Tate

Before reading the comments on this article, I would just like to say that once again, the clarity, elegance and sheer force of Sam Harris’ writing makes his critics look like confused children at best, and disembling hypocrites at worst. It was a joy to read.

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43. Russ Abbott

Sam, I agree with comment 20 (CaliforniaCrank). Collins is an eloquent defender of evolution. He leaves no doubt about its scientific validity. As a Christian he has special credibility with other Christians. If all Christians were as open-minded about evolution as Collins, we would be in much better shape as a nation. 

Furthermore, I see no evidence that Collins will be a poor leader of the NIH. Has he blocked any research while leader of the Genome Project? Has he done anything else to stifle scientific research? Unless you can site examples of such actions, I see no reason to oppose his appointment.

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I’d say simply, that this is a ‘slam-dunk’ ‘three-pointer’.
Or, an ‘outta the parking-lot homer’.
And I don’t even like b-ball.

More preferentially, it is like a ‘goalie scoring an empty netter’. Now there’s a real sport.

What can I say? I’m from north of the 49th, eh?

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I would also like to say that I thought your essay was very skillfully done.  It is a shame that so many of the faithful can not be swayed with such excellent writing. 

Still, it is better to defend one’s beliefs rather than timidly ignore such undeserved criticism.  We may not convince them, but at least we can hold our own on the debate field and steal away increasing numbers of sheep from the great delusion’s vast flock.

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46. EChamberlainMD

My comment in response to Ignacio (Comment No. 8), who said—in reference to what he calls symbolism in the bible, in particular, the virgin birth—that “these accounts are neither literal,... superstition, myth, or intentional lie…”.  Sorry, Ignacio, while we probably agree on a lot in our disbelief of the bible, I don’t buy for a second that these accounts were intended to be symbolic.  Instead, a natural reading and the overwhelming contextual evidence is that they were most convincingly written to be taken as literal—and were so believed.  Nor can I excuse the orginators of the bible stories as honest but mistaken.  It seems inescapable to me that SOMEBODY LIED somewhere along the way, no matter if subsequent believers honestly believed the stories.  No more excuses for the bible or belief in it.

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test (the last comment didn’t post)

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Thank Sam.
I find people believing in religions so very frustrating, i just want to shake them hard to wake them up to reality.  i don’t know how you cope with them so well without it showing in your writing.

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Sam, though I also am no believer in Christianity, you’re being disengenuous in your arguments in this piece. You talk of atheism as being non-belief in the god “of Abraham.” Why phrase it that way? Collins point was that the certain belief that there is no God or godlike entity (which is the common definition of atheism) is invalid scientifically, because there’s nothing in Science that is absolutely incompatible with the concept of some sort of God. But, once you add the “Abraham” angle, and all that stuff about Zeus and the Lord Brahma, you’ve effectively avoided his argument so you could refute something easier.
You seem to be harassing him on his lack of proof of God, when all he’s saying in his video (thank you for that link - it’s thought-provoking and enjoyable even if I don’t totally agree with it) is that God is not incompatible with Science.
I don’t know whether any sort of God or godlike thing exists, but I do know that God is not incompatible with Science.

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At this juncture in the advance of science, it is much too early to eliminate the ignorance that perpetuates religion.  When science can enable igneous rock to think, there will at last be a shadow of hope.

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I also am disturbed by the nomination of Collins to this post.  I am relieved, however, that there are those far more influential and eloquent than I doing more than I ever could to influence those in power to see reason.  Thank you, Sam.

BTW, who would be a better alternative to Collins? How about the Reason Project make a nomination?

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Wonderful article, Sam.  I’m a huge admirer of yours and other like-minded atheists brave enough to publicly mock religion.  And like #26 “reckoner”, I too wonder how you don’t go crazy.  It drives me crazy every day and I’m only watching from the sidelines.  As a geneticist whose research is largely funded by the NIH, this issue is particularly important to me.  I’m so tired of hearing Dr. Collins lauded by the media.  Every year at the American Society of Human Genetics conference I have to suffer through at least one talk by that deluded windbag.  I’m always so tempted to heckle.

Re: #20 “CaliforniaCrank”: did you read the same essay the rest of us did?  Sam’s essay was obviously devoted to showing that science and religion are completely incompatible, unlike what Francis Collins espouses, which is why Dr. Collins is a terrible choice for NIH director.  Furthermore, of course Sam’s definition of atheism wouldn’t be so specific as you claim (and I’m skeptical that you honestly believe that he implied it), but “disbelief in the God of Abraham” would certainly be included under the umbrella of atheism.  More importantly, I don’t think Sam or other intellectually careful atheists would define atheism as “belief in the absence of any god”, but rather something more like “absence of belief in any god” (without sufficient evidence).  It’s a subtle but extremely important distinction that is too often overlooked.  It’s why individuals like Bill Maher (a ReasonProject adviser), much as I admire him, make me roll my eyes when they refuse to label themselves as “atheists” for fear of appearing as dogmatic as the other side.  They’re allowing the other side to erroneously define “atheism”.

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Great article - loved it.

Is Obama really a Christian, or is he playing the game because he’s a politician in the US and has to pretend?

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54. Ted Bernstein

Of course, Sam Harris continues to amaze and delight many of us with his lucid, thoughtful and thought provoking essays, However, I also want to commend Monte Barker (post 12).

I am hard pressed to think of a more succinct statement about the value of the work Sam does, the inabilty of most to see the damage done by those who won’t think reasonably and the possibilities of the world which Sam struggles to bring to light. Nice, Monte. You totally nailed it!

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Bravo !

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Mr. Harris, I congratulate you on an article that points out a lot of the inconsistencies in religion. While your arguments add fuel to my own reasoning against religion, it unfortunately can only be an early chapter in the long uphill struggle that remains to be fought against the still overwhelming religiosity left in this otherwise progressive twenty first century world we live in. Mr. Obama, and Nature, I fear are pandering to the wealth and support caught up in this popular inconsistent part of our reality. Only when it has become safe, fashionable and trendy to bash religion, can he and others in positions reliant on popular support come out of the closet. Then the whole world will shout from the rooftops “we have always had this niggling doubt…., we never really believed…..” . I wonder how many of those that commented on your article used their real names, and will they be willing to stand up on a stage next to you? One has to think about tomorrow and the day after at work and in church on Sunday, hey! What will the neighbors say?

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Religion although it is “opium”, it is very important for many people.  As long as there is poverty and suffering people will need this illusion to survive.  What really have to change is a role of theologians and religious leaders.  Their role need to be to reconcile religions with science.  There have to come realisation among religious people that past belong to scientists and that we all have to deal with “now” and “future”. Science should never be subjected to religion.  But scientist should not undermine the role and importance of religion and believes for people.  Many atheists leave in good, very secure conditions, in free societies.  Society provides us with illusion of safety, but it is a very thin layer as any one who fell seriously ill or had serious accident and so on, know.  Science often has nothing to offer to us in dire circumstances.  I think that we need people who can at least for a time being reconcile religious and science.  We need them on both sides.  The need for religion might go away as we help alleviate ignorance and poverty and oppression.  Till then lets help people who are trying to get us through this time of change.

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58. Kristian Kragh

Great Article

Wish i read this a week ago, i could really have used the mice thing in that discussion.

Thank you very much

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Thanks Sam—

Your writings prove repeatedly that clear thinking and clear writing go hand-in-hand.

Favorite line: “Mooney and Kirshenbaum seem to imaging we can get people to value intellectual honesty by lying to them.”

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60. Ed Bradburn

Sam,

I think this is your most considered and well thought-out piece to date. Indeed, I would go as far as calling it a milestone and would hope that you will elaborate on it at more length in a book.

As for my own small contributions, my current tactic with Christian theists is merely to ask them politely to quote the Bible in its original language, since they seek to base their lives on its text.

Keep up the scintillating work!

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Bravo Sam Bravo!

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Magnificent as always, Sam. Thank you for speaking my mind with words and facts that I lack.

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Does Collins ever reply to his critics? Since there is little or no chance of getting his appointment overturned, he bears watching. Hopefully, Sam Harris will keep us up to date.

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Excellent! Thank you Sam. I love your writing.

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65. MadScientist

” nor is he a proponent of “intelligent design.” “

I have to disagree with that.  From what I see, Collins is a clear supporter of a form of “Old Earth Creationism” and also a supporter of his own brand of “Intelligent Design”.  He uses *exactly* the sort of language used by the usual ID gang: this is so beautiful, it must have been designed.  However, for some strange reason Collins rejects the usual ID gang while promoting essentially the same stuff.  God created it all 13+ billion years ago, not 6000, duh! And by the way, he also created all these awesome rules so that life forms will develop as they have and, specifically, humans would develop and be very special to god.  I don’t see how anyone can say, with a straight face, that Collins is not a proponent of ID.

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Superb!

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67. John E. Shumaker

Sam: I sat next to you and your wife at the Salk with Roger Bingham’s wife after your talk. I never got to meet you but I do want to thank you for making me a part of the reason project. I was born on a Sunday, named after 2 priests, an aulter boy, member of the Knights Of Columbus (my dad was a state rep) and true to the Catholic faith. Thanks to you and your End Of Faith book I think Prayer and God (any God) does not work today. I do think mankind will not obey the laws and cause more problems with out religion. So maybe your way of thinking is bad for people who would take atvantage.

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68. Jeff Edwards

MadScientist,

Francis Collins adheres to ‘theistic evolution’ (meaning that he believes that God set up the template for biological evolution to take place). He does not believe that God intervenes to help evolution through the seemingly tricky parts (which is what ‘Intelligent Design’ advocates believe).

However, Collins does take a clearly anti scientific/creationist position in believing that human morality can only be explained by the supernatural (which is clearly idiotic as he is allowing his irrational religious “beliefs” to cloud his scientific judgement). Hopefully Collins will at least be open minded enough to support and fund neuroscientific research.

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Great essay! Couldn’t expect any less from Sam Harris.

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Great article. The people who deride the “New Atheists” don’t seem to understand that “religion” isn’t the problem with religion, but its methodology - faith - is the problem. The scientific method has a pretty consistent methodology, where if two people - from totally different backgrounds - do the same exact steps, those two people will end up at the same destination.

Not so for faith. Two people from two different backgrounds will come to completely contradictory destinations. The methodology of faith itself is bankrupt, and this needs to be explained. People need to start valuing objectivity and honesty instead of faith. If faith is valued more than objectivity, then this faith will necessarily lead to deception and lies.

The biggest problem is that there’s really no difference between faith and self-deception, and if people of faith were honest with themselves, they would try to find some methodology - a consistent methodology - to differentiate between the two.

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Well done once again Mr. Harris!

A thought experiment: If we divide the public audience into the following groups we can begin to evaluate the importance of Mr. Harris’s work.

Group 1: Those who are motivated to cognitively process the work and have a set attitude toward the subject, either favorable or unfavorable.
Group 2: Those who are not motivated to cognitively process the work but will process it through a peripheral route. They may be exposed to the second generation commentary and will begin to “take sides” or form an opinion due to self identification to a particular group or other attitude set, whether favorable or unfavorable.
Group 3: Those who are not motivated to cognitively process the work.

Mr. Harris’s work will tend to strengthen the currently held attitudes in group 1. (This being the apologists argument that we strengthen those attitudes that we are fighting against, of course they ignore the other, balancing effect).Mr. Harris’s work will have no discernible effect on group 3. Mr. Harris’s work will increase the probability that those in group 2 who currently reside in the neutral area of this group will feel the need (cognitive dissonance) to move from peripherally absorbing the ideas to cognitively processing the ideas. This is where we want them to be and this is the part of the audience that can actually change its mind!

We will win over a higher number of people who cognitively process the ideas vs. those who peripherally process them.

I like the odds.

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72. SkepticalOne

The crimes that Collins is alleged to have committed and which supposedly disqualify him from leading the NIH all relate to what he thinks, believes and has said.  As far as I can tell, none relate to the actual science he has done or to his scientific leadership at the HGP or elsewhere.  Per Harris, Collins is disqualified solely for his refusal to toe an ideological line.  This self-righteous inflexibility is—dare I say it—the soul of oppression.  What Harris seeks, quite simply, is the repression of Collins and of an idea.  Such repression in the name of irreligious certainty is no different and no less dangerous than repression in the name of religious or any other ideological certainty.

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One of the best pieces of writing I’ve read in a long time. It rivals the debate with Andrew Sullivan, which for me represented one of the pinnacles of Atheist argumentation.
Will Pitkin, what does your comment about your own work add to the discussion at hand? Did you mistake this website for your own page on Facebook?
California Crank. I have the feeling you misunderstood the whole article. Either you are right and Sam was attacking a straw man he had erected for the express purpose of knocking it down again, or you simply couldn’t concentrate for long enough to follow what was happening on the page. I’ll let you choose which is the more likely.

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RELIGION…...The adult version of Santa Claus.

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75. Cameron Wilson

The scariest thing about this is that atheists somehow are continually chastised for what they espouse like they’re logically wrong even though they have mounds of physical (or materialistic) evidence supporting their conclusions when religious people simply have to claim that God exists because they know he does.  Furthermore, why is the Christian God any more believable than the Hindu gods, the Greek/Roman gods, Egyptian gods, etc?  There is no more credible reason to believe that the events attributed to the Christian God by Christians could not have been done by any other god or subset of gods—yet this is continually lost on almost every American.

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Another well directed demolition, as someone who was brought up in a strict Catholic Household but whose religion was beaten out of him by De La Salle Brothers ‘I could never reconcile their Sadism with their Gods professed Love for us all ’ it never fails to amaze me in my dotage the amount of so called intelligent people who still believe in this dangerous Claptrap ! thank Odin for the New Athiests, now doesn,t that sound silly !!

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77. Darren Pye

@Sam

Excellent piece - logical, reasoned and eloquent.  Well done!

@CaliforniaCrank

You said: “You talk of atheism as being non-belief in the god “of Abraham.” Why phrase it that way? Collins point was that the certain belief that there is no God or godlike entity (which is the common definition of atheism)”

You are mistaken.  Atheism is not a belief there is no god, it is NON-belief in a god.  Sam’s usage was correct, Collins was in err.  This “common definition” of Atheism, as you call it, is held by a very small minority of people who claim to be Atheists.  Which is why it’s NOT the common definition of Atheism.  You and perhaps Collins, have been tricked.

To be clear: to believe something is true (such as there is no god) without evidence is irrational, and not the default position of the vast majority of people who call themselves Atheists.  This is the position of Strong Atheists.  The use of “Strong” is to distinguish them from the majority.

Atheism, by definition and use by those who claim to be Atheists, is this; A (non) Theism (belief in a god or gods)).  That’s it.  Atheists are people who think it’s unlikely that there is a god.  We are not so different then Agnostics, we have merely evaluated the probability and found it to be less then 50% likely and thus see no reason to believe.  We don’t claim to know though, which Strong Atheists do.

Christians (such as Collins) and others have been playing a word game with the meaning of Atheism for a long time.  They often try to redefine Atheism to mean Strong Atheism.  By using this tactic, they are able to convince their listeners that Atheism is a position of faith and thus it’s irrational.  Obviously by your reaction, it has been successful.  Unfortunately, this trickery has been so successful that Atheists such as myself have to correct people at ever turn when they make claims such as yours in response to Sam’s.

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Re #69:

Jeff,

Whether you or Mad Scientist refer to it as old earth creationism or theistic evolution, the fact is that Collins, by invoking the Deity as the First Cause and Creator of the Multiverse, he is ultimately subscribing to a worldview unsupported by the rational cosmological, astronomical, evolutionary and zoological disciplines.  It’s in some way saying that he supports the old-world ideas that the world was flat, but God through His Infinite Skill, made it round and left it that way.

All his acceptance of evolutionary theory in the world doesn’t forgive his ultimate assertion that at some point an ineffably powerful, patriarchal entity stretched out his finger and (to paraphrase Calvin and Hobbes) went “BOINK!”

I’ve said to many people that while I agree with Harris, we nevertheless have to accept while gnashing teeth that this is some level of progress.  In the wake of the Bush administration and powerful, Conservative Christian influences, America has to walk before it can fly in regard to the mainstream acceptance and understanding of scientific research.  While I do feel that it is intellectually disingenuous to make the science more palatable to religion the same way I make a pill easier for my kid to swallow by coating it in a spoonful of applesauce, I can’t honestly expect the community to go from ignorant churchgoer to hard-nosed skeptic overnight.  Science itself is often an exercise in baby steps in order to reach an ultimate conclusion.

One would hope that Collins, if he is the scientist and devout Christian he claims to be, can accept the notion that his position would require a certain amount of respect for the work, and should remain unclouded by his personal religious bias. 

The only question I have about Harris’ article remaining unanswered is, given the body of Collins’ work, who else would be qualified for such a position and would carry the level of popularity he currently engenders?  Given the national resistance to avoid nominating anyone without even a smattering of religious belief, who would present the applicable scientific experience and skepticism to warrant appointment without a separate level of public outcry?  Even famous government officials such as Surgeon Generals Koop and Elders were known for their medical skill and talents brought to the Office but nevertheless were brought to bear for conflicts between their personal views and (in my opinion, hypocritical and myopic) administrative fears.

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None of Collins’ statements are empirically verifiable, nor disprovable.  Collins admits that his belief is just that. I don’t see the issue here; if Collins allowed his belief to interfere with this science, there would be. Sam has his boxers in a knot for no reason, and I use that last word deliberately, in all its contexts.

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Sam Harris’ op-ed piece will serve as fair warning to the occasional scientist who finds it difficult to contain a religiously activated imagination. Best keep ridiculous, superstitious thoughts to yourself. Reveal them publicly at your own risk, as someone brighter than you may write an article or book about your inadequate understanding of things. Take your cue from Ken Miller, who’s able to keep his mouth shut on the nonsensical.

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81. Rafaela Cañete-Soler

The Reason Project… to encourage critical thinking and erode the influence of dogmatism


Mr Harris,

I am surprised that the Reason Project, whose cause appears as a very laudable one, has not read your article before publishing it. Because it seems to me that there is quite a bit of dogmatism in your statements. Dogmatism and fundamentalism seem to go, most of the time, hand by hand.

I am puzzled by your statement: “There is an epidemic of scientific ignorance in the United States”.

Mr Harris, are you a scientist?. Have you conducted epidemiological studies on “scientific ignorance” in the USA?. If you are not a scientist and you have not conducted such studies you are not qualified to make such an assertion. It is exactly the same mistake that a scientist makes when he speaks like a theologian if he is not.

While in Dr Collin’s expressions, as reported in your article, there are personal convictions embedded in tolerance, as well as inconsistencies, your repetitious assessment of Dr Collins’s views appears arrogantly insidious on personal freedom to believe (even in science) and are far away from the goals of The Reason Project.

Thank you

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82. Mark Hausam

As an Evangelical Christian theist, I obviously disagree with much of what Dr. Harris has to say.  However, I very much share his desire for intellectual honesty and straightforwardness.  Unquestioned faith has been allowed a pass for far too long.  When people make assertions, it is fully appropriate to subject those assertions to the rigors of rational evaluation, no matter how politically incorrect it might be to do so.  The question is, Do we want reality in the end, or fluffy arguments designed to allow us to live in a comforting fantasy?  If we want reality, we will welcome full rational criticism with all that that implies without whining or taking offense, even if that criticism is dealing with our most cherished beliefs.  I also agree with Dr. Harris that his way of dealing with religion is less condescending than the patronizing attitude of many of those who claim to “respect faith.”  His method treats theists as adults who can take criticism rather than “dangerous children” who want to be sheltered from reality.  Bravo to Dr. Harris for choosing intellectual honesty and reason over political correctness and sappiness!

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Sam Harris’s position on Watson’s statement about race basically shows the emperor of the kind of atheism espoused by Harris has no clothes.

I don’t know if it’s that Harris is simply abysmally ignorant of contemporary genetics and biology on the issue of “race,” or is simply too addicted to presence in a socially, politically, and economically comfortable kind of metaphorical “red light district” on this issue long inhabited by ostensibly educated white men of science.

But basically, the cat’s out of the bag—and I say that as an irreconcilable atheist—as to the sort of atheism of genetic reductionists like Harris.

Watson’s statement about race is no different in essentials than Collins’ viewpoint on religion.  Both race and religion are superstitions.  Race is, in contemporary biology and genetics, as much of a myth as Noah’s flood, the claim Abraham and Jesus existed, and belief in the virgin birth, transmutation of water into wine, and the belief that Muhammad ascended into heaven.

But some bigoted and superstitious idiotic myths are more pervasive and, therefore, deep down, more accepted, in American society, than others, and that’s why Harris’s dumbassed statement about what Watson said is, indeed, dumbassed, and also malignant.

I don’t know how familiar Harris is with Nazi race myths, and the efforts of Nazis to set up a kind of religion, state-sponsored, which held to the alleged supremacy of Aryans.

Nor do I know how familiar Harris is with the work in genetics of eminent Harvard geneticist, Richard C. Lewontin, or his mentored and eminent student, Spencer Wells.

But anyone with one scintilla of a brain cell of familiarity with the work of what these men have written and investigated over decades would have to conclude that Harris, on this issue of Watson’s statement, is fully and firmly as malignantly and stupidly bigoted as Collins is in the issue of the alleged compatibility of religion and science.

On the issue of compatibility of religion and science, Harris is right.  But the problem is, his concept of science is so narrow and circumscribed that it compels him to give a kind of backhanded defense to the indefensible statement of Watson, another reductionist like Harris.

It is depressing to find the persistence of this kind of superstitious ignorance among purported educated men of science and philosophy and particularly among alleged atheists, but it’s there, and has been for a long, long time.

All I can say is, cats flying out of bags do, sometimes, bring on pronounced depressive episodes in those of us who want to think better of others.

Harris has not done right by his subject matter.  He’s shown himself to be a narrow-minded man with a narrow-minded perspective.

Collins is wrong.

But on the issue of Watson, so is Harris—and, in methodological terms, he’s wrong in the same way that Collins is, even if the issue in the case of Collins is religious superstition, while the issue in Watson’s stupid statement is the superstition of race.

Oh, well, there is nothing new under the sun.

—Allan, Atheist, and Materialist

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This is a cross-post from Pharyngula:
    When I read the editorial in the NYT, I could feel the constraints Sam Harris placed on his prose, as well the space restrictions imposed by a newspaper’s editorial page. Now Sam is out of the corral and running free.
    This new, longer presentation is excellent. “Academic defenestration” sticks in the mind, and has me smiling still. And the “echo chamber of evangelical Christianity” is the most precise and poetic evocation I’ve read of that content-empty space where inanities are endlessly repeated.
    Mr. Harris wields a rapier-sharp pen.
    In case you are reading your critics here, Mr. Harris, I’ll point out a typo. In this sentence, “way” should be “a way”; or rewrite to read “in ways that respect”:
Lord Vishnu sustains it and tinkers with our DNA (in way that respects the law of karma and rebirth)...
    This essay made my day. Here is the antidote to Wendy Wright! (Reference to a debate between Richard Dawkins and Wendy Wright.)

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what an astoundingly superb essay!

for all the detractors, let me just say this: Even if this essay serves no immediate practical purpose (because Collins’ confirmation is unavoidable), it is of utmost utility to have someone pointing these things out to us skeptics and to the scientific community at large, that they may be taken into consideration in the future, when considering future appointments and the like.

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86. Ajaypal Cheema

Thank you, Mr. Harris, for giving us a voice.

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Several points:

1.  CaliforniaCrank (#20) thinks that Harris defines atheism as relating only to the God of Abraham but I don’t read him that way at all.  Surely Harris of all people understands that atheism relates to any & all putative supernatural beings.

2.  All assertions of atheism—those, that is, as to the factual non-existence of the supernatural—rest upon faith, with the definition of faith being belief in untestable propositions.  Likewise, of course, all religious assertions are equally untestable in the natural world.  So the only assertions about religion that make rational sense are those of the “atheists” who refrain from the positive assertion of “there is not God”, adopting only the position of having no proof.  I write “atheists” there since the label would be warranted, for such people, only in the sense of “if you’re not with us, you’re against us”.  (That sense, of course, being widespread in the religious community.)

Thus CaliforniaCrank (and I am another one of those…) and Collins are quite right in ascribing irrationality to those atheists who make positive assertions about God.  We shouldn’t be doing that!

3.  As to Reckoner’s comment (#26), the things Sam says do need to be repeated, ad nauseum to many for sure, since the proclivity of many if not most religious people is, often with the greatest serenity, to disregard such material.  Just put it from mind once the mere gist of it is apprehended.  Such is the fragility of their faith that they must take great pains not to initiate a pollution of it.  (And because of that fragility, to reinforce it with ritual and ceremony once a week, once a day, or even five times a day!)

4.  Ted R. (#33), another way to put that is that religion requires certainty without proof while science requires proof without certainty.  It does seem possible to entertain both kinds of thinking at the same time, but…what a job, to keep all one’s thoughts within their proper compartments!  The leader of the NIH should not be one that faces such a struggle.

5.  Eric (#53) has the right take on this, making the important distinction between “there is no God” and “there is insufficient evidence of a God”.  The former assertion (repeating my #2…sorry) is purely and simply an article of faith—an assertion, one might say, using the same magical thinking indulged in by the religious.  The latter is an assertion of science—of rational thinking.  Those who make the “faithful” assertion may properly be labeled atheists; the others may not be—but are, of course, universally.  As Republicans are notorious for doing in the political community, we minority “atheists” have been “framed” by the majority, willy-nilly.

I note Darren Pye (78) makes the same point.  But I fear that a great number of atheists either confuse the two positions or discount the distinction.  See my #7.

6.  SkepticalOne (#73), I don’t see that “repression” and “oppression” are appropriate here.  Were Collins’ appointment to be turned down, he would be not-a-bit less free to put forth his religious ideas.  It’s that such ideas—and such a mind-set—are incompatible with scientific pursuits.  The problem is the extent to which such a religious mind-set might influence what should be, on the job, a purely scientific mind-set.  Seems to me to take a not-inconsiderable amount of energy to keep fully separate “proof without certainty” and “certainty without proof”.

7.  I’m glad that several posters acknowledge the distinction between the two “atheistic” positions.  It is important but, as I’ve said, I fear it’s underappreciated.  We have let ourselves be “framed”!

Another characterization of the two positions is positive vs. negative atheism.  Positive being “there is no God” and negative, “there is no evidence” etc.

8.  Mark Hausam (#83): wow!...a religious person who will actually read this stuff & think on it.  If you can retain your religious beliefs, rituals, ceremonies, etc. in the light of all this barrage of reason, that’s fine with me!


I gotta get this posted quick!...I can’t keep up with the incoming.

KCH

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I wonder when will the humans wake up to the fact that trillion years from now there will be no god conversation. Jesus and Mohammad will not even be in fables (and maybe we won’t be around). Too bad we don’t all evolve at the same rate. Because this is just not that hard to get….  I think to evolve one must live in a question and not take on the answers from years past when people believed the world was flat. It is all so amusing and sad.

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“Must we really entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who believes that understanding ourselves through science is impossible, while our resurrection from death is inevitable?”

Y.E.S.

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Were there only atheists on the Wisconsin juries that convicted Dale Neumann of reckless homicide by praying for his daughter Madeline rather than taking her to a doctor? Neumann is charged with second-degree reckless homicide in the 2008 death of Madeline. Neumann’s wife, Leilani, was convicted of the same charge this spring and faces up to 25 years in prison.

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91. Lars Christoffersen

Spot on again. I am so disapointed in Obama, falling for the feets of Religious Facists

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Allan (#85),

You write really horribly.

Apart from that, there is good reason to suspect that different races have different traits. Africans tend to be black, Japanese tend to be small. It’s not too much of a stretch to believe that each race might differ slightly in various aspects, including things related to the brain. And simply because ‘race’ is a term with necessarily blurred edges, this doesn’t mean that it has no meaning. Colours also blend into each other but this doesn’t mean that there is, in reality, nothing we can call ‘red’
I suspect what you’re trying to do is jack yourself up with righteous anger to appear enormously virtuous. However, you just look a bit of a fool…and a fool who writes poorly.

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What is reason but a justification of what we already believe in? I hope the small successes of science do not bred bigots among us as did religion before the age of enlightenment.

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94. SkepticalOne

88:  “Were Collins’ appointment to be turned down, he would be not-a-bit less free to put forth his religious ideas.” 

Which spectacularly misses the point.  If, say, Dawkins were precluded from an appointment as, say, Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at a public university because of his atheism (or even for making public pronouncements on religious questions), that would represent repression irrespective of whether he could still speak out on religious questions.

“It’s that such ideas—and such a mind-set—are incompatible with scientific pursuits.”

It’s fascinating that you can reach this unequivocal conclusion without even a shred of objective evidence from a long career in public science and science administration.

“So the only assertions about religion that make rational sense are those of the ‘atheists’ who refrain from the positive assertion of ‘there is not God’, adopting only the position of having no proof.  I write ‘atheists’ there since the label would be warranted, for such people, only in the sense of ‘if you’re not with us, you’re against us’.  (That sense, of course, being widespread in the religious community.)

Thus CaliforniaCrank (and I am another one of those…) and Collins are quite right in ascribing irrationality to those atheists who make positive assertions about God.  We shouldn’t be doing that!”

If it’s somehow wrong to have beliefs about matters unproven, you’ve eliminated from “rational” discussion most of the really interesting and important things in life—love, politics, ethics, policy, etc.  Well done!

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I’d also like to know more details about him running into a frozen waterfall hundreds of feet high in the Cascades during a beautiful fall day.

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Rafaela (#82),

You write:

’“There is an epidemic of scientific ignorance in the United States”.

Mr Harris, are you a scientist?. Have you conducted epidemiological studies on “scientific ignorance” in the USA?’.

Rafaela, have you never heard of reading other scientists’ work? Do you believe that unless a person has carried out his own research on a subject he is unqualified to add his voice to a topic? You seem to be saying that scientists alone can opine on any subject. Do you really believe this? Would you disqualify yourself from all discussion of public affairs because you haven’t personally carried out your own research? How strange.

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As a recovering minister, let me say thank you Sam for having the courage most of us do not, and that is to put your neck on the line day in and day out to fight for logic and reason. 

I wish there were more people like you around, especially here in the Bible Belt.

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98. Earle Jones

At the age of 78, I have spent too much time attempting to find a rational reconciliation of religion and science.  The closest I have come is in the works of Edward O Wilson, with whom I share a place of birth (Birmingham AL) and almost a time of birth (1929 vs. 1931).  Wilson said (in Consilience):

“...I had no desire to purge religious feelings.  They were bred in
  me; they suffused the wellsprings of my creative life.  I also
  retained a small measure of common sense.  To wit, people must
  belong to a tribe; they yearn to have a purpose larger than
  themselves.  We are obliged by the deepest drives of the human
  spirit to make ourselves more than animated dust, and we must have
  a story to tell about where we came from, and why we are here.
  Could Holy Writ be just the first literate attempt to explain the
  universe and make ourselves significant within it?  Perhaps science
  is a continuation on new and better-tested ground to attain the
  same end.  If so, then in that sense science is religion liberated
  and writ large.”

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Someone please tell me what Francis Collins has done to be a “great scientist”.  He’s a competent researcher and scientific manager.  When he maneuvered himself to become leader of the Human Genome Project, he projected over a decade and hundreds of millions of dollars to completion.  The brilliant Craig Venter invented the shotgun sequencing system which made it possible to get it done quickly at a fraction of the cost.  If not for Venter, we’d still be sequencing the genome.  Why does Bush Jr. then give Collins the Medal of Freedom over hundreds of greater scientists (including atheist Craig Venter)? Because Colins is not a conventional scientific atheist but instead shouts about his faith from the rooftops.  While Colins seems sincere, this sets a dangerous precedent.  Will intelligent and rational scientific managers now fake religiosity in order to maneuver into top postions the way intelligent and rational politicians fake religiosity in order to be elected.

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100. Dr.Manuel Gerardo Monasterio

Dr.Harris has published a sort of continuation for his “saga” against Dr.Collins. Putting aside the obvious irony about the title of the article, Dr.Collins’ case is nothing sort of strange at all. The “christian” meme is one of the strongest still available in Western culture. Mr.Collins ravings about his faith are very personal, and should not be read outside the scope of private confessions.
Dr.Harris, a neuroscientist, must know that the best way to “fight” against paleo-limbic activity is to enhance cortical functioning. The “demens” part of the dubiously called “homo sapiens” allows this kind of situation, that is, that a brilliant geneticist and a religious peasant inhabit the same person, as is the case of Dr. Collins. That is not reason enough to make Dr.Collins unsuitable as head of National Institute of Health, on the contrary, a touch of Christian ethics may be helpful in an area that requires prudence in order to be able to abstain of doing absolutely everything that we can do and doubt a little in the name of “what is going to happen if you do absolutely everything that we can do” with the power of a technology that needs some restrain to avoid building unmanageable chaos out of our own uncontrolled inventions.

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