Friday, August 24, 2007

Sam Harris on Francis Collins

Dr. Francis Collins is a renowned scientists--he headed the human genome project. He is also an Evangelical Christian. He recently written a book The Language of God that describes his own faith journey from atheism to faith in Christ. He also uses the book to defend evolution--and attack creationism and intelligent design--largely to an evangelical audience. I have written several posts about both Dr. Collins and his book. You can find all of my posts here. While I am critical of some aspects of the book, I otherwise found much to admire.

A Christian scientist that supports evolution in a book targeted to fellow Christians--what's not to like? Well, Sam Harris, one of the so-called "New Atheist" (and author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation) thinks that Collins is a danger to mankind--and lumps him with Islamic fundamentalists in a remarkable letter to Nature:

An Editorial announcing the publication of Francis Collins' book, The Language of God ('Building bridges' Nature 442, 110; doi:10.1038/442110a 2006) represents another instance of high-minded squeamishness in addressing the incompatibility of faith and reason. Nature praises Collins, a devout Christian, 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".

But here is Collins on how he, as a scientist, finally became convinced of the divinity of Jesus Christ: "On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains... 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."

What does the "mode of thought" displayed by Collins have in common with science? The Language of God should have sparked gasping outrage from the editors at Nature. Instead, they deemed Collins's efforts "moving" and "laudable", commending him for building a "bridge across the social and intellectual divide that exists between most of US academia and the so-called heartlands."

At a time when Muslim doctors and engineers stand accused of attempting atrocities in the expectation of supernatural reward, when the Catholic Church still preaches the sinfulness of condom use in villages devastated by AIDS, when the president of the United States repeatedly vetoes the most promising medical research for religious reasons, much depends on the scientific community presenting a united front against the forces of unreason.

There are bridges and there are gangplanks, and it is the business of journals such as Nature to know the difference.

Read it all here. Now certainly Collins' Christian views (like my own) are not immune from criticism, but it seems to me that Sam Harris' attack is a bit over the top. Collins did not purport to be doing science in his book--his aim was exactly that praised by Nature--to explain his scientific views to his fellow Christians, and to explain his faith to those who don't believe. It did not purport to be a work only of science.

Harris is certainly free to criticize the views that Collins has on any topic--including his faith, but Harris did not do so. Instead, rather than challenge Collins directly, he lumps Collins (and me, and perhaps you) with Islamic fundamentalists and the Catholic Church as part of a giant "force of unreason" based on views and positions that Collins (and I) adamantly oppose. Sounds rather weak to me. Is that the best that Harris could do?


Eric Michael Johnson said...

Chuck - As you know I understand and am sympathetic to the theistic position (having spent a good portion of my life as a believer). I also read through Collins' book soon after it was released. While I will agree that Collins does a god job of impressing upon Christians the foolishness of opposing Darwinian natural selection, as a book about science it fails spectacularly.

Here are two quotes from The Language of God that Sam Harris highlights in his review from last year:

"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 . . ."

"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."

The first quote speaks to embracing faith in the unknown and unknowable. If you want to understand the natural world, as Collins claims to, then you must leave your biases at the door rather than trying to wrap the facts around what you believe. The second quote disregards the process of science and claims that there is intentionality in the universe. This simply embraces magical thinking and gets us no closer to understanding what (and why) the universe actual is. A simple and elegant argument against this latter position can be found here.

Chuck Blanchard said...


Thanks for your comment. I am a big fan of your blog. and I love the cartoon.

As I have said in numerous posts on this blog, I also found some shortcomings with the Collins book. The reliance on the C.S. Lewis "moral law" argument for the existence of God, in particular, struck me as unpersausive. My point about the Sam Harris letter in Nature was that it was unfair to lump Collins in with both the Catholic position on condoms (he is not Catholic) or Islamic fundamentalists.

I don't have the Collins book in front of me here at work, but I think you and Harris take these two quotes out of their larger contexts. Collins is not saying that science has to accede to religious claims, or even that it is proper for a scientist to make religious assumuptions in doing his or her work. I think Collins would dispute both points.

The two quotes arise out of his conclusions from looking at the state of science thus far, and explaining to believers why an acceptance of evolution still permits a beleif in a Creator God.

The second quote in particular captures my own theistic world view--I accept evolution, reject creationism, reject the Bethe type of intelligent design, but believe that God can still be a creator God by using evolution as the mechanism of creation. But that does not mean that I don't also beleive that science should continue its struggle to answer the deeper questions of our creation with out reference to an intelligent designer.

bls said...

I think it's really wrong to assume that religious believers are not acting from reason. In fact, it's clear to me that religion is at least partly an attempt to answer the question of existence.

I think it was C.S. Lewis who said that when scientists see something they don't understand, they immediately form a hypothesis about it. They don't assume that things arise from nothing, IOW; they believe in cause-and-effect, and in naming "God" the cause of all that exists, visible and invisible (and yes, some things are invisible!), they are only doing what every scientist does. "God" is a hypothesis for something people don't understand.

And there are further reasonable aspects to religion. For one, it can give people hope and comfort and peace of mind. Religious disciplines such as prayer and meditation help people transcend serious difficulties in their lives. It's a connection to history and to one's ancestors. Religion has helped build civilizations, too; its contributions to and intertwining with art, music, literature, and philosophy are not to be sneezed at. It's not in any sense a delusion; it has real and present applications, and has for a long time.

I think a lot of modern religion has become un-anchored to its roots, and has also, of course, become joined-at-the-hip to politics in recent times. And a lot of the modern stuff does seem to be Kool-Aid in many ways - young earth creationism, etc. - although I don't speak about that from personal experience, having never been involved in it. But there's a tremendously rich history, and some of the finest minds in all walks of life have seen no contradiction between faith and intellect.

Eric Michael Johnson said...

Hi Chuck,

I've continued this discussion as an additional post, The Feeling of What Happens.

Mariano said...

Sam Harris has a one word answer to all of the world’s ills: religion.

Thus, anyone who is religious is, a priori, part of the problem.

Moreover, as evidenced at the following link, Harris himself is becoming a scientist not in order to conduct unbiased research but in order to attempt to evidence atheism.

Also, FYI: interesting info on Collins is found here: