Atheist Sam Harris, Evangelical Francis Collins, and the Soft Bigotry of Strict Naturalism

In a recent piece for the New York Times, atheist Sam Harris has told us that he isn’t comfy with Francis Collins being appointed by President Barack Obama as the new director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH):

Francis Collins is an accomplished scientist and a man who is sincere in his beliefs. And that is precisely what makes me so uncomfortable about his nomination.

You see, Dr. Collins isn’t an atheist. He’s an evangelical Christian. And Sam Harris is uncomfortable with scientists who are Christians. He also doesn’t like the way Dr. Collins thinks :

As someone who believes that our understanding of human nature can be derived from neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science and behavioral economics, among others, I am troubled by Dr. Collins’s line of thinking.

Apparently, unless you arrive at the conclusion that human beings and their properties of mind can be wholly reduced to strictly materialist terms of explanation (even though scientists have as yet been unable to do so) then Sam Harris is troubled by your way of thinking. In other words, if you don’t share Harris’s faith in naturalism (that is, his materialism and atheism), and if you don’t believe that naturalism can and will provide (someday) a global explanation for all phenonmena, then you are troubling to Mr. Harris. And so, with regard to Dr. Collins, Harris is troubled.

I like the way that Kenneth Miller, a Catholic, and a biologist at Brown University, in a letter to the editor of the Times, confronts Harris’s soft bigotry head-on:

Sam Harris’s article attacking Dr. Francis S. Collins, President Obama’s nominee to be the director of the National Institutes of Health, demonstrates nothing so much as Mr. Harris’s own deeply held prejudices against religion. Dr. Collins’s sin, despite credentials Mr. Harris calls “impeccable,” is that he is a Christian. Mr. Harris is not alone in holding this view. A leading science blogger, also attacking Dr. Collins, demonstrated his own commitment to reasoned dialogue by calling the scientist a “clown” and a “flaming idjit.” When reason has such defenders, Heaven help us.

My guess is that Miller is alluding to something that PZ Myers must have said about Collins. It certainly sounds like Myers, doesn’t it?

Is this what contemporary unbelief has come to? Rush Limbaugh-style Manicheanism? Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, and PZ Myers? What a degrading come down from atheists of even fifty years ago. Whatever happened to the measured, sane, and unbigoted public atheists (like Albert Camus and C.P. Snow) of previous decades? Where are they?

NOTE: I guessed right (not hard in this case). It was PZ Myers who called Collins a “clown” and “flaming idjit”. See here.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Atheist Sam Harris, Evangelical Francis Collins, and the Soft Bigotry of Strict Naturalism

  1. Veronica Abbass says:

    Santi

    “He (Sam Harris) also doesn’t like the way Dr. Collins thinks”

    I have been following this discussion very closely on this blog, Coyne’s blog and Larry Moran’s blog and I think you have it wrong: Sam Harris doesn’t like the way Dr. Collins behaves. Feely touchy god did it attitudes have no place in science.

    Moreover, Kenneth Miller maintains that Harris feels that “Dr. Collins’s sin . . . is that he is a Christian.” “Sin” is Miller’s word, not Harris’s word, and Miller’s use of “sin” suggests that yes, it is a fault that the nominated director of the National Institutes of Health is so outspokenly Christian.

    It’s time to take “In God we trust” out of American science.

  2. santitafarella says:

    Veronica:

    If (as you say) “feely touchy god did it attitudes have no place in science”, then it is also true that “feely touchy god did not do it attitudes have no place in science” either, don’t you agree?

    Don’t you agree, in other words, that some atheist scientists (Dawkins, Meyers, Coyne) are passionate about their atheism, and that their atheism exceeds the warrant of the empirical?

    Actually, I personally don’t mind seeing atheists and theists draw inferences from their science to ultimate questions. I think it is interesting how they approach the perplexities of existence globally. What I find obnoxious is when one side (or the other) insists that they are the true heralds of science (and not engaged in gestures of faith), or that the other side is evil or irrational or should shut up or keep their speculations private.

    I want to see honest theism and honest atheism: that is, theism and atheism that admits its empirical limitations and engages the opposite side with respect and vulnerability.

    Instead, what I see are confidence atheists squaring off against confidence theists—which to my mind mirrors the shout radio/Fox News culture of projection, impatience with nuance, and demonization.

    —Santi

  3. Thanks for this post! Isn’t it strange that Harris and his ilk can produce no EVIDENCE that Collins’ religious beliefs have EVER interfered with his science? “Suspicion is the companion of mean souls, and the bane of all good society.” [Thomas Paine in Common Sense]

  4. santitafarella says:

    Apuleius:

    The evidence issue is a very good point.

    —Santi

  5. Chris says:

    This is a sort of prejudice against Christian scientists. It’s no surprise though, because it goes the other way – prejudice against atheist’s who are x – although less often in the science department. Being a Christian, I have no problem with atheists on any sort of electoral board, so long as they are honest people. How they draw conclusions based on evidence is really a misnomer, so long as they honestly provide evidence. Intelligent people are generally smart enough to draw conclusions on their own, based on looking at multiple opinions of said evidence.

    Anyway, Santi, you mentioned reading Lewis. I didn’t know where else to post this, but if you have time you ought to check out this audio talk. It’s a little Christian-leaning. But if you’re put off by that, nevermind it. Instead focus on the arguments concerning art/literature and objectivity. I’d be extremely interested to read a blog of yours on the talk.

    http://www.bethinking.org/who-am-i/c-s-lewiss-approach-to-art-and-literature.htm

  6. santitafarella says:

    Chris:

    Thanks for the link. I’ll get to it later today. I’m happy to hear Christian viewpoints (explicit or otherwise). I tend to learn more, and am stimulated in my thinking, from people who disagree with me or don’t share my premises, than from people who do share my premises, and reinforce my prejudices. Never feel shy about offering links by explicit Christians here. I like to hear all sides on issues. I don’t believe in enclosing myself in a bubble of rectitude, only hearing people with whom I agree. I’m sure you’re the same. It’s the formula for folly (in my view).

    —Santi

  7. Yes, such thinking (Collins way of thinking), especially as a scientist in a position to influence science is troubling.

    I’m also troubled by the fact, that there are plenty of people, which can read and understand english, but are unable to get Sam Harris’s point. Sam Harris was quite clear — he quoted Collins and showed, that Collins is attributing certain things to god, which are and should be investigated by science. If we would follow Collins way of thinking, we would be today in the same state as the Islamic world — we would attribute the processes happening when something is burning to the will of god.

    • >> If we would follow Collins way of thinking, we would be today in the same state as the Islamic world <<

      This is a testable hypothesis. Collins has been doing science for almost 40 years, including very high profile positions of leadership at scientific institutions. Name one single instance in which his views concerning God have ever interfered in any way with the research that he has been involved in.

      • > Name one single instance in which his views
        > concerning God have ever interfered in any way with
        > the research that he has been involved in.

        I don’t need to — Collins did that by assigning certain things
        (which can and should be investigated by science)
        to god.
        This is exactly what I was refering to with the example of the decline of the muslim world.

    • Peter:
      >> I don’t need to — Collins did that by assigning certain things
      (which can and should be investigated by science)
      to god.
      This is exactly what I was refering to with the example of the decline of the muslim world. <<
      <<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

      This is completely illogical. You and Harris are making a prediction about how Collins will act as head of NIH – and you are predicting some kind of negative consequences that one assumes would be observable.

      But Collins has been doing science for decades, and has held other prominent posts in major scientific institutions. So, where are the observable negative effects in the work that he has ALREADY done?

      Perhaps you are claim that Collins is the Manchurian Fundamentalist whose secret anti-science programming wont kick in until he is NIH Director? Mwahahahahaha.

  8. santitafarella says:

    Peter:

    Collins resists “God of the gaps” explanations in most instances (except in matters of ultimate things), and his religion has never interfered with his science (except in his philosophical, epistemic, and metaphysical speculations, which is precisely where all of us speculate in excess of empiricism). He’s obviously a successful scientist. He knows what he’s doing.

    Collins has a right to his humanity. To be human is to infer beyond the strictly empirical to what things are ultimately all about. One has to make reasoned guesses in these realms, and Collins has offered his. Atheists must also engage in similar leaps beyond the evidence, and draw what they believe to be reasonable inferences about the ultimate nature of reality. To treat Collins as a pariah for not keeping his Christianity to himself borders on the mentality of the totalitarian. Nature and science do not point one way. Public science must function on naturalist assumptions for purposes of empiricism and verification, but a practicing scientist need not be a metaphysical naturalist with regard to ultimate questions. In other words, science need not lead to atheism, or require scientists to be atheists with regards to all questions of existence. It’s not unreasonable to infer telos behind the material universe. To say that it is silly to do so is to make a statement far in excess of science.

    —Santi

  9. santitafarella says:

    Peter:

    You said: “If we would follow Collins way of thinking, we would be today in the same state as the Islamic world — we would attribute the processes happening when something is burning to the will of god.”

    Haven’t you ever heard of levels of explanation? If a person says to you, on seeing you flipping fish on a grill—“What’s going on here?”—can’t you imagine a dozen non-contradictory explanations? You can answer on one level with regards to your purpose: “I’m making fish sandwiches for my family.” Or you could explain the chemical processes at work in the fire’s contact with flesh. Or what eating fish means for humans in the context of our evolution. Or you could discuss the ecological meaning of eating fish. Or you could say it is part of your spiritual practice. You are Catholic and only eat fish on Fridays.

    There’s even such a thing as a Muslim scientist, who might respond to the meaning of things at different levels. Imagine that.

    —Santi

  10. santitafarella says:

    Peter:

    The very fact that you say that you “don’t have to” provide evidence for your claims means that you are not interested in convincing skeptics. You are making an assertion about Collins for which you offer no warrant.

    Also, there is no part of the empirical world that Collins would not be willing to bring before the procedures of science. Collins is not the persecutor of Galileo, refusing to look into his telescope. The fact that he makes existential inferences in advance of science is no evidence that he is anti-scientific, for atheists, as humans who are “trapped” in the system that they are trying to get a grip on, do EXACTLY the same thing when they infer global and blind materialism as an explanation for the universe in total. It is an inference in excess of what the evidence can warrant (as are teleological inferences). There are holes and questions that go begging in all worldviews. But here we are. We all try to do as best we can.

    —Santi

  11. santitafarella says:

    Apuleius:

    Manchurian fundamentalist! Good one!

    —Santi

  12. Mariano says:

    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.

    http://atheismisdead.blogspot.com/2009/05/atheism-new-emergent-atheists-part-2-of.html

    Also, FYI: interesting info on Collins is found here:
    http://atheismisdead.blogspot.com/2009/04/john-horgan-and-francis-collins.html

    http://atheismisdead.blogspot.com/2009/05/new-atheists-on-francis-collins.html

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s