Francis Collins can’t help himself

Even though Collins is now director of the National Institutes of Health, the love of Jesus is still welling up inside him like an oil well that can’t be capped.  He’s now emitted another gusher.

I was under the impression that when Collins came aboard as NIH director, he was going to give up the public religious proselytizing, or at least his penchant for telling everyone the Good News: science proves the existence of God.  I was wrong.

Collins has just issued a new edited volume, Belief: Readings on the Reason for Faith (HarperCollins, release date Mar. 2).

Here’s the publisher’s description:

“Is there a God?” is the most central and profound question that humans ask. With the New Atheists gaining a loud voice in today’s world, it is time to revisit the long-standing intellectual tradition on the side of faith. Francis Collins, New York Times bestselling author of The Language of God and renowned physician and geneticist, defends the reason for faith in this provocative collection. Collins is our guide as he takes us through the writings of many of the world’s greatest thinkers — philosophers, preachers, poets, scientists — both past and present, including such luminaries as C. S. Lewis and Augustine, and unexpected voices such as John Locke and Dorothy Sayers. Despite the doubts of a cynical world, this essential companion proves once and for all the rationality of faith. . .

Francis Collins, New York Times bestselling author of The Language of God and renowned physician and geneticist, defends the reason for faith in this provocative collection. Collins is our guide as he takes us through the writings of many of the world’s greatest thinkers — philosophers, preachers, poets, scientists — both past and present, including such luminaries as C. S. Lewis and Augustine, and unexpected voices such as John Locke and Dorothy Sayers. Despite the doubts of a cynical world, this essential companion proves once and for all the rationality of faith.

It’s a bit disconcerting to hear that he’s going to prove, through the lucubrations of C. S. Lewis (!) and others, that faith is rational. This implies that we faithless are the irrational ones, but also that Collins continues to blur the line between science and faith.  Well, this all might be publisher’s hype, but it isn’t.  It continues in Collins’s introduction, which you can read here:

Faith and reason are not, as many seem to be arguing today, mutually exclusive.  They never have been.  The letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament defines faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”  Evidence! Down through the centuries, humanity’s greatest minds have developed interesting and compelling arguments abouth faith, based on moral philosophy, arguments about nature, and examination of sacred texts.  But outside of limited academic circles, these deeper perspectives are not heard from much these days. The goal of this anthology is to present some of these points of view, to spur on a more nuanced and intellectually rich discussion of the most profound questions that humanity asks: Is there a God? If so, what is God like? Does God care about me? And what, if anything, is the meaning of life?

Uh oh.  “Evidence”, with an exclamation mark!  What is the evidence?

As I began to absorb the arguments [of C. S. Lewis!],  the door to the possibility of God began to open, and as it did I began to see that the signposts had been around me all along.

Some of the evidence derived from nature itself. As a scientist, I was then and am now deeply invested in the idea that nature is ordered, and that science can discover it. But it never occurred to me to ask why order exists.  Going even deeper, I had never really considered the most profound philosophical question of all—why is there something instead of nothing. And if there are realities called matter and energy that behave in certain ways, what about those mathematical equations I had been so in love with as a student of quantum mechanics—why should they work at all? What, to use Nobel Laureate Wigner’s classic phrase, accounts for the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics”? Could this be a pointer toward a mathematical mind behind the universe?

And then there was the Big Bang. . . .

If you’ve read Collins’s The Language of God, you already know where he’s going.

To posit a creator that is also part of nature provides no solution. Instead, one seems obligated [my emphasis] to yield to the logic of the cosmological argument (called Kalam by Islamic scholars) that there was a First Cause, a supernatural Creator outside of the laws of nature, and outside of time and space.

Yes, it’s all scientific, folks.  Logic and scientific evidence says that we must—we must—accept a supernatural creator.

The rest follows predictably.  Collins brings up the “fine-tuning” of the universe (“The conclusion is astounding: if any of these [physical constants] were to vary by even the tiniest degree, a universe capable of sustaining any imaginable form of life would be impossible.”)

God of the gaps!  Fine-tuning, therefore Jesus.  Collins is not a man who can live with doubt, with the idea that perhaps there is some deeper physical theory (or, indeed, the possibility of multiple universes) that might explain this “fine-tuning.”

And of course, we can get more scientific evidence for God from “The Moral Law”:

When we break this Moral Law. . .we make excuses, only further demonstrating that we feel bound by the law in our dealings with others. How can this be accounted for? If God actually exists, and has an interest in humans—a unique species with gifts of consciousness, intelligence, and free will—wouldn’t the existence of this law, written on all our hearts, be an interesting signpost toward a holy and personal God?

“Interesting signpost”? What he means, of course, is “EVIDENCE”!

Responding to the argument that morality could have evolved, since we see apparent rudiments of morality in our primate relatives, Collins simply asserts that evolution couldn’t lead us to admire altruists, or to perform altruistic acts ourselves.  Well, maybe, but reciprocal altruism could have evolved in small groups of interacting hominids. And there are many people, including myself, who think that morality comes from a combination of an evolved mentality and a non-evolved, social extension of that mentality to other people—indeed, to other species. (That’s the point of Peter Singer’s The Expanding Circle.)  Collins claims that the New Atheists haven’t dealt with the subtleties of theology, but he surely has not dealt with the multifarious arguments for the secular development of morality.  And while he claims he’s “not arguing that the existence of the Moral Law somehow proves God’s existence,” that’s disingenuous.  He is, and he has done.

For myself, the arguments from the nature of the universe and the existence of the Moral Law led me, with considerable initial resistance, to a serious consideration of the possibility of a God who not only wound up the clock but who also has an enduring interest in a relationship with humans.

Enough is enough.  Collins is director of the NIH, and is using his office to argue publicly that scientific evidence—the Big Bang, the “Moral Law” and so forth—points to the existence of a God.  That is blurring the lines between faith and science: exactly what I hoped he would not do when he took his new job.

And to those who say that he has the right to publish this sort of stuff, well, yes he does.  He has the legal right.  But it’s not judicious to argue publicly, as the most important scientist in the US, that there is scientific evidence for God.  Imagine, for example, the outcry that would ensue if Collins were an atheist and, as NIH director, published a collection of atheistic essays along the lines of Christopher Hitchens’s The Portable Atheist, but also arguing that scientific evidence proved that there was no God.  He would, of course, promptly be canned as NIH director.

Or imagine if Collins were a Scientologist, arguing that the evidence pointed to the existence of Xenu and ancient “body-thetans” that still plague humans today. Or a Muslim, arguing that evidence pointed to the existence of Allah, and of Mohamed as his divine prophet.  Or if he published a book showing how scientific evidence pointed to the efficacy of astrology, or witchcraft.  People would think he was nuts.

Collins gets away with this kind of stuff only because, in America, Christianity is a socially sanctioned superstition.  He’s the chief government scientist, but he won’t stop conflating science and faith.  He had his chance, and he blew it.  He should step down.

151 Comments

  1. Michele
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    I don’t agree with Collins, but I think he is good at his job and a good biologist. His theological writings are a distraction, but everyone has a right to a hobby.

    And as far as Evangelicals go, his theological view is a lot less dangerous and much more scholarly than most of the stuff foisted on the American public these days, which in general is a caricature of both science and Christianity.

    He supports evolution and encourages reading about God, and thought. Scarily enough, thought and reading theology are actually discouraged by many Evangelical churches these days, which instead support a theology of blind Biblical literalism (the Christianity of Huckabee and his ilk) which is what leads to evil nonsense like not teaching evolution in church, nor believing in global warming, and opposing gay marriage.

    While I am a non-believer myself, I always think the arguments theistic scientists make are more interesting than the New Atheist “THERE’S NO GOD” stuff.

    Though I do think John Polkinghorne is better. The physicists seem to do better than the biologists at that sort of stuff, e.g. Sagan vs Dawkins on the other side.

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted February 25, 2010 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

      Although I lack your interest in the ideas of scientifically-trained theists, I agree with your assessment of Dr. Collins’s latest offering. His audience is evangelical Christians, and his intent is to confront fundamentalism. When, in his introduction, he compares atheists and Ken Hamm, it is by way of disparaging Ken Hamm. Nobody friendly to naturalism is going to buy this book.

    • Sigmund
      Posted February 26, 2010 at 3:28 am | Permalink

      I think you are mistaken in saying the new atheists state “Theres no God”. I think this is one of the key points that distinguishes the new atheists from the old atheists. I was reminded of this point a few weeks ago when PZ Myers posted an old video of Bertrand Russell being interviewed about God in which he came across far more ‘strident’ and sure of claiming the non existence of God than any of the new atheists. I suspect the reason for this is due to the fact that ‘new atheism’ is primarily a scientific rather than a philosophical based movement and as such it deals with evidence in favor or against particular hypotheses rather than absolute proof.
      Most of the new atheists I have heard on the question will say that there is no evidence against the idea of a non intervening deistic ‘God’. That is in contrast to the huge amount of evidence against intervening Gods and the claims made on their behalf.

      • Notagod
        Posted February 26, 2010 at 11:08 am | Permalink

        ..no evidence against the idea of a non intervining deistic ‘God’.

        Yes, in the same way that there is no evidence against the idea of a non intervening ‘Dog’ or, ‘Frog’ or, ‘Dirt Clod’.

  2. Miranda
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 10:51 pm | Permalink

    “Collins brings up the “fine-tuning” of the universe (“The conclusion is astounding: if any of these [physical constants] were to vary by even the tiniest degree, a universe capable of sustaining any imaginable form of life would be impossible.”)

    God of the gaps! Fine-tuning, therefore Jesus.”

    Actually, I think he was just going for: “Fine-tuning, therefore Intelligence.” Getting logically to Jesus is a whole ‘nother step, and both Collins and you know that.

    Is the counter-position, “Fine-tuning, just luck” or “Fine-tuning, just one of many multiverses” a more intellectually satisfying position?

    • Occam
      Posted February 26, 2010 at 2:52 am | Permalink

      At least a position that would avoid the gross teleogical fallacy of Collins’ “conclusion”:
      A: we’re here.
      B: we think we have identified a number of pre-conditions (≈ physical constants) in the universe which allow for our being here.
      C: therefore the universe was designed in such a way that we should be here.

      C is really what Collins is stating, in the context. But C does in no way follow conclusively from A and B. Adding “intelligence” to C is just adding another layer of fallacy, a particularly unwarranted one.

      “Luck” or “multiverses” are workable, testable hypotheses, at least in principle.

      But there comes worse. How can a scientist state categorically which forms of life are not at all imaginable without seeing that he is exploding position C?

      • Sigmund
        Posted February 26, 2010 at 3:13 am | Permalink

        The fine tuning argument is nothing but the old fashioned argument from design applied to the realm of physics rather than biology. Indeed it’s a principle plank of the Intelligent Design movement and it’s physicist supporters like Guillermo Gonzalez.
        Not only that but its directly contradictory to theistic claims of miracles – you cannot claim that the universe is fine tuned such that any slight deviation in the known physical constants would render current forms of matter impossible while simultaneously claiming that the same laws of physics can be changed at the whim of an intervening God with little consequences to the universe.

      • Occam
        Posted February 26, 2010 at 3:52 am | Permalink

        Precisely. Nicely worded, and brutally blunt.
        But the more troubling question is: how can the ‘chief government scientist’ utter such ineptitudes? Is the U.S. government’s scientific doctrine already pandering to the 79% who believe in miracles, according to the Pew survey?
        If so, why not rely on miracles and cut back on everything, from health insurance to protective armour to seatbelts?

      • Miranda
        Posted February 26, 2010 at 7:39 am | Permalink

        ” — “Luck” or “multiverses” are workable, testable hypotheses, at least in principle.”

        Barely.

  3. Posted February 28, 2010 at 1:46 am | Permalink

    Maybe Collins’s God can get the NIH a budget that does more than keep up with inflation. God knows, Collins sure as shit hasn’t managed it. Haha. We thought he might be better than that useless wasteoid, Zerhouni…


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