Pharyngula

Francis Collins is a very smart, very disciplined, very hardworking man. He was the head of the Human Genome Project, and now he has written a book, The Language of God : A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), and I have to tell you, it doesn’t look promising.

He talks about his ideas in an interview. It’s the usual dreary stuff we get from the god-botherers, and it’s clear that this is a subject on which he willingly turns his intellect to off.

Collins was an atheist until the age of 27, when as a young doctor he was impressed by the strength that faith gave to some of his most critical patients.

“They had terrible diseases from which they were probably not going to escape, and yet instead of railing at God they seemed to lean on their faith as a source of great comfort and reassurance,” he said. “That was interesting, puzzling and unsettling.”

He decided to visit a Methodist minister and was given a copy of C S Lewis’s Mere Christianity, which argues that God is a rational possibility. The book transformed his life. “It was an argument I was not prepared to hear,” he said. “I was very happy with the idea that God didn’t exist, and had no interest in me. And yet at the same time, I could not turn away.”

Ho hum. Why do so many evangelicals begin their tales with a conversion story in which they were once one of the unwashed ungodly? I sometimes get the impression that everyone under the age of 30 must be an atheist, just so that when they’re 40 they can make remorseful testimonials and affirm their new faith, which, of course, they had never had before. Nope, never heard of Christianity until they were wise old men, and then poof, they discovered this overwhelmingly convincing evidence.

But OK, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, and trust that he really was an atheist, once upon a time. Why is his conversion story so pathetic and unconvincing, and based on such a lack of critical thinking?

Most of his patients were probably religious (it’s a common affliction in America). So why is it “puzzling” that many were using their faith as a crutch, and why is he impressed that they weren’t railing against god? Did he also have a crop of atheist patients who died feebly, cussing out Jesus all the way down? That’s rather improbable, and I’m afraid I don’t believe him.

And dear gob, he was convinced by Mere Christianity? The “liar, lunatic, or lord” argument? Mere Christianity is a book that leaves atheists baffled at how anyone could find such drivel compelling—it’s a set of exceedingly weak excuses that believers find congruent with their preconceptions, but as a recruiting tool…man, it might sway a lunatic, and a liar might find it a useful tool, but lords need not apply.

His epiphany came when he went hiking through the Cascade Mountains in Washington state. He said: “It was a beautiful afternoon and suddenly the remarkable beauty of creation around me was so overwhelming, I felt, ‘I cannot resist this another moment’.”

I’ve been hiking in the Cascades, too, and I also find it overwhelmingly beautiful, but I see it as evidence of the power of nature and time and material forces, and my shared origin in the same forces that formed rock and cedar and mountain streams. His is an emotional argument; it has no logical force, and his conclusion is not a necessary product of his experience, since my interpretation is just as valid.

Collins believes that science cannot be used to refute the existence of God because it is confined to the “natural” world. In this light he believes miracles are a real possibility. “If one is willing to accept the existence of God or some supernatural force outside nature then it is not a logical problem to admit that, occasionally, a supernatural force might stage an invasion,” he says.

In other words, if you accept the premise of a supernatural agent, then you will have no problem with your premise. I’m sorry, Dr Collins, but that’s simply dumb. Please don’t call it “logical.” He’s made similarly vapid arguments elsewhere, like this:

I’m sorry that God has disappeared for Richard Dawkins. He’s not disappeared for me. I think you can make an argument that if God made himself so obvious, so known, so easily interpretable in daily events, then the whole concept of faith and of making a personal decision about where you stand would be pretty meaningless. You can look at many examples down through the history of faith where this lack of certainty is a critical part of how the whole enterprise operates.

So part of his evidence for a god is the fact that god is invisible, and there is no evidence for it…the “f” word sure is a great little excuse to cover up the emptiness of a claim, isn’t it?

Now Collins is a scientist, so I find this next bit particularly interesting: he makes a prediction!

Among Collins’s most controversial beliefs is that of “theistic evolution”, which claims natural selection is the tool that God chose to create man. In his version of the theory, he argues that man will not evolve further.

“I see God’s hand at work through the mechanism of evolution. If God chose to create human beings in his image and decided that the mechanism of evolution was an elegant way to accomplish that goal, who are we to say that is not the way,” he says.

“Scientifically, the forces of evolution by natural selection have been profoundly affected for humankind by the changes in culture and environment and the expansion of the human species to 6 billion members. So what you see is pretty much what you get.”

So if his Christian god is real, then evolution has stopped. Huh. Has it? No, of course not. What possible mechanism would he postulate is in place to stop the accumulation of variation in the human species? Isn’t he at all concerned that if our evolution has stopped cold, but the evolution of microorganisms is ongoing, that we’re looking at our incipient doom?

I’m also baffled by his reasoning. He is arguing that our physical form has now reached the culmination of its design, and that we are therefore fixed, because we are now in the image of god. So god is made of meat, about 5 or 6 feet tall, and has all our physiological functions? It makes me wonder what brand of toilet paper he uses, or whether he has a very nice bidet somewhere in a nicely appointed room somewhere near his throne.

This is what makes Collins so comical. He hasn’t just settled on a vaguely deistic and philosophical acceptance of the possibility of a creator…he is committed to a narrowly sectarian, Biblical view of that creator, a view that is ultimately illogical and absurd, and is completely indefensible except by the standard irrational way out of claiming the backing of “faith”. Hallelujah! I believe because I believe, and because I’m a famous scientist, my faith must be scientific!

Bullpuckey.

Collins is in the pseudo-rationalist branch of liberal Christianity. That’s fine, he’s welcome to dither about in there…but seriously, it has no credibility and no greater rational foundation than the raving mad branches of fundamentalism. I oppose it. I think the only purpose of this kind of crap is to provide a smiling mask of benign ineffectuality to insanity, a sympathetic cover to allow the religious to excuse any inspection of their premises. I agree with Brian Flemming on this issue—that mild and harmless as the kindly apologists might be, there isn’t much deep down to distinguish them from the fanatics and nutcases. Their arguments don’t stand up to even a casual glance by an atheist, but worse, they’re going to wither into ash in the face of the fundie hate-wing of their belief system.

Anyone advancing the notion that the “real message” of the Bible is the pick-and-choose construction of liberal Christianity is doomed to an idiotic sectarian fight in which the other side has many more boxes of ammunition. When it comes to God, hatred and fags, the Fred Phelps family is on very firm ground.

I know, a Collins and a Phelps are diametric opposites in how they use their faith, but ultimately, they are building on the same frothy, shifting foundation of lies and fantasy, and perhaps the only real difference is in how solidly consistent their views are…and Francis Collins has the most rickety, flighty, and contradictory construction. I’m sure Collins is sincere in his beliefs and has nothing but good intentions, but this book of his is going to be little more than yet another rationalization for irrationality, which the happy anti-intellectual warriors of the American faith-based delusion will seize upon to justify deeper commitment to our national policy of self-destructive foolishness.

Comments

  1. #1 John Wendt
    June 12, 2006

    Collins says “I can’t help but look at those pages and have a vague sense that this is giving me a glimpse of God’s mind.”

    God must have been very sloppy to allow all those pseudogenes. And the tremendous waste involved in natural selection doesn’t seem either efficient or loving.

    Nor can you say that human anatomy is a thoughtful design. Everything about it makes more sense in a four-legged animal.

    But it was very cool of Him to design some of those invertebrates!

  2. #2 Bachalon
    June 12, 2006

    Pardon the pun, but I don’t give a shit what brand of toilet paper god may or may not use (if he should ever somehow exist) as long as it’s two ply.

  3. #3 Joker Cross
    June 12, 2006

    Why do so many evangelicals begin their tales with a conversion story in which they were once one of the unwashed ungodly?

    I’ve noticed the same thing myself. What’s with that? Is there some sort of pamphlet you get when you convert that tells you to say that? A class maybe?

  4. #4 Jonathan Badger
    June 12, 2006

    Is this surprising? I remember at the start of the Human Genome Project much was made of Francis’ Christianity — considering that the many of other major players, such as Watson are openly atheistic, and others, such as Eric Lander are vaguely New Age friends of the Dali Lama.

  5. #5 ryoga
    June 12, 2006

    In regards to the liar, lunatic or lord question, and assuming Jesus really did say his dad was god, am I the only person that thinks it was quite reasonable for Jesus, or anyone else of importance 2000 years ago, to beleive they were the literal, physical son of god? I mean, really, at that time, every ruler worth his salt proclaimed and was proclaimed by his followers the son of a god. As a product of that type of environment, and with followers ready and willing to proclaim him as devine, Jesus could quite reasonably and honestly conclude that he was the special “son of god” everyone wanted him to be. Hell, I remember just a few years ago that some Jewish guy in N.Y. thought he was the messiah and had a group of followers who thought so to. When he died, in his 90s, his followers waited three days for him to rise from the dead, with predictable results.

  6. #6 striving for average
    June 12, 2006

    Why do so many evangelicals begin their tales with a conversion story in which they were once one of the unwashed ungodly?

    It’s simply a way of saying that before they believed in God, they did not. In and of itself it’s pointless, and obvious.

  7. #7 Chance
    June 12, 2006

    My guess on this thread– 100 posts.

    Anyone want to wager? :-)

    I think you can make an argument that if God made himself so obvious, so known, so easily interpretable in daily events, then the whole concept of faith and of making a personal decision about where you stand would be pretty meaningless

    Isn’t this giving faith some value for which it hasn’t earned? I mean how valid is a personal decision when your making it on irrational premises. And how exactly does that say anything on where you stand on a variety of issues.

    I’m sure he would be ‘standing’ in different places on virtually any topic depending on which form of religion he was following.

    In short I find his arguments pretty vacous.

  8. #8 boojieboy
    June 12, 2006

    Your comments remind me of an episode of Charlie Rose I caught a few years back with Francis Collins as guest. Once Charlie was finished with one of his interminable questions (I don’t even remember what the question was, really), Dr. Collins offered this amazingly contradictory piece of argumentation.

    First, he acknowledged the inherent weakness of “God in the Gaps” arguments. He was at that moment defending the theory of evolution. Fine and dandy so far.

    In the next moment, he offered that there was one human trait which could not be explained by evolution–our sense of morality. Our sense of moralitty must have been designed by our Creator, he was arguing, which is in a nutshell a “God in the Gaps” argument.

    I couldn’t believe my ears. What’s worse, Charlie just let it pass without following it up.

    At that moment he was cleary acting as a weak apologist for Christianity. It was sort of sad, actually. I wonder now if his open embrace of faith isn’t a sort of posture that is convenient for the current administration he is under.

  9. #9 Bryson Brown
    June 12, 2006

    Since there are many well-established liars and lunatics, and since I have no idea what it even means to declare Jesus ‘lord’ (what a bizarrely ancient/medieval conception that is) and ‘god’ (“even the dozen gods themselves turned odd, the moment they got upped in grade to ‘God'”) it seems to me that the odds are pretty good for liar or lunatic (not that I take these alternatives as exhaustive).

  10. #10 Zeno
    June 12, 2006

    Okay, it’s worse because a scientist is doing it, but we’ve seen this before. Lee Strobel is a formerly nonbelieving journalist who has been cashing in on the God thing in a series of sad and sorry books.

  11. #11 Russell
    June 12, 2006

    Very simply, there cannot be ample evidence for a god, if belief in him remains a “personal decision.” The whole point of evidence is to remove the question at issue from the realm of subjective preference and into the realm of objective, shared knowledge. Any “personal decision” to believe that something is the case, as positive fact, is simply what we mean by irrational.

  12. #12 The Amazing Kim
    June 12, 2006

    Oh, give him some sypmpathy. Some people don’t find it easy to be an athiest. They struggle all their lives with the mythology they were brought up with, and their childhood indoctrination. As PZ said, he wasn’t living in a vacuum before his conversion, and it’s a hell of a lot easier to be religious than not, especially if you’re already inclined that way. Sure, it’s a pity he fell over to the dark side, but it’s understandable.

  13. #13 robstowell
    June 12, 2006

    Hey, that’s nothing…
    After a lifetime of godlessness, I was converted to CHRISTIANITY at the age of 13, for all of TWO OR THREE MONTHS. With all the sincerity of a 13-year-old (I really did take this seriously) I prayed for an end to the war in Vietnam, and for God to help me stop masturbating. The war went on… (I won’t go into the other side of it) and one night as I was earnestly muttering- sorry, talking to god before going to bed, I had a glorious epiphany!
    “Why the hell am I talking to myself?” I wondered. And I’ve never looked back…. and I’ve NEVER HAD CANCER! (just for the record… god may have afflicted me by many years later causing my appendix to rot- and YOU thought the appendix was just an evolutionary hand-me-down!)

  14. #14 Joe Don Martin
    June 12, 2006

    I wish that his conversion scene was more dramatic, like Saul/Paul on the “Road To Damascus”(starring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby) or Constantine’s “Cross Banners” dream. Francis’ lukewarm change of heart just suggests to me that he wasn’t ever really an atheist at all. Dumbass.

  15. #15 Virge
    June 12, 2006

    Francis Collins:

    …if God made himself so obvious, so known, so easily interpretable in daily events, then the whole concept of faith and of making a personal decision about where you stand would be pretty meaningless.

    If my faith in ineffable God
    Weren’t baseless, unreal and odd…

    Faith to faith

  16. #16 Owlmirror
    June 12, 2006

    Why do so many evangelicals begin their tales with a conversion story in which they were once one of the unwashed ungodly?

    Now I am struck with the idea for a story/book… A middle-aged man who has drifted away from religion suffers a psychological crisis, engages in lots of deep soul-searching, reads the Bible, talks to ministers, preachers and priests, reads several conversion tales like Lewis’s Mere Christianity, et alia — and converts into a Firm, Absolute Conviction, Hard-Shelled Atheist-with-a-capital-A.

  17. #17 Rieux
    June 13, 2006

    I think it’s worth noting that the one actual “argument for God” in Mere Christianity isn’t the Trilemma (“Lord, Liar or Lunatic”)–that’s just Lewis’s attempt to knock down the (horrible! horrible!) notion that Jesus was “merely a great moral teacher.” (Pfft.)

    In fact, the argument for the existence of God that Lewis puts forth in Mere Christianity is the Moral Argument–“There are objective moral values, ergo God exists.” (Pfft again.) Interestingly, in the book Lewis addresses evolutionary explanations for human moral ideas; he immediately dismisses them as meaningless silliness about “the herd instinct.”

    I submit that no atheist who has actually thought through the various philosophical issues that theism and atheism present would find Mere Christianity worthwhile, much less convincing.

    I think I remember reading somewhere that Lewis had great fun writing about theology and whatnot until he had a public debate with an actual nonbelieving philosopher (female, I think); she wiped the walls with him and embarrassed him enormously. If I remember correctly, Lewis stayed off the theology stuff thereafter.

    Anyway, if you ask me, C.S. Lewis is among the most most overrated writers/thinkers in the history of English literature.

  18. #18 Rieux
    June 13, 2006

    Sorry–that second “Pfft” link should have gone to http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/theism/moral.html.

  19. #19 Interested Atheist
    June 13, 2006

    Re “Mere Christianity”, I think this is also worth looking at. Too bad Collins didn’t.

    http://www.ebonmusings.org/atheism/books/merechristianity.html

    I think Lewis was great at stories, but he’s a bit of a lightweight when it comes to apologetics.

  20. #20 Interested Atheist
    June 13, 2006

    Rieux, you wouldn’t happen to have a reference for that debate would you? It would be great to see what people had written about that!

  21. #21 George
    June 13, 2006

    “It was a beautiful afternoon and suddenly the remarkable beauty of creation around me was so overwhelming, I felt, ‘I cannot resist this another moment’.”

    The cure: I’ve heard there are hiking trials in the mountains of Scotland that will scare the beJesus out of almost anybody. They have midges, too. He might reconvert to atheism.

  22. #22 Bob O'H
    June 13, 2006

    So part of his evidence for a god is the fact that god is invisible, and there is no evidence for it…the “f” word sure is a great little excuse to cover up the emptiness of a claim, isn’t it?

    It’s the Babel Fish argument! Nicked from the Wikipedia entry:

    “I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.”
    “But,” says Man, “the Babel fish is a dead giveaway isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves that You exist, and so therefore, by Your own arguments, You don’t. Q.E.D.”
    “Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.
    “Oh, that was easy,” says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.

    Ah, apparently it was a serious position, associated with Fideism. There, that’s another obscure term to forget immediately.

    Bob

  23. #23 Millimeter Wave
    June 13, 2006

    The cure: I’ve heard there are hiking trials in the mountains of Scotland that will scare the beJesus out of almost anybody. They have midges, too. He might reconvert to atheism.

    Midges. Pffft. In the southern Cascade range we have to deal with fucking bears and mountain lions (aka cougars). :-)

  24. #24 miko
    June 13, 2006

    the man is one of those blowhards who talk a big game, they’re frequently found affiliated with genome projects… genome sequence is a great resource but it’s not an intellectual feat. it’s like if the people who wrote the phone book claimed they knew what everyone was talking about.

    he calls the human genome an “instruction book”… no wonder he’s susceptible to the facile reasoning of arguments for god. why am i not surprised he’s an MD?

  25. #25 G. Tingey
    June 13, 2006

    Collins believes that science cannot be used to refute the existence of God because it is confined to the “natural” world.
    OK, will someone, PLEASE ask him this ….
    Here is a natural (falsifyable)test – No god is detectable (even if that god exists) – unless and until you prove me wrong, we can assume that no god exists, for practical purposes.

    … Collins also believes miracles are a real possibility. “If one is willing to accept the existence of God or some supernatural force outside nature then it is not a logical problem to admit that, occasionally, a supernatural force might stage an invasion,”

    Which is completely outside science, by definition, and is ultra vires in this discussion.
    What is this irrelevant crap doing here?

  26. #26 T_U_T
    June 13, 2006

    Collins was an atheist until the age of 27, when as a young doctor he was impressed by the strength that faith gave to some of his most critical patients.

    I’d think that somewhere deep in our brain, probably near the border between cortex and the limbic system we have a “meaning of the world” circuit, which is there for integrating our perceptions, experiences and knowledge into one compact idea about what is the world around you like.

    The caveeat is that it doesn’t do its job automatically, but needs your conscious effort in assembling the raw data into one coherent picture. And if you don’t do it, it’ll slowly start to induce a subconscious feeling of need. It starts just after puberty and increases slowly but steadily. If you don’t satisfy it, around 30 the need will be so intense that you will suck in literally any crap you see to fill that hole… And that’s how those “atheist until the age od 27″ converts are produced.

  27. #27 Torbjörn Larsson
    June 13, 2006

    Since Collins open up questions from his view as scientist we can look much more critically on them. There are places there he fails miserably.

    He says miracles are a possibility. Here he takes unobserved phenomena as evidence for a theory, which in turn is used to support his unobserved phenomena. Neither are good ideas for a scientist.

    If he is granted the idea of some supernatural caused miracles, he must rather conclude that the lack of observed miracles beyond reasonable doubt shows his theory that gods exist is wrong. (We have evidence above the standard physics 5 sigma with a number of tests.) Which is contrary to his claim that science can’t refute gods. He can’t have it both ways as a scientist.

    A more philosophical failure but related to science is his idea that a science breakthrough experience is “having now perceived something that no human knew before but God knew all along”. The experience from the secular viewpoint is of course equally valid (having perceived something that no human knew before).

    In fact it is more valuable in the secular view since it doesn’t devalue the experience – it is *the* first time someone know that, which is a really powerful feeling.

  28. #28 Anna V.
    June 13, 2006

    I read Mere Christianity back when I figured converting to Christianity would solve my existential crisis. To my disappointment, it was as unconvincing as all the Christian weblogs had been. Even my desire to become convinced of the correctness of the Christian faith could not smooth over the gaping holes in Lewis’ reasoning. Lacking any evidence to the contrary, I decided that atheism was the One True Way. So there. The book did some good, after all.

  29. #29 Flex
    June 13, 2006

    Am I the only one who thinks that there is another problem in the following two sentances:

    ‘…suddenly the remarkable beauty of creation around me was so overwhelming, I felt, ‘I cannot resist this another moment’.”

    and

    “Collins believes that science cannot be used to refute the existence of God because it is confined to the “natural” world.”

    It sounds to me that his reaction to the beauty of the Cascades is defined by him as being outside of the natural world and inexplicable by science.

    Dualism is hard to eradicate, it feels so intuitively right.

    Cheers,

    -Flex

  30. #30 delmoremacnamara
    June 13, 2006

    “I think I remember reading somewhere that Lewis had great fun writing about theology and whatnot until he had a public debate with an actual nonbelieving philosopher (female, I think); she wiped the walls with him and embarrassed him enormously. If I remember correctly, Lewis stayed off the theology stuff thereafter.”

    You are most likely referring to his debate with the female analytic philosopher G.E.M. Anscombe at a meeting of the Aristotelean society at Oxford. _Per curiam_ although Anscombe disliked his argument as presented, she herself was a theist, a Roman Catholic and in later life an anti-abortion activist.

    Anyway, if you ask me, C.S. Lewis is among the most most overrated writers/thinkers in the history of English literature.

    Have you read “Till we have faces”?

  31. #31 delmoremacnamara
    June 13, 2006

    sorry, in above should read not Aristotelean but _Socratic_

  32. #32 No One Of Consequence
    June 13, 2006

    n the next moment, he offered that there was one human trait which could not be explained by evolution–our sense of morality. Our sense of moralitty must have been designed by our Creator,

    This argument always pisses me off.

    1. There are plenty of immoral humans so you can’t make the argument that we are a moral species.
    2. There are plenty of social animals that act in a moral way
      • most mammal mothers will defend their young – that’s not self serving
      • bees, ants, etc. do work for the good of the community.
      • pack preditors won’t usually harm other members of the same pack.
    3. our own sense of morality is defined by norms and culture – what is deemed moral in one area is immoral somewhere else
  33. #33 arensb
    June 13, 2006

    Why do so many evangelicals begin their tales with a conversion story in which they were once one of the unwashed ungodly?

    It’s a way of saying, “the evidence I’m about to present to you is good enough to sway a skeptic or unbeliever. It’s not just something that sounds convincing if you already believe it”, with a dash of “I’m a member of your tribe” thrown in.

    The atheist community isn’t exactly short on deconversion stories, either. “I used to be a Christian until…” stories pop up quite regularly.

  34. #34 Keith Douglas
    June 13, 2006

    [sigh]. Another fine brain, warped by who knows what exactly. Convinced by CS Lewis?? Oh, dear.

    boojieboy: As we have seen on this blog previously, the “moral argument” gets people to turn their brain off.

    Rieux: I agree that Lewis is overrated, but I’m interested in the story about the philosopher, especially if it was a woman. I can see Russell or some other contemporary wiping the floor with him if pressed, but as far as I know that never happened. (And of course Russell wasn’t a woman.) (Though, if you want a scary image, imagine him with, say, Wittgenstein or Turing ;))

    delmoremacnamara: I thought about Rieux’s story being about Anscombe, but given that she was Catholic …

  35. #35 delmoremacnamara
    June 13, 2006

    keith: just google lewis anscombe and you will find several accounts of the debate and its aftermath…

    PS Catholics are allowed to dislike _fallacious_ arguments in favour of God too..

  36. #36 Queen of the Harpys
    June 13, 2006

    Since most of this debate takes place in the US lets look at what the means for the whole “in God’s image” bit.

    Looking at American statistics, and Collins idea that we have reached the peak of evolution: so this means God is overweight; has high cholesterol; clogged arteries; is on several mind altering drugs for depression, bipolar, etc.; and probably has dyslexia and ADD or ADHD. Not too mention allergic to dust, plants, bees, wheat and peanuts.

    How is this the peak of evolution?

  37. #37 cm
    June 13, 2006

    I would find it so refreshing if a religious scientist like Collins made a statement something like this:

    “I believe in the existence of a particular God, but I realize I have no rational reason to do so. Nonetheless, I do believe in it. I cannot seem to help believing this proposition. I do not understand why I believe it, yet I do; it is just a feature of my brain. Furthermore, I also have the sentiment that I do not wish to be rid of this unfounded belief, though I know it is irrational.”

    This is akin to a person with panic or anxiety disorder saying, “I know rationally, at some level, that I am in no danger, but I cannot help believing/feeling that I am in danger, and I am unable to control this belief.”

  38. #38 Gerard Harbison
    June 13, 2006

    Christianity has two great role models for believers: the convert, and the martyr. Saint Paul is obviously the model for the convert, and the parable of the prodigal son is the game plan. So Collins, who was brought up Christian, nonetheless needs to construct a conversion experience; similarly, ‘born-again’ Christians claim they were never really Christian until they were born again. I won’t even get started on the martyrdom syndrome, except to say that speaking rudely to a Christian these days will bring it on. Somebody recently said that there are Christians who aren’t happy until they find a Coliseum of lions to throw themselves into, but these days it’s the norm, not the exception.

    My own atheist conversion experience was rational. I was brought up Catholic, but basically dumped all the externalilites by the time I was 15 or so. I still considered myself Catholic until fairly recently, and my conversion came from defending methodological naturalism in science to an IDer. MN is the only feasible way to do science, but I was arguing that basically in 99.9% of our everyday lives, we are also methodological naturalists. Farmers no longer seek divine help to combat infestation; they use scientific methods. Sick people go to doctors, not holy men. If someone is struck by lightning, we conclude they shouldn’t have tried to finish the golf game before the thunderstorm, not that they were smitten by a vengeful deity. And so, if MN is so successful (and science is surely the most successful of human endeavors) why wouldn’t you be a naturalist about your own nature and your origins? Plus, after watching some very smart people, such as Penrose, trying and failing pathetically to somehow shoehorn a ghost into the human machine, I concluded it was all a misguided effort, the fruit of residual superstition.

    But it just ain’t as inspiring as a hike in the Cascades.

    Nice post, PZ.

  39. #39 Daniel
    June 13, 2006

    Interesting – even more so because Francis Collins just (in the last week) recruited my PhD advisor to move to the University of Michigan(Ann Arbor), joining the division for Molecular Mechanisms of Cancer.

    Personally, I think you’re right and that this is all very odd language coming from a scientist of Collins’ stature. He’s described as accepting Theistic Evolution(TE), however. I have no problem with that (it’s a free country), but the line is very blurred between ID and TE. What does he actually think of the ID Movement?

    And for someone interested in human genetics, do his newfound beliefs compete with his capacity to do ground-breaking genetics research?

    It sounds that as odd as his philosphy sounds, he’s still capable of asking the important questions in his research…

  40. #40 Dr. Pretorius
    June 13, 2006

    I agree that Lewis is overrated, but I’m interested in the story about the philosopher, especially if it was a woman. I can see Russell or some other contemporary wiping the floor with him if pressed, but as far as I know that never happened.

    Er… Anscombe was hardly a minor philosopher, you know, and she was a contemporary (for the most part) of Russell and those guys (a student of Wittgenstein, as I recall). In fact, as far as being scathing goes, she really had Russell quite beat. If I had to choose someone from that era to excoriate my arguments in public, I certainly wouldn’t be choosing her, at any rate.

  41. #41 Shaggy Maniac
    June 13, 2006

    “Hallelujah! I believe because I believe, and because I’m a famous scientist, my faith must be scientific!

    Bullpuckey.”

    If this is truly Collins’ position, what precisely did he say to this effect? I don’t wish to try to defend Collins’ statements about his faith, but I’m not convinced he is saying that his faith “must be scientific” in any way.

  42. #42 Jason M. Robertson
    June 13, 2006

    Keith? You want to see Lewis v. Turing? It has been done. In parallel universe fiction at least. See the Greg Egan story “Oracle” online here:

    Oracle

  43. #43 Scott Hatfield
    June 13, 2006

    Hmmm. Speaking as both a Christian and as an evolutionary biologist I confess that I, too, feel a sense of disappointment at the views of Dr. Collins as discussed on this thread: so-so theology, so-so science, with bad implications for education and public policy.

    Collins’ conflation of the ‘imago dei’ with that of a bipedal primate, if true, is decidedly not the orthodox view and theologians have been quick to point out what makes such views problematic.

    The former Cardinal Ratzinger, for example, presided over a commission which concluded, in part, that “the whole of man is seen as created in the image of God. This perspective excludes interpretations which locate the imago Dei in one or another aspect of human nature (for example, his upright stature or his intellect) or in one of his qualities or functions (for example, his sexual nature or his domination of the earth).”

    On the educational policy front, the ‘prediction’ that the evolution of humankind has stopped or will stop is truly disturbing. How does it happen that a geneticist glosses over the fact that evolution (defined as genetic change in a population) never truly stops?

    One doubts that this is truly Collins’ position; as with many biologists before him, he has simply failed in a public forum to make the distinction between the fact of evolution and the possible future consequences of evolutionary change, such as speciation. Yet even if I cut Dr. Collins some slack in that department, I am unsatisfied; just because human populations do not appear to be diverging genetically at the moment does not mean that in the future some populations might not be free to go their own way!

    Even worse, if we uncritically accept the undemonstrated conclusion that human populations are not still evolving, then how quickly we are led down the primrose path back to the superficially-appealing ‘Great Chain of Being’, wherein man is the crowning goal of creation. THAT sort of thinking is easily perverted into a sort of naturalized dominionism along the lines of James Watt.

    Finally, as other posters to this thread have alluded to, it’s simply not credible to imply that there is no way to naturalistically account for morality. There are very good reasons to (ahem) believe that populations that develop sociality have experienced selection for cooperative behavior, even altruistic behavior in certain settings. It is a very small step from there to posit that morality itself owes it origin to natural selection, and Collins should know this.

    Now it may be that mechanisms in addition to natural selection are required to explain many aspects of consciousness, and believers like Collins (and myself) are free to speculate as to whether or not some of those mechanisms might be supernatural in origin, but again there is nothing in the data that compels us to that conclusion. Since that is the case, and since Collins is arguably an eminent scientist, it seems irresponsible to me for Collins to imply otherwise. One hopes that the full text of the book will show greater nuance and restraint.

    Scott

  44. #44 Scott Hatfield
    June 13, 2006

    Daniel asked what Collins’s actual views on ID are. A previous post on the Panda’s Thumb suggested that Collins not did not consider ID to be science and that he expected that the claims of its proponents would be falsified.

    It is unclear to me, however, how the thumbnail sketch of his views as discussed on this post qualify as science and, as I mentioned above, if taken at face value, he seems to be advocating a position on human evolution which is not merely falsifiable, but demonstrably false.

    Comments?

  45. #45 HP
    June 13, 2006

    These kinds of debates always remind me of “Zeus Rants,” a 2nd century satire by Lucien. An Epicurean is debating a Stoic in the agora, and the Epicurean is getting the best of the argument. This throws the gods into a panic, as Zeus fears they may “disappear in a puff of logic.” Hilarity ensues.

    Anyway, Timocles the godly Stoic reminds me of C.S. Lewis or Francis Collins or that poor Rabbi from a few weeks ago.

    Here’s a link to an excerpt — you can read it in one go: http://www.epicurus.info/etexts/Zeus.html

    I find it simultaneously comforting that there have always been real smart, cool, funny people since antiquity, and depressing that we’ve been having the same freakin’ argument for thousands of years and haven’t made any progress.

  46. #46 kathryn from Sunnyvale
    June 13, 2006

    For a well-written (considered one of the best short science fiction stories of 2001) and moving take on C.S.Lewis’s reactions to materialism, read Greg Egan’s sharp novelette Oracle.

    From a review :
    “It’s not the SF conceit that’s on stage here – that’s a pretty standard time travel scenario, with a little extra theorizing on the branchings of parallel worlds. Egan uses this familiar setup to juxtapose two characters of radically different philosophies, based on the British mathematician Alan Turing and the medievalist, fantasist, and popular theologian C. S. Lewis.

    It’s a staged debate – at the story’s crux it literally comes down to one – during which the Turing character argues for the validity and even the spiritually redemptive quality of the rational materialist worldview, while the Lewis character, wrapped in grief for his dying wife, rejects science and its seemingly miraculous works as lures designed to break his faith.”

    Greg Egan often writes about when faith crashes against science. Of the many stories available on websites (see his wikipedia entry for links), see TAP, Border Guards, and The Moral Virologist (short stories) and Oceanic (Novella) as examples.

  47. #47 Nymphalidae
    June 13, 2006

    I’m seriously annoyed by people who read “Mere Christianity” and are suddenly blinded by the light of the lord.

  48. #48 Bronze Dog
    June 13, 2006

    If one is willing to accept the existence of God or some supernatural force outside nature then it is not a logical problem to admit that, occasionally, a supernatural force might stage an invasion,…

    Of course, it’s roughly in the vicinity of the logical problem of round squares.

  49. #49 quork
    June 13, 2006

    He decided to visit a Methodist minister and was given a copy of C S Lewis’s Mere Christianity, which argues that God is a rational possibility. The book transformed his life. “It was an argument I was not prepared to hear,” he said. “I was very happy with the idea that God didn’t exist, and had no interest in me.

    Sure he was a satisfied atheist. That’s why he went out of his way to visit a minister. I believe that. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to finalize the purchase of a bridge.

    Why do so many evangelicals begin their tales with a conversion story in which they were once one of the unwashed ungodly?

    They practice them at Campus Crusade meetings. My local atheist group has invited Christians to our meetings before. You can tell when they are launching their memorized and practiced story. One of them asked me for my story in return. Since most atheists are not evangelical, I don’t have a story.
    .
    RE Collins’ work with the Human Genome Project: you may recall that they diddled and daddled so long that he almost had his lunch eaten by J. Craig Venter.

  50. #50 Matt B
    June 13, 2006

    Why do so many evangelicals begin their tales with a conversion story in which they were once one of the unwashed ungodly?

    He is attempting to connect with his target market, unbelievers.

  51. #51 Paul S
    June 13, 2006

    PZ, I think you may be being a bit unfair here. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to chide Collins for letting his religion seep into his theories about human evolution having reached its end. Someone with his qualifications really ought to know better than that. But many of your criticisms here seems to me to be jumped conclusions, or simply arguments looking for causes.

    Are you sure you aren’t being overly hard on him simply because you “would have thought better of him,” so to speak, than to think he’d convert to Christianity?

  52. #52 Carlie
    June 13, 2006

    “Midges. Pffft. In the southern Cascade range we have to deal with fucking bears and mountain lions (aka cougars). :-)”

    Cougars? Please. Put him in a room full of northeast blackflies and he’ll be screaming for mercy in seconds. :)

  53. #53 shargash
    June 14, 2006

    It would have been better had Collins gone for a hike in the Everglades on some calm summer’s night.

  54. #54 Loren Petrich
    June 14, 2006

    I find Francis Collins’s argumentum ex montibus very childish. I wonder why he doesn’t believe that mountains are built by gnomes.

    Also, he may have been indifferent to religion rather than a serious atheist, one who knows lots of atheist arguments. Someone should ask him about the details of what he believed back then, and whether he feels ashamed of his beliefs back then.

    “How could I have ever believed that the Virgin Birth was just like fornicating pagan deities!”

    I’ve found Steve Locks’s Asymmetry of Conversion pages most interesting. He sets the bar to a reasonable level – who is the well-informed atheist who uses atheist arguments but who later converts to some religion?

  55. #55 Rieux
    June 14, 2006

    Thanks to delmoremacnamara and the others who have corrected the points I brought forth from my foggy memory above: it is indeed the 1948 debate between Lewis and G. E. M. Anscombe that I had in mind.

    It appears that said fog obscured the important point that Anscombe was in fact not a nonbeliever; and, in light of the theological Lewis works that appeared after 1948, it’s arguable how much the debate actually chastened Lewis. One (not particularly impartial, nor skeptical) source puts it:

    [Anscombe's] international reputation as a formidable debater had early roots. At Oxford in 1948, she took on (and trounced) C. S. Lewis in a debate still discussed a half-century later. It focused on the third chapter of his book Miracles. Everyone present (including Lewis) recognized that the young philosophy don’s penetrating critique had undone his arguments. Some writers think that it had also undone him. A. N. Wilson, ignoring Lewis’ actual literary production after 1948, asserts that “The confrontation with Elizabeth Anscombe . . . drove him into the form of literature for which he is today most popular: children’s stories.” More scrupulous writers also portray the debate as a “humiliating experience” (George Sayer), a turning point in his life that Lewis recalled “with real horror” (Derek Brewer). Sayer asserts that the experience led Lewis to abandon theology and characterizes his subsequent religious writings as “devotional” and “without contentious arguments.” Anscombe rejected claims that Lewis altered his aims as a result of the debate. Lewis undeniably did do something: he rewrote the contested chapter, taking into account her criticisms.

    At the time of the debate, Lewis was a celebrity (and just short of his 50th birthday), while Anscombe was an obscure 29-year-old academic. Whoof–that had to sting.

    So even if (a) his opponent was Catholic and (b) Lewis did continue his theological blatherings afterward, the image of Lewis being torn to shreds by a (much younger–and female!) philosopher still brings a smile.

  56. #56 James Orpin
    June 14, 2006

    “Midges. Pffft. In the southern Cascade range we have to deal with fucking bears and mountain lions (aka cougars). :-)”

    Are fucking bears harder to deal with than non-coital bears?

  57. #57 quork
    June 14, 2006

    Are you sure you aren’t being overly hard on him simply because you “would have thought better of him,” so to speak, than to think he’d convert to Christianity?

    I don’t think so. Collins’ stated reasons for his conversion, and his attempts to link his religion to science, are expounded elsewhere, and are just as lame as hinted as in the above-related bit.

  58. #58 RavenT
    June 14, 2006

    Are fucking bears harder to deal with than non-coital bears?

    Heh. You jest, but my friend is working on just that research question, and I’m crunching some of her data for her.

    Without revealing anything I’m not supposed to yet, I’d just say it’s the other way around, actually–there’s basically one way for the bears to get it right, but dozens of ways they can go wrong.

  59. #59 Sean
    June 28, 2006

    He’s not disappeared for me. I think you can make an argument that if God made himself so obvious, so known, so easily interpretable in daily events, then the whole concept of faith and of making a personal decision about where you stand would be pretty meaningless. You can look at many examples down through the history of faith where this lack of certainty is a critical part of how the whole enterprise operates.

    So God is an all-powerful, omniscient entity that likes to play hide-and-go-seek with his puny creations? “See if you can guess if I’m here. Go on, guess! If you guess wrong, I’m throwing you into a fiery pit forever.” Man, that God scares the bejeebus out of me way more than eternity with the lights permanently flicked off.

  60. #60 Larry Moran
    August 15, 2006

    robstowell writes,

    Hey, that’s nothing…

    After a lifetime of godlessness, I was converted to CHRISTIANITY at the age of 13, for all of TWO OR THREE MONTHS. With all the sincerity of a 13-year-old (I really did take this seriously) I prayed for an end to the war in Vietnam, and for God to help me stop masturbating. The war went on… (I won’t go into the other side of it) and one night as I was earnestly muttering- sorry, talking to god before going to bed, I had a glorious epiphany!

    “Why the hell am I talking to myself?” I wondered. And I’ve never looked back…. and I’ve NEVER HAD CANCER! (just for the record… god may have afflicted me by many years later causing my appendix to rot- and YOU thought the appendix was just an evolutionary hand-me-down!)

    I’m delighted to hear that you’ve never had cancer. Sorry to hear about the appendix. Are you blind?

    —————–

  61. #61 Bill
    September 21, 2006

    Very smart people have concluded that God exists and very smart people have concluded that God does not exist. Hence, belief is not purely an intellectual exercise.

    I believe the totality of the evidence for a creator is overwhelming just like the totality of the evidence for evolution (macro) is overwhelming. Neither can be proved conclusively but the evidence is there if you are willing to examine it with an open mind. Sadly, folks on both sides of the science/God chasm refuse to do so.

    Bill

  62. #62 Steve_C
    September 21, 2006

    Evolution is proven quite conclusively.
    God however can’t be proven. He doesn’t exist.
    What proof of god is there? Don’t use the B word.

    Belief is completely intellectual. Some base it on evidence
    and reason some base it on faith.

  63. #63 Frank Hagan
    October 22, 2006

    The retelling of the conversion experience is often a part of a book geared toward evangelicals; it establishes the writer’s bone fides with that audience. And that’s the real audience for this book.

    What would you rather see, an evangelical pastor reading Collins’ “The Language of God” or Gish’s “Evolution? The Fossils Say NO!”?

  64. #64 Mike John
    December 17, 2009

    Blgs r s nfrmtv whr w gt lts f nfrmtn n ny tpc. Nc jb kp t p!!

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