More press for the godless

Ho hum, I’m quoted in Nature again this week (do I sound convincingly blasé?) It’s a short news article on Francis Collins’ new book, The Language of God, which I find dreadfully dreary and unconvincing, and I find his argument that “The moral law is a signpost to a God who cares about us as individuals. God used a mechanism of evolution to create human beings with whom he could have that kind of fellowship” to be ridiculously unscientific garbage.

Many scientists disagree strongly with such arguments. Some suggest that science is on the defensive today ? not just in the United States ? and that society needs exactly the opposite of what Collins suggests: less talk about faith and more about reason. Religious concerns are largely behind the US law restricting federal funding of stem-cell research, for example. And many feel threatened by the influence of intelligent design in science education.

In the United States, “the default position right now is to assume that religion is perfectly OK”, says Paul Myers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota in Morris and author of the popular science blog Pharyngula. “Collins is taking that default position, and while a large majority of scientists will shrug their shoulders, a few voices will be shouting out, saying ‘wait a minute, this is nonsense’.”

Hmm, the author left off the context. She asked whether I thought Collins was being courageous, speaking out for religion as he was. Obviously, I don’t think anyone speaking in favor of greater religious meddling in the United States is taking a brave stand at all.

It’s nice to see the company I’m keeping, at least.

“I cannot see how this could be good for science ? supernaturalism is fundamentally anti-scientific,” says Richard Dawkins, a biologist from the University of Oxford, UK. “Scientists work hard at trying to understand. Supernaturalism is an evasion of this responsibility. It’s a shrug of the shoulders.”

Dawkins acknowledges that, particularly in the United States, there might be tactical reasons for trying to get on with religious people. “That is a perfectly reasonable political stance, but it has nothing to do with truth.”

I’m not so pleased with Eugenie Scott’s comments, though.

Others welcome Collins’s book, however. “I think it’s helpful when scientists of Francis’s prominence speak out on the compatibility of faith and science,” says Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, a group based in Oakland, California, that lobbies against creationism.

Scott agrees with Collins that so far the harshest voices have achieved most prominence, and that this situation doesn’t help either side. “Creationists love quoting Dawkins and Daniel Dennett,” she says. “But those individuals don’t represent the fairly sizeable proportion of non-theists who are not out to destroy religion.”

Neither Dawkins nor Dennett (nor I) are out to “destroy religion”: we want exactly the same thing Eugenie Scott wants, that religion be kept out of our government, our education, and our science, and treated appropriately, as a personal choice for an individual’s private life.

Check E (2006) Genomics luminary weighs in on US faith debate. Nature 442:114-115.