Sam Harris has published a piece in the New York Times decrying the appointment of Francis Collins to head the NIH. It’s strong stuff; he points out that Collins isn’t just a Christian, he’s an active science-denier who has set aside whole blocks of scientific inquiry as inaccessible to study because they are a product of a divine being. As he asks at the end, “Must we really entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who sincerely believes that a scientific understanding of human nature is impossible?”
The strongest part of the essay, in my opinion, was that Harris directly quotes Collins’ own words, and they are not encouraging. Most specifically, he includes the text of slides from a talk Collins gave at UC Berkeley in 2008:
Slide 1: “Almighty God, who is not limited in space or time, created a universe 13.7 billion years ago with its parameters precisely tuned to allow the development of complexity over long periods of time.”
Slide 2: “God’s plan included the mechanism of evolution to create the marvelous diversity of living things on our planet. Most especially, that creative plan included human beings.”
Slide 3: “After evolution had prepared a sufficiently advanced ‘house’ (the human brain), God gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the moral law), with free will, and with an immortal soul.”
Slide 4: “We humans used our free will to break the moral law, leading to our estrangement from God. For Christians, Jesus is the solution to that estrangement.”
Slide 5: “If the moral law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as good or evil. It’s all an illusion. We’ve been hoodwinked. Are any of us, especially the strong atheists, really prepared to live our lives within that worldview?”
My jaw just dropped when I read that. It is breathtakingly vacuous. How does Francis Collins know any of that? Those conclusions are not anything we could draw from any scientific evidence, and there’s the head of the human genome project throwing around quaint Christian dogma as if it were reasonable and valid.
That last one really irritates, too — it’s the familiar anti-atheist canard that atheists cannot know any truly moral behavior, that the only genuine sense of morality arises out of obedience to an authority, especially an invisible but omnipotent authority. Collins is a man who does not trust the godless people in his communities because, to his mind, they are blind to good and evil.
I know evil when I see it. A priest taking advantage of his presumed moral authority to take young boys into the dark and private rooms of his church to rape them is evil, I think. Not because a god has whispered a rule into my head, but because I know that the successful relationships that build a cooperative network within the framework of my society are all formed on mutual trust, and that is a violation. We test these bonds of mutual support all the time, we rely on them, and we know from history that their loss contributes to social decay.
We also contain biological imperatives that strengthen those bonds. We know good when we see it, too: kindness, self-sacrifice, and charity move us, not because we are ordered to do so by an imaginary god, but because we can feel empathy for others, and yes, evolution has shaped individuals to respond with affirmation to actions that reinforce the community. That’s how we survive and succeed.
I have to turn Collins’ statement around against him. If god does not exist, if religion is a byproduct of the evolution of the mind, then there is no reason to obey him. It’s all an illusion. You’ve been hoodwinked. Are you devout Christians really prepared to live your lives in reality? And if you aren’t, why should we trust you in positions of power?