The Scientific Activist

This week’s Nature features a news article and editorial about Francis Collins–director of the US National Human Genome Research Institute–whose new book The Language of God advocates reconciliation between science and religion. Although the status of science in America could be improved by lessening religious anti-science hostility, and we’re generally much better off in general when we all get along, the argument advanced by Collins is less than compelling.

To his credit, Collins’ religious views are relatively progressive, and he disagrees strongly with creationism and intelligent design. In trying to merge his religious beliefs with his scientific knowledge, though, Collins comes up with something more like a patchwork that may satisfy his own doubts, but has little scientific consistency:

Collins takes a strong stand against some religious beliefs, such as creationism and ‘intelligent design’. He considers both to be views that restrict faith to covering gaps in scientific knowledge, leaving it in a tenuous position.

Instead, Collins embraces a theology sometimes called theistic evolution, or BioLogos. This embraces the idea that human evolution occurred through natural selection according to God’s plan, and that God instilled humanity with certain characteristics, including a ‘moral law’, that can’t be explained by science.

“The moral law is a signpost to a God who cares about us as individuals,” Collins says. “God used a mechanism of evolution to create human beings with whom he could have that kind of fellowship.”

A more accurate term to describe this view, though, would be “rationalization”. Collins has come up with a series of religious views that for the most part conflict with basic scientific evidence. Instead of questioning those views, though, he picks and chooses from the science, accepting what is consistent with his religious views and throwing out everything else. The idea that science can’t explain “moral law” is absolutely absurd, and much work has already been done on the genetic and evolutionary basis of cooperative behavior (which forms the basis of “moral law”), and I’ve even touched on the subject briefly before.

When I was an undergraduate at Texas A&M University, I had a few openly religious science professors, the subject of religious occasionally came up in their classes. The explanation was usually the same: science and religion are two completely separate parts of a scientist’s life, and the two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. If that works for them, that’s fine. But, it is a cop-out. It’s unclear why such fundamental guiding beliefs in one’s life wouldn’t be held to the same standard as their scientific work.

Speaking of contradictions, maybe you can spot the glaring one here:

Discussion, Collins suggests, might rectify the misconception that most scientists are atheists. Surveys find that about 40% of US scientists believe in God, but Collins says that is not reflected in science’s public face. That hurts science, he argues, because it drives away curious people who might also be religious believers.

Hmmm… if only 40% of scientists believe in God, what would that make the other 60%? Pastafarians? Disappointingly, this contradiction goes unquestioned by Nature. Fortunately, there are some voices of reason injecting rationality into this debate:

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’.”

“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 should note, that this marks the second time in two weeks that Pharyngula’s PZ Myers has appeared in Nature, appearing also in last week’s announcement of the magazine’s science blog rankings. Myers has his own comments about the article on his site, and he also posted a thorough discussion on the issue back in June.

The editorial accompanying the Nature article is for the most part consistent and reasonable, advocating only for more congenial relations between science and religion:

Collins’ style is straightforward, and even moving, especially when he discusses episodes from his own life, such as his difficulty coping with a sexual assault on his daughter. Even so, his reasons for believing in God and for becoming a devout Christian are unlikely to sway anyone who doesn’t already believe.

But that’s not the point. Collins is reaching out, from an exalted position in the world of science, to the realm of faith. By exploring, not least, how the Human Genome Project has added to our understanding of evolution, he hopes to provide a bridge across the social and intellectual divide that exists between most of US academia and the so-called heartlands, where religion is writ so large. Given the scale of the gulf, that is a laudable ambition.

Although I would agree that this is a laudable endeavor, I am not sure how effective it is going to be. While it is clear that attacks from the religious right have had a significant negative impact on science policy in the US, and that science would be much better off without these, it is unlikely that these anti-science forces would accept any type of compromise. Still, there is little advantage to outright hostile relations, so reasonable efforts to cool this conflict should be welcomed. However, in doing so, we must never sell out the science by watering it down or tainting it with pseudoscientific religious ideas. Science is fundamentally about the search for natural explanations of the universe we live in. Supernatural ideas have no place in science, and they never will, since they are at odds with the most basic tenets of scientific rationality and do not meet any reasonable standard of burden of proof.


  1. #1 Mark
    July 14, 2006

    For religious fanatics they sure lack faith. Collins uses the fact that so many people are sooooo scared of their insignifigance that anything that defines us as special(God touched us with reason) blinds them to everything else. The pathetic thing is that it seems that is their only moral justification for being. From a philosophical and moral standpoint I was always taught it was our actions that made us exceptional and not our words. My biggest problem with churches of all stripes is that it all seems to be show over substance. When saying the right thing is more important than doing the right thing, I’m out.

  2. #2 Nick
    July 25, 2006

    Tidbits on Collins book can also be heard on the July 13th edition of Nature’s podcast.

    Nick, perhaps you could clarify a point as I do not have access to Nature at the moment and have not read Collins book yet. What specifically does Collins refer to when he is talking about ‘moral law’? Does he speak of kin selection, altruism, and the like, or is it more along the lines of the Christian roots of human rights?

    I would agree with the point that extreme voices dominate debates between science and religion mentioned in the podcast and PZ Myers blog, but could you not take Collins work as an attempt to attenuate these voices and let through less polarized arguments? This seems like a reasonable effort to cool the conflict (the conflict I’m assuming you’re referring to is the stem cell debate). I would also agree that science should not be watered down with pseudoscientific ideas, be they religious or otherwise. Ideas of the supernatural do not have place within the scientific method. At the same time though, the limits on what science can describe must be noted. I always find it interesting that while I am using programs to make deformation fields from structural MRI images or using the general linear model during fMRI analysis, practices that have implications for neuroscience, I am working with mathematical concepts that are immaterial.

  3. #3 Nick Anthis
    July 26, 2006

    I think you’re right that Collins is attempting to attenuate the extremes in the debate, but from what I can tell he does so by selling out some scientific rigor. That’s my concern.

    I think we need to be careful in discussions of what science can and cannot describe. In the end, as technology advances, the phenomena that science can describe becomes virtually limitless, and most limits we place today on what science’s descriptive power are really just limitations on our technology and also our imaginations. I think the limitation is that science is not the only way to describe these phenomena, as the subjective experience is very firmly rooted in our basic nature and is something we shouldn’t ignore.

    I’m on vacation right now, and I don’t have access to Nature, so I’ll have to look at the article again when I get back in a few days.

  4. #4 Nick
    August 3, 2006

    I managed to get access to a copy of the article and editorial but unfortunately the question on moral law was not clarified. I’ll have to read the book to find out.

  5. #5 Nick Anthis
    August 3, 2006

    If you do, let us know what you find out.

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