Posts Tagged ‘andrew brown’

Is ‘The Daily Telegraph’ Catholic blogger Dr Tim Stanley really a mole for ‘The Onion’?

30/09/2013

American biologist and secular blogger Jerry Coyne dubbed the “godicoddling” journalist Andrew Brown as “The Guardian’s resident moron” for his increasingly stupefying apologias for religion and attacks on science.  Now, I’m not in the habit of resorting to such schoolyard name-calling, but I am strongly inclined to bestow such a derogatory moniker on Dr Tim Stanley, British Catholic blogger for The Daily Telegraph.

The good Doctor has been given a patch on the website of Britain’s best (only?) quality broadsheet daily and throughout the year, he has posted a litany of religious nonsense that has lead me to suspect strongly that he must be a mole planted by America’s Finest New Source, The Onion.

Firstly there was this utterly lame defence of outgoing Pope Benedict XVI bemoaning the modern media’s wilful misunderstanding of Catholic doctrine.  Opening with the line, “The identikit headline seems to be, ‘Elderly Homophobe Quits Misogynistic Institution Because He Can’t Hack It’,” the very first commenter told him, “Well done, Tim.  No-one else has put it quite as succinctly.  I quit the article at this point, while you were still ahead.”(!)

Stanley’s hilarious post continues thus:

Let’s name and shame a few media sins:

1. Defining Pope Benedict as a “conservative”.  In Catholicism there is no Right or Left but only truth and error.  A Pope is there to articulate doctrine, not to “turn the clock back” or “embrace progress.”  If he tried to force his personality upon the Church then he’d probably break with dogma and stop being infallible.  Benedict was an orthodox pontiff.  Sometimes his orthodoxy corresponded with a classically conservative position (gay marriage).  Other times he sounded like a socialist (he called for regulation of international banking).   Either way, Christianity doesn’t conform to modern political idioms.  It’s far too radical.

Face palm moment or what?  Stanley effectively admits that Catholic dogma is very dogmatic and it’s more important for the pontiff to cling onto outmoded and antiquated ideas and give the appearance of being infallible rather than to embrace new knowledge and change as exciting new ideas are brought to light.  Imagine if science or medicine was run like this?  We would still be adhering to Hypocrites’ theory of the Four Humours and leeching medical patients dry rather than giving blood transfusions and antibiotics.  Why doesn’t the Church return to supporting slavery or preaching Holy War against Muslims while they’re at it!

Indeed, Stanley’s diatribe has echoes of The Onion’s comment that Ratzinger “no longer has the strength to lead church backward”:

According to the 85-year-old pontiff, after considerable prayer and reflection on his physical stamina and mental acuity, he concluded that his declining faculties left him unable to helm the Church’s ambitious regressive agenda and guide the faith’s one billion global followers on their steady march away from modernity and cultural advancement.

“It is with sadness, but steadfast conviction, that I announce I am no longer capable of impeding social progress with the energy and endurance that is required of the highest ministry in the Roman Catholic Church,” Benedict reportedly said in Latin to the Vatican’s highest cardinals.  “While I’m proud of the strides the Church has made over the past eight years, from thwarting AIDS-prevention efforts in Africa to failing to punish or even admit to decades of sexual abuse of children at the hands of clergy, it has become evident to me that, in this rapidly evolving world, I now lack the capacity to continue guiding this faith back centuries.”

“Thus, I must step down from the papacy,” he added.  “But let me assure every member of the Church that the Vatican’s commitment to narrow-mindedness and social obstruction will long live on after my departure.”

Word of Benedict’s resignation—the first for a sitting pope in nearly 600 years—reportedly stunned the world’s Catholic faithful, many of whom believed the German-born pontiff still had years of stymieing female advancement in Church roles, opposing stem cell research, and inflaming tensions with Jews, Muslims, and Anglicans left in him.

If you penned this superb slice of religious satire, Doctor, now would be as good a time as any to own up to it.

The next episode in this syllabus of errors is Dr Tim’s rant against atheist biology professor Richard Dawkins asking, “If we’re cracking down on Twitter abuse, can we include Richard Dawkins and the atheist trolls?”  Stanley wails that Dawkins is “a clever but horrible man.”  Aside from Jerry Coyne’s spat against Andrew Brown outlined above (which to be fair is understandable, if not excusable), I don’t think I have ever heard/read Dawkins or any of the other New Atheist spokesmen resort to such childish language.  The most angry Dawkins has been towards an opponent is calling Christian apologist William Lane Craig a “professional debater” and subsequently “an apologist for genocide”, both of which mere statements of fact as opposed to schoolyard insults.

I’m not defending Richard Dawkins’ Tweets; frankly, I think he is putting himself down and playing into the hands of those who want label him as an atheist fundamentalist with Tweets such as “Don’t ask God to cure cancer & world poverty.  He’s too busy finding you a parking space & fixing the weather for your barbecue.”  I suppose a 140 character Tweet means that you have to be brutal and to the point, which is why I do not think it is an appropriate forum for making public statements that you expect to be taken seriously.  However, Stanley has a somewhat greater word limit with which to play, yet is no closer to being viewed as a mature adult:

When you insult my faith you go right to the heart of what makes me me.  When you’re trying to convince me in 140 characters of sub-GCSE philosophical abuse that God doesn’t exist, you’re trying to take away the faith that gets me up in the morning, gets me through the day and helps me sleep at night.  You’re ridiculing a God without whom I suspect I might not even be alive, and a God that I prayed to when my mother was going through cancer therapy.  You’re knocking a Church that provides me with compassion and friendship without asking for anything in return – perhaps the greatest, most wonderful discovery of my adult life.  You see, people don’t generally believe in God for reasons of convenience or intellectual laziness.  It’s usually fulfilling a deep need – filling a soul with love that might otherwise be quite empty and alone.

The words “dummy”, “out” and “spit” spring to mind.  It never ceases to amaze me how easily offended the faithful get when someone disses their imaginary best friend.  If Dawkins is wrong, if your invisible god exists and if he is so great, then I’m sure he can withstand a few brief moments of criticism from a lowly heretic who is both wilful ignorant of his mysterious ways and in any event is hell bound as punishment for his unbelief.  But I like how Tim credits Yahweh (as opposed to Allah, Krishna or Zeus) for comforting him while his mother was dying of cancer rather than actually providing a cure.

In short, when you try to destroy someone’s faith you’re not being a brilliant logician.  You’re being a jerk.

OK, so Dawkins along with David Hume, J L Mackie, Victor Stenger, Charles Darwin, Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, Steven Weinberg and innumerable other atheist scientists and philosophers are not trying to liberate people from their Iron Age god of war fantasies with that annoying little thing known as The Truth.  They’re just being stuck up little jerks spoiling Christmas for all the little children by telling them the truth about Santa Claus.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not calling for Dawkins or his ilk to be banned.

Really?  The title to your post suggests otherwise.

I’m thick skinned…

All evidence to the contrary.

…and I can take the odd badly spelled Tweet telling me that I’m a simpleton.  But if we are having a grown up conversation about what is and isn’t offensive, can we Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and All Of The Above be a part of it, too?  Or is [sic] only liberal secularists who are allowed to take offence?

And you berate others for poor grammar.

Dr Tim’s tirade begs the question as to why he even follows Richard Dawkins on Twitter.  If Dawkins’ Tweets upset him so much, why doesn’t he just unsubscribe and block him?  His position is akin to Mary Whitehouse trying to ban most of British television’s output: “I don’t like it; therefore no one else should watch it!”

I could not find a mirror image in America’s Finest News Source on that occasion, but take a gander at Dr Tim correcting the World’s media on Pope Francis allegedly saying that atheists and agnostics will still be welcome in God’s Holy Kingdom after they are through with this veil of tears and…

[The mainstream media have reported Pope Francis as saying] that belief in God isn’t a requirement to get into Heaven.  Of course, it absolutely is.  If you arrive at the pearly gates and still refuse to accept that God exists then the odds are that St Peter won’t let you in.  Everyone has to confront that reality at some point in their lives – so only the mad and the stubborn are likely to spend an eternity as unbelievers.

…and try to spot the difference if you can with this recent gem from The Onion:

VATICAN CITY—Following Pope Francis’ tolerant remarks Sunday about homosexuals and the Catholic Church, Vatican officials reportedly went into crisis mode, announcing that the Pope’s thoughtful message of understanding was clearly taken out of context.  “It is not the official stance of the Pope or the Catholic Church that all people of good will who seek the Lord, especially gay people, should be accepted by Christ,” a visibly nervous Vatican spokesman told reporters, adding that the Holy Father was clearly tired after his long trip to Brazil and never meant for his comments to sound caring or realistic.  “Homosexuality is a disorder.  And this in no way means that, going forward, the Catholic Church will be an open-minded, more sensible organization.  I assure you we are just as prejudiced and backward today as we were yesterday.  Thank you.”  According to an anonymous source close to the Vatican, the Pope is currently being yelled at by Church officials, who are telling him, “You don’t just go off script like that.  Who the fuck do you think you are?”

Blowed if I can find a link to it now, but I do recall reading on good old fashioned newspaper at the time that long before the Iraq War The Daily Telegraph’s satirist, Peter Simple, gave up trying to parody former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair because quite simply his subject was his own best parody and could not be improved upon.

The same principle applies to Dr Timothy Stanley.

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Priest Off!

15/06/2010

(Picture via Unreasonable Faith)

manicstreetpreacher presents the Bairnsfather view of the Catholic Church abuse scandal.

The Internet and Blogosphere have been heaving with all the lurid details of the Catholic Church abuse scandal.  My sober contribution was a lambasting of “The Guardian’s resident moron” (© Jerry Coyne) Andrew Brown’s abysmal Vatican apologia that disgraced Comment is free a few months ago.

I think enough criticism of the Holy See has been published by now.  As the feted World War One cartoonist Bruce Bairnsfather proved, there is a funny side to any situation, no matter how appalling.

Therefore, in the same spirit of satirical smiling through gritted teeth, I present five hilarious alternative takes on the Vatican’s sordid predicament to cheer us all up.

1.  Priest Off!

One spray of this and your little boy will be protected from predatory, hormonally charged, clergymen.

2.  Stained Glass Window FAIL!!!!

Not a FAIL.  The Catholic Church doing what it does best.  (OK, it’s not Catholic.  It’s Episcopalian.  But it may as well be Catholic…)

3.  And it looks like the Vermont Catholic magazine is really telling it like it is…

(Via Unreasonable Faith again)

4.   But enough of this cruel mockery of Pope Benedict XVI.

His Holiness recently issued a little-reported statement vowing to bring priestly pedophilia down to more acceptable levels:

VATICAN CITY—Calling the behavior shameful, sinful, and much more frequent than the Vatican was comfortable with, Pope Benedict XVI vowed this week to bring the widespread pedophilia within the Roman Catholic Church down to a more manageable level.

Addressing thousands gathered at St. Peter’s Square on Easter Sunday, the pontiff offered his “most humble apologies” to abuse victims, and pledged to reduce the total number of molestations by 60 percent over the next five years.

“This is absolutely unacceptable,” Pope Benedict said. “It seems a weakening of faith in God has prevented our priests from exercising moderation when sexually abusing helpless minors.”

“And let me remind our clergy of the holy vows they all took when they entered the priesthood,” he continued. “They should know that they’re only allowed one small child every other month.”

The pope said he was deeply disappointed to learn that the number of children sexually abused by priests was almost 10 times beyond the allowable limit clearly outlined in church doctrine. Admitting for the first time in public that the overindulgent touching of “tender, tender young flesh” had become a full-blown crisis, the Holy Father vowed to implement new reforms to bring the pedophilia rate back down to five children per 1,000 clergy.

“The truth is there will always be a little bit of molestation – it’s simply unavoidable,” Vatican spokesperson Rev. Federico Lombardi said. “But the fact that young boys have gotten much more attractive over the past few decades is no excuse for the blatant defiance of church limits that have been in place for centuries.”

“The majority of priests don’t want to molest kids at all,” he added. “But for those who do, we must make sure they’re doing it at a reasonable rate.”

5.  And have we forgotten already the kind words of forgiveness offered by the previous holder of the keys of St Peter?

In 2002 John Paul II gave absolution to all those irresistibly attractive alter-boys who tempted certain members of the priesthood to break their vows of celibacy:

VATICAN CITY – Calling forgiveness “one of the highest virtues taught to us by Jesus,” Pope John Paul II issued a papal decree Monday absolving priest-molested children of all sin.

“Though grave and terrible sins have been committed, our Lord teaches us to turn the other cheek and forgive those who sin against us,” said the pope, reading a prepared statement from a balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square.   “That is why, despite the terrible wrongs they have committed, the church must move on and forgive these children for their misdeeds.”

“As Jesus said, ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,’” the pope continued.  “We must send a clear message to these hundreds – perhaps thousands – of children whose sinful ways have tempted so many of the church’s servants into lustful violation of their holy vows of celibacy.  The church forgives them for their transgressions and looks upon them not with intolerance, but compassion.”

(…)

Margaret Leahy, 39, a Somerville, MA, homemaker and mother of one of the alleged seducers, expressed relief over the pope’s announcement.

“For months, I feared that my boy – and the dozens of others who committed sinful acts with Father Halloran before he was moved to the safety of another parish to protect him from further temptation at their pre-pubescent hands – was going to Hell for what he’d done,”

Leahy said. “It’s the worst feeling a mother can know. But thanks to the forgiveness of the pope, my long nightmare is finally over.  He was just a boy of 8 at the time.  He didn’t know any better.  Thank you, your Holiness, for giving my poor little Timothy a second chance at redemption.”

If I’m wrong and there is a God, may he bless The Onion

Andrew Brown posts another clanger on Comment is free

13/03/2010

manicstreetpreacher wonders whether this hack can stoop any lower.

US evolutionary biologist and author of Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne, recently described British science and religion journalist Andrew Brown as “The Guardian’s resident moron”.

I have been less than impressed by Brown after his pathetic attack on Sam Harrisobjection to Francis Collins’ appointment as head of the National Institute of Health, culminating in Brown quote-mining Harris’ The End of Faith something rotten to make it look like Harris endorses torture and rendition.  I can only assume that this was a dummy-spitting exercise by Brown to recoup ground from the commenters who lambasted his first piece and rallied in support for Harris.

Now, Brown has not simply scraped the bottom of the barrel, he has removed the base of said wooden container entirely and is tunnelling fast for Australia.  On 11 March 2010, Brown posted this appalling piece on The Guardian: Comment is free arguing that perhaps we are being a tad harsh on all those child sodomising Catholic priests, since the rate of child abuse among the clergy is apparently much lower than other professions.

Pinch yourself to make sure that you’re not having a bad dream:

[T]here is no doubt that a lot of children were damaged for life by priests, and that this was mostly covered up by the hierarchy until recently.  But was the Catholic church unfairly singled out?  Aren’t all children vulnerable to exploitation, especially when they are poor and unwanted?…

The most detailed statistics on child abuse for the Catholic clergy that I can find come from the John Jay Institute’s report drawn up for the American Catholic bishops’ conference.  From this it emerges that the frequency of child abuse among Catholic priests is not remarkable but its pattern is.  Although there are no figures for the number of abusers in the wider population, there are figure for the number of victims.  These vary wildly: the most pessimistic survey finds that 27% of American women and 16% of men had “a history of childhood sexual abuse”; while the the [sic] most optimistic had 12.8% of women and 4.3% of men. Obviously a great deal depends here on the definition of abuse; also on the definition of “childhood”. In some of these surveys it runs up to 18, which is a couple of years above the age of consent in Britain.

Well, if a report has been prepared for the American Catholic Bishops Conference, who are we to argue with it?

The Catholic figures show that between about 4% of priests and deacons serving in the US between 1950 and 2002 had been accused of sexual abuse of someone under 18. In this country, the figure was a 10th of that: 0.4%.  But whereas the victims in the general population are overwhelmingly female, the pattern among American Catholic priests was quite different.  Four out of five of their victims were male.  Most were adolescents: two out of five were 14 or over; 15% were under 10.

This is vile, but whether it is more vile than the record of any other profession is not obvious.  The concentration on boys makes the Catholic pattern of abuse stand out; what makes it so shocking is that parents trusted their children with priests.  They stood in for the parents.  But this isn’t all that different from the pattern in the wider world, either, where the vast majority of abuse comes from within families.  The other point that makes the Catholic abuse is that it is nowadays very widely reported.  It may be the best reported crime in the world: that, too tends to skew perceptions.

I’ll agree with Brown there.  Yes, it is extremely vile.  But there my support ends.  His post is an exercise in “Yeah, but what about…”.  Road traffic deaths kill far more people every year than deliberate homicide, so let’s get the police to withdraw all personnel and resources from investigating murders and get them to devote all their time and effort ensuring that motorists wear their seat beats and drive under the speed limits, shall we?

So why the concentration on Catholic priests and brothers?  Perhaps I am unduly cynical, but I believe that all institutions attempt to cover up institutional wrongdoing although the Roman Catholic church has had a higher opinion of itself than most, and thus a greater tendency to lie about these things.  Because it is an extremely authoritarian institution at least within the hierarchy, it is also one where there were few checks and balances on the misbehaviour of the powerful.  The scandal has been loudest and most damaging in Ireland, because it came along just at the moment when the church was losing its power over society at large, and where it was no longer able to cover up what had happened, but still willing to try.  Much the same is true in the diocese of Boston which was bankrupted by the scandal.

Perhaps I am being unduly cynical, but I think we are entitled to demand a higher standard of moral behaviour from institutions and individuals whose alleged purpose is to uphold and enforce those of us mere mortals who do not have a one-to-one with The Big Surveillance Camera In The Sky.

Rabbi David Wolpe raised this objection in a debate against Christopher Hitchens: the public is more shocked and the criticism more vitriolic when a clergyman falls into error.  Hitch’s reply was that he is not shocked at all.  The Catholic Church preaches that women are vessels of temptation, insists on celibacy, makes sex a matter of guilt and shame and comprises an all male priesthood that is based on sexual repression.  What is going to happen to the children under the care of those people?   No need to act surprised.  The Church wasn’t surprised at all.  They knew it was going on all the time which is why they covered up for it.

Hitchens’ comments are at the beginning of this tape.

And regardless of whether the abuse itself has been exaggerated or blown out of proportion in the media, there is no playing down the deliberate covering-up of the scandal by the Vatican, of which the present pope, Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger, played a pivotal role by issuing a Vatican edict in 2001 while  a cardinal ordering Catholic bishops and priests were not to cooperate with the police on pain of excommunication.  Only last Tuesday (9 March 2010) the BBC’s Newsnight reported on the case of Bill Carney was named as one of the worst cases in Dublin’s Catholic diocese in the Murphy Report into clerical abuse in Ireland.  However, for the last 10 years Carney has been free to live quietly in Britain and is now hiding out in the Canary Islands.

Brown’s insulting apologia concludes thus:

Certainly the safeguards against paedophilia in the priesthood are now among the tightest in the world.  That won’t stop a steady trickle of scandals; but I think that objectively your child is less likely to be abused by a Catholic or Anglican priest in the west today than by the members of almost any other profession.

Well, that’s a relief.  I’m sure that all those children and families whose lives have been ruined by the abuse and subsequent covering up by the Vatican will be consoled no end by the knowledge that it could have been worse if they were looked after by doctors and lawyers.

Brown’s vile wipe was ripped to shreds by its own commenters, and justly so.  Why does this appalling man continue to be published in the national dailies?

UPDATE 14 MARCH 2010

As I expected, Jerry Coyne has commented on Brown’s piece on his blog with typical rhetorical fire:

It’s a disgusting and self-serving piece of faitheistic tripe, and its underlying message is this: those people who attack the Catholic church for systematic child abuse are really anti-Catholic bigots.  After all, claims Brown, the Church was no worse than other abusers…

I beg to differ with Brown’s implicit conclusion.  The concentration on Catholic priests and brothers comes from the shocking institutionalization of that abuse: the consistent efforts of Church officials, who knew full well about the abuse, to cover it up and, sometimes, simply transfer abusers to new places.  Yes, other professions sometimes cover up child abuse, but not, I think, on such a massive scale.  I am not aware of this kind of cover-up being endemic to American public schools, for example.

And what Brown fails to grasp is that the abuse is doubly shocking because it was committed by those priests to whom parents not only entrusted their children, but entrusted them to inculcate in those children a sense of morality.  The outrage comes from seeing that those who were supposed to serve as role models – as paragons of morality – systematically abused that trust in the most heinous ways.  And perhaps the Church’s ridiculous policy of celibacy contributed to this abuse.

Fortunately, Brown’s commenters – as usual – take him apart.  It must be disheartening for the Resident Moron to watch, week after week, as his readers chew his tuchus to pieces.  Maybe the Guardian keeps him on because his continuing idiocy promotes traffic on their website.  But really, how can a reputable paper tolerate such witless garbage?  Do the editors have any notion of what should pass for decent commentary?

Nice one, Jerry.  The words “asshole”, “new” and “rip” spring to mind.

The Strange Case of Dr Collins and Mr Harris

08/09/2009

collins

http://www.genome.gov/10000779

sam_harris

http://www.samharris.org/

http://www.reasonproject.org/

manicstreetpreacher gives a narrative of the repeated verbal assaults on one of the world’s foremost religious scientists by one of the Four Horsemen.

A brief history of Francis Collins

Francis Collins is a Godsend to religious apologists.  He is a devout Christian who also happens to be a highly respected physical chemist with a highly impressive litany of achievements and contributions to science on his CV.  Not least of these was his heading-up of the Human Genome Project which was an international scientific research project with a primary goal to determine the sequence of chemical base pairs which make up DNA and to identify and map the approximately 20,000-25,000 genes of the human genome from both a physical and functional standpoint.

language_god

Collins is clearly a highly intelligent, sane, rational man who has had a brilliant career as a scientist.  What’s more, he has not let his faith give credence to creationism or “Intelligent Design”.  In his 2006 book, The Language of God, Collins – as per the book’s subtitle – attempted to present scientific evidence for religious faith:

As believers, you are right to hold fast to the concept of God as Creator; you are right to hold fast to the truths of the Bible; you are right to hold fast to the conclusion that science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence; and you are right to hold fast to the certainty that the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted. (p. 178)

God, who is not limited to space and time, created the universe and established natural laws that govern it. Seeking to populate this otherwise sterile universe with living creatures, God chose the elegant mechanism of evolution to create microbes, plants, and animals of all sorts. Most remarkably, God intentionally chose the same mechanism to give rise to special creatures who would have intelligence, a knowledge of right and wrong, free will, and a desire to seek fellowship with Him.  He also knew these creatures would ultimately choose to disobey the Moral Law.  (pp. 200 – 201)

However, one has to suspect whether this conversion was less a scientific discovery and more an emotional response:

On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains during my first trip west of the Mississippi, the majesty and beauty of God’s creation overwhelmed my resistance.  As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over.  The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ.  (p. 225)

In an interview with Time magazine Collins clarified that the waterfall was frozen into three separate strands, putting him in mind of the Holy Trinity.

Unsurprisingly, religious apologists the world over have held out Collins as a shining example of the supposed marriage between science and religion.

Apparently people like Collins prove that there is no conflict between believing that the Universe is 13.5 billion years old and that Homo sapiens share the same DNA as a fruit fly on the one hand, and on the other believing that the public torture and execution of a carpenter’s son over 2,000 years ago on the other side of the World is the only remedy that can cure the ailments of the human condition and that biscuits and sherry transform into said carpenter’s son’s flesh and blood in designated buildings on a Sunday morning.

Practically all the “flea” responses to Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion have cited Collins as the exemplar of a scientist who has managed to square his science with his religious faith in direct contrast to the shrill and intolerant arguments of Dawkins that the two discourses are irreconcilable.

However, Dawkins is not the only one of the Four Horsemen who has delivered a series of tongue-lashings to scientists of this type who display a bizarre partition in their brains between faith and reason.

Ready, aim… FIRE!!!!!

Right from the word “go”, Sam Harris, American atheist author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation has been highly critical of Collins and has used him as an example of how this supposed harmony of science and religion – that the two areas occupy “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” (NOMA) – is completely bogus.

letter_christian

In a 2005 article, Harris stated:

It is time that scientists and other public intellectuals observed that the contest between faith and reason is zero-sum.  There is no question but that nominally religious scientists like Francis Collins and Kenneth R Miller are doing lasting harm to our discourse by the accommodations they have made to religious irrationality.  Likewise, Stephen Jay Gould’s notion of “non-overlapping magisteria” served only the religious dogmatists who realize, quite rightly, that there is only one magisterium.  Whether a person is religious or secular, there is nothing more sacred than the facts.  Either Jesus was born of a virgin, or he wasn’t; either there is a God who despises homosexuals, or there isn’t.  It is time that sane human beings agreed on the standards of evidence necessary to substantiate truth-claims of this sort…  There simply is no good reason to believe such things, and scientists should stop hiding their light under a bushel and make this emphatically obvious to everyone.

When it was first published in 2006, most reviewers heaped praise on The Language of God. Harris’ treatment of the book could scarcely have been more a polar opposite.  In a damning review tellingly entitled “The Language of Ignorance”, Harris unleashed his first real volley against Collins.

On Collins’ pleas to NOMA:

[Collins] attempts to demonstrate that there is “a consistent and profoundly satisfying harmony” between 21st-century science and evangelical Christianity.  To say that he fails at his task does not quite get at the inadequacy of his efforts.  He fails the way a surgeon would fail if he attempted to operate using only his toes.  His failure is predictable, spectacular and vile.  The Language of God reads like a hoax text, and the knowledge that it is not a hoax should be disturbing to anyone who cares about the future of intellectual and political discourse in the United States…

His book reveals that a stellar career in science offers no guarantee of a scientific frame of mind…

According to Collins, belief in the God of Abraham is the most rational response to the data of physics and biology, while of all the possible worldviews, atheism is the least rational.  Taken at face value, these claims suggest that The Language of God will mark an unprecedented breakthrough in the history of ideas.  Once Collins gets going, however, we realize that the book represents a breakthrough of another kind…

On Collins’ rather suspect understanding of the source of human morality:

Collins’ case for the supernatural origin of morality rests on the further assertion that there can be no evolutionary explanation for genuine altruism.  Because self-sacrifice cannot increase the likelihood that an individual creature will survive and reproduce, truly self-sacrificing behavior stands as a primordial rejoinder to any biological account of morality.  In Collins’ view, therefore, the mere existence of altruism offers compelling evidence of a personal God.  (Here, Collins performs a risible sprint past ideas in biology like “kin selection” that plausibly explain altruism and self-sacrifice in evolutionary terms.)…

Collins can’t seem to see that human morality and selfless love may be derivative of more basic biological and psychological traits, which were themselves products of evolution.  It is hard to interpret this oversight in light of his scientific training.  If one didn’t know better, one might be tempted to conclude that religious dogmatism presents an obstacle to scientific reasoning…

On whether atheists or believers are the more strident:

Any intellectually honest person must admit that he does not know why the universe exists.  Secular scientists, of course, readily admit their ignorance on this point.  Believers like Collins do not…

The book’s post-mortem was thus:

If one wonders how beguiled, self-deceived and carefree in the service of fallacy a scientist can be in the United States in the 21st century, The Language of God provides the answer.  The only thing that mitigates the harm this book will do to the stature of science in the United States is that it will be mostly read by people for whom science has little stature already.  Viewed from abroad, The Language of God will be seen as another reason to wonder about the fate of American society.  Indeed, it is rare that one sees the thumbprint of historical contingency so visible on the lens of intellectual discourse.  This is an American book, attesting to American ignorance, written for Americans who believe that ignorance is stronger than death.  Reading it should provoke feelings of collective guilt in any sensitive secularist.  We should be ashamed that this book was written in our own time.

Strike two

Since then, Harris has taken every available opportunity to deride Collins as representing the nadir of NOMA and that his conversion to Christianity had little to do with his scientific career and everything to with a warm fuzzy feeling inside him that there just had to be something more.

The most recent episode of Harris’ crusade against Collins happened in a piece written in response to Collins’ nomination by US President Barack Obama as head of the National Institution of Health (NIH).  Harris had clearly not warmed to Collins one iota as he again unleashed his unique brand of cutting sarcasm and unanswerable logic:

Dr Collins is regularly praised by secular scientists for what he is not: he is not a “young earth creationist,” nor is he a proponent of “intelligent design.” Given the state of the evidence for evolution, these are both very good things for a scientist not to be…

Dr Collins gave at the University of California, 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?”

Why should Dr Collins’s beliefs be of concern?

There is an epidemic of scientific ignorance in the United States.  This isn’t surprising, as very few scientific truths are self-evident, and many are counterintuitive.  It is by no means obvious that empty space has structure or that we share a common ancestor with both the housefly and the banana.  It can be difficult to think like a scientist.  But few things make thinking like a scientist more difficult than religion…

Dr Collins insists that our moral intuitions attest to God’s existence, to his perfectly moral character and to his desire to have fellowship with every member of our species. But when our moral intuitions recoil at the casual destruction of innocents by, say, a tidal wave or earthquake, Dr Collins assures us that our time-bound notions of good and evil can’t be trusted and that God’s will is a mystery.

Most scientists who study the human mind are convinced that minds are the products of brains, and brains are the products of evolution.  Dr Collins takes a different approach: he insists that at some moment in the development of our species God inserted crucial components – including an immortal soul, free will, the moral law, spiritual hunger, genuine altruism, etc.

As someone who believes that our understanding of human nature can be derived from neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science and behavioral economics, among others, I am troubled by Dr Collins’s line of thinking. I also believe it would seriously undercut fields like neuroscience and our growing understanding of the human mind. If we must look to religion to explain our moral sense, what should we make of the deficits of moral reasoning associated with conditions like frontal lobe syndrome and psychopathy?  Are these disorders best addressed by theology?…

Francis Collins is an accomplished scientist and a man who is sincere in his beliefs.  And that is precisely what makes me so uncomfortable about his nomination. 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?

Naturally, Harris’ article provoked a furious response from goddycoddlers like Andrew Brown of The Guardian, who fumed on his blog:

Anyone tempted to believe that the abolition of religion would make the world a wiser and better place should study the works of Sam Harris.  Shallow, narrow, and self-righteous, he defends and embodies all of the traits that have made organised religion repulsive; and he does so in the name of atheism and rationality.  He has, for example, defended torture, (“restraint in the use of torture cannot be reconciled with our willingness to wage war in the first place”) attacked religious toleration in ways that would make Pio Nono blush: “We can no more tolerate a diversity of religious beliefs than a diversity of beliefs about epidemiology and basic hygiene”; he has claimed that there are some ideas so terrible that we may be justified in killing people just for believing them.  Naturally, he also believes that the Nazis were really mere catspaws of the Christians…

To the extent that Harris has any argument at all – apart from that religious people are very wicked, responsible for the inquisition, the holocaust, George W Bush, Muslims, and other Bad Things – it is that as a religious man Collins must “sincerely believe that a scientific understanding of human nature is impossible.”

So what?  Everything we know about believing scientists of Collins’ type suggests two things.  First that they love science: nobody could accomplish scientifically what Collins has (and, incidentally, Harris hasn’t) without an overwhelming passion for their work.  Secondly, that no scientific discovery could shake their faith, any more than science made Darwin an atheist.  All of the best arguments against God are theological.  It’s the second point that’s really important. What drives the tribal atheists like Harris mad is knowing that Collins won’t convert whatever science may discover.

So why object to Collins getting the job?  Since Harris does not, quite, dare to claim that Collins would, at the head of the NIH, somehow stop science from being done, he is reduced to suggesting that Collins would not approve of the results that Harris expects from scientific research. Quite apart from the question of whether this is actually true or whether the question will actually arise – Harris, too, might be wrong about what science will discover – it isn’t any argument at all against his holding the job…

[M]ilitant atheism, of the sort that would deny people jobs for their religions beliefs, doesn’t actually believe in real science at all, any more than it believes in reason.  Rather, it uses “science” and “reason” as tribal labels, and “religion” as a term for witchcraft. Any serious defence of the real, hard-won and easily lost enlightenment must start by rejecting that style of atheism entirely.  What use is it to be right about God and wrong about everything else?

Brown stoops to the common quote-mine/distortion employed by Harris’ opponents, that he endorses torture, when anyone who has read the relevant passage in The End of Faith will know that Harris does no such thing.  (See Harris’ “Response to Controversy” written in reply to these dirty tactics.)

American evolutionary biologist and author of Why Evolution is True, Jerry A Coyne, wrote a suitably pithy rebuttal of Brown on his blog:

[Harris] did not say that Collins should be excluded from consideration.  Harris, like me, is simply worried about Collins using his status as NIH director to spread wacko religious ideas.  Harris has the additional concern (one that I don’t really share) that Collins might deflect research away from understanding the human brain and the behavior it engenders…

Brown goes on to make some bad arguments about the relationship between science and faith.  He gloats that no scientific discovery could ever shake Collins’s faith, “any more than science made Darwin an atheist.” (I’m not so sure about that one, actually.  Certain empirical observations might well have eroded Darwin’s faith: the death of his daughter Annie, for example, as well as his famous observations about the horrors of nature, like the ichneumon wasp, which to Darwin argued against the existence of a benevolent god.)  Thus, when Brown says that Collins need never abandon his faith because “all the best arguments against God are theological,” he’s just wrong.  The best arguments against God are empirical, most prominent among them the argument from evil.  As far as I can see — and yes, I’ve read theology — there has never been a better refutation of the idea of a loving and omnipotent god than the existence of horrible, god-preventable things happening to innocent people.  That’s an empirical observation, and the world didn’t have to be that way. Another, of course, is that prayer doesn’t work.  Yet another is the observation that God seems to heal some people, but sorely neglects those amputees.  Finally, the theistic God obstinately refuses to show himself to people, although he supposedly interacts with the world.

None of us “militant atheists” want to deny Collins his job because of his faith.  And it’s just dumb to say that we don’t believe in real science.  I do real science every day.  As for labeling religion as “witchcraft,” well, are the two forms of superstition really so different?

Brown’s overall complaint seems to be that Harris’s writings are so popular — that “hundreds of thousands of people bought the books, and perhaps the ideas in them.”  I suspect Brown’s books haven’t sold nearly as well, though (no surprise!) he won a Templeton Prize for religious journalism.  I do feel sorry for Brown, though:  it can’t be pleasant to write a Guardian column where most of your commenters rip your arguments to shreds.

Harris: 3 – Collins: Nil

Harris hit back at his critics with this superb piece witheringly entitled “The Strange Case of Francis Collins”.  I can only recommend that it is read in full, particularly as Harris puts into print arguments that he has previously made in debates and lectures.  I quote the following to whet your appetites:

Debunking the “argument from admired religious scientists”:

This prayer of reconciliation goes by many names and now has many advocates.  But it is based on a fallacy. The fact that some scientists do not detect any problem with religious faith merely proves that a juxtaposition of good ideas/methods and bad ones is possible.  Is there a conflict between marriage and infidelity?  The two regularly coincide.  The fact that intellectual honesty can be confined to a ghetto – in a single brain, in an institution, in a culture, etc – does not mean that there isn’t a perfect contradiction between reason and faith, or between the worldview of science taken as a whole and those advanced by the world’s “great”, and greatly discrepant, religions.

What can be shown by example is how poorly religious scientists manage to reconcile reason and faith when they actually attempt to do so.  Few such efforts have received more public attention than the work of Francis Collins.  At the time of this writing, Collins seems destined to be the next director of the National Institutes of Health.  One must admit that his credentials are impeccable: he is a physical chemist, a medical geneticist, and the former head of the Human Genome Project.  He is also, by his own account, living proof that there is no conflict between science and religion.  In 2006, Collins published a bestselling book, The Language of God, in which he claims to demonstrate “a consistent and profoundly satisfying harmony” between 21st-century science and Evangelical Christianity.  Let it be known that “consistency” and “harmony” can be in the eye of the beholder.

[A]s director of the institutes, Collins will have more responsibility for biomedical and health-related research than any person on earth, controlling an annual budget of more than $30 billion. He will also be one of the foremost representatives of science in the United States. For this reason, it is important to understand Collins’ religious beliefs as they relate to scientific inquiry.

On whether deism can really can support theism:

Is it really so difficult to perceive a conflict between Collins’ science and his religion?  Just imagine how scientific it would seem if Collins, as a devout Hindu, informed his audience that Lord Brahma had created the universe and now sleeps; Lord Vishnu sustains it and tinkers with our DNA (in a way that respects the law of karma and rebirth); and Lord Shiva will eventually destroy it in a great conflagration.

On the rationality of Collins’ theistic world view:

[Collins] says that of “all the possible worldviews, atheism is the least rational”.  I suspect that this will not be the last time a member of our species will be obliged to make the following point (but one can always hope): disbelief in the God of Abraham does not require that one search the entire cosmos and find Him absent; it only requires that one consider the evidence put forward by believers to be insufficient. Presumably Francis Collins does not believe in Zeus.  I trust he considers this skeptical attitude to be fully justified.  Might this be because there are no good reasons to believe in Zeus?  And what would he say to a person who claimed that disbelief is Zeus is a form of “blind faith” or that of all possible worldviews it is the “least rational”?…

Collins has since started an organization called the BioLogos Foundation, whose purpose (in the words of its mission statement) is to demonstrate “the compatibility of the Christian faith with what science has discovered about the origins of the universe and life.”  BioLogos is funded by the Templeton Foundation, a religious organization that, because of its astonishing wealth, has managed to purchase the complicity of otherwise secular scientists as it seeks to re-brand religious faith as a legitimate arm of science.

Would Collins have received the same treatment in Nature if he had argued for the compatibility between science and witchcraft, astrology, or Tarot cards?   Not a chance.  In fact, we can be confident that his scientific career would have terminated in an inferno of criticism…

On the insurmountably high standard of evidence for miracle accounts:

Even for a scientist of Collins’ stature, who has struggled to reconcile his belief in the divinity of Jesus with modern science, it all boils down to the “empty tomb.” Indeed, Collins freely admits that if all his scientific arguments for the plausibility of God were proven to be in error, his faith would be undiminished, as it is founded upon the belief, shared by all serious Christians, that the Gospel account of the miracles of Jesus is true.  For a scientist, Collins speaks with remarkable naïveté about the Gospel account being the “record of eyewitnesses.”  Biblical scholars generally agree that the earliest Gospel, the Gospel of Mark, was written several decades after the events it purports to describe.  Of course, no one has access to the original manuscript of Mark, or of any of the other Gospels: rather, there are thousands of fragmentary copies of copies of copies, many of which show obvious errors or signs of later interpolation.  The earliest of these fragments dates to second century, but for many other sections of the text we must rely on copies that were produced centuries later.  One would hope that a scientist might see that these disordered and frequently discordant texts constitute a rather precarious basis for believing in the divinity of Jesus.

But the problem is actually much worse than this: for even if we had multiple, contemporaneous, first-hand accounts of the miracles of Jesus, this would still not constitute sufficient support for the central tenets of Christianity.  Indeed, first-hand accounts of miracles are extremely common, even in the 21st century.  I’ve met scores of educated men and women who are convinced that their favorite Hindu or Buddhist guru has magic powers, and many of the miracles that they describe are every bit as outlandish as those attributed to Jesus.  Stories about yogis and mystics walking on water, raising the dead, flying without the aid of technology, materializing objects, reading minds, foretelling the future are circulating right now, in communities where the average levels of education, access to information, and skeptical doubt are far higher than we would expect of first century fishermen and goatherds.

In fact, all of Jesus’ powers have been attributed to the South Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba by vast numbers of eyewitnesses who believe that he is a living god.  The man even claims to have been born of a virgin.  Collins’ faith is predicated on the claim that miracle stories of the sort that today surround a person like Sathya Sai Baba – and do not even merit an hour on the Discovery Channel – somehow become especially credible when set in the pre-scientific religious context of the 1st century Roman Empire, decades after their supposed occurrence, as evidenced by discrepant and fragmentary copies of copies of copies of ancient Greek manuscripts.  It is on this basis that the future head of the NIH recommends that we believe the following propositions:

  1. Jesus Christ, a carpenter by trade, was born of a virgin, ritually murdered as a scapegoat for the collective sins of his species, and then resurrected from death after an interval of three days.

  2. He promptly ascended, bodily, to “heaven” – where, for two millennia, he has eavesdropped upon (and, on occasion, even answered) the simultaneous prayers of billions of beleaguered human beings.

  3. Not content to maintain this numinous arrangement indefinitely, this invisible carpenter will one day return to earth to judge humanity for its sexual indiscretions and skeptical doubts, at which time he will grant immortality to anyone who has had the good fortune to be convinced, on mother’s knee, that this baffling litany of miracles is the most important series of truth-claims ever revealed about the cosmos.

  4. Every other member of our species, past and present, from Cleopatra to Einstein, no matter what his or her terrestrial accomplishments, will be consigned to a far less desirable fate, best left unspecified.

  5. In the meantime, God/Jesus may or may not intervene in our world, as He pleases, curing the occasional end-stage cancer (or not), answering an especially earnest prayer for guidance (or not), consoling the bereaved (or not), through His perfectly wise and loving agency.

How many scientific laws would be violated by such a scheme?  One is tempted to say “all of them.”  And yet, judging from the way that journals like Nature have treated Collins, one can only conclude that there is nothing in the scientific worldview, or in the intellectual rigor and self-criticism that gave rise to it, that casts these convictions in an unfavorable light.

Harris answers his critics who label him as intolerant:

Some readers will consider any criticism of Collins’ views to be an overt expression of “intolerance.”  Indeed, when I published an abbreviated version of this essay in the New York Times, this is precisely the kind of negative response I received.  For instance, the biologist Kenneth Miller claimed in a letter to the Times that my view was purely the product of my own “deeply held prejudices against religion” and that I opposed Collins merely because “he is a Christian.”   Writing in the Guardian, Andrew Brown called my criticism of Collins a “fantastically illiberal and embryonically totalitarian position that goes against every possible notion of human rights and even the American constitution.”  Miller and Brown seem to think that bad ideas and disordered thinking should not be challenged as long as they are associated with a mainstream religion and that to do so is synonymous with bigotry.   They are not alone…

Harris tears NOMA a new one:

The world’s religions are predicated on the truth of specific doctrines that have been growing less plausible by the day.  While the ultimate relationship between consciousness and matter has not been entirely settled, any naïve conception of a soul can now be jettisoned on account of the mind’s obvious dependency upon the brain.  The idea that there might be an immortal soul capable of reasoning, feeling love, remembering life events, etc, all the while being metaphysically independent of the brain becomes untenable the moment we realize that damage to the relevant neural circuits obliterates these specific capacities in a living person.  Does the soul of a completely aphasic patient still speak and think fluently?  This is like asking whether the soul of a diabetic produces abundant insulin. What is more, the specific character of the mind’s dependency on the brain suggests that there cannot be a unified subject lurking behind all of the brain’s functionally distinct channels of processing.  There are simply too many separable components to perception and cognition – each susceptible to independent disruption – for there to be a single entity to stand as rider to the horse…

On how Collins still can’t get his mind around the evolutionary explanation for altruism:

Collins’ case for the supernatural origin of morality rests on the further assertion that there can be no evolutionary explanation for genuine altruism.  Because self-sacrifice cannot increase the likelihood that an individual creature will survive and reproduce, truly self-sacrificing behavior stands as a primordial rejoinder to any biological account of morality.  In Collins’ view the mere existence of altruism offers compelling evidence of a personal God.  But a moment’s thought reveals that if we were to accept this neutered biology, almost everything about us would be bathed in the warm glow of religious mystery.  Does our interest in astronomy owe its existence to the successful reproduction of ancient astronomers?  (What about the practices of celibacy and birth control?  Are they all about reproduction too?)  Collins can’t seem to see that human morality and selfless love may be elaborations of more basic biological and psychological traits, which were themselves products of evolution.  It is hard to interpret this oversight in light of his scientific training.  If one didn’t know better, one might be tempted to conclude that religious dogmatism presents an obstacle to scientific reasoning.

On how the marriage between religion and science is preventing potentially life-saving stem cell research:

There are, of course, ethical implications to believing that human beings are the only species made in God’s image and vouchsafed with “immortal souls.”  History shows us that concern about souls is a very poor guide to ethical behaviour – that is, to actually mitigating the suffering of conscious creatures like ourselves.   Concern about souls leads to concerns about undifferentiated cells in Petri dishes and to ethical qualms over embryonic stem cell research.  Rather often, it leads to indifference to the suffering of animals believed not to possess souls but which can clearly suffer in ways that three-day old human embryos cannot.  The use of apes in medical research, the exposure of whales and dolphins to military sonar – these are real ethical dilemmas, with real suffering at issue.  Concern over human embryos smaller than the period at the end of this sentence – when, for years they have been the most promising door to medical breakthrough – is one of the many delusional products of religion, which has led to one of its many predictable failures of compassion.  While Collins appears to support embryonic stem cell research, he does so after much (literal) soul-searching and under considerable theological duress.  Everything he has said and written about the subject needlessly complicates an ethical question that is – if one is actually concerned about human and animal wellbeing – genuinely straightforward.

Obama really should think this one through again:

The Obama administration still has not removed the most important impediments to embryonic stem cell research – allowing funding only for work on stem cells derived from surplus embryos at fertility clinics.  Such delicacy is a clear concession to the religious convictions of the American electorate.  While Collins seems willing to go further and support research on embryos created through somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), he is very far from being a voice of ethical clarity in this debate.  For instance, he considers embryos created through SCNT to be distinct from those formed through the union of sperm and egg because the former are “not part of God’s plan to create a human individual” while “the latter is very much part of God’s plan, carried out through the millennia by our own species and many others” (Collins, 2006, p. 256).   There is little to be gained in a serious discussion of bioethics by talking about “God’s plan.”  (If such embryos were brought to term and became sentient and suffering human beings, would it be ethical to kill them and harvest their organs because they had been conceived apart from “God’s plan”?)  While his stewardship of the NIH seems unlikely to impede our mincing progress on embryonic stem cell research, his appointment seems like another one of President Obama’s efforts to split difference between real science and real ethics on the one hand and religious superstition and taboo on the other.

Collins has written that “science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence” and that “the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted.”  One can only hope that these convictions will not affect his judgment at the NIH.  Understanding human wellbeing at the level of the brain might very well offer some “answers to the most pressing questions of human existence” – questions like, Why do we suffer?  How can we achieve the deepest forms of happiness? Or, indeed, is it possible to love one’s neighbor as oneself? And wouldn’t any effort to explain human nature without reference to a soul, and to explain morality without reference to God, constitute “atheistic materialism”?  Must we really entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who believes that understanding ourselves through science is impossible, while our resurrection from death is inevitable?

As if Collins was not punch-drunk enough, Harris was also less than complimentary about Collins on his recent appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher:

The sound of silence

Ouch.  So what has Collins said in response to this repeated and sustained assault on his intellectual credibility?   As far as I have been able to discover, nothing.

Supporters of Collins will surely argue that he has better things to do that dignify the rantings of a militant atheist with a response.  This interpretation of Collins’ silence may have some mileage.  However, the other side of the argument is far more persuasive.  Under British civil law at least, an opponent’s silence in the face of your allegations constitutes implicit agreement to them.

So, compare Collins’ non-response to that of Richard Dawkins after this:

In A Devil’s Chaplain, Dawkins explained that the question “Name a genetic mutation that has lead to an increase in information in the genome?” is exactly the question that only a creationist would ask.  Dawkins refuses to debate creationists because it would supply them with the oxygen of publicity since sharing a platform with a prominent evolutionary biologist would give the impression to the general public that there was a serious issue worth debating, when of course there is not.  For the creationists, winning or losing the debate itself is irrelevant; the fact that a debate has gone ahead at all is victory enough for them.

During the above interview, recorded at his Oxford home in 1997, Dawkins tumbled to the fact that they were creationists, paused while thinking how to deal with the situation (not to mention containing his anger), before asking them to stop the tape.  After asking them off-camera to leave his house, reluctantly, Dawkins continued with the interview.  He was then shown the finished tape by a colleague about 12 months later and the producers had spliced the tape together to make it appear that Dawkins was stumped by the “information” question and then gave an evasive answer.

Dawkins’ response – in total contrast to Collins – was to clear his reputation and get his side of the story out into public domain.  He contacted the Australian magazine The Skeptic to help him locate the production company who had conducted the interview and the result was this excellent article by Barry Williams.  As Dawkins explained:

As it happens, my forthcoming book, Unweaving the Rainbow, has an entire chapter (“The Genetic Book of the Dead”) devoted to a much more interesting version of the idea that natural selection gathers up information from the environment, and builds it into the genome.  At the time of the interview, the book was almost finished.  That chapter would have been in the forefront of my mind, and it is therefore especially ludicrous to suggest that I would have evaded the question by talking about fish and amphibians.

If I’d wanted to turn the question into more congenial channels, all I had to do was talk about “The Genetic Book of the Dead”.  It is a chapter I am particularly pleased with.  I’d have welcomed the opportunity to expound it.  Why on earth, when faced with such an opportunity, would I have kept totally silent?  Unless, once again, I was actually thinking about something quite different while struggling to keep my temper?

As Williams concludes:

Most scientifically literate people, and even many of those whose understanding of it is slight, have long recognised creation ‘science’ for the infantile religious dogma that it is, so this crude propaganda is unlikely to have a great deal of lasting effect on them.  But those who have little understanding of science, and particularly those who have trusted the creationists’ claim that they are engaged in science, have had their trust betrayed.  The nature of the calls we have received from people who have seemingly swallowed this line leave us in no doubt that that is precisely what has happened.

This is not the way of science – it is the way of political propaganda – yet another blatant example of “telling lies for God”.

(For further reading, see the creationist production company’s response to Williams and Williams’ counter-response.)

Similarly, Dawkins and other prominent atheist scientists were duped into recording interviews for the documentary-film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, a loathsome piece of creationist propaganda released in 2008 and headed-up by American game show host and Intelligent Design proponent, Ben Stein.

Dawkins, Michael Shermer and P Z Myers thought that they were taking part in a film that addressed the intersection between science and religion, to be called Crossroads.  However, Expelled turned out to be a ham-fisted attempt to discredit the scientific establishment by making out that it was deliberately silencing advocates of “Intelligent Design Theory” by removing them from their positions at their institutions, while making the truly shocking claim that Darwinian evolution had a direct influence on Hitler’s eugenics programme and the Holocaust.

Once again, the response by the atheist scientists was in total contract to Collins’ silence.  Dawkins explained:

Toward the end of his interview with me, Stein asked whether I could think of any circumstances whatsoever under which intelligent design might have occurred.  It’s the kind of challenge I relish, and I set myself the task of imagining the most plausible scenario I could.  I wanted to give ID its best shot, however poor that best shot might be.  I must have been feeling magnanimous that day, because I was aware that the leading advocates of Intelligent Design are very fond of protesting that they are not talking about God as the designer, but about some unnamed and unspecified intelligence, which might even be an alien from another planet.  Indeed, this is the only way they differentiate themselves from fundamentalist creationists, and they do it only when they need to, in order to weasel their way around church/state separation laws.  So, bending over backwards to accommodate the IDiots (“oh NOOOOO, of course we aren’t talking about God, this is SCIENCE”) and bending over backwards to make the best case I could for intelligent design, I constructed a science fiction scenario. Like Michael Ruse (as I surmise) I still hadn’t rumbled Stein, and I was charitable enough to think he was an honestly stupid man, sincerely seeking enlightenment from a scientist.  I patiently explained to him that life could conceivably have been seeded on Earth by an alien intelligence from another planet (Francis Crick and Leslie Orgel suggested something similar – semi tongue-in-cheek).  The conclusion I was heading towards was that, even in the highly unlikely event that some such ‘Directed Panspermia’ was responsible for designing life on this planet, the alien beings would THEMSELVES have to have evolved, if not by Darwinian selection, by some equivalent ‘crane’ (to quote Dan Dennett).  My point here was that design can never be an ULTIMATE explanation for organized complexity. Even if life on Earth was seeded by intelligent designers on another planet, and even if the alien life form was itself seeded four billion years earlier, the regress must ultimately be terminated (and we have only some 13 billion years to play with because of the finite age of the universe).  Organized complexity cannot just spontaneously happen.  That, for goodness sake, is the creationists’ whole point, when they bang on about eyes and bacterial flagella!  Evolution by natural selection is the only known process whereby organized complexity can ultimately come into being. Organized complexity – and that includes everything capable of designing anything intelligently – comes LATE into the universe. It cannot exist at the beginning, as I have explained again and again in my writings.

P Z Myers’ explanation:

I went to attend a screening of the creationist propaganda movie, Expelled, a few minutes ago. Well, I tried … but I was Expelled!  It was kind of weird – I was standing in line, hadn’t even gotten to the point where I had to sign in and show ID, and a policeman pulled me out of line and told me I could not go in.  I asked why, of course, and he said that a producer of the film had specifically instructed him that I was not to be allowed to attend.  The officer also told me that if I tried to go in, I would be arrested. I assured him that I wasn’t going to cause any trouble.

Dawkins and Myers taped this conversation immediately after the premier of Expelled:

And the team at RichardDawkins.net put together this highly amusing parody of Expelled:

Michael Shermer’s side of the story:

Ben Stein came to my office to interview me about what I was told was a film about “the intersection of science and religion” called “Crossroads (yet another deception).  I knew something was afoot when his first question to me was on whether or not I think someone should be fired for expressing dissenting views.  I pressed Stein for specifics: Who is being fired for what, when and where?  In my experience, people are usually fired for reasons having to do with budgetary constraints, incompetence or not fulfilling the terms of a contract.  Stein finally asked my opinion on people being fired for endorsing intelligent design.  I replied that I know of no instance where such a firing has happened.

In the same vein, Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education set up the website, Expelled Exposed dedicated to exposing all of the lies, half-truths and deceptions in and surrounding Expelled.  This included the real explanations as to why the ID proponents featured in Expelled really lost their academic tenures.

For example, Caroline Crocker claims she was fired from George Mason University because she mentioned Intelligent Design in a class she was teaching.  However, the evidence says otherwise.  While there may have been grounds to fire her with cause, Crocker was not fired and continued to teach her course after student complaints; in addition, she did not just “mention” intelligent design, but rather was teaching demonstrably false creationist material.

Harris himself responded to an Alternet article published in 2007 that portrayed him as an evil maniac by selectively quoting his written work and comments made in a 90 minute telephone interview as well as New York Times journalist Chris Hedges’ allegations with the previously mentioned  “Response to Controversy” and this addendum following his Truthdig debate with Hedges.

Why then – when reputable scientists and Harris himself have gone to inordinate lengths to preserve their reputations when they feel that have been misrepresented – has Collins not said a word in reply to Harris’ charges?

The only reasonable conclusion can be that Collins must think that Harris has at least represented his views fairly – notwithstanding his drastic disagreements – and has nothing to say in response.

In conclusion – a false dichotomy that is only harming human progress

I am in total agreement with Sam Harris.  Collins’ religious faith is a personal matter that has no place in public life and certainly no place if he is appointed as head of the NIH.  His fundamental misunderstanding of the evolutionary explanation for altruistic behaviour in humans is a veil over his scientific vision that has been imposed as a direct result of his religious faith.  I can only hope that he will not suffer the same faith-induced myopia when it comes to the progress of potentially life-saving stem cell research.

Apologists will of course continue trotting out Collins in support of their assertion that there is no conflict between science and faith.  Collins is simply the latest in a long list of examples from the “Argument from Admired Religious Scientists”.

Isaac Newton was a devoutly religious man, as most people were in his day.  He actually wrote more on theology than physics, but can anyone name one of his theological achievements?  Newton also expended a great deal of time and energy on the defunct pseudo-science, alchemy.  Joseph Priestley, the discoverer of oxygen, was also an avid supporter of the phlogiston theory.  Charles Darwin’s scientific partner, Alfred Russel Wallace, enjoyed nothing better than a spiritualist séance once he was done examining biological specimens in the laboratory.  James Watson, co-discoverer of the double-helix of DNA has recently had his reputation as a scientist destroyed for expressing pseudo-scientific, racist views in an interview with The Sunday Times.

A brilliant career as a scientist is clearly no guarantee against believing in nonsense.   I hope that the same standards of common sense and reason that have been applied to the above examples will one day be applied to scientists like Collins.