Posts Tagged ‘stem cell research’

After life is there more? (And would we want there to be?)

14/11/2009

Stairway2Heaven

manicstreetpreacher muses on the pros and cons of departing this veil of tears to a big theme park in the sky or to somewhere less pleasant…

I was invited to speak at Liverpool University on 18 November 2009 on an inter-faith discussion panel on the topic of the afterlife, called “Follow My Way 2: Life, Death & Beyond”.  Originally, the discussion was to be on the rights and wrongs of religious tolerance.  I was amazed that the University of Liverpool Atheist Society (ULAS) had asked me whether I wanted to speak following the disastrous public reaction to my outspoken views on religion in March earlier this year, about which you can about in piece, “More Than I Could Chew?”

I have had to up sticks and move to the opposite end of the country in order to find employment in a recession.  To travel to Liverpool and return to my new home would have meant a £100 return train fare and my last two days of paid leave which I had been saving to get home ahead of the Christmas rush.  In case you are new to this blog, speaking out against the parties of God is just about my favourite pastime at present and I leapt at the chance.  If nothing else, it would have been an opportunity to repair some of the damage done at the beginning of the year and learn to keep a cool head against a hostile crowd and potentially baiting opponents.

FMW2Poster

However, the topic changed overnight, away from the role of religion in the world and to the rather saccharine topic of the afterlife.  With great reluctance, I declined to speak.  I felt that I only had a very limited amount to say on the motion which essentially boiled downed to:

  1. I don’t believe in the afterlife.
  2. Like telekinesis, Father Christmas and fairies at the bottom of the garden, it would be lovely if we did have a soul separate from our bodies which floats off our brains at the moment of death towards a tunnel of life to be reunited with our loved ones and/ or to wait for our loved ones to join us once their time on Earth is up but there simply isn’t any evidence for it.
  3. The consequences of certain people believing in an afterlife can be truly sinister for the rest of us in this life whether we share their beliefs or not.
  4. We ought to stop looking forward to our deaths and make the most of the one life we do have.

ULAS have managed to persuade a member of The National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (AHS) to speak and I wish him all the very best of luck.  If I was still living in or closer to Liverpool, I would probably have still spoken despite the change of topic, but it just wasn’t worth the train fare or the holiday time.

However, as is so often the case, the experience of being asked to speak on a topic has made me think deeper about that topic.  I half-regret turning down the opportunity now and present my further thoughts to anyone who cares.

If I was there, I would… apologise for all the offensive things I am going to say

I think it would be best to start off by trying to wash out the bad taste I had left in the mouths of the religious members of the audience after last time by making clear that nothing I say is done deliberately for effect and while I am bound to offend a lot of people in the room, this is not intentional.

I have half a mind to say the most offensive thing I could possibly say right away by quoting Jimmy Carr and saying that it is a shame about all the wounded British soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, but at least we would have a cracking team for the 2012 Paralympics.

There’s a more than 50 percent chance of that one going down like a lead balloon…

It would be wonderful if it were true but…

After the apologies and explanation, the first thing to be said would be that there are loads of things that I wish did exist – such as The Force, lightsabres, telekinesis, telepathy and fairies at the bottom of the garden – but there simply isn’t any evidence for them.  The religious instinct is informed by the same mentality as astrology and tarot reading: the human tendency to see patterns in everyday events and infer some greater meaning to them.

I blogged on this at length following a lecture given by Professor Chris French of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths College hosted by the Merseyside Skeptics Society in September 2009.  We are swimming in probabilities; it would be more incredible if these coincidences didn’t happen!   There may be some anecdotal evidence for telepathy and reincarnation, but these studies are flawed by what is known as the “Clustering Illusion”, also known as the “Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy”.   Rather like a marksman emptying his magazine at a barn door and then drawing on the target afterwards, if you repeat the same experiment enough times you are bound to see patterns emerge, but the conclusions drawn from them will be false.

American physicist, Victor J Stenger, touches on the search for a world beyond matter in his 2007 book, God, The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist and describes how the search for a soul, an afterlife, reincarnation and psychic powers has failed miserably.

Professor Susan Blackmore of Plymouth University charts her journey from naïve believer in the paranormal to hardened sceptic after she set out on a mission to prove in the lab that supernatural forces were at work, only to find that the experiments were flawed and the data inconclusive.  The story is told in her book, In Search of the Light: Adventures of a Parapsychologist.  At the time of writing, I hadn’t read Blackmore’s book myself, but she summarises her journey very eloquently in her debate on religion against Christian theologian Alistair McGrath at Bristol University on 13 November 2007.

A few years ago, thirty of the world’s “top” theologians met at the Vatican to discuss what happened to the souls of unbaptised babies after they die and whether St Augustine’s doctrine of limbo was valid.  I am struggling to think of a more intellectually forlorn exercise; did any of those theologians have any actual evidence of what does happen to the souls of said un-baptised babies, or even whether they possess a soul in the first place?

Positing that humans possess a soul separate from our bodies simply commits the philosophical fallacy of begging the question.  When did the soul evolve?  Do non-human animals have a soul?  Why would a deity bother with a mortal life at all and just have the afterlife as the norm so we can all enjoy his or her company straightaway?  How can a soul survive the death of the brain?  In what state is your soul when it leaves your body for good?  It wouldn’t be very enjoyable to be permanently suffering from a stroke for all eternity.

Sounds like hell to me

Most people can’t bear to sit in church for an hour on Sundays.  How are they supposed to live somewhere very similar to it for eternity?

– Mark Twain

I suppose my ideal version of the afterlife would be to live in a temple of knowledge and philosophical discussion with a library where you could read any book you chose for as long as you wanted and have discussions with the greatest thinkers of all time from Plato to Hume to Spinoza to Jefferson, one-to-one or in an auditorium.  But again, there’s just no evidence for it.

I have to say though that the Christian version of the afterlife sounds absolutely ghastly, as Mr Twain summarises so beautifully above.  I’m sorry, but did I miss something?  Spending all eternity singing the praises of your maker?  And you thought I was going to go for one blog post without quoting Christopher Hitchens, but it sounds like hell to me!

In 2000, Hitchens travelled to North Korea under his guise as a university professor and reported on the abject serfdom endured by the wretched population who are expected to wake up in the morning praising the Great Leader, Kim Ill Sung and his son the Dear Leader, Kim Jung Ill, only to wake up again in the morning and begin the process all over again.

Kim Ill Sung became President of North Korea in 1949, the same year as George Orwell published Nineteen Eighty Four.  It is almost as though someone lent the Great Leader a copy of the book challenging him to put it into practice and he gleefully accepted.

According to Hitchens, you will not open a newspaper, turn on a television set or watch a theatrical production, that is not dedicated to worshipping the cult of Fat Man and Little Boy.  However, Kim Jung Ill is only the head of the party and the army.  The head of state is still his father; surprisingly, since the guy has been dead since 1994.  Hitchens dubs the government a “necrocracy, or a “mauselocracy or a “thanatocracy.  Indeed, the son is said to be a reincarnation of his father.  This should strike a chord with the Christian apologist on the night.  It’s just one short of a Trinity.

But at least you can die and get out of North Korea.  Under Christianity and Islam at least, it’s only when you’re dead that the real fun begins.  Who would want this to be true?

Silly souls

Atheists constantly have the charge levelled against them that they cannot justify why they are moral and altruistic.  If we all end up the same way and there is no final judgement for our lives’ deeds, then why should we care what happens in this life?  Leaving aside for a moment my stock retorts about the intrinsic satisfaction of doing one of your fellow mammals a good turn without expecting reward or avoiding punishment, the theistic worldview hardly settles matters more satisfactorily.

Perhaps it is too cheap a shot to ask why religious people don’t just commit suicide rather than bothering with this veil of tears.  But the question still remains frustratingly unanswered: if there is going to be an in-gathering, if there is going to be a magical place where all tears will be dried and all injustices put right, then why do the religious care so much about what happens in this life?  Why do they want to control what people do in the privacy of their own bedrooms?

It would appear that at least Mahatma Ghandi pre-empted my challenge.   Ghandi was undoubtedly the twentieth century’s most influential pacifist with his devastating policy of non-cooperation against India’s colonial masters, which sealed independence for the Jewel in the Crown in 1947.

However, it must be remembered firstly that Ghandi’s command to turn the other cheek only worked because the British Empire had by then been crippled by two World Wars in the space of 25 years and secondly, his ideals took a much more sinister side.   Ghandi’s remedy for the Holocaust was for the Jews to commit mass suicide because this “would have aroused the world and the people of Germany to Hitler’s violence.”

Even if we grant Ghandi’s religious dogma of karma and rebirth, is the suffering and agony of millions of people in this world an acceptable price to secure their happiness and freedom in the next?  Ghandi’s world was one where millions of people would have died in order for the German people to doubt the goodness of their Thousand Year Reich.  How would a world full of pacifists respond once they became “aroused” to the evil of Nazism; commit suicide as well?

The concern for human souls seems to have trumped the care for human beings when you consider the Bush administration’s denial of funding at the Federal level for potentially ground-breaking stem cell research.  Apparently a middle-aged father succumbing to Parkinson’s Disease or a young girl suffering from third degree burns are less important than the souls of three day old human embryos in a petri dish comprising no more than 150 cells.  If you think that still sounds like a large number of cells, there are over 100,000 cells in the brain of a fly.  You inflict far more pain and suffering every time you swat a household insect than if you use a three day old human embryo potentially to save another human being’s life.

You lot may be looking forward to checking out, but don’t demand the rest of us to come with you

Opinion polls have consistently shown that a majority of the American population believe that Christ will return to Earth someday to judge the human race for 2,000 years of sexual indiscretion.  At least 20% think that this event will happen within their lifetimes.

To an atheist, this might seem like a ridiculous belief – particularly when you consider that we have waited long enough following Jesus’ promise to return to Earth within the lifetime of his followers at Matthew 16 among several other instances – but it does not appear to be a potentially harmful preachment.   Until you consider that there are fundamentalist American Christians hard at work in the Holy Land to this day attempting to incite the already warring religious factions into nuclear Armageddon.

SecondComing

Ronald Reagan brought in Hal Lindsay and Jerry Falwell – a pair of religious lunatics of the first, second, third and fourth orders – to advise the Pentagon on biblical prophesy regarding the end of the world when it looked like he was going to turn the Cold War hot.  Falwell in particular worked hard at inciting the worst and most fanatical elements among Jewish settlers on the West Bank in Israel and was even awarded the Jabotinsky Centennial Medal in 1980 by Menachem Begin.

A former Archbishop of Canterbury (!), Dr Geoffrey Fisher throughout the 1950s and 1960s consistently refused to condemn the apocalyptic madness of Russia and the West during the Cold War.  When some observers were proposing all-out surrender to the Soviets in order to avoid doomsday, sheepish Dr Fisher wrote a tract that could have been produced by Ahmadinejad in the present day:

I am convinced that it is never right to settle any policy simply out of fear of the consequences…  For all I know it is within the providence of God that the human race should destroy itself in this manner.

There is no evidence that the human race is to last forever and plenty in Scripture to the contrary effect.  Though, as you say, the suffering entailed by nuclear war would be ghastly in its scale, one must remember that each person can only suffer so much; and I do not know that the men and women affected would suffer more than those do who day by day are involved in some appalling disaster.  There is no aggregate measure of pain. Anyhow, policy must not be based simply on fear of pain.

I am not being unfeeling. Christ in His Crucifixion showed us how to suffer creatively.  He did not claim to end suffering, nor did He bid His disciples to avoid suffering.  So I repeat, I cannot establish any policy merely on whether or not it will save the human race from a period of suffering or from extinction.

GeoffreyFisher

In a later interview, Fisher commented that “the very worst it could do would be to sweep a vast number of people at one moment from this world into the other and more vital world, into which anyhow they must pass at one time.”

As Sam Harris comments in Letter to a Christian Nation:

According to the most common interpretation of biblical prophecy, Jesus will return only after things have gone horribly awry here on Earth.  It is, therefore, not an exaggeration to say that if the city of New York were suddenly replaced by a ball of fire, some significant percentage of the American population would see a silver lining in the subsequent mushroom cloud, as it would suggest to them that the best thing that is ever going to happen was about to happen – the return of Christ.  It should be blindingly obvious that beliefs of this sort will do little to help us create a durable future for ourselves – socially, economically, environmentally, or geopolitically.  Imagine the consequences if any significant component of the US government actually believed that the world was about to end and that its ending would be glorious.  The fact that nearly half of the American population apparently believes this, purely on the basis of religious dogma, should be considered a moral and intellectual emergency.

I don’t even want to get started on radical Islam’s commitment to Jihad, martyrdom, and three score and a dozen nubiles in paradise, so I’ll again defer to a man who is blessed with a far more eloquent turn of phrase:

The irony here is almost a miracle in its own right: the most sexually repressed people found in the world today – people who are stirred to a killing rage by reruns of Baywatch – are lured to martyrdom by a conception of paradise that resembles nothing so much as an al fresco bordello.

Apart from the terrible ethical consequences that follow from this otherworldliness, we should observe how deeply implausible the Koranic paradise is.  For a seventh-century prophet to say that paradise is a garden, complete with rivers of milk and honey, is rather like a twenty-first century prophet saying that it is a gleaming city where every soul drive a new Lexus.  A moment’s reflection should reveal that such pronouncements suggest nothing at all about the afterlife and much indeed about the limits of human imagination.

– Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and The Future of Reason

A rather less pleasant place

I could not finish a piece on this topic without a reference to the dark side of an afterlife: that of eternal punishment.  This is an utterly evil concept that has surely ruined the lives and peace of mind of many children and which some have said is a worse form of abuse than the mildest forms of physical and sexual abuse.

Hell

Before the first “Follow My Way” in March 2009, I had read extracts of the Koran as quoted by others, namely Sam Harris in The End of Faith and the excellent treatment by prolific secularist and anti-fascist blogger Edmund Standing on Butterflies and Wheels.

I had also purchased my own copy of Arthur J Arberry’s English translation of the Koran, but I had not read it in full.  I have now done so, cover-to-cover, and it was an appalling experience.  I am currently in the middle of writing my own opinion on the Koran for this blog, but I can’t bring myself to complete the piece, because the prospect of re-reading the central text in greater detail is utterly unpalatable.

Every time I now see someone wearing traditional Muslim dress or facial hair, I can’t stop myself from wondering, “What do you really think about me as an unbeliever, an infidel, a kuffar?  What do you really believe is going to happen to me after I depart this life?  Given that it says on practically every page of your holy book – which you claim is a miracle explained only if it were authored by an omnipotent deity – that I as unbeliever will face a painful chastisement in hell, fire or Gehenna for all eternity?”

I have not had the chance to ask this question of a believing Muslim myself yet, but I would certainly ask it of the Muslim apologist were I speaking on the night.

For the one life we do have

How’s this for an ending?

We’re all doomed.  One way or another we all end up dead.  The party will go on without us and we won’t be able to look down on it from on high.  The human race will go extinct one day.  Maybe at its own hands.  Certainly if the religious fanatics attempting to acquire apocalyptic nuclear weaponry while I write get their way.

But if we don’t finish each other off, then disease, famine or tempest ought to do the trick.  And our goose will be well and truly cooked in about half a billion years time when our sun runs out of hydrogen and swells up into a red giant and consumes half the solar system.  And if there’s anything left of us after all that, then the Andromeda Galaxy, which you can see now in the night sky on a direct collision course with the Milky Way and will be upon us in [theatrical glance at wrist watch] ooooh… four billion years time.

If that doesn’t do it for us, then maybe I’m wrong and there is a God!

We have but a few short precious years of consciousness.  But try to make it count.   Try to enjoy the time you have.  And above all, try to help other people enjoy their time as well.

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.  Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born.  The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara.  Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton.  We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people.  In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

– Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and The Appetite for Wonder

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.