Francis Collins is Confused

I just don’t get it. On one hand, Francis Collins is clearly a bright guy and an established researcher. He headed the Human Genome Project, for cryin’ out loud. He’s an evangelical Christian, which I personally don’t care about one way or the other, as long as his beliefs remain his personal beliefs. An article in the Washington Post, however, has me wondering what he’s thinking.

Certainly Dr. Collins is one of the more prominent advocates for the compatibility of science and religion. On one hand I admire that. Many of the extreme religious conservative persuasion have set up a false dichotemy, setting modern science against belief. A handful on the other side have followed suit, asserting that modern science does, in fact, argue against belief. Personally I am of the persuasion that the two are compatible, as I have held a number of different religious/philosophical outlooks in my life and never found any of them to be in conflict with science. But that is neither here nor there. The take-home message from Collins is:

But his most complete argument for God appears in a new book, “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief,” which addresses two radically divergent audiences:

He tells fellow evangelicals that opposition to evolution — whether based in the biblical literalism of creationists or “intelligent design” arguments — undermines the credibility of faith. He finds the first line of thought “fundamentally flawed” and says the second builds upon gaps in evidence that scientists are likely to fill in.

I cannot disagree. He is spot-on. But then he also makes some statements that are downright insulting to nonbelievers:

He asks scientific skeptics to investigate God with the same open-minded zeal they apply to the natural world, saying that there’s no incompatibility between belief and scientific rigor.

Come on, Frank. Do you actually believe that we scientific skeptics haven’t investigated the myriad religions with open minds? Do you believe that we were somehow raised in uber-rational atheist households, protected by Freethought Force Fields that repelled religious memes? I’m actually insulted, because the suggestion here seems to be that one can only truly investigate religion with an open mind if one comes to the same conclusion that Francis did!

Surveys have indicated that 40 percent of scientists are religious, Collins said, but “if 40 percent of my own scientific colleagues are believers in a personal God, they’re keeping pretty quiet about it.”

This is just malarky. Firstly, those scientists who are silent about religion do, in my experience, keep quiet about it precisely because they are believers in a personal God. My boss in graduate school, for example, was a devout Catholic who attends Mass every Sunday and still partakes in many of the responsibilities therein, while never feeling compelled to witness to anybody because she felt her relationship with her god was of a personal nature. Secondly, many religious scientists are definitely NOT quiet about their beliefs; other professors, postdocs, and students I know freely discuss their church activities and have invited me to some of them. This myth that scientists are silent about their religion is one that desperately needs to be overturned.

“For a scientist, it’s uncomfortable to admit there are questions that your scientific method isn’t going to be able to address,” he said. Besides, scientists are busy and focused — they often don’t take the time to explore “these more profound eternal questions.”

Huh? That makes no sense. He just cited a poll stating that 40% of scientists are religious! Clearly such a blanket statement cannot be made, as about half of scientists aren’t particularly uncomfortable being believes!
Look, Frank, I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but please don’t argue disingenuously to do it. When it comes to science, we’re on the same side.

15 Responses

  1. I read an interview of Francis Collins on the NOVA Science Now site a while back. He was more restrained and sensible in that interview. I wonder if the reporter doing the WaPo article extracted some statements that do not really represent what he thinks; or if he’s gotten more faith-based, less reality-based, over the years.

  2. Well… Although I’m not a believer myself, I do think that if skeptics “investigated the myriad religions with open minds” they would know that references to a “personal god” refer to the attributes of a diety (i.e., the diety is a person), not to the personal (i.e., individual) nature of belief. Maybe Collins has a point.

  3. If you think WaPo was bad, try News & Observer on the same topic.

  4. if skeptics “investigated the myriad religions with open minds” they would know that references to a “personal god” refer to the attributes of a diety (i.e., the diety is a person), not to the personal (i.e., individual) nature of belief.

    As if there was only one interpretation to the term. Like faith, it has multiple definitions that are swapped without warning. Here’s another:

    A personal god is one who takes an active interest in the world and in particular, the doings of his or her followers.

    Sure sounds like “nature of belief” to me. There are other, more stringent definitions that directly address the relationship with individuals, depending on the sect you’re a part of. Those definitions may refer to the bidirectional modes of communication with individual followers, including daily conversations with the divine through prayer and intervention in mortal lives through miracles.
    And you spelled ‘deity’ incorrectly.

  5. Evil Monkey –
    Sorry, but “taking an active interest,” etc., is meant to indicate the attributes of a person. Sure, words get used in a lot of different ways, but “personal god” has a pretty well entrenched standard use. I think if you asked Collins how he was using the term (and it was his use that sparked your comment, right?) you’d find that he was using it in the more or less standard way.

  6. Given that Collins is an evangelical who believes he has an intimate relationship with his deity and is in close communication with it, I don’t think that is necessarily the case.
    Regardless, you’re missing the original intent of my comment. When I say that scientists who believe in a personal god don’t talk about it because the belief is personal, I’m purposefully injecting the second meaning to make a point, not conflating the definition to obscure a point. The religious scientists I know believe their communication with the Almighty is a very closely held, private belief, and to “pimp” that belief would be an injustice to their god. Hence, they make a conscious decision not talk about it. There is no conflict with the “standard” definition of personal God here.

  7. Sorry again, but if Collins is, indeed, an evangelical, then he is committed to what you call “pimping” his belief (BTW, I view this as one of the least palatable aspects of evangelicalism). And I’ll stand by my original point, which is that Collins might have a point.

  8. Bob, are not reading what I’m typing? I’m not disagreeing that Collins is pimping his beliefs. He certainly is. Which was the whole point of this post. What I am saying is that other scientists don’t pimp theirs. The reason they don’t is because “personal God” encompasses more to these scientists than just “having attributes; not a detached, deistic God”.
    Having lived in North Carolina for eight years I can attest to the fact that when religous scientists say “personal” they mean it in every sense of the word, not the vague catch-all apologist’s definition you’re referring to. A “personal God” is a god they talk to, who listens to them, who helps them, who guides their decisions. This relationship, real or not, is very important to them. Likely Collins would agree with me, having spent a good deal of his life in the same neck of the woods. What Collins and I would disagree on is whether pushing that relationship on others is disrespectful. The part that Collins doesn’t get is that most religious scientists probably agree with you and I regarding evangelism, not him. Most religious scientists are quite humble.

  9. Collins will be on Diane Rehm show on NPR tomorrow.

  10. Good post, Dr. Monkey.

  11. On one hand, Francis Collins is clearly a bright guy and an established researcher. He headed the Human Genome Project, for cryin’ out loud.

    And dragged his tail so badly he had half his lunch eaten by J. Craig Venter.

  12. Evangelism isn’t to my taste either, and I agree with your point about keeping it “personal” when it comes to one’s professional lives, but you seem to be saying he should *never* be allowed to evangelize, simply because he’s a scientist. If he were pushing it in the classroom or in his academic articles, that’s one thing, but to push it in a book for a popular audience is another. Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett do much the same thing with their atheist tracts. (I don’t know much about Collins’s book, but I assume it’s partly a response to folks like those.)
    Regarding your statement, “Come on, Frank. Do you actually believe that we scientific skeptics haven’t investigated the myriad religions with open minds?” — sadly, I think Collins is right here. Perhaps you’re lucky to have encountered a lot of thoughtful, well-read science types. In my field at least (computer science), such open minds tend to be rarer.

  13. I am definitely not saying he shouldn’t evangelize because he’s a scientist. However, he does it so poorly that I feel compelled to point out that what he says is bullshit. My personal opinion is that he went religious for very shallow reasons and he seems to project a similarly shallow view of scientists who chose secular lives. There is a lot more to his message that I don’t necessarily have a problem with outside of the metaphysical realm.
    Thoughtful, well-read science types seem to be more the norm from what I’ve experienced. It isn’t like we all grew up in atheist/agnostic households. Many of us were religious, studied our religion in church-related activities growing up and also in college, and rejected religion for intellectual reasons. Dunno about computer scientists. They’re a whole different breed of geeky. But keep in mind that just because somebody is closeminded about it now doesn’t mean they were during a deconversion process. In fact, a deconversion necessitates a degree of openmindedness.

  14. I am always surprised when I see people continuing to argue about God. God is not an issue which it is possible to verify or test in any scientific sense, because no one who believes in God will say that God is in the natural world, composed of the elements which make up the natural world.
    Believing in God has to do entirely with one’s interest in a story or system of images which are not true in a scientific sense but may be True as a matter of faith – that is I feel better having this belief and I am not really interested in trying to prove it because I Believe it.
    Belief is only connected with scientific truth by the interest of the believer in holding beliefs which are scientifically congruent. Not everyone has this interest, and I am not going to fight with anyone who is a Believer, because none of my Naturalist arguments would make any difference to Belief. As long as the Believer does not try to deny me the right to hold my scientific knowledge as a priorty in my life, I am willing to let him alone, even though I would hope that eventually we can have a world in which supernatural belief is seen as inappropriate.

  15. Always with the false dichotomy between “science” and “faith”. Science is an independent process of observing, testing, and categorizing the natural world. It is irrational to expect it to answer philosophical or “meaning” questions about human existence, any more than a hammer can explain why the house was built. Data is pure — interpretation is where it gets dirty. It all depends on who’s lens you’re looking through. It would be helpful to stop using the term faith to describe “religious” people — it takes just as much “faith” to subscribe to the multiverse theory or abiogenisis since neither can be observed or tested (which should be possible if “the cosmos is all there is” and everything can be explained in naturalistic terms)
    Collins is either schizoid in believing two mutually exclusive truth claims, or intellectually corrupt, refusing to follow his philosophical journey to it’s logical end. Or more likely, politically correct, since there’s no way he’d be head of NIH if he copped to being a classic Creationist. Particularly disappointing is the fact that DNA, Collins’ speciality, is the most authoritative argument for Intelligent origin (information theory requires a sender and a receiver) and against common descent (Moleculer biological comparison destroys the ubiquitous “tree of life”)
    Darwinism owes it existence to atheistic thought. Trying to reconcile it with Creationism is like trying to marry dark and light.

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