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Francis Collins on Atheism

The Point of Inquiry podcast recently aired a very interesting interview between D.J. Grothe and Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the Human Genome Project and a devout evangelical Christian. In the interview, Collins discusses the intersection of science and religious faith, whether belief in God is a scientific hypothesis, and the attacks on religion by Richard Dawkins and other prominent atheist scientists.

Dr. Collins is a superlative scientist, and his published work is beyond reproach. Sequencing the human genome is undoubtedly among the greatest scientific achievements of all time, rivaling the original discovery of DNA itself for importance. Not only was this a tremendous leap forward in our own self-understanding, it also promises immense practical benefits that may save countless lives, including the keys to fighting hereditary disease and the prospect of medicine custom-tailored to each individual's genetic makeup.

So, Francis Collins is an intelligent, accomplished scientist: about this there can be no doubt. This makes it all the more surprising that his arguments for the existence of God were so outright terrible. Without exception, his case was shallow, poorly thought out, and in many places plainly fallacious or flatly contradicted by evidence. His arguments against atheism indulged in many typical apologist fallacies, including the blatant use of straw men that bear little or no similarity to the actual positions of real atheists.

I recommend listening to the whole podcast, but to get a sense of what I mean, here are some highlights:


8:45: "[Atheism] assumed that the atheist knows so much as to be able to exclude, within their own band of knowledge, the possibility of something outside of nature, namely God. That seemed to be a pretty arrogant position, a position of some hubris, for anybody to take and certainly not one that you could defend on rational grounds."

Almost right out of the gate, Collins resorts to the time-worn "you'd have to search the whole universe to know there's no god" apologetic. This comment demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of atheism, as well as a fallacious attempt to shift the burden of proof onto disbelievers. Anyone who makes a positive claim has the obligation to support that claim with evidence. If no evidence is provided, then the rest of us are fully justified in disbelieving it, and this holds especially true where evidence is missing when it should be present. We do not need to search the cosmos for proof positive of God's nonexistence; we can merely observe that no one has yet provided evidence remotely compelling enough to support such an extraordinary possibility.


11:08: "A purely naturalistic worldview is impoverished in certain important ways. It basically says some questions are just out of order, like 'What's the meaning of life?' and 'Why are we here?' and 'Is there a god?' If you're going to insist upon a 'fundamentalist' brand of atheism, which is the brand that I think we hear from people like Dawkins and Harris, then basically you are saying those are not questions that are worth asking."

This is a grossly ignorant mischaracterization of atheism. No atheist I've ever known or heard of has ever said that questions about the meaning of life are "out of order". On the contrary, we discuss them routinely and repeatedly emphasize that humanism can give answers to these questions that are at least as satisfying as any answer offered by religion. (Grothe did rightly chide Collins for this obvious falsehood.) Most especially, we do not believe that the question "Is there a god?" is "not worth asking". It should be too obvious to bear saying that the reason we are atheists is precisely because we have asked this question and consider it answered in the negative.


13:30: "I began to read what some of the great minds of the last many centuries have contemplated... some of those thoughts caught me up short, because they raised issues I'd never really seriously considered. Most prominently amongst those thinkers was the Oxford scholar C.S. Lewis... He outlines those [reasons] in a little book called Mere Christianity, which I would challenge any atheist to look at seriously and see whether those arguments in that book can be easily refuted. I don't think they can."

I have read and reviewed Mere Christianity, and yes, it can be easily refuted. It is a shallow and ill-considered bit of apologetic fluff. Lewis' main argument is that all human cultures have had essentially the same moral code, which could only be the case if God had installed it in us. He breezily ignores the fact that all cultures throughout history have not had the same moral code, but differed in many drastic ways about the nature of moral behavior. If Collins takes his cue from Lewis, this would go a long way toward explaining his similarly vacuous theology.


18:20: "Why do the atheists insist that we should get over religion and try to be good to each other? Who cares about being good? If they're right, we should all shrug off the whole idea and be just as darn selfish as we possibly can."

Again, Collins drags out the old fallacies. This time it's, "If there is no god, then there's no morality and we should all go on killing sprees." Again, as opposed to his uninformed criticisms, atheists have given great thought and in-depth discussion to this topic, and many nonbelievers have proposed secular foundations for morality.


24:00: "Science essentially has to remain silent on the real, fundamental question of 'Is there a god?' There may be clues from nature that are more consistent with God's existence than not, but it's not really a scientific question."

We can clearly see here how Collins wants to have it both ways. He wants to claim that science offers evidence supporting the existence of God, but whenever there's evidence presented against the evidence of God, he draws back and declares that this is not a scientific question. Which is it, Dr. Collins? Either this is not a scientific question, in which case science can offer no evidence either way and belief in God is purely a matter of faith; or it is a scientific question, in which case it can be answered in the negative as well as in the positive. (I myself believe that the existence of God as conceived of by most religions is most certainly a testable claim, and one that has been tested and found wanting.)


26:45: "By applying the scientific method to religious claims, you're committing, I think, a logical fallacy." [Collins recounts a parable about a scientist who sweeps the ocean with a three-inch-mesh net and goes on to conclude, based on what he found in the net, that nothing lives in the ocean which is smaller than three inches.]

As an analogy for God, this is utterly inappropriate. With this or any other scientific study, one can always point out the limitations of the original study and propose a new one that rules out those sources of error. What Collins is proposing is something completely different: an entity whose existence can never be detected by any empirical investigation.

A better analogy to Collins' view would be if the ocean survey was done, and the scientist's critics accuse him of incompleteness because, they say, there are fish that live in the ocean that are intangible. No matter how fine a net you use, they can pass immaterially through it, so the scientist failed to catch any of them and incorrectly left them out of his catalogue of ocean life. Such a claim would, of course, beg the question of how the claimant could know that these fish exist in the first place.

Collins makes one more final, telling comment that I can't let pass. He says that when he was young and an atheist, he assumed that faith was "something that people arrived at by childhood indoctrination or maybe some emotional experience". He then says that he finally investigated for himself and found that, to his amazement, there was a "compelling and rational case to be made for God" that overwhelmed his skepticism.

Or so he says in this interview. How did he describe his own conversion on a different occasion?


...I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains on a beautiful fall afternoon. I turned the corner and saw in front of me this frozen waterfall, a couple of hundred feet high. Actually, a waterfall that had three parts to it — also the symbolic three in one. At that moment, I felt my resistance leave me. And it was a great sense of relief. The next morning, in the dewy grass in the shadow of the Cascades, I fell on my knees and accepted this truth — that God is God, that Christ is his son and that I am giving my life to that belief.

Collins' own conversion came about for the exact reason he himself assumed earlier in life: as the result of an emotional experience owing nothing to reason. (P.Z. Myers sarcastically asks, "If the waterfall had two parts, would he have converted to Zoroastrianism?") He assumed that people become believers for irrational reasons and then went on to prove it.

It's amusing how Collins, in describing his own conversion, tries to employ two stock apologist narratives which contradict each other. First he says that he was an atheist when he was younger, and I see no reason to doubt that, but he also says that he had never really thought about or investigated the topic until prior to his conversion. This second admission greatly weakens the first, for if it's true that he had never considered an intellectual defense of atheism, why should atheists who have studied the topic be impressed by his testimony? (When D.J. Grothe, to his credit, presses Collins on the obvious point that his lack of intellectual background in atheism made him "ripe for being plucked up" by proselytizers, he laughs and admits, "Perhaps so.")

The interview mentions that atheism is far more common in the scientific community than religious belief, and if Francis Collins is any sort of representative example, it's not hard to see why. He isn't a creationist, nor does he fall prey to the other forms of scriptural literalism that make most forms of fundamentalism laughable and demonstrably untrue. He's also a highly qualified scientist who should understand how to argue rationally and know how to recognize a fallacy. If anyone could present a respectable case for theism, I would expect that it would be him. But instead, all we get are the same tired old falsehoods about atheism, emotion substituting for evidence, and easily refuted apologetics. There really is nothing more to it than that.

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