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August 07, 2006

Science and Religion

I don't have a lot that's interesting to say about this, but Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project and possibly the most prominent theist in the hard sciences, has a long interview with Salon about how he marries religion and faith. I don't find all of it convincing, but nor do I find all of it unconvincing, and I think it's worthwhile for folks to read defenses of religion from an educated, complex perspective rather than the "cuz-the-Bible-sez-so" corner that so often gets raised up in the blogosphere. Moreover, it's rather nice to see a pointed critique of the sort of dogmatic atheism that too often passes for revealed truth because it cuts such a compelling contrast to James Dobson and Co.

August 7, 2006 | Permalink

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Comments

When did the meaning of complexity become "contradictory or lacking internal consistency?" Collins first argues that God and the supernatural cannot be plumbed by the scientific method then turns around and says the exact opposite. The title of his book even includes "the evidence for belief."

Posted by: Ü | Aug 7, 2006 2:23:41 PM

I think you must mean either "faith and science" or "science and religion," there.

Posted by: Julian Elson | Aug 7, 2006 2:59:32 PM

Anybody who relies on Mere Christianity as anything other than a damning exhibit of C.S. Lewis' circular logic should stick to biology rather than metaphysics.

I did a not-so-brief discussion of his interview on my site; epistemologically speaking, his evidence for God ("the spark that touched off the Big Bang") is about as compelling as the ancient's belief that God's hand actually blotted out the sun in a solar eclipse.

Posted by: norbizness | Aug 7, 2006 3:46:45 PM

Why is my disbelief in the Easter Bunny, the Trinity, Santa Claus, astrology, Zeus, and the Wonder Twins "dogmatic"?

Posted by: rilkefan | Aug 7, 2006 4:22:27 PM

Our hero comes right out and says, "[i]f God has any meaning at all, God is outside of the natural world" (no shock for a scientist whom reading CS Lewis converted). He goes wrong when he gets out of his depth on altruism, where the literature iirc has found a genetic component, as he does when he muses about various measured physical constants. He should have stuck to the original story.

For the record, the only time I get dogmatic as an atheist is when folks like you start generalizing about folks like me, usually to our detriment. You manage not to write nasty little asides about Catholics. Unless you're trolling for comments like this one, perhaps you should lay off the atheists as well.

Posted by: wcw | Aug 7, 2006 4:23:45 PM

You manage not to write nasty little asides about Catholics.

But he did manage to write this:

I think it's worthwhile for folks to read defenses of religion from an educated, complex perspective rather than the "cuz-the-Bible-sez-so" corner that so often gets raised up in the blogosphere. Moreover, it's rather nice to see a pointed critique of the sort of dogmatic atheism that too often passes for revealed truth because it cuts such a compelling contrast to James Dobson and Co.

"dogmatic atheism" vs. several examples of how intellecutally bankrupt and dogmatic the "faith" crowd usually is.

Gee, will Ezra never stop bashing on the poor atheists?

I understand that people are sick of how a particular version of Christianity is constantly shoved down all our throats.

As a "believer," I am incredibly sick of it. I'm sick of the distortions, sick of the attitude that baptizes fear, prejudice and hate as "Christian." I believe in the doctrine of the separation of Church and State not only for the sake of the State but also for the sake of the Church - I've got two dogs in this fight, and both of them mean a lot to me.

I'm also sick of how the comment thread of every blog post about religion quickly fills up with arrogant comments about how everyone who believes in any religion is stupid. How Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed and the Easter Bunny all rate the same on the believability scale.

I'm sick of all the people who are able to so easily dismiss any person, no matter their education, credentials or other contributions, merely because they have faith of some sort, just like I'm sick of those who wish to dismiss groups of people based upon their sexuality, or their lack of particular beliefs.

You don't believe in the supernatural? In any god? Fine. I believe differently, but not because I reject your position. In fact, I admit that an atheist position makes a lot of sense. I can understand perfectly why people would make that choice, and it really doesn't bother me.

But quit acting as if my choice to believe, made over and over again throughout my life, is indicative of a lesser intellect or gullibility.

And really, I don't think that the plight of atheists in the USA, who are generally well-educated and have higher-than-average incomes, is as bad as that of homosexuals or other minorities. The unlikelihood of an atheist even being elected "dogcatcher" is not the same as actual persecution, however irritating it may be.

Posted by: Stephen | Aug 7, 2006 5:08:30 PM

a deist's view:

you can't force faith or lack of faith on anyone. it's a personal thing that only can be figured out personally. You can talk about it, you can say I think this is good, but you can't force it. Where both atheists and Christians get in trouble is when they think through state action or public scolding they can push their views. Now admittedly the later is no where near as bad as the former. But I dont really see why people have a problem with a guy saying he both believes in God and can work as a scientists. if he is able to do it- why do you care? He's not saying he is performing bad science to do it. he's not saying he believes that intelligent design explains the human genome. He's saying thats what he believes. To which I respond as a deist, good for you. Of course, I say to the atheists and every one in between. It's not my job to get you to whatever spiritual belief you are suppose to have. If more people lived by this credo I think life would be a lot better (but then they maybe forcing stuff as well)??

Posted by: akaison | Aug 7, 2006 5:17:42 PM

ps before its miscrued- when i say later and former- i mean that state action is far worse than public scolding not whether christians or atheists are better because on any given day i say its a toss up a

Posted by: akaison | Aug 7, 2006 5:19:16 PM

Shorter Francis Collins: When I went to medical school I realized that I was going to die, maybe horribly. It freaked me out, but a believer once told me how having faith gave her the strength to deal with it and I wanted that strength too so I talked myself into it.

Posted by: moonbiter | Aug 7, 2006 6:47:55 PM

"But I dont really see why people have a problem with a guy saying he both believes in God and can work as a scientist"

I'm a physicist, and most of the people I work with are of course atheists, but I have no problem with my colleagues who believe in God, and I've never heard of a scientist having any sort of trouble openly (and politely) professing faith. As long as I don't get lectured about the dogmatism of my disbelief I'm fine with people's consistent-with-lawful-behaviour opinions about evidence-free matters.

Posted by: rilkefan | Aug 7, 2006 6:49:32 PM

it's funny- when i was pre med (god that was such a long time ago) most of my class mates were peo of faith in some form or another.

Posted by: akaison | Aug 7, 2006 8:01:18 PM

In re the "cuz-the-Bible-sez-so" corner that so often gets raised up in the blogosphere, I rather thought that that was a very pointed, specific critique of La Shawn Barber’s Corner and of its comparatively blinkered theology. I can attest that said worthy in fact does so often gets raised up.

While I sympathize with your feeling attacked, I have to note that the only direct insults to the faithful in that paragraph were either aimed at those specific hatemongers by name or by implication. That critique levelled at me and mine is absolutely general.

Posted by: wcw | Aug 7, 2006 10:14:29 PM

Excluding the Easter Bunny, why wouldn't Buddha and Mohammed rate on the same believability scale as Jesus, at least as supernatural claims go?

Posted by: norbizness | Aug 7, 2006 11:30:00 PM

I was going to say I thought it odd that a hard core scientist believe in virgin birth and resurrection and then I remembered the small miracles I have witnessed in my own life. And then I thought that those things I have seen didn't still didn't lead me to believe in virgin births and resurrections.

Posted by: Steve Mudge | Aug 8, 2006 12:00:04 AM

What dogmatic atheists? No one can seem to cough up the evidence for atheists who believe in "dogma". Maybe Raving Atheist, but he's converting to Christianity, to no one's surprise.

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | Aug 8, 2006 7:29:52 AM

Stephen - I whole heartedly agree.

What dogmatic atheists?

Since I re-embraced my faith last year, I have recieved e-mails and been slammed in comment threads for the stupidity of my faith. Even though I have not altered my political or cultural views I have been told my opinions are irrelevant by those who previously had agreed with me - simply because I am a Christian. A gay "friend" even went so far as to tell me it is sad to lose such a voracious defender of gay rights - even though I am just as angry as I have ever been about the lack of equality.

I should note though, that many of my deist and atheist friends have supported my decision to embrace my faith. A few like to debate me about it - but they still respect me and what I have to say.

Posted by: DuWayne | Aug 8, 2006 10:25:06 AM

While I sympathize with your feeling attacked

I assume this is in reference to my comment. I don't feel attacked. Perhaps that is why I can see that Ezra's comments are equally disparaging, if that's what we want to call it, of people on both sides of this issue.

Richard Dawkins is a high-profile dogmatic atheist. He has said that all religious instruction is child abuse. He cannot handle any religious belief, any faith from anyone in the world whatsoever. His work as an evolutionary biologist has suffered as a result, since one has to wade through his personal vendetta against religion in order to get anything else out of his writings.

But to say that he is a "dogmatic atheist" is not to suggest that he recites an Atheist's Creed on a regular basis, or that he has read or written an Atheistic Systematic Atheology. But he, and quite a few in the blogosphere (bloggers and commenters), do not brook dissent from the idea that religion is to be rejected wholeheartedly along with those who believe in religion.

The comments to this thread show several examples of those who are "dogmatic" in their rejection of religion and those who believe in one.

Again, I don't feel persecuted. The only way it really bothers me is how comments like these will give ammunition to those who say that the Left is hostile to religious belief.

While I agree that the problem is obviously not as bad as Obama and the entire right wing in this country would like to believe and is not as bad as what flows from "people of faith" to non-believers, that's not the point. A hallmark of being a lefty in this country is not believing that the poor actions of those who oppose us justify our own poor actions.

Posted by: Stephen | Aug 8, 2006 10:34:42 AM

You should read P. Z. Myers's takedown of the Salon interview. Now Myers is what you might really term a "dogmatic atheist", but he's spot on here .

Posted by: theophylact | Aug 8, 2006 11:08:18 AM

" He has said that all religious instruction is child abuse. "

No, he's said that specifically the British system of religious schools, and more generally the assigning of religious identities to pre-rational children, is child abuse. In his own words: " How can you possibly describe a child of four as a Muslim or a Christian or a Hindu or a Jew? Would you talk about a four-year-old economic monetarist? Would you talk about a four-year-old neo-isolationist or a four-year-old liberal Republican? There are opinions about the cosmos and the world that children, once grown, will presumably be in a position to evaluate for themselves. Religion is the one field in our culture about which it is absolutely accepted, without question — without even noticing how bizarre it is — that parents have a total and absolute say in what their children are going to be, how their children are going to be raised, what opinions their children are going to have about the cosmos, about life, about existence. Do you see what I mean about mental child abuse?"

Now you can disagree with his rhetoric, but surely you will concede that he has something of a point.

As for Collins, see Pharyngula for a "dogmatic" atheist's takedown. As Ü says, Collins tries to have it both ways by saying that God is by definition outside nature and thus untestable and yet later he says that God can be proven by nature. PZ retorts that if God has consequences in the natural world those consequences will be available to science. If She doesn't, they won't.

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Aug 8, 2006 11:13:23 AM

Ginger,

I fail to see how Dawkins was referring specifically to "the British system of religious schools."

To say that "assigning of religious identities to pre-rational children is child abuse" is absurd.

Parents make all sorts of decisions for their children. They decide their child's diet, clothes, activities, schools, friends, sleeping patterns, entertainment choices, doctor, medicines and much, much more.

To suggest that raising one's child within the faith of the parent is similar to assigning the "identity" of economic monetarist is to grossly misunderstand not only the nature of religious belief and the proper role of parents, but also to confuse one's occupation with one's own identity.

Perhaps Dawkins has wrapped his entire identity with being an evolutionary biologist, or perhaps with being a virulently anti-religion evolutionary biologist. How sad for him. But his misunderstanding of what it means to be a human being should not be the basis for anyone's ideas about the proper way to raise a child.

I know that there are people who believe I am "abusing" my child by feeding her meat - I know this because I have spoken with some. They can believe that if they want, but they should have no ability to dictate what I feed my child. Just as no one should be able to dictate to another whether a child is raised in a particular faith tradition or none at all.

Does Dawkins suggest that he does not have "a total and absolute say in what their children are going to be, how their children are going to be raised, what opinions their children are going to have about the cosmos, about life, about existence," that he somehow is able to be a father without raising his children to be atheists? Is he raising them to be Southern Baptists or Hindus?

How exactly does one keep from raising a child within the contructs of one's own belief? Does Dawkins suggest that children should be raised with no thought to ethical behavior, so that they can, at an appropriate time, choose the ethical system that best represents their particular personality?

Rubbish.

Posted by: Stephen | Aug 8, 2006 11:33:27 AM

"I fail to see how Dawkins was referring specifically to "the British system of religious schools"

Well, the bit before the bit I quoted went like this:"I do feel very strongly about the way children are brought up. I'm not entirely familiar with the way things are in the United States, and what I say may have more relevance to the United Kingdom, where there is state-obliged, legally-enforced religious instruction for all children. That's unconstitutional in the United States, but I presume that children are nevertheless given religious instruction in whatever particular religion their parents deem suitable.

Which brings me to my point about mental child abuse. In a 1995 issue of the Independent, one of London's leading newspapers, there was a photograph of a rather sweet and touching scene. It was Christmas time, and the picture showed three children dressed up as the three wise men for a nativity play. The accompanying story described one child as a Muslim, one as a Hindu, and one as a Christian. The supposedly sweet and touching point of the story was that they were all taking part in this Nativity play.

What is not sweet and touching is that these children were all four years old. "

Stephen: "They decide their child's diet, clothes, activities, schools, friends, sleeping patterns, entertainment choices, doctor, medicines and much, much more."

And if you were to repeatedly send your child to school naked, or to feed him/her raw meat, or any number of other choices, he/she would be taken into care.

"To suggest that raising one's child within the faith of the parent is similar to assigning the "identity" of economic monetarist is to grossly misunderstand not only the nature of religious belief and the proper role of parents, but also to confuse one's occupation with one's own identity."

An economic monetarist is not an occupation but a politic-economic stance. Dawkins's point is that it would be absurd to call a four year old a socialist, and abusive to impose on them a particular political viewpoint. Is it not equally absurd, he says, to impose a religious viewpoint on them before they have any capacity to think about it for themselves? Isn't the whole point of the "Give me a child of seven..." strategy to get to children before they can think for themselves and while they are still very receptive to the perceived authority of adults?

"How exactly does one keep from raising a child within the contructs of one's own belief? "

By saying "This is what I believe, and these are the reasons why", instead of "This is the truth, and you must believe it".

"Does Dawkins suggest that children should be raised with no thought to ethical behavior, so that they can, at an appropriate time, choose the ethical system that best represents their particular personality?"
No, he suggests that children should be raised with an awareness of what goes into ethics, rather than having an ethical system imposed top down, so that they can at an appropriate time choose the ethical system that best reflects their understanding of the world. The contrasting experience of religion with politics is instructive - many if not most children have different politics from their parents.

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Aug 8, 2006 12:20:04 PM

The contrasting experience of religion with politics is instructive - many if not most children have different politics from their parents.

Or it could be that religion is different than politics.

By saying "This is what I believe, and these are the reasons why", instead of "This is the truth, and you must believe it".

This does happen, I suppose. But even in fundie circles it is so rare as to be nothing more than a clumsily constructed strawman.

People don't raise their kids this way. Even in fundie households, family life does not consist of a series of propositional statements over which the acceptance of every member is expected.

All parents raise their children within the ethical/religious system in which they believe. Period. There is no exclusion from this, regardless of how a-theistic one is. Your distinction between what you consider appropriate and inappropriate values-transmission is so fine I wonder if you cut yourself while typing it.

I have long learned to aknowledge and admit the idiots who claim to share my system of beliefs. I find it easier to reduce their impact upon my own beliefs. One can reject the narrowminded, judgmental, extremist rhetoric from the fanatical Richard Dawkins without having to turn in one's Atheist Card. Once free from his idiotic fanaticism, it will probably become easier to live not only as an atheist but as an atheist in the midst of those who do not share that view.

Posted by: Stephen | Aug 8, 2006 3:39:46 PM

Yes, Stephen, that comment was aimed at yours. I find it instructive that you helpfully provide our host with the name of an actual, dogmatic atheist to criticize. If Ezra had named an atheist equivalent of Barber or Dobson instead of making his generalized crack, I wouldn't have felt slighted.

Thanks for doing him the favor, and for implicitly accepting my critique.

Posted by: wcw | Aug 8, 2006 4:41:23 PM

Oh, my goodness Ginger. Dawkin's argument, taken to it's logical conclusion, would mean telling your child there is no god, there is nothing after we die, would also be abusive.

The notion of raising a child without inundating said child with my belief system is just ridiculous. I find the notion of not teaching my child political views and religious beliefs to be abusive. It is my responsability as a parent to teach him everything I possibly can.

As I teach him about our government and how it works, inevitabley my political belief comes out. And I state my views as being the right ones because he depends on me to vote and represent not only me but him as well. I certainly am not going to tell him that I'm not sure I am making my decisions without the certainty I am making the right decision - unless it is to explain weighing the pros and cons of a referendum or candidate. And I do my best to make clear how I came to the beliefs I have. My son is only four (I love how appropriate that is here) but as he gets older we will go deeper and deeper into what's happening and what we can do to effect change or if we can.

As for religion. I take my son to church. I pray with him. I read the bible with him. I encourage him to pray when he's getting upset - to help fend off meltdowns - it has helped, he pauses, most likely realizes it's not worth it and catches it. I express all this as though it is true because I believe it is. Saying "this is what I believe, but other people believe that" would be like saying, "I believe this, but not really."

Does this mean he'll be a Christian or a left leaning radical? I hope so but that will be up to him and he may well become an atheist and conservative radical instead. I will certainly encourage and help him explore other views and beliefs but I will gauge my success as a parent on how closely he comes to what I believe in or, by his expression, changes them. That is not abusive - that is parenting.

Posted by: DuWayne | Aug 8, 2006 9:50:02 PM

I find it instructive that you helpfully provide our host with the name of an actual, dogmatic atheist to criticize. If Ezra had named an atheist equivalent of Barber or Dobson instead of making his generalized crack, I wouldn't have felt slighted.

Thanks for doing him the favor, and for implicitly accepting my critique.

While I did not name anyone from the comment thread I mentioned, there are several there for the picking.

I suppose I could make a habit of collecting links to comment threads and such where ordinary people make outrageous, dogmatic - in the colloquial sense - claims regarding the superiority of atheism. But I don't have the time or desire, because it is not my intent to paint a picture of atheists as largely dogmatic, or bad, or having hairy armpits.

Thanks for . . . for implicitly accepting my critique.

That is so far outside the realm of logic that I have no way to reply. I don't mean to be rude. I just can't understand how you could possibly think that.

Posted by: Stephen | Aug 8, 2006 10:08:14 PM

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