Friday, July 31, 2009

"free to profess and by argument to maintain"

Two of the most prominent of the so-called New Atheists have finally gotten it off their chests: they are now both clearly on the record in favor of outright religious intolerance in general and discrimination in hiring on the basis of religious beliefs in particular.

Richard Dawkins, an internationally known scientist, author and social and political activist says that Francis Collins, a colleague of his in the biological sciences who happens to be Presbyterian, should be barred from being appointed to head the American NIH purely because of Collins' religious views: "by the very fact that he is capable of holding such beliefs at all"!

Meanwhile here in the United States (Dawkins is British and, therefore, perhaps unfamiliar with the freedoms we assume over here) noted American author Sam Harris has also very publicly opposed Collins' nomination, again purely and solely on the grounds of the man's religious beliefs. In Harris' OpEd piece in the New York Times, he refers to Collins' religious beliefs in every single paragraph yet neither the phrase "religious tolerance" nor even just the word "tolerance" appears anywhere. Nor is there any mention of the constitutional provisions for freedom of religion and freedom of expression. It is probably wise on Harris' part to avoid any discussion or even an oblique reference to such things, for there is no way to reconcile what he and Dawkins are saying with the words of Thomas Jefferson:
No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship or ministry or shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief.

But all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion.
Dawkins and Harris have reached the point of explicitly rejecting one of the most basic principles of any truly democratic society. They oppose not just freedom of religion, but freedom of thought itself. For what are the "religious opinions and belief" that Jefferson refers to if not the thoughts and ideas of an individual human being? And all of Dawkins' and Harris' arguments boil down to the fact that they don't like the way Collins thinks.

Here is a point that bears repeating and repeating: to criticize Francis Collins' religious ideas is one thing, to demand that he be barred from holding a prominent position of public trust because of his ideas is a completely different matter. Another great American patriot, Thomas Paine, was as ferocious a critic of Christianity as ever lived:
Of all the systems of religion that ever were invented, there is none more derogatory to the Almighty, more unedifying to man, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory in itself, than this thing called Christianity. Too absurd for belief, too impossible to convince, and too inconsistent for practice, it renders the heart torpid, or produces only atheists and fanatics. As an engine of power, it serves the purpose of despotism; and as a means of wealth, the avarice of priests; but so far as respects the good of man in general, it leads to nothing here or hereafter.
[The Age of Reason, Part 2, Chapter III]
But Paine saw no contradiction, because there is none, in also writing that
As to religion, I hold it to be the indispensable duty of all government, to protect all conscientious profession thereof, and I know of no other business which government hath to do therewith.... Suspicion is the companion of mean souls, and the bane of all good society. For myself, I fully and conscientiously believe, that it is the will of the Almighty, that there should be a diversity of religious opinions among us.
[Common Sense, January 10, 1776]
Unfortunately, there are people who strongly disagree with Jefferson and Paine, and agree instead with Dawkins and Harris.

PZ Myers, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota, and an outspoken New Atheist is willing to goes so far as to question whether or not any "devout Christians" should be allowed to hold any "positions of power" whatsoever!! At the same time Myers tries to cover his bigotry by claiming that his opposition to Collins' nomination has nothing to do with Collins' religion, rather it is becaues Collins is a "science denier", although Myers cannot name one bit of "science" that Francis Collins has ever "denied".

Russell Blackford, on the other hand, nicely demonstrates that it is possible to criticize Collins' religious views and still not propose to blacklist him on that basis. Blackford does not hold back from critiquing Collins in even greater detail than Harris did in his NYT piece, but then Blackford says this:
For all that, I do not think that Collins should be disqualified from appointment as director of the NIH. First, it is unlikely that this one appointment will have significant adverse effects on scientific attempts to understand human nature, and Collins may well find ways to reconcile (at least in his own mind) his Christian image of the world and whatever findings emerge in future from the field of neuroscience. The problem is not so much that biomedical research will be hindered in any significant way by this particular appointment.

Moreover, Collins is clearly qualified for the job, having worked successfully as head of the Human Genome Project. If he were disqualified, we would have to disqualify huge numbers of other people who combine strong scientific backgrounds with religious beliefs. It wouldn't end with the directorship of the National Institutes of Health, but would apply to many other high-level roles in public policy management. Vast numbers would be ruled out of contention. That is just too unpalatable, politically, to be realistic. No doubt there comes a point where a candidate's religious beliefs clash so plainly with established scientific theories that it is untenable to offer him or her a senior post involving science policy. But a great deal of latitude must be allowed before that point is reached. To act otherwise is totally unrealistic and politically unacceptable in any society that gives (even) lip service to ideas of social pluralism, freedom of religion, etc., let alone in the religiose United States of America.
His argument in this regard could not be more straightforward. Blackford thinks that Collins' attempts to reconcile Christianity with science result in a "contrived and implausible hodge-podge." But, along with Collins' scientific credentials, which Sam Harris himself characterizes as "impeccable", Blackford takes into consideration precisely those themes of tolerance and freedom that Dawkins, Harris and PZ Myers ignore altogether, and, as a result, Blackford concludes that attacks on Collins' nomination, to the extent they are motivated by disapproval of Collins' religious beliefs, are "unacceptable in any society that gives (even) lip service to ideas of social pluralism, freedom of religion, etc."

On the other hand PZ Myers is far from being alone in his lockstep approval of the New Atheist party line. Jerry Coyne writes in his blog that it "isn't exactly true" to say that Harris opposes Collins' nomination simply because Collins is a Christian. Coyne insists that Collins professes an especially objectionable variety of Christianity (which turns out to be Presbyterianism), and not only that, but Collins espouses his bizarre Presbyterian ideas in a way that is too "public" and "vociferous" for Coyne's tastes.

Coyne also writes that "Collins pollutes science with religion", and then tells us just why Francis Collins must be stopped before he causes even greater harm:
By speaking with the authority of a scientist, by discussing science at length, and above all by describing in the same talk the evidence for evolution and the “evidence” for God, acting as if they are of similar epistemic significance, he is confusing his audiences about the nature of evidence and the nature of science.
You see, the Jerry Coynes of this world see it as their right and duty to protect us from the "confusion" that results from someone like Collins being allowed to spew his polluting, Presbyterian ideas in public. Even more "disquieting" and "distressing" and "scary" is that "Collins is an affable and genial speaker" and "a smart man", and, therefore, even more likely to cause "confusion"! For some reason Coyne neglects to mention that the reactionary fundamentalist Collins, in addition to being affable, genial and smart also plays guitar and rides a motorcycle! I mean, how confusing is that!?

But at least Coyne seems to have remembered, vaguely, something about the first amendment, perhaps from a high school civics class long ago. For whatever reason he declines to follow the logic of his own argument, only just barely refraining from explicitly opposing Collins' appointment. But it is, in my opinion, "disquieting" and "distressing" that Coyne ends with a warning to Collins. Indeed, Coyne wants the world to know that he is sick and tired of "religious scientists who insist on publicly harmonizing their faith with science." And if Collins "continues to go around giving talks" about his religious ideas, then Coyne will no longer "give him the benefit of the doubt."

Is it just me, or is there something disturbingly familiar in Coyne's squeamishness about "religious scientists" who insist on parading their polluted intellectual perversions in public (and on youtube!) where everyone can see, resulting in "confusion"? You see, Coyne is a liberal minded fellow and all, but people have to act responsibly and decently in public, and if they don't, well, then they will no longer be given the benefit of the doubt! Coyne doesn't really mind what Collins believes in the privacy of his own home, but the sight of those "religious scientists" doing, well ... whatever it is that they do, well, it just -- it just isn't right! It's distressing, disquieting, and downright disgusting. Why the next thing you know, those "religious scientists" will be demanding "special rights"!!


josef said...

I suppose I'm guilty of going after the low-hanging fruit in the blogosphere for even dignifying this with a response, but here goes:

There is a colossal difference between (1) believing someone's opinion is faulty (2) believing in principle that someone should not have the right to expression of an opinion.

The former is essential to healthy discourse, the latter antithetical. The former you'll find in Harri's op-ed. The latter, you won't.

Harris's argument was not against Collin's right to profess his belief, it was against the specific, substantive faults contained therein:

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?

If you openly advocate that human moral capacities cannot be researched by science, why would you fund research?

Collins can be as Christian as he wants. If part of his belief is fundamentally incompatible with science and reality (which it is), that's his problem. If, however, he operates from that belief while presiding over one of the world's most authoritative bodies on the advancement of science, it becomes everyone's problem.

Collins defines his own interpretation of Christianity such that it is inherently in conflict with science. There are plenty of other Christian scientists who can separate their faith from their work and be qualified for the position. Harris's criticism is that Collins isn't one of them.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Sam Harris concedes that Collins has "impeccable credentials".

It is only Collins ideas and beliefs that Harris objects to.


josef said...

You're trying to make "credentials" mean something it doesn't mean. From wikipedia:

Examples of credentials include academic diplomas, academic degrees, certifications, security clearances, identification documents, badges, passwords, user names, keys, powers of attorney, and so on. Sometimes publications, such as scientific papers or books, may be viewed as similar to credentials by some people, especially if the publication was peer reviewed or made in a well-known journal or reputable publisher.

It's not synonymous with being the right person for the job. You can, despite credentials, hold beliefs that are of direct relevance to your qualification for a job.

... and then there's the other 99% of my comment that you didn't respond to.