Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Should Francis Collins be blacklisted for being a Christian?

Back in the day, "Atheism" always had such a reliably subversive ring to it. Atheists were freethinkers, opponents of bigotry, sworn enemies of hypocrisy. But for the last several decades a certain faction of the Atheist camp has been working very hard to distance themselves from their laudably subversive legacy and to "go mainstream". This trend has been around for a while, going back at least to James Randi and Martin Gardner.

But the "New Atheists" hardly deserve to be categorized along with Randi and Gardner, who for all their faults, are nevertheless men of intelligence, wit and genuine talent. The defining characteristics of the New Atheists, on the other hand, are their humorless bellicosity and predictable, obnoxious evangelizing.

The roots of the New Atheist phenomenon go back to the 1970's, when CSICOP, the "Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal and Other Phenomena" was formed. Since that time these proselytizing atheists have focused their energy and attention on (1) influencing the mainstream media, and (2) attempting to silence and ostracize any scientist who publicly professes religious views. Sam Harris' NYT piece attacking Francis Collins nicely combines both of these, and provides a textbook example of a leading New Atheist in action. (For those who don't know, Francis Collins, the former head of the Human Genome Project who also happens to be an evangelical Christian, has been nominated by President Obama to head up the National Institutes of Health.)

Harris makes it absolutely clear that, in his own words, Francis Collins' "credentials are impeccable", and that the only reason for opposing Collins' nomination is that Collins' religious beliefs "should be of concern."

Don't get me wrong. I think that Collins', or anyone else's, religious ideas are fair game. That is to say, if there is something about Collins' religion that Sam Harris doesn't like, then Harris has every right in the world to criticize Collins on that basis.

But criticizing someone's beliefs is completely different from demanding that the person in question be blacklisted on the basis of those beliefs. Having a democratic society that is committed to freedom of religion and freedom of expression requires both the freedom to hold and express whatever religious beliefs one likes, and the freedom to express criticisms of beliefs one disagrees with. In practice, though, these freedoms are meaningless unless they are understood to absolutely guarantee freedom from discrimination based on one's religious beliefs.

Harris' indefensible "argument" is just an inversion of an old Christian canard from the days of the Enlightenment. Back then Christians routinely tried to stigmatize criticism of their religion by claiming that any such criticism, in and of itself, automatically constituted a sign of moral depravity . It was asserted at the time "that the atheist has no awareness of right and wrong, and no respect for justice", in the words of Jonathan Israel in his fascinating and monumental work Enlightenment Contested (p. 164). Today Sam Harris and his ilk similarly contend that any profession of any religious belief whatsoever is automatically a sign of an inability to "think like a scientist".

But where is the proof that Sam Harris knows how to think like a scientist? Does he, for example, provide any evidence that Collins' religious beliefs have interfered with his, or anyone else's, scientific research? Collins received his Ph.D. in Chemistry from Yale in 1974, and his M.D. in 1977. He has been involved in scientific research for almost 40 years. The "impeccable credentials" that Sam Harris dismisses as irrelevant include pioneering research in the genetics behind human diseases such as cystic fibrosis, leukemia, and Huntington's disease -- and that was before he was tapped to succeed James Watson as head of the Human Genome Project.

And while we're at it, just how did the religious beliefs of Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle interfere with their scientific research? Or, for that matter, Johannes Kepler, Joseph Priestly, Michael Faraday, or Max Planck?

The bottom line is: go ahead and exercise your first amendment right to criticize Collin's religious ideas all you like, but don't forget that the first amendment also guarantees Collins', and everyone else's, right to be free of any discrimination on the basis of religious beliefs.

Previously in this blog I offered a few suggestions with respect to formulating "A Pagan Response to the New Atheism". The first suggestion was:
1. Modern, western Pagans have a unique contribution to make to the critique of the New Atheists. We can point out both (a) where they are right, which is usually when they stick to the well-worn critiques of Christianity that go back to the Enlightenment and even back to classical antiquity, and (b) where they go wrong, which is pretty much any time they venture off that well-worn path. Nevertheless, in their blind hatred of everything religious, they often go overboard even in their critique of Christianity.

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