Thursday, July 30, 2009

Why they hate Francis Collins

I was curious to see how the crowd over at richarddawkins.net was reacting to the Collins nomination. What I found was that many of them are in agreement with Sam Harris that Francis Collins, and apparently all evangelical Christians, should be barred from holding the position of Director of NIH. Here are a number of the comments left by registered users at Dawkins' "Clear Thinking Oasis" on teh internets:

Monkeygut:
"someone holding such irrational beliefs is not the right person to run the NIH"

Scot Rafkin:
"Yes, he should be disqualified."

Cartomancer:
"It would be nice if scientists were not influenced by the cultures in which they grew up, but sadly such is not the case for all of them. It is those strong cultural predilections that make Collins unfit to head the NIH."

Scot Rafkin (again):
"Collins shouldn't be running the NIH even if he knows the science."

Crazycharlie
"he (Collins) will always be suspect in my opinion. It's a bias on my part I know but I can't help it."

squinky
"
I won't belabor my disgust with Collins."

mordacious1:
"
I have emailed both of my Senators requesting they vote against this nomination."

phil rimmer:
"If Collins maintains that evolution is purposeful then he sets himself out of the mainstream of scientific theory with this thumpingly unscientific, unproveable view. This is a SCIENTIFIC mark against him and can have repercussions on the decisions he may make."

j.mills:
"it's not just his science but his rationality that's in question."

Steve Zara:
"Francis Collins is a deluded ranting idiot who should not be allowed public use of a stapler, let alone all of USA health policy."

Enlightenme:
"
there's risk if this person is that nuts, sooner or later he's gonna prove to be incapable of reason in some other sphere."

gr8hands:
"We're not suggesting a religious litmus test, but a rationality litmus test. A logic litmus test."

As the last comment especially shows, some of these folks are squeamish about what they are proposing, so they insist there is no "religious litmus test", despite the fact that their supposed "rationality" litmus test automatically, and explicitly, excludes Collins on the basis of his religious beliefs.

Richard Dawkins himself weighs in with this: "Isn't he disqualified, not by whether or not he leaves his beliefs outside the laboratory and the committee room, but by the very fact that he is capable of holding such beliefs at all?"

So what is going on here? The Dawkins gang claims to be all about science, truth, reason, etc. But really it is nothing but a cult of personality headed up by a man who modestly thinks of himself as "The most formidable intellect in public discourse." Like all creepy personality cults, Dawkins' is based on blind acceptance of things that are not true. Of these beliefs, perhaps the one most tightly clung to is that "science and religion are incompatible."

To Dawkins, Harris & Co., when Francis Collins says "I believe" that statement alone, coming from a scientist of Collins' stature, constitutes the same kind of existential threat as the one faced by the Pope when Galileo pronounced "it moves". In both cases these are things that an eminent scientist must not be allowed to say, because, well, because ..... Because if such things are said by respected scientists, then they might actually have some validity!

And so Dawkins and Harris and their ilk must lead their droogies in the solemn ritual of the "two minute hate" with Francis Collins playing the part of Emmanuel Goldstein.

The purpose of such an exercise is not to change anyone's mind, but merely to reinforce the already established conditioned response. The bell is rung, the doggies drool.

The rantings of the New Atheists are not intended to appeal to reason, but to emotion. One can only engage in rational debate with those who are capable of reasoning, and by definition, according to Richard Dawkins, those "who are capable of holding such beliefs" as those held by Francis Collins, are thereby pronounced inherently incapable of any kind of reasoning or logic.

Without blinking, much less thinking, the loyal atheists eagerly accept what they are told to accept by their dear leaders: that one of the world's most acclaimed scientists is incapable of "thinking like a scientist"!

And speaking of loyal followers, Sam Harris, who is the Lieutenant Elroy Carpenter to Dawkins' Captain Binghamton, is the guy who really got this ball rolling with his NYT op-ed piece attacking Collins. Harris has actually had Collins in his sights for a while now. For those of you who don't know, he became completely unhinged when he wrote a review of Francis Collins' 2006 book The Language of God.

In the first paragraph of the review Harris calls the book "vile". In that opening paragraph Harris, a man who makes his living by writing, actually wrote this sentence about Collins: "He fails the way a surgeon would fail if he attempted to operate using only his toes." While spewing this kind of histrionic bilge, Harris actually proclaims that he speaks on behalf of all those who care "about the future of intellectual and political discourse in the United States."

In the second paragraph Harris predicts "lasting harm to our discourse" because of the evil Francis Collins and his vile book. Harris' concern for "our discourse" is getting a little creepy at this point - I half expect to hear him say something about an "international conspiracy to cause irreparable damage to our intellectual discourse and to sap and impurify our precious bodily fluids". But soon Harris has shifted to the main menu: mocking Collins' religious beliefs more directly.

Collins' personal account of a spiritual turning point in his life seems to be particularly offensive to Harris and many other New Atheists. They are especially appalled at the idea that anyone could find not only beauty in nature, but the image of the Divine in that beauty. Someone really needs to sit these boys down and explain to them the difference between Atheism and Philistinism, and also maybe introduce them to Plato while they're at it.

It is important to be clear about Sam Harris' motive in his review. It is not at all simply a matter of critiquing ideas he does not agree with. Harris is consumed by a Manichean megalomania that would give Girolamo Savonarola a run for his money. In addition to multiple dire warnings about the fate of "our discourse" we are also warned about grave dangers posed to "the stature of science in the United States" and even "the fate of American society" itself. Collins is not just wrong, he is not just guilty of "intellectual misconduct", he has brought discredit on us all: all Americans "should be ashamed" that such books are produced in our country!

Sam Harris, who isn't qualified to teach a remedial science class in middle school, nevertheless believes that he is qualified to weigh in on the intellectual merits of a man like Francis Collins. The sad fact is that Harris is almost completely innocent of any understanding of either science or religion, much less how they do or nor not relate to each other. The same is true, at least with respect to religion, for Richard Dawkins who basically brags about his ignorance of the world's many different religions in his The God Delusion, a book whose title instantly reveals just how myopically ethnocentric Dawkins' grasp of "religion" is.

Harris and Dawkins share a simple agenda: to stigmatize ideas they don't agree with and to ostracize the people who hold those ideas, especially those who dare to actively promote those ideas. In doing so these "New Atheists" besmirch the good name of atheists who have traditionally been champions of religious tolerance and diversity. And the New Atheists actually help provide ammunition to the very Christians they attack, who already whine on cue and howl "intolerance!" anytime someone makes a legitimate criticism of their religion.

And that is a point that shouldn't be lost in all this. There is absolutely nothing wrong with criticizing Francis Collins' religious beliefs. In fact, many of the basic tenets of Christian theology, including (but not limited to) the Trinity, the Incarnation, Creation Ex Nihilo, Eternal Damnation, and Original Sin, are demonstrably illogical and in some cases arguably offensive. But those who can't tell the difference between critiquing a person's beliefs and blacklisting people from government jobs on the basis of their beliefs, are in no position to decry, even if they were able to recognize, the logical or moral failings of others.

2 comments:

annyikha said...

Thank you for writing this post. My mom's boyfriend, who is an atheist, bought The God Delusion for me, but I put it down after the first chapter because I have a distaste for Witnessing literature.

So, just to clarify a few things ... the New Atheists are those atheists who treat atheism as a religion (a noun deserving of a capital letter)? So the Old Atheists are the relatively decent people who don't make comments on io9 (scifi blog) about putting bullets in all religious individuals' brains?

Where does Mr. Shelley, our notorious Romantic atheist, fit into this? He was quite flamboyant about his atheism, yet he also made offerings to Pan in the woods.

Also, was it you who recommended Lost Masters on Hellenistai? The forum got reset, so all the old posts/blocked IPs were deleted, and I can't figure out to whom I should ask questions.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

I was probably the one who recommended Lost Masters on Hellenistai. It's a great book in my opinion.

I think Atheists come in two flavors: (1) those like Shelley who are really Pagans deep down inside, and (2) those like the New Atheists who are really Christians deep down inside.

Anyone who would make an offering to Pan is a Pagan in my book! I think Shelley also wrote a commentary on Plato's Ion - dealing with the subject of divine inspiration in the arts.