"If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin."
- Charles Darwin

Aug 24, 2007

Scientists Should Unite Against Threat From Religion

In the current issue of Nature, Sam Harris (author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation) penned this critique of the Nature editors' inclusion of religious apologists.


Nature 448, 864 (23 August 2007) | doi:10.1038/448864a;

Published online 22 August 2007

Sam Harris


It was genuinely alarming to encounter Ziauddin Sardar's whitewash of Islam in the pages of your journal ('Beyond the troubled relationship' Nature 448, 131–133; 2007). Here, as elsewhere, Nature's coverage of religion has been unfailingly tactful — to the point of obscurantism.

In his Commentary, Sardar seems to accept, at face value, the claim that Islam constitutes an "intrinsically rational world view". Perhaps there are occasions where public intellectuals must proclaim the teachings of Islam to be perfectly in harmony with scientific naturalism. But let us not do so, just yet, in the world's foremost scientific journal.

Under the basic teachings of Islam, the Koran cannot be challenged or contradicted, being the perfect word of the creator of the Universe. To speak of the compatibility of science and Islam in 2007 is rather like speaking of the compatibility of science and Christianity in the year 1633, just as Galileo was being forced, under threat of death, to recant his understanding of the Earth's motion.

An Editorial announcing the publication of Francis Collins's book, The Language of God ('Building bridges' Nature 442, 110; doi:10.1038/442110a 2006) represents another instance of high-minded squeamishness in addressing the incompatibility of faith and reason. Nature praises Collins, a devout Christian, for engaging "with people of faith to explore how science — both in its mode of thought and its results — is consistent with their religious beliefs".

But here is Collins on how he, as a scientist, finally became convinced of the divinity of Jesus Christ: "On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains... the majesty and beauty of God's creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ."

What does the "mode of thought" displayed by Collins have in common with science? The Language of God should have sparked gasping outrage from the editors at Nature. Instead, they deemed Collins's efforts "moving" and "laudable", commending him for building a "bridge across the social and intellectual divide that exists between most of US academia and the so-called heartlands."

At a time when Muslim doctors and engineers stand accused of attempting atrocities in the expectation of supernatural reward, when the Catholic Church still preaches the sinfulness of condom use in villages devastated by AIDS, when the president of the United States repeatedly vetoes the most promising medical research for religious reasons, much depends on the scientific community presenting a united front against the forces of unreason.

There are bridges and there are gangplanks, and it is the business of journals such as Nature to know the difference.

I followed up on this editorial with my post The Feeling of What Happens.

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Chuck Blanchard said...

Collins' Christian views should not be immune from criticism, but it seems to me that Sam Harris' attack is a bit over the top. Collins did not purport to be doing science in his book--his aim was exactly that praised by Nature--to explain his scientific views to his fellow Christians, and to explain his faith to those who don't believe. It did not purport to be a work only of science.

Indeed, most of the book is a defense of evolution, and an attack on creationism and intelligent design--largely targetted to an evangelical audience. For this, collins is attacked as part of a giant force of unreason?

Harris is certainly free to criticize the views that Collins has on any topic--including his faith, but Harris did not do so. Instead, rather than challenge Collins directly, he lumps Collins with Islamic fundamentalists and the Catholic Church as part of a giant "force of unreason" based on views and positions that Collins adamantly opposes. Sounds rather weak to me. Is that the best that Harris could do?

Eric Michael Johnson said...

Chuck - As you know I understand and am sympathetic to the theistic position (having spent a good portion of my life as a believer). I also read through Collins' book soon after it was released. While I will agree that Collins does a god job of impressing upon Christians the foolishness of opposing Darwinian natural selection, as a book about science it fails spectacularly.

Here are two quotes from The Language of God that Sam Harris highlights in his review from last year:

"As believers, you are right to hold fast to the concept of God as Creator; you are right to hold fast to the truths of the Bible; you are right to hold fast to the conclusion that science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence; and you are right to hold fast to the certainty that the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted . . ."

"God, who is not limited to space and time, created the universe and established natural laws that govern it. Seeking to populate this otherwise sterile universe with living creatures, God chose the elegant mechanism of evolution to create microbes, plants, and animals of all sorts. Most remarkably, God intentionally chose the same mechanism to give rise to special creatures who would have intelligence, a knowledge of right and wrong, free will, and a desire to seek fellowship with Him. He also knew these creatures would ultimately choose to disobey the Moral Law."

The first quote speaks to embracing faith in the unknown and unknowable. If you want to understand the natural world, as Collins claims to, then you must leave your biases at the door rather than trying to wrap the facts around what you believe. The second quote disregards the process of science and claims that there is intentionality in the universe. This simply embraces magical thinking and gets us no closer to understanding what (and why) the universe actual is. A simple and elegant argument against this latter position can be found here.

Chuck Blanchard said...


Thanks for your response both here and on my blog. I am a big fan of your blog. I also love the miracle cartton.

As I have said in numerous posts on my own blog, I also found some shortcomings with the Collins book. The reliance on the C.S. Lewis "moral law" argument for the existence of God, in particular, struck me as unpersausive. My point about the Sam Harris letter in Nature was that it was unfair to lump Collins in with both the Catholic position on condoms (he is not Catholic) or Islamic fundamentalists.

I don't have the Collins book in front of me here at work, but I think you and Harris take these two quotes out of their larger context. Collins is not saying that science has to accede to religious claims, or even that it is proper for a scientist to make religious assumuptions in doing his or her work. I think Collins would dispute both points.

The two quotes arise out of his conclusions from looking at the state of science thus far, and explaining to believers why an acceptance of evolution still permits a belief in a Creator God.

The second quote in particular captures my own theistic world view--I accept evolution, reject creationism, reject the Bethe type of intelligent design, but believe that God can still be a creator God by using evolution as the mechanism of creation. But that does not mean that I don't also believe that science should continue its struggle to answer the deeper questions of our creation without reference to an intelligent designer. Science should be a secular endeavor, and the truth should take us where it will.

Eric Michael Johnson said...

I've continued this discussion as an additional post, The Feeling of What Happens.