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Sam Harris on Francis Collins--Skeel

That Sam Harris, one of the leading “new atheists,” criticized the president’s nomination of Francis Collins, a professed Christian, to serve as director of the National Institutes of Health in this New York Times op-ed yesterday was hardly news. But I found the column interesting in several respects. 

First, the tone was much more subdued than in Harris’s usual tirades against religion. Perhaps the Times’ op-ed editors tamed Harris’s prose, but I suspect the reasonableness of the tone is a tribute to Collins’s stature as a scientist.  I wonder if the religion vs. science debate might be a little less heated if it were more often conducted by scientists, and we evangelicals were less eager to credit any claim that seems to score points against the scientific community.
Second, Harris complained that Collins may stifle research in neuroscience that seems to suggest “that minds are the products of brains, and brains are [simply] the products of evolution,” since this calls God into question. My initial reaction was (and is) that Collins seems very unlikely to interfere with valuable scientific work, regardless of where it might lead.
But I also think it’s important to cast a skeptical eye, if not on the work itself, at least on the claims made for this work. This isn’t my field, but my sense is that the claims made for the neuroscience findings we have thus far often go far beyond any reasonable interpretation of the science. Some scholars claim, for instance, that criminal laws should not focus on “desert” (that is, the badness of criminal behavior) because criminal behavior is simply a product of our brains. This is an area in which I suspect that Christian lawyer-scientists might make important contributions.


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Comments ( 4 )

I think you are absolutely right to question Harris' distorted claims about modern neuroscience. And you are even more right in saying that it is very unlikely for a scientist of Collins' caliber to ever interfere in any scientific research. Considering Collins' accomplishments it is just mind-boggling that Harris says this kind of thing.

I am a practicing Pagan, btw, and I probably disagree with Collins' religious views even more than Sam Harris does. But I am also a scientist by training and I have known many devout Christians who are excellent scientists - and I have also known scientists who are Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, other Pagans, and also atheists, and many who have no particular religious views at all.

Harris' attitude towards people whose beliefs he disagrees with is despicable and bigoted. He is currently in graduate school in neuroscience - but in my opinion he needs a refresher course in civics - to be reminded that a person's religion should play no roll in a government appointment!

What's missing from much of the rhetoric in the field of neuroscience is humility. We do, indeed, know much more about the brain than we did just a decade ago- but our ignorance is still vast. Many reasonable scientists suggest that the brain is by far the most complex material entity in the universe. If that so (and I think it is) then we really ought to be humble about our claims to understand how it works.

Fascinating that Harris would complain as he has admitted that he, himself, is becoming a scientist not in order to conduct unbiased research but in order to evidence his atheist presuppositions.


I think Scripture sums it up Sam Harris (and most of our "leaders" pretty well:

Psalms 53
1 The fool says in his heart, There is no God.They are corrupt, doing abominable iniquity; there is none who does good. 2 God looks down from heaven on the children of man to see if there are any who understand,who seek after God.

I'm fearful for Mr. Collins. It seems he will be placed in a situation where he will continually be asked to do what no Christian should do. May God be with him.

I was surprised by the comments of "apuleius platonicus" but I suspect his "open-mindedness" comes from a misunderstanding of true Christianity. When one is a believer, one's faith cannot be compartmentalized. It is part and parcel of who you ARE. You no longer belong to yourself but are living a life that has been exchanged. In having accepted Christ's redemption, we have made Him LORD of all we are and all we do. Or at least that is our goal.

I don't know Mr. Collins but have heard glowing reports of his faith. While we, as Christians, should be praying for ALL of our leader (whether we like them or not and whether we agree with them or not) we certainly should be specifically and ferverently lifting up our brothers/sisters in Christ.