If the word “faitheist” were in the dictionary, its illustration would be the smug mug of Andrew Brown, the goddycoddling columnist at The Guardian. As we’ve seen before (e.g., here and here), Brown likes to blame the “new atheists” for a lot of things, including the prevalence of creationism in the U.S. (sound familiar?).
In his latest column, Brown goes after Sam Harris for his New York Times op-ed piece questioning the wisdom of appointing Francis Collins as head of the NIH. But before he misquotes Harris, Brown can’t resist taking a few gratuitous slaps at him, just to show that atheists are full of “intolerance and hatred”:
Shallow, narrow, and self-righteous, he [Harris] defends and embodies all of the traits that have made organised religion repulsive; and he does so in the name of atheism and rationality. He has, for example, defended torture, (“restraint in the use of torture cannot be reconciled with our willingness to wage war in the first place”) attacked religious toleration in ways that would make Pio Nono blush: “We can no more tolerate a diversity of religious beliefs than a diversity of beliefs about epidemiology and basic hygiene” ; he has claimed that there are some ideas so terrible that we may be justified in killing people just for believing them. Naturally, he also believes that the Nazis were really mere catspaws of the Christians. (“Knowingly or not, the Nazis were agents of religion”).
I suggest you read Harris on these issues; his positions are far more nuanced than Brown lets on. For example, it is a thorny philosophical question whether torture can ever be justified to save the lives of others (Harris thinks that it might sometimes be ethical but perhaps never legal).
But Brown’s real beef is that Harris criticized Collins’s religion. And here he completely mischaracterizes what Harris said:
But he [Collins] is, unashamedly, a Christian. He’s not a creationist, and he does science without expecting God to interfere. But he believes in God; he prays, and this is for Harris sufficient reason to exclude him from a job directing medical research.
Of course this is a fantastically illiberal and embryonically totalitarian position that goes against every possible notion of human rights and even the American constitution. If we follow Harris, government jobs are to be handed out on the basis of religious beliefs or lack thereof. But what is really astonishing and depressing is how little faith it shows in science itself.
ok, read what Harris said. He did not say that Collins should be excluded from consideration. Harris, like me, is simply worried about Collins using his status as NIH director to spread wacko religious ideas. Harris has the additional concern (one that I don’t really share) that Collins might deflect research away from understanding the human brain and the behavior it engenders:
Dr. Collins has written that “science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence” and that “the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted.”
One can only hope that these convictions will not affect his judgment at the institutes of health. After all, understanding human well-being at the level of the brain might very well offer some “answers to the most pressing questions of human existence” — questions like, Why do we suffer? Or, indeed, is it possible to love one’s neighbor as oneself? And wouldn’t any effort to explain human nature without reference to a soul, and to explain morality without reference to God, necessarily constitute “atheistic materialism”? Francis Collins is an accomplished scientist and a man who is sincere in his beliefs. And that is precisely what makes me so uncomfortable about his nomination. Must we really entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who sincerely believes that a scientific understanding of human nature is impossible?
Brown isn’t the first person to mischaracterize what Harris and his militant neo-fundamentalist atheist cronies said about Collins. In a letter to the New York Times, Kenneth Miller did the same thing. Distortion, demonization, and prissy accusations about “shrillness” seem to be the armamentarium of faitheists and religious people who are unable to engage the substantive arguments of new atheists.
Brown goes on to make some bad arguments about the relationship between science and faith. He gloats that no scientific discovery could ever shake Collins’s faith, “any more than science made Darwin an atheist.” (I’m not so sure about that one, actually. Certain empirical observations might well have eroded Darwin’s faith: the death of his daughter Annie, for example, as well as his famous observations about the horrors of nature, like the ichneumon wasp, which to Darwin argued against the existence of a benevolent god.) Thus, when Brown says that Collins need never abandon his faith because “all the best arguments against God are theological,” he’s just wrong. The best arguments against God are empirical, most prominent among them the argument from evil. As far as I can see — and yes, I’ve read theology — there has never been a better refutation of the idea of a loving and omnipotent god than the existence of horrible, god-preventable things happening to innocent people. That’s an empirical observation, and the world didn’t have to be that way. Another, of course, is that prayer doesn’t work. Yet another is the observation that God seems to heal some people, but sorely neglects those amputees (see Fig. 1). Finally, the theistic God obstinately refuses to show himself to people, although he supposedly interacts with the world.
Figure 1. Why does God hate amputees?
Brown finishes by again misstating Harris’s views:
. . .But militant atheism, of the sort that would deny people jobs for their religions beliefs, doesn’t actually believe in real science at all, any more than it believes in reason. Rather, it uses “science” and “reason” as tribal labels, and “religion” as a term for witchcraft. Any serious defence of the real, hard-won and easily lost enlightenment must start by rejecting that style of atheism entirely. What use is it to be right about God and wrong about everything else?
WRONG. None of us “militant atheists” want to deny Collins his job because of his faith. And it’s just dumb to say that we don’t believe in real science. I do real science every day. As for labeling religion as “witchcraft,” well, are the two forms of superstition really so different?
Brown’s overall complaint seems to be that Harris’s writings are so popular — that “hundreds of thousands of people bought the books, and perhaps the ideas in them.” I suspect Brown’s books haven’t sold nearly as well, though (no suprise!) he won a Templeton Prize for religion journalism. I do feel sorry for Brown, though: it can’t be pleasant to write a Guardian column where most of your commenters rip your arguments to shreds.