Is Francis Collins a deist?

Over at Big Think, NIH director Francis Collins is interviewed about the science-religion divide.  Most of what he says in his interview, called “Why it’s so hard for scientists to believe in God,” is pretty standard accommodationism.  It’s rife with NOMA-ism, for instance, and with the idea that the two magisteria address different questions.  But it’s intriguing how Collins describes the questions that he sees as the unique bailiwick of faith.  I’ve put some sections in bold below:

But faith in its perspective is really asking a different set of questions.  And that’s why I don’t think there needs to be a conflict here.  The kinds of questions that faith can help one address are more in the philosophical realm.  Why are we all here?  Why is there something instead of nothing?  Is there a God?  Isn’t it clear that those aren’t scientific questions and that science doesn’t have much to say about them?  But you either have to say, well those are inappropriate questions and we can’t discuss them or you have to say, we need something besides science to pursue some of the things that humans are curious about.  For me, that makes perfect sense.  But I think for many scientists, particularly for those who have seen the shrill pronouncements from extreme views that threaten what they’re doing scientifically and feel therefore they can’t really include those thoughts into their own worldview, faith can be seen as an enemy.

Notice that he doesn’t say that religion can answer questions: it can “address” them and help us “discuss” them and “pursue” them.  I’m not sure whether this is deliberate evasion (I believe Karl Giberson takes the same tactic), but of course claiming that religion provides answers lays you open to queries about the different “answers” of other faiths.

The strangest part of the interview is where Collins describes how he thinks God affects the universe. It verges on deism.  Again, I’ve put one part in bold:

Other aspects of our universe I think also for me as for Einstein raised questions about the possibility of intelligence behind all of this.  Why is it that, for instance, that the constance that determines the behavior of matter and energy, like the gravitational constant, for instance, have precisely the value that they have to in order for there to be any complexity at all in the Universe.  That is fairly breathtaking in its lack of probability of ever having happened.  And it does make you think that a mind might have been involved in setting the stage. At the same time that does not imply necessarily that that mind is controlling the specific manipulations of things that are going on in the natural world.  In fact, I would very much resist that idea. I think the laws of nature potentially could be the product of a mind.  I think that’s a defensible perspective.  But once those laws are in place, then I think nature goes on and science has the chance to be able to perceive how that works and what its consequences are.

In fact, this doesn’t verge on deism: it is deism. God set up the laws of physics and let things roll. But the curious thing is that if Collins really believes this, and “strongly resists” the idea that God manipulates what’s going on in the world by suspending natural laws, then he surely can’t believe in miracles.  And yet, as an evangelical Christian, his faith rests squarely on miracles. The virgin birth, the resurrection, the miracle stories of the New Testament—all of those would have to go out the window.

I doubt that Collins has undergone a profound shift of faith, but I’d love to ask him how this apparent deism comports with his evangelical Christianity.  I’m sure these sentiments aren’t welcomed at BioLogos, the organization he founded.

h/t: Sigmund, who also produced the following:

FRANCIS COLLINS SUFFERS CRISIS OF FAITH ON NEW HIKING TRIP


102 thoughts on “Is Francis Collins a deist?

  1. Collins was always a mystery to me, because he did present himself as a genuine, believing, evangelical Christian. Integrity must be catching up to him. But his position here, shared by believers in belief everywhere, is still odd: The best way to address questions that cannot be answered is to pretend that they can be.

    1. As a philosopher I’d say I’ve more cause for resentment than y’all: many of the questions which he thinks are ‘answered by faith’ (read: making it up) and which you say cannot be answered (empirically, I grant you that’s true, but I can also guarantee you that not all the beliefs necessary to support your adherence to the scientific method as a route to knowledge can be themselves supported by that method) are questions which I and my colleagues work hard to find defensible well justified answers to. It’s as though the creationism debate were complicated by a whole bunch of people on the sidelines saying ‘we can never know why organisms have the properties they have’.

      Then again, maybe that’s what Jerry Fodor is saying now, I never did figure it out.

  2. It would be interesting to see his response, either for the revelation that he has had a shift of faith, or the mental gymnastics that would be involved to hold both of those thoughts in his head at the same time.

    1. It’d be interesting. But it’ll never happen. I’ve watched both of my parents change over time. My father has gone more deist. My mother has traveled from deist to almost “born-again.” When I pointed this out, I got some quite offended denials.

      Heck, when I pointed out to my mom that she used to be a liberal in the 1970’s, she flat-out denied that as well. So I’m all, like all that anti-war, pro-ERA, pro-Roe, pro-desegregation and pro-integration talk was part of my imagination? Her response was “it was just a short phase…”

      Pfft. It was most of the decade…

  3. ” Isn’t it clear that those aren’t scientific questions and that science doesn’t have much to say about them?”
    No it isn’t. Not any more than the reason behind hurricanes and earthquakes was not a scientific question in the past. I have difficulty imagining that Collins doesn’t know scientists are already at work trying to answer such questions or hasn’t heard of Stephen Hawking’s “the Grand Design”.
    Incidentally this is not the only time he says something that doesn’t jibe with the orthodoxy of evangelical christianity. He obviously accepts the fact of evolution which among evangelicals is rare, to say the least.

    1. I first saw a link to this interview over on Andrew Sullivan’s website entitled “the ‘how’ and the ‘why'”. To Sullivan, Collins’ statement made perfect sense.

      Had I not just started reading Hawking’s new book, I may have just passed over it without reflection. However, and it may just be me, Collins statement seems aimed at the first three chapters of Hawking’s book.

      To Hawking the question of ‘why’ has dominated the debate for thousands of years and is a ‘dead philosophy’. The only relevent progress we have made over the past few hundred years is to the question of ‘how’.

  4. “In fact, this doesn’t verge on deism: it is deism. God set up the laws of physics and let things roll. But the curious thing is that if Collins really believes this, and “strongly resists” the idea that God manipulates what’s going on in the world by suspending natural laws, then he surely can’t believe in miracles. And yet, as an evangelical Christian, his faith rests squarely on miracles. The virgin birth, the resurrection, the miracle stories of the New Testament—all of those would have to go out the window.”

    Jerry, her’s where believers of Collins’ ilk get very slippery. Because the New Testament “miracles” are one-shot deals that happened in a particular place and time in ancient history, guys like Collins can get away with believing that stuff because it has no impact on their everyday science and a god who is deistic most of the time. For them, the age of science-confounding, truly impressive miracles are, for all practical purposes, over.

    God isn’t ever messing around with Collins’ lab equipment or the regularity of nature’s laws these days, so if he multiplied a few fish, or reanimated a dead guy a long time ago but isn’t planning on doing it again any time soon, then any cognitive dissonance Collins might have about such things is safely swept under the rug.

    It’s a clever trick that they perform in their own minds, so how much harder for those who don’t buy into this stuff to untangle how they think.

    1. But if that is the case what is the point in praying? Isn’t the reason for prayers changing the course of day to day events, meaning to bring about more miracles? This is the bread and butter of not just christianity but all monotheistic religions. If god isn’t getting involved in the course of our daily lives we may as well forget that he is there.

      1. Agreed, and many Christians do think that way. But for guys like Collins, they weasel out of it by dealing with “answered prayer” as something technically non-miraculous.

        God answers your prayer through the actions and free will of others; he answered but said “no”; I pray for strength and don’t ask for anything specific and that’s what prayer is for; I pray to speak with god because it’s as big a part of me as breathing; etc, etc.

        The bottom line for these guys is that modern “miracles” happen within the confines of natural law so that god’s meddling fingers can never ACTUALLY be detected (how convenient!), and the definition of the word “miracle” becomes so mushy and pliable that it loses its meaning altogether.

      2. As an extension of this paradox (something that’s always perplexed me), if God is omniscient, what would you be informing him of in your prayer that he didn’t know? Also, doesn’t the need to petition God with prayer imply that he would make the wrong decision if you didn’t?

        1. One of the claims I least understand is the parents saying their child was cured of some deadly disease as a result of their prayers.
          Which means: a) god can cure all deadly sick children but he won’t, and b) saving a child suffering from cancer is not something he would bother with, unless you beg and plead.
          What a psycho.

          1. Also, God clearly hates amputees – He heals cancer and other diseases all the time, but not once (not even in the Bible, I don’t think) has He ever healed an amputated limb.

            What a jerk.

          2. “One of the claims I least understand is the parents saying their child was cured of some deadly disease as a result of their prayers.”

            Yes. Their god called the lucky kid home to heaven early and the parents rejected both their god’s will and their child’s best interests.

            Religious people don’t make much sense.

      3. They blithely pray to their baby-killing god of tsunamis, he: the master-abortionist, the god of massive birth-defects, they pray to that monster to give them a parking spot a bit closer to the Kwik-E-Mart.
        Is that not the very definition of cognitive dissonance?

    2. Doesn’t Collins also subscribe to the God of the Quantum Gaps assertion? I know there is some debate over whether the various Xian miracles could be explicable even if Teh Jeebus had control over every single quantum reaction… but it, at present at least, provides a convenient out for those who wish to simultaneously believe in the inviolability of scientific laws as well as miracles.

      It’s still silly, and almost a hilarious bit of self parody, since people have been pointing out since the 19th century that the God of the Gaps is a dangerous position due to the constantly shrinking nature of the gaps — and now their shoving Him into the quantum level? Frikkin’ hilarious.

      But I suppose at some primary level, it’s logically consistent..

    3. God isn’t ever messing around with Collins’ lab equipment or the regularity of nature’s laws these days

      But how would Collins know? Is it necessarily the case that miracles must be obvious? If a god can violate physical laws, what is stopping it from doing so in science labs, and doing so undetectably?

      1. Stop using so much reason and logic. That ruins everything.

        Collins doesn’t know anything, of course. He’s just making stuff up.

    4. Just because your airplane has an automatic pilot doesn’t mean the real pilot doesn’t take over the controls once in a while.

      I think in the modern day only the most willfully ignorant theists could maintain a belief that their deity is controlling every aspect of day-to-day operation of the universe. So I’m not surprised by Collins’ position here.

      Doesn’t mean I don’t agree it’s a stupid position.

  5. Collins is so confused. His stances are serf-inconsistent.

    He also brings up old argument after old argument that have been thoroughly refuted – I guess he refuses to educate himself on the discussions about science and religion that have taken place over the last several years.

    His muddled thinking seems to show an old goat who should be put out to pasture.

    1. To be fair to Collins, when he sticks purely to science he is actually a good communicator.
      Questioner: How has your study of genetics influenced your faith?
      Francis Collins: My study of genetics certainly tells me, incontrovertibly that Darwin was right about the nature of how living things have arrived on the scene, by descent from a common ancestor under the influence of natural selection over very long periods of time. Darwin was amazingly insightful given how limited the molecular information he had was; essentially it didn’t exist. And now with the digital code of the DNA, we have the best possible proof of Darwin’s theory that he could have imagined. ”

      If he stuck to this and the deistic non-interventionist stuff at the end of the interview then most of us wouldn’t have any particular problem with him. Unfortunately he just doesn’t seem to get it that non-intervening includes not intervening in human history – something the Christianity is supposedly based upon – In strictly biological terms the appearance of Jesus would have been something that affected evolution (the proportion of alleles amongst humanity was surely altered by things like the crusades and religious inspired colonialism). One shouldn’t decry Intelligent Design proponents who claim God intervenes in evolution every now and then while your own belief is based upon the same assumption – just affecting less species.

      1. You spend your whole life as a Christian being hammered with the idea that Jesus is the best person that ever lived, and I think that the Ideal Jesus is hard to give up. People want someone to look towards, and looking to Ideal Jesus for inspiration for goodness and mercy is a helpful way to validate their views.

        Of course, Biblical Jesus is not Ideal Jesus, he was often angry, pitiless, and there are a lot of immoral things he never denounced, which you’d expect a perfectly moral person would do.

        And then there is Actual Jesus, who is likely just a cult leader propounded by another cult leader, Peter. Who knows what he was really like, having inspired (and encouraged) ignorant, unlearned followers to respect him implicitly, and then having another charismatic cult leader do it even more so, before ANY written account of him was set to paper.

  6. To call faith-questions like ‘Why are we all here? Why is there something instead of nothing? philosophical is, I think, bad philosophy. Questions like these make only sense in the context of faith – outside that specific context, faith-questions make no sense at all. Any scientifically sound answer will be discarded by the faithful because in their vocabulary ‘why’ has the meaning of ‘to what purpose’ – and purpose is indeed something which is not addressed by science, nor by epistemology or ontology.

    1. I believe I am ripping off another commenter on this blog, but here goes:

      To properly frame the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, we must remember that in this very moment, there are non-existent philosophers in a non-existent universe posing the question, “Why is there nothing rather than something?”

    2. Exactly. As I like to put it, the “Why are we here?” question assumes two predicates. Last, it assumes that we are in fact here when philosophers have been debating the point forever.Science also provides evidence that we may not be here in the way we perceive ourselves. But the important, first assumption, is that there is a “why.” There is no evidence upon which to base such an assumption.

      So the correct question becomes “How?” Answer how we came to be here and the “why?” question will answer itself or simply disintegrate.

      1. When students ask me teleologic/teleonomic questions(especially 1st year medical students in my biochemistry class who are always asking why biochemical pathways are as they are), I say “There is no why; there is only how” all Yoda-like. They hate it. So I then try to unpack some proximate mechanistic teleonomy for them, but it’s usually not what they’re looking for.

    3. It does not even make sense in the context of faith – people merely imagine it must. It is just another delusion. Nor are such questions unique to the abrahamic religions; for example, many buddhist sects have long lists of perplexing questions which seemingly have no answer – like the “why are we here” type of question, most of them are nonsense. Some, such as the infamous “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” can actually be answered. It is a common pitfall for the religious: when you realize you may be ignorant, you assume that there must be some invisible magic creature who knows what you don’t. Over time that magical creature is bestowed with other powers such as curing the sick. Even in the USA we see religious folks leaving children to suffer and die due to a belief that it is up to the invisible magic man to decide whether the child should live or die.

  7. In his last sentence in the first block quote, ‘shrill’ actually seems to me to be aimed at fundamentalists, not Gnus (to some astonishment!).

    1. Right on!
      It is clear from the context that Collins is saying that scientists fear the shrill voices that would “threaten what theyre doing scientifically”.

      Surely the Gnu Atheists are no threat to science.

      And as for “faith can be seen as an enemy”, well, of course! It is the enemy of science. Wasn’t it Ben Franklin who once said that “Faith is holding something to be true when you know that it ain’t so”?
      Not only can “faith” be seen as the enemy, it IS the enemy of science. Why else does the scientific method demand that any statement/hypothesis be tested and verified and demonstrated? Why else is science inherently skeptical and distrustful of unsubstantiated statements?

      So, damn right, Collins. Faith is the enemy.

      1. “Wasn’t it Ben Franklin who once said […]”

        I believe you’re referring to Mark Twain: “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

  8. He’s a deist when he talks to reporters, and an evangelical Christian in church. And I’m sure he’s convinced himself that he’s not being in the least dishonest.

    “Whyare we all here? Why is there something instead of nothing? Is there a God? Isn’t it clear that those aren’t scientific questions and that science doesn’t have much to say about them?”

    No, Dr. Collins, that’s not clear at all. Why don’t you explain why those aren’t scientific questions, and, if they really aren’t, what process do we use to find the answers?

  9. It is pure evasion. Purposely not using the world’s most useful tool, science, and instead using the world’s most ineffective tool, religion, to ask any question you claim to be important is asinine.

    Using religion to answer questions is the same as not answering them at all. It’s the same mentality as “shooting from the hip” or “going on gut instinct”. It’s aversion to thinking, at least about some topics.

    Personally, I think these people are just one’s that like to bullshit about the existence of god and they’re afraid their pass time will be taken away from them if someone just comes up and answers the question. There’s lots of philosophical things to talk about, though. Become a Star Trek fan.

  10. Is Francis Collins a deist? I’d have to say that yes, he is … a douche-bag. He’s also a pussy and a mumma’s boy. But leave him alone, Jerry, you’re going to get him in trouble!

    Despite my childish remarks, I quite like Francis, as a scientist, from what little I’ve heard of him; however, he seems to become dual-minded once religion becomes part of the subject matter. He definitely doesn’t seem to be able to justify his religious views beyond deism, but likes to pretend he’s down with Jesus & the whole Christian shindig. Just another cherry-picker, really; another “Christian” who’s grown up in a society that seems to care more about believing in belief than the beliefs themselves.

    I just wonder why deists even bother. Why bother conversing about something of no real substance or intellectual value?

    “Oh, yeah, I believe that this intangible, incomprehensible thing-or-whatever — that I call ‘god’ — could be responsible here or there somehow, but I’m not sure how, where, when, or why, or even what it is I’m trying to talk about. But, so long as I say I believe in it, my mum won’t disown me.”

    I just don’t see the appeal.

  11. Well he makes me feel shrill anyway.

    “Why are we all here?”
    Someone said there would be a party…
    “Why is there something instead of nothing?”
    Because the idea of complete ‘nothingness’ is absurd when there is ‘somethingness’…
    “Is there a God?”
    No.

    Seriously, why do people need a ‘why are we all here’ reason? To me it is like asking ‘why is there red?’ – we are an emergent property of the universe, in a way that we are groping to understand through the medium of science, rather than the medium of guessing (philosophy ?) or wishing (religion !).

  12. I suspect that many scientists who are Christians actually hold to beliefs that are very close to deism. We could perhaps describe that as deism + Jesus. If they begin to question the miracles, then the “+ Jesus” part is likely to go.

    1. Bingo. They leave themselves plenty of wiggle room, too. Since you don’t have a time machine and can’t test the miracles of Jesus the same way you can test modern claimed miracle-workers, you just have to make decision whether to accept them or not. That’s the “out” they leave themselves.

      No parsimony, no Occam’s Razor, no “extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence”, just a big logical hole in which a good chunk of the New Testament can fit if you squint.

      1. Well, that’s the problem with the miracles, isn’t it?

        Miracles are the only evidence that god is god and Jesus was god. Without miracles, you’re talking about desert nomads with hallucinations and a crazy preacher fellow.

        And yet: where’s the evidence left behind by these miracles? Nowhere. If we’re meant to use miracles as the proof-positive for belief, one would think that an all-powerful, all-knowing god would be aware that someone like me would find them a tad bit uncompelling precisely because they left behind no tangible evidence.

        Where’s the burning bush?
        Where are the tablets? The Most Important Communication From God To Man Ever!!!
        Where’s the gaping hole in the Red Sea?

        All gone. Vanished. As if they never happened.

        It’s not by “faith” that one believes in such things, and the weirder, more-comical miracles of Jesus. It’s by credulity,.

        1. Where’s the burning bush?
          Where are the tablets? The Most Important Communication From God To Man Ever!!!
          Where’s the gaping hole in the Red Sea?

          Apparently this god can only prove its existence to bronze age goatherds — for us more sophisticated folks, such demonstrations would undermine faith. Which would be bad, for some reason or the other (but which wasn’t bad for the goatherds, although I’m not clear as to why).

    2. There’s a very strong emotional and social compulsion to keep the Jesus part. That’s ultimately why the deist-in-practice-but-really-I’m-still-a-good-person-because-I-love-Jesus outlook is so common. To “abandon” or “reject” Jesus is a terrifying concept inculcated throughout life. There’s no recognition of the independence between ethical principles on the one hand and historical claims written in highly redacted second-century manuscripts on the other hand.

  13. Other aspects of our universe I think also for me as for Einstein raised questions about the possibility of intelligence behind all of this.

    Isn’t this part about Einstein blatantly false?

    Why is it that, for instance, that the constance that determines the behavior of matter and energy, like the gravitational constant, for instance, have precisely the value that they have to in order for there to be any complexity at all in the Universe. That is fairly breathtaking in its lack of probability of ever having happened.

    Is there a name for this statistical fallacy? The fallacy of “seeing one incredibly improbable event as more *special* than all of the other possible yet equally improbable events, and then concluding that there must be some meaning in it all”?

    1. “Isn’t this part about Einstein blatantly false?”
      Not really. I’m sure plenty of things about the cosmos “raised questions” in Einsteins mind about an intelligent designer, just as they have in the mind of Spinoza, Dawkins or Hitchens. Notice that he doesn’t mention the actual conclusions they arrived at, just the fact that question were raised.
      “Is there a name for this statistical fallacy? The fallacy of “seeing one incredibly improbable event as more *special* than all of the other possible yet equally improbable events, and then concluding that there must be some meaning in it all”?”
      Why, yes!
      ‘Religion’

      1. I guess what I meant was that Collins is implying that the answer to Einstein’s question (in Einstein’s own mind) was something other than “there is no god,” which IIRC is false. It’s a little dishonest to garner support for your cause with an Einstein reference even though you’ve followed Einstein’s line of thought to a different conclusion than what the man himself arrived at.

        Why, yes!
        ‘Religion’

        Yes, yes, very funny. But the fact is that all humans do this (until they learn not to). The first thought to occur to somebody who got dealt two aces in texas hold’em is going to be “sweet, I got lucky,” not “the probability of getting these two specific cards was exactly the same as the probability of getting a 2 and a 7 off-suit” (which is the worst hand you can get).

        1. Terminology is important here.

          The probability of getting a[n off-suit] pair is not the same as getting a 2, 7 off-suit.

          The probability of two specific cards (face and suit) is equal the probability of any other two specific cards.

      2. I agree with Tim; that’s just another ruse to imply that Einstein believed in a god. Einstein’s notorious “god does not play with dice!” comment has got to be one of the most abused. Einstein was irate because he believed (without evidence) that nature must follow simple set rules and that randomness must be an end product of the actions of these rules rather than one of the fundamental properties. I have no idea why he believed that – there were numerous well-known random processes in his era and he didn’t explain any of them in terms of simpler rules. In fact he would have been aware of some randomness in his own study of the photoelectric effect and he was quite happy to apply statistical analysis to that while denying that randomness is something fundamental. From a philosophical point of view it’s very different: why should we expect to see order? Of course the early Greeks had their philosophy backward and also assumed a Natural Order, but that was an awfully long time ago.

    2. I believe it’s the fallacy of retrospective improbability.

      Walk along the beach. Pick up a grain of sand. What’s the likelihood that you would have picked that particular grain of sand out of all the grains of sand on that beach, every other beach on the planet, all the grains of sand everywhere in the solar system. Astronomically high. 10 the eleventy-bazzilionth.

      What are the odds that you have a grain of sand in your hand? 100%.

      It’s a simple card trick to conflate the odds of that particular solution with any solution of the same type.

      What are the odds that humans would be on this planet — 100%. A dead-shot certainty. What are the odds that Earth has the right conditions for life? Again, 100%.

      What are the odds that any particular planet might have life on it or its moons? Well, we don’t know the answer to that question, do we? Mars may indeed have life, and at least two of the water moons of Jupiter and Saturn. So, in our solar system alone, the odds of life on any particular planet-moon system might be as high as 50% (if one can be forgiven for discounting poor demoted Pluto).

      Or we might search everywhere both locally and afar and find that we’re truly alone. A one in several billion shot.

      None of that says anything about the process by which life occurred. Not one thing. If life is rare or common, the answer to the question of “how did this happen” is still “we don’t know and neither do you”. And does not allow a theist to insert a supernatural cause into the mix where a natural one will do.

      1. “Retrospective improbability” (or retrospective fallacy) – it doesn’t seem to be widely used, but I like it! Thanks.

      2. “What are the odds that humans would be on this planet — 100%. A dead-shot certainty. What are the odds that Earth has the right conditions for life? Again, 100%.”

        A minor nit on the language. What are the odds that humans would be on this planet? Unknown. What are the odds that they are is 100%. Would be implies the prior probability to me.

        1. I’ll try to sharpen that up.

          Hopefully, the meaning comes through. Because we’re here, there are no more “odds” to be given with respect to the likelihood of us being here.

          In fact, it’s so self-evident that I imagine it elicits a “well, duh” response from most.

          But theists try to do this all the time. They take a “well, duh” fact and then try to assign some sort of hyper-impossibility equation to it. With the expectation that if they can come up with an improbably high enough number, that equals a reason to believe that the thing being studied had to have happened by magic.

          Theists in particular need to stop trying to assign long-shot odds to the outcome of a race that has already been run and won.

  14. Collins deserves criticism for misrepresenting Einstein in support of his beliefs:

    it leaves the “why?” question still hanging in the air. Other aspects of our universe I think also for me as for Einstein raised questions about the possibility of intelligence behind all of this.

    Einstein called this kind of misrepresentation of his views a “lie.”

    It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it. —Albert Einstein, 24 March 1954

    It is either staggeringly ignorant or deeply dishonest of Francis Collins to use Einstein in support Collins’s religious prejudices, which Einstein called “childish superstitions”:

    The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. … For me the Jewish religion like all others is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. —Albert Einstein, 3 January 1954

    It’s nice that Collins is helping Christopher Hitchens get state-of-the-art cancer treatment, but indefensible misrepresentations like this make me fear what falsehood Collins will spread about Hitchens after he’s gone.

    1. Could be an honest mistake given that Einstein also had a habit of using the term “God” as if he were on a first name basis with him.

  15. Well, for the moment, let’s say that I agree with Dr. Collins. There are questions science can’t answer…OK, fine. Who ever said otherwise?

    However, if you’re going to claim that certain questions are the realm of religion and that the “way of knowing” is different for those questions, then you have to do two things.

    1. Describe how religion answers those questions to any degree of certainty. Seems to me that religion’s response to the how question at present is: Throw stuff against the wall and see if it sticks. I call it the half-cooked spaghetti approach.

    I know a serious theologian/philosopher will decry my description of their oh-so-serious pursuit in this manner. OK.

    Maybe this description is more apt: We sit around and think about it really really hard until we come up with something that sounds good in our own heads but completely moronic when we actually write it down.

    If religion is using a different method to discern these “truths”, I would like a brief description of what it is.

    2. If theists continue to claim that religion can answer fundamental questions, would they please be so kind as to provide even ONE answer to even a part of one of those questions.

    I’ve said this before: religion has had 3500 or more years to come up with an answer to the fundamental questions. Science has aided religion in its quest by eliminating many questions that used to be the province of religion. The state of the weather, for example, or the meaning of the position of the stars and planets in relationship to man.

    And in all those 3500 years, not only has religion not answered any question definitively, the attempts to answer those questions have become more and more fragmented. As each new religion, denomination, sect, and cult crops up, each one uses the epistemology 1a to come up with loonier and loonier answers. And to declare the other guy’s answers to be wrong, without showing their work.

    I’m all on board with Dr. Collins, Dr. Giberson and whoever else might want to chime in on this issue proving me wrong.

    All they have to do is describe an “ultimate” question that science cannot answer, describe the religious methodology they used to address the question, and provide a definitive answer that is agreed upon 100% by every religion everywhere (Hint: it’s not the existence of god).

    And then, if theists would be so kind as to provide us a method by which we might check their work.

    1. If religion is using a different method to discern these “truths”, I would like a brief description of what it is.

      OK, here we go: the religious method in six easy steps.

      1) Person A tells a story. (For example an after-dinner story around the campfire.)

      2) Person B misunderstands the story as being an account of an actual event and retells it as such.

      3) Person C, being a man of some power, hears the story, likes it and deems it to be infallible truth.

      4) Person D inquires whether the story might perhaps just be a story.

      5) Person D is put to death in a particularly unpleasant fashion.

      6) Persons E, F and G decide that discretion is the better part of valour.

      Of course if Francis Collins knows of another religious method, I’m sure we’d be interested in reading his definition of it.

    1. He is very confused about these things. Believing that a frozen waterfall can be evidence of the trinity is no different whatsoever from believing God’s mother is revealed in a slice of toast.

  16. Dr. Collins’ citation of the value of the gravitational constant as supposed evidence for design is a poor choice.

    At the time the anthropic principal was first proposed,it was argued that if the GC was a little larger, the universe would have collapsed before life could have evolved. If it was a little weaker, then the expansion after the big bang would have been more rapid and the formation of galaxies would have been less likely. However, we now know that the evolution of the universe is dominated not by the GC but by dark energy and the formation of galaxies is dominated by dark matter.

    Thus, for example, a stronger GC could be compensated for by a higher density of dark energy while a weaker GC could be compensated for by a lower density of dark energy.

    1. If the universe were fine-tuned for life, it wouldn’t be made up of trillions of cubic light-years of vacuum at 2.7C. It seems to me far more miraculous that there is any life in what is a hugely hostile universe.

      Claiming the universe is fine-tuned for life is like an ant on a cork in the middle of the Atlantic saying “Wow, the ocean must have been made just for me!”

      1. “Claiming the universe is fine-tuned for life is like an ant on a cork in the middle of the Atlantic saying “Wow, the ocean must have been made just for me!””
        Don’t be silly! No religious belief is going to involve something as ridiculous as a talking animal!

        1. Of course the religious don’t believe in talking animals.

          They believe in talking plants. On fire. That give magic wand lessons. To reluctant heroes. Before committing horrific acts of genocide. As an act of love. Without leaving any hint of an archaeological record.

          Get your facts straight!

          Cheers,

          b&

  17. I think most educated Christians are deists, most of the time. They don’t expect miracles to pop up today just because someone asks for one or needs one. God’s providence was in setting up the world right from the beginning.

    They usually believe that miracles did happen at some point in the remote past (in “Bible” times), just not now (or at least not very often). Of course, in their believes about that period they are irrational, but at least they restrict this way of thinking to “back then”.

    The most liberal sort don’t believe in miracles at all but have some sort of deep admiration for Jesus or their religious tradition. These are indistiguishable from faithiests.

    1. Yes, this is a common belief; one that Dr. Collins even subscribes to.

      The Age of Miracles was over after the last Apostle died. Therefore, don’t ask god for any more miracles. He’s done with all that. No soup for you! Or loaves and fishes, either (nor wine).

      Of course, we’re left wondering whether god’s powers have waned like Wonder Dog’s without some sort of energy boost. Or whether he’s just bored with us and has gone off to Alpha Centauri to play with the creatures there who at least had the sense not to eat the IQ-raising sin-fruit at the behest of the talking serpent.

      1. In my church upbringing, we were constantly told that we didn’t need miracles anymore because we had the complete Bible.

        (This was before I really read it and found it not so “complete”.)

  18. I thought this Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal strip was quite appropriate, based on Francis Collins’ comments. The universe does kind of work in an ass-backwards way, if you think about it.

  19. He can’t be a deist because he saw the “frozen trinity waterfall” which he thought was a miracle specifically directed at him! God wanted him to convert so he planted the waterfall.

    Ergo, supernatural intervention = theism.

    He’s an idiot who doesn’t even realize that the words leaving his mouth contradict his core beliefs of yesterday. He’s lying. He just can’t open up and say what he truly believes which is that the caliphate will return!

    1. Well Jimbo, I suppose that the scientific world could use a few more Collinsesque idiots 🙂 Let’s remember that he is a well-trained and highly accomplished physician/scientist, whereas in the fields of theology and philosophy, he does not have the same rigorous background. Even though he expresses some beliefs that are easily challenged, my perspective is that he does not owe anyone any explanation of his faith. Science is ultimately a very communal exercise, with many iterations of ideas, theories, observations, experiments, rigorous peer review, etc., whereas faith is ultimately personal. My hope is that the US moves into the age of post-Christendom in which the vast majority of the church and its dogma disappear and that those who choose to call themselves Christian simply live Matthew 25, 31-45.

      1. Given that he plasters his faith, and how he accommodates it with science, all over the internet, in interviews, and in books, he certainly does owe us an explanation of his faith. It is Collins who chose to make it a public matter and who chose to tell people how faith like his can be accommodated with science.

        1. That he does, obviously with some peril! However, I don’t see you as his target audience, and thus I still don’t see how he owes you an explanation. I will join you and hopefully all other scientists who will cry “foul” if Collins’ faith interferes with the open pursuit of scientific understanding. I don’t see Collins as the problem – I see Ken Ham and Al Mohler, the Discovery Institute and YEC politicians as much bigger threats to science. These folks are truly dangerous.

          1. By publicly endorsing the idea that personal revelation and religious tradition can provide reliable answers to questions about reality, Collins is lending legitimacy to Ken Ham and Al Mohler, the Discovery Institute and YEC politicians.

            Faith may be personal in some cases, but one of the core teachings of Christianity is that it is not personal, that Christian beliefs are reliable, factual explanations that apply to everybody.

            1. Personally, I have not seen any evidence of your first claim. I would say that Collins is playing an important role in destroying the credibility of these groups, and that they see him very much as the enemy – as Ham says, a compromised Christian. I certainly have many theological quibbles with Collins, but they are nearly irrelevant compared to the others mentioned. One step at a time…..

              Your second point is well taken, and hopefully such dogma will disappear in the post-Christendom era

            2. As long as they keep calling it Christianity and continue using the Bible as their primary text, that dogma won’t disappear.

  20. “Notice that he doesn’t say that religion can answer questions: it can “address” them and help us “discuss” them and “pursue” them.”

    Makes it sound a bit like analytic philosophy.

  21. I doubt that Collins has undergone a profound shift of faith, but I’d love to ask him how this apparent deism comports with his evangelical Christianity.

    It is not surprising that a truly thinking person would have some cognitive dissonance when trying to square modern knowledge with Bronze Age superstition.

  22. At one time, I could not decide whether I was an atheist or a deist. I think deism offers a comfort factor, sort of like holding on to the edge of the pool when you are learning to swim. Somedays I would flip a coin to determine whether I would be an atheist or a deist for that day. I found it didn’t make a shred of difference, so I stopped worrying about it.

    1. I saw that too (4th line in second blockquote) but didn’t have time to try to find it in the video – I suspect it’s a mis-transcription(!) of “constants” which the transcriber tried to cover over by adding an S to ‘determine’ to try to make it grammatical. An easy goof for someone not familiar with the territory being discussed. I have some familiarity with this since daughter captions video material as an alternative to waitressing while she tries to carve out a writing career. Her company tries very hard to get things right, which is hard since much of what’s out there is not in complete sentences, mumbled, etc. Amusingly, they do everything, too, from porn to xtian propaganda, and she seamlessly transitions from one to the other, hoping to get something more like a science show, which sometimes happens.

      1. Yeah, I finally listened to the video and (as I expected) it’s ‘constants’ — even subject and predicate agreed (aurally) in person and number.

    2. I noticed that as well.

      Clearly “constance that determines the behavior of matter and energy…” should be “Constance who determines the behavior of matter and energy…”

      Someday I’d like to meet this Constance person, I’ve got a few questions for her.

  23. No, I don’t think Collins is a deist, but he can retreat to deism when he wants to make a point about the importance of religion. He couldn’t have made those points by speaking about a positive religion, with its detailed beliefs. For that he has to move back from faith affirmations to the more general questions and the more general beliefs which (at least to the religious) are possible answers to such questions.

    Moving the other way, once you think there’s a reason to affirm some form of deism, this belief is then apparently cashed-in through self-expression in particular faith traditions. After all, deism is scarcely a belief, and certainly can’t affect how one lives one’s life. You need particular beliefs for that, unless one is prepared to forgo the positive religions and accept an attenuated belief system like Unitarian Universalists, but even that is clearly in origin a response to Christian trinitarianism, although I understand that Unitarian Universalists can be anything from deists, theists to atheists.

    Apparently Collins thinks that the amorphous questions to which deism is a possible response (and I still don’t see how you get from ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ to ‘There is a god or gods’) can be fleshed out by particular religious beliefs, and adherence to a faith tradition and its practices. I’d like to see a justification for doing that, moving from the possibility of answers to very general questions to very particular statements of belief. I think he’d find that the journey is not wholly a rational one.

  24. For the record, I’m becoming convinced the Collins of today is NOT the same as the Collins who had his Jesus Moment and had to share it years ago. I’ve seen this in the past, in myself and with others, where something powerful happens and you have a Jesus moment.

    For me I, when I was 24, I survived a nearly fatal head-on motorcycle (me) versus pick-up (idiot teenager) accident. The relief shook me out of being an atheist for a few weeks, even though I’d been an atheist since 17. Fortunately, it went away fairly quickly. Though I continued to go to Church, work on becoming an ordained minister (to recapture the Jesus moment) and talk-the-Jesus-saved-my-life-talk for years.

    With others I’ve know, it’s lasted longer. Like my dad who dropped religion for 20-years, had a Jesus moment and was Captain Pious (including Church Secretary, on the committees, etc.) for the twenty (or so) years. Only, as I said in another post, he’s slipped all the way back to Deist and hasn’t been to church for three years now.

    So, a lot of the time I think Collins had one of those “Jesus moments” that brought him to his faith proclamations. But those moments, frequently, don’t last. They either weaken to a far vaguer faith, or the person (like me) ends up being an atheist (or agnostic) all over again.

    Now that I’ve read this piece, I really believe that he’s no longer the evangelical he once was. But is a deist, as it suggests, and is just living a lie. Meanwhile, his faith will continue to slowly fade away to some base level he can tolerate.

  25. “Why are we all here? Why is there something instead of nothing? Is there a God? Isn’t it clear that those aren’t scientific questions and that science doesn’t have much to say about them?”

    Strange thing to say, if Collins uses the fine-tuning argument to bolster belief in God. Fine-tuning is an argument from science, meaning God IS a scientific question. What’s he playing at? Is it just that if he relies on fine-tuning alone he makes God vulnerable to being falsified if the fine-tuning argument is falsified, and so he’s hedging his bets and making it so that, if fine-tuning is falsified, he can just resort to ‘God is not a scientific question anyway’?

    That’s weak.

    1. It’s a classic “heads I win, tails you lose” strategy common to the religious — “Our god can be shown to exist by science, but if not, then only faith is needed.” One sees other instances of this, such as “Miracles prove our god exists, but of course it doesn’t do miracles now”, and the related “Science and religion are just different ways of viewing the world, but religious claims are True”.

  26. Holy crap, religion sure addles his brain.

    “Why are we all here?”
    Science had already answered that one; we don’t know every tiny detail, in fact we know that we cannot determine every tiny detail but we can verify likely mechanisms even for the origins of life (as opposed to the already well established evolution of species).

    “Why is there something instead of nothing?”
    Philosophers and mathematicians had already answered that one decades ago: the question is meaningless. Religions of course each promote their own meaningless answer to the meaningless question. Ask Collins if it was Brahma or Yahweh or Allah who created the “something” and how religion resolves the question of which of them is right.

    “Is there a God?”
    Duh! I thought the answer to that would have been pretty goddamned obvious: No Francis, there is no God. And sorry Virginia, you’ve been had – there’s no Santa Claus either.

  27. What struck me most about this interview was not only the NOMA-ism, but the fact that he doesn’t seem to realise that those questions he suggested were firmly in the realm of religious folks and philosophers, are in fact answered by scientists as we speak.The fact that we don’t know everything yet doesn’t mean we’re not going to get there eventually.

  28. So, science can’t answer these ‘philosophical questions’, thus it’s okay to just take a stab at the dark and declare it so? Hmm…

    Philosophy’s best contribution to thought is skepticism. A shame Collins missed out on that.

  29. Like most theists Collins can believe all manner of things on scant evidence or reason. And there is little need for these beliefes to be consistent and not contradictory. As such on a good day after conversing w rationalists he expouses deist ideas. On another day after being influenced by people of faith he spouts beliefs that only a full blown theist faithead would consider. As smart and acomplished a man as he is he apparently doesn’t have t ability to see contradictions staring him in his face.

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