Francis Collins is ticked off at atheists

July 29, 2011 • 10:39 pm

Speaking at an editorial board meeting at USA TodayNational Insitutes of Health director Francis Collins, an evangelical Christian, has struck out at atheists. He’s particularly upset at some critical comments made by Steven Pinker that were first reported on this website.  Collins now argues that the conflicts between religion and science are “overstated.”

Asked about complaints from researchers such as Harvard’s Steven Pinker, over an avowed Christian heading a scientific agency, Collins said, “angry atheists are out there using science as a club to to hit believers over the head.” He expressed concern that prominent researchers suggesting that one can’t believe in evolution and believe in God, may be “causing a lot of people not familiar with science to change their assessments of it.”

“A person’s private beliefs should not keep him from a public position,” Pinker wrote in 2009. “But Collins is an advocate of profoundly anti-scientific beliefs, and it is reasonable for the scientific community to ask him how these beliefs will affect his administration,” he added. Collins later support for NIH human embryonic stem cell research later earned him more favorable reviews from scientists such as Alan Leshner of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

And Collins is still an advocate of profoundly anti-scientific beliefs, including the notion that the laws of physics indicate fine-tuning by a deity (the same one who freezes waterfalls in three parts), and that human morality—which he calls “The Moral Law”—can’t be explained by evolution, ergo Jesus. (I’m publishing a response to the latter idea within the next few days.)

I’m still awaiting evidence for Collins’s accommodationist claim that those who argue for an incompatibility between science and faith have turned many people away from science.  What we do know is that those arguments have turned many people away from faith, which is of course a good thing.

Collins has, of course, again overstepped his boundaries as NIH director. To see this, imagine if he was an atheist instead of a Christian, and “struck out at angry religious people” for trying to blur the boundaries between science and superstition. Imagine if he said that religious people were using Jesus as a club to hit the scientifically-minded over the head. Collins would be fired in a millisecond, and religious people would come down on him like a ton of bricks.  His ability to get away with this as America’s most famous government scientist shows the profound asymmetry between theists and atheists in America.

Here’s my response to Collins’s claim of science/faith comity, published last year in USA Today.

48 thoughts on “Francis Collins is ticked off at atheists

  1. I love reading the comments of fundamentalists, whether of the theistic or atheistic variety. They’re always so funny. “By” the way, which deity do you want to buy? (preview is your friend. It helps you look a little less silly)

      1. Considering the money that Churches want you to give them, perhaps you should have left it as “buy”.

      1. Atheists who are polite and keep their mouths shut about theists, god(s), and religion are OK and not fundamentalists, dontcha know? If they are otherwise impolite, they’re fundamentalists.

    1. Shouldn’t you at least read what atheists say before commenting on the subject? Pinker’s comment covers many, perhaps all, atheists:

      “For example, I see science as not just cures for diseases and better gadgets but an ideal for how to think about the most important issues facing us as humans– in particular, the ideal that we should seek truth through reason and evidence and not through superstition, dogma, and personal revelation.”

      That is, since atheism is compatible with science, we seek evidence; the burden of evidence is on religious claims on nature.

      The reason I say “perhaps all” is because no one has been able to verify that there exists “fundamentalist atheists” either.* When asked, atheists are in general prepared to state precisely what can convince them they are wrong.

      I.e. they accept evidence if it comes. This can be observed, and no statistics or even poll says otherwise.

      That people will claim that there are “fundamentalist atheists” without accepting the burden of evidence is, of course, MO for religious thinking. It is all based on special pleading.

      Another asymmetry which is very telling of the role religion has unjustly usurped in the society.

      * I am of course using the general definition of fundamentalism here, of rigid adherence, since the specific US religious historical description is absurd to compare atheists with.

  2. Theists have to obfuscate and attack because deep in their hearts they know religion is a fraud, but without club of religion to hold over their followers’ heads they would lose their exalted position of unquestioned power.

        1. But, but… that is natural selection!

          Think of the man! Can’t we just clone Venter instead?

  3. I was rather hoping that, since the religious influence in US has as you say an “asymmetry”, someone like Collins would try to smack down affluent atheists. It doesn’t feel good, but it may open the wound for drainage.

    human morality—which he calls “The Moral Law”—can’t be explained by evolution, ergo Jesus.

    That is so funny, because I followed the first link in the quote, and that accommodationist piece has the following:

    “When it comes to hard-core biology, Collins does not look for answers in Genesis.”

    I assume Genesis says inclusive fitness is both not “hard-core” biology and incorrect.

  4. The funny thing is, as I read through articles like the one linked at USA Today, I can see that many godless people come to the same conclusion for the same reasons. (Such as faith is a hindrance to learning about things.) However, if you look at what the religious write, they may accidentally say the same thing (“murder is bad”) but they have multitudes of differing reasons (though in the case of murder, they tend to fall into a handful of camps which all boil down to “god said so”). Now how is it that godless people thinking independently come up with the same conclusions and reasons for a statement while those who claim god tells them things frequently disagree or even when they accidentally agree can disagree rather vehemently about the reasons for their conclusions.

    As for Collins – why does he allow himself to be introduced as the chief of the NIH when he goes up on stage to give religious talks? I wouldn’t object if he at least had the decency to tell everyone first off that he’s not there representing the agency and that his statements are his own personal beliefs and are not supported by the NIH.

    1. It is less efficient for his purpose, or at least Collins thinks so.

      I also assume in Collins mind one reason to have been offered the NIH job is “god-given”: so that he can peddle his god.

  5. It’s disappointing to see how easy it is, even for a man of Collin’s intelligence and education, to attempt a defence of his religious beliefs by invoking the private and personal. If only the religious kept their views private and personal! But no. With one hand clasped indelicately around the world’s collective genitalia, and encompassing the general phrase, ‘Our god is THE god,’ they interfere in our everyday lives with an intensity that Stalin and Hitler could have learned a lot from. Does Collins genuinely not see the damage that the crazy Christian fundamentalists are attempting in your lovely country? Religion has to prosletize. It’s the nature of the beast. And thus we get a fiscal budget ‘in the name of god’ rather than on behalf of the people. Collins would do better to speak out against such dichotomies, rather than waste energy on attacking atheists. Atheists are not the enemy.

  6. In the USA article, Collins concludes with:

    “I’m quite happy, and comfortable, in my middle ground, ” Collins says.”

    I guess he never studied logic and reason when he was a student:

    …and thus his happiness is purely explained by his ignorance.

    Moreover, if you ever read his book, his entire concept of “Moral Law” is also fueled by ignorance.

    so, for the Nth time for those watching from the sidelnes, the biggest complaint scientists have with Collins ISN’T necessarily his self-proclaimed religion.

    It’s his willful ignorance. Something entirely intolerable in any scientist, let alone one representing such a huge science funding agency.

  7. It is surely impossible to believe both in evolution and a god who spoke all living things into existance during the period of a few days. Believers get around this by modifying God to fit in with evolution. So now they have a god who set up the conditions for evolution to happen, a different god from the one previously believed in, because believing in that god as well as evolution would be impossible.

    1. To be fair not all religious people read the bible literally. And just suppose people thousands of years ago didn’t write it literally. Why do we have to assume that only people in the modern age are intelligent? Oh… I suppose every age thinks this….

      1. I have a simple question for any Christian who isn’t a Biblical literalist.

        Has Jesus read the King James Version of the Bible?

        Not, of course, “Did Jesus read the KJV Bible during his ministry in the first century in Judea.” That’d be silly.

        But, rather, has the Jesus who is sitting right this very moment at the right hand of the Father, the Jesus whose job it is to judge the living and the dead — has that Jesus read the KJV Bible?

        Either he has or he hasn’t.

        If he has, either he’s cool with the fact that an awful lot of his own creation tends to be rather unimaginative and is therefore equally cool with the fact that they take it literally, or he’s not cool, in which case he’s an unfit judge.

        If he hasn’t, he’s too profoundly ignorant of what’s going on down here to be a fit judge.

        If he’s read it but wishes it said something different, he’s got even less power than an earthly author does with respect to his publisher and his authorized autobiography.

        So, basically, if you’re going to buy into the line about Jesus as the ultimate judge, you’ve got to also buy into the Bible as being, literally, from Jesus’s mouth to your ears.

        Yet another example of just how utterly batshit fucking insane the whole notion of Christianity truly is….


  8. I like your response and am sure it rolled of his brain like, water off a duck’s back. Likewise I am sure he has read Vic Stenger’s, THE FALLACY OF FINE TUNING which is directed secifically toward him, but wih the same results. I have just re-read some of the APOLOGIES OF FOR THE BIBLE in response to Paine’s THE AGE OF REASON; thousands of words but never answering Tom’s questioning of the geneolgy of Jesus, etc. I am sure Collins has read them for he sounds the same; round and round he goes skirting the truth.

  9. Francis Collins: so smart and yet so deluded at the same time. I really wonder how he shuts off his brain when he gets on the topic of religion.

    Can’t he at least accept the fact that accepting the laws of science while accepting Jewish zombies is at least contradictory?

  10. Collins’ desire to silence atheists who do not toe the accommodationist line is disingenuous to say the least.

    If he had lived 150 years ago, would he have been trying to encourage Darwin to give up his book on evolution by natural selection on the basis that it would upset Christians and turn them against science too?

  11. “… Collins would be fired in a millisecond, and religious people would come down on him like a ton of bricks.”

    How true. I remember when John Lennon said (something to the effect that) The Beatles were more popular than Jesus – likely meant to be hyperbole but could well have been true among people my age at the time – and the subsequent reaction by the (American) religious right. Those “turn-it-around” arguments are very powerful.

  12. I like the Squidly One’s summary from some time back:

    Note to BioLogos: squatting in between those on the side of reason and evidence and those worshipping superstition and myth is not a better place. It just means you’re halfway to crazy town.



    1. Plus, you are sitting in shit.

      [No, really. Evidence has its own sanitary/sanity system: flush with testing.

      Obviously then, religion is the dream of pipes.]

  13. Check out this recent BioLogos propaganda (

    Jeff Schloss: “So why are Christians nervous about evolution and why do we even use a phrase like the ‘e’ word. The word itself has a negative connotation in many groups.”

    Alister McGrath: “I think in the States you have a culture war between forces of religion and secularism, and what has happened is that some people in that debate have seen science as a weapon to be used against religion. So, the first casualty in this culture war, I am afraid, has been a proper understanding of what science is and then how it relates to religion.”


    Tennessee v. Scopes, Edward v. Aguillard, Kitzmiller v. Dover, and millions of Christians past and present indoctrinating their kids in creationism while telling them that evolution is from the devil — all that and more, and BioLogos has the nerve to say that Christians are nervous about evolution because atheists challenge superstitious beliefs?

    Apart from being tremendously and multi-leveledly ironic, this kind of “othering” is the hallmark of bigotry. Have a problem? Just blame a group of people you don’t like.

  14. I am A-OK with Francis Collins being NIH director and espousing a belief in God or in the Green Juju as the Creator as long as he does his job as NIH director. One of the very best books on evolution I have read is “Relics of Eden” by Daniel Fairbanks a book that explains the evidence for evolution from the standpoint of dna and genetics. Fairbanks declares prominently that he is a devout Mormon yet presents some of the most compelling evidence for evolution I have read anywhere as strong as Coyne’s own WEIT.

    The job of NIH director is to use science to create better and new treatments for diseases and to improve the overall health of the nation. If Collins believes that a supernatural being is the source of the natural laws that govern physics and evolution I do not think his position as NIH director is compromised. Do we also apply the atheist litmus test to our college and high school biology professors? Do we deny jobs that require scientific skills to persons who espouse religious beliefs? A slippery slope indeed.

    1. So how do you explain Collins obvious problems with evolution?

      – He claims that moral behavior comes from his gods. At the same time inclusive fitness predicts scores of such social behavior.

      – He promotes evolutionary creationism instead of evolution. I.e. there is “governing” which is the creation of an agent, instead of the outcome a result of a natural non-agent process.*

      His NIH position is severely compromised as long as he doesn’t keep his private beliefs private, but insists to promote them as part of his NIH package.

      * Btw, I would suspect Fairbanks does something similar. Why would he else have to declare his religious views?

      1. So far as I know Collins has not been derelict in any of his duties as NIH director and this article does not present any evidence to support that case. In fact the article notes that Collins came out in support of stem cell research. If Collins wants to philosophize on evolution and the compatibility of science and faith using his own dime, time and resources then again I don’t have a problem with it.

        There seems to be an implicit argument being thrown about that religious people cannot do good science. Well up through the end of the 19th century a significant majority of scientists were religious or believed in God and yet somehow made significant contributions to science. Even now in 2011 a slight majority of scientists still believe in God. People can and do compartmentalize. To suggest that he cannot function effectively as NIH director because he is a committed Christian and says so publicly smacks of bigotry.

        1. First of all, EVERYONE was religious until fairly recently, so to say that a majority of scientists were religious until the end of the 19th century is to say almost nothing. Second, who has said that Collins could not do his job as NIH director? What most of us have said is that he demeans his job by polluting it with woo, and by lending his scientific cachet to unscientific statements like “morality proves God.” Nobody I know of us called for his resignation. But believe me, if an atheist NIH director said of religion what Collins has said of atheism, that director would be fired in an instant. The bigotry is on the part of the religious, not the atheists.

          1. I brought up the fact that the majority of scientists were until fairly recently religious because there seems to an implicit argument being made in the postings here that religious people are stupid and incapable of understanding and doing good science. That is obviously not true.

            I see nothing inflammatory in Collins USA today article. He qualifies his statement by saying “angry” atheists are using science as a club to hit believers over the head. If he was an atheist and had said something like “angry” believers are using religion to obstruct the progress of science I doubt there would be much of uproar about it because it is obvious to me that he is referring to a specific segment within the community and not the community as a whole. Given the militant nature of some of the postings and polemics against religion I’ve read here he may have a small point.

            1. Where, exactly, does anyone say (or even imply) that “religious people are incapable of doing good science”? The argument is that some scientists, like Collins, are pushing superstition, not that their science is bad.

            2. Please give an example of “militant nature” of atheists here.

              “Militant”? Really? I think this caricature may exist only in your head. Go ahead and show us the most “militant” thing you’ve read here or from a prominent atheist. I want to see what it is that you think is “militant” in the atheist.

              And what would make a theist “militant”?

              From my readings, atheists are far more pacifistic than their critics.

              Your anti-atheist bigotry is showing. When people make slurs about vague unnamed militant atheists, I refer to them as “Tom Johnson” stories. Until evidence is provided, I’ll assume these militant atheists more in your mind than in reality– kind of like Francis Collin’s 3-in-1 Jesus-god.

              1. Calling TheMuse a bigot is simply BS. I think that there are indeed angry atheists as well there should be, e.g. anger at the intrusion of religious dogma in the biology classroom is completely justifiable. Militant atheists – of course. Go read the archives. I don’t recollect anyone calling for death as have the insane Xian’s noted in a recent WEIT post; however you will find reference to Collins and others as “fucking idiots” etc. here. Then you qualify and say “a prominent atheist,” and I would agree that perhaps folks like PZ should perhaps be considered harsh rather than militant – but surely PZ is often rightfully angry.

            3. He qualifies his statement by saying “angry” atheists are using science as a club to hit believers over the head.

              Have you any idea how tiresome this continuous calumny is that atheists are a bunch of angry soulless golems with no love of life?


    2. Yup, from one Amazon reviewer:

      “The final two chapters consist of an appeal to both sides of what Fairbanks characterizes as a false dichotomy: that somehow faith and reason cannot co-exist. Without detailing his own beliefs, Fairbanks makes it clear that he is a man of faith who believes in God as Creator.”

      The same evolutionary creationism as Collins.

  15. Amazing, Francis Collins still hasn’t figured out how waterfalls freeze. The tide goes in, the tide goes out and some people in the United States don’t even know how or why that happens. Which might not be noteworthy except that the citizenry of the United States promotes such people to positions of significance.

  16. Given that Collins’ religious beliefs include a belief in free will, he believes that he chooses to believe what he believes, whereas I believe it more rational to argue that Collins is caused to believe what he believes. It seems to me that the question is simply one of what it is about Collins’ genes and environment that cause him to believe the things he does. If it is possible for any argument to change his thinking on the God issue, either it hasn’t yet been made or hasn’t yet gotten past the environmental factors that constrain his thinking.

  17. When did Steven Pinker become an “angry” atheist?

    It seems that people who imagine gods are also good at imagining anger in those who don’t believe in their gods.

  18. I saw a video clip at the Washington Post website a few years back in which Collins criticized both creationists and atheists. He accused atheists of making a caricature of religion which he “did not recognize.” The problem is that when you add 7-day creationists to ID creationists, you get around 70% of the US population (maybe even 85% or more). That’s not a caricature in which the fringe is (dishonestly) portrayed as mainstream – that is a huge chunk of the population. Sad man.

  19. I guess Niagara Falls and Victoria Falls must be evidence for the polytheism of the Hindus.

    How could a scientist reach such an absurd conclusion? A poetic imagination is not a bad thing. But it is not one of the tools of science, and scientists obviously can not allow such magical and wishful thinking to cloud their judgement. That is the road to bad science.

    Here is an excellent article that discusses how the Islamic faith retarded Arab science long ago.

    It doesn’t take much imagination to see this as a plausible explanation for the lagging prosperity in Islamic countries today.

  20. Francis Collins is well aware of the longstanding assault on science, science education, and reason by his fellow Christians and yet he directs a disproportionate amount of criticism and condemnation at those who stoically defend science and rational thought. Does Dr. Collins not understand that the real and proven threat is not from the defenders of science and rational thought but rather zealous religious dogmatism and its adherents?

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