A short Francis Collins interview on the BBC

May 23, 2020 • 11:00 am

Here’s a short (7.5-minute) interview with NIH director and Templeton Prize awardee Francis Collins that was played on NPR yesterday but came from the BBC Newshour.  Collins answers questions about God, evil, coronavirus, and so on, but you may already be familiar with his theological views, which are at the preceding link.

Collins’s interview starts at 30:07 and ends at 37:34; click on the screenshot below to hear it.

You’ll hear that Collins is scientific and religious because science answers the “how” questions but—citing Steve Gould’s NOMA hypothesis—only religion can answer the “why” questions, questions like “Is there a God?”, or “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Collins claims that faith provides the answer to these questions, but of course it does not. Collins knows there’s a God because humans have a “moral law” (a ridiculous idea), but I’d like to hear how his Christianity answers the second question. Is “God did it” the answer to “why is there something instead of nothing?”

When asked why the coronavirus has killed so many (the question of “physical evil”), Collins has no answer. When asked if the virus is a “God-given plague”, he says that faith provides the answer, which is “no”. But then when pressed about why God would allow so many people to suffer, and whether there’s a moral dimension to the suffering, Collins says this:

“The question of suffering and its meaning and why a loving God would allow it is one of the toughest ones that both believers and nonbelievers have to wrestle with. I don’t have an easy answer to that and I grieve for all those who are suffering and all those who have lost family members to this terrible plague. . .”

Now that’s just plain weird.  Why do nonbelievers have to wrestle with the question of suffering? It’s a non-question for atheists, or at least an empirical question that has no “why” answer. And the secular answer is better than any religious ones. All we have to say is this: “It’s a virus that’s evolved to do its thing in the cells of other organisms, and its reproduction involves killing the cells and getting passed on through respiratory droplets.” I suspect that Collins wasn’t thinking about what he was saying here.

He then rabbits on about how we have some valuable lessons to learn from the pandemic—perhaps the reason God allows that suffering!—including pondering the “significance of suffering in general” and learning that (he quotes Scripture), “humans should not expect to be free of suffering.”

Collins ends by trying further to make a virtue out of necessity by arguing that the pandemic gives us a chance to ponder the Big Questions (which is what the Templeton prize is for)—questions about suffering, about our own natures, about our relationships, about what love means, and about what happens to us when we die.  Of course we can ponder these, but faith provides no better answers—and probably worse ones—than does Collins’s evangelical Christianity.

Listen to a very smart man who has become deluded by adherence to Iron Age mythology.

43 thoughts on “A short Francis Collins interview on the BBC

  1. I don’t doubt Collins’ sincerity, or maybe I do, but it is worth pointing out that all the press attention he gets, not to mention his $1.3 million Templeton prize, comes about because of his religious views. If he had just stuck to science, probably few people outside the field of genetics would listen to him or even have heard of him.

      1. Remember Martin Rees getting it? He is a soft-on-godder – attends some services etc but is not a believer. I like him, I respect him as a scientist & a human being, but does he have to wimp out & accept the prize? Either that was cynical, or unthinking, or maybe he really does not think it terribly important. At least Collins is open about it, although it is an incoherent position to rely on god to give him a fantasy after-life.

        I seem to recall the late Jonathan Miller being an atheist, but not at all interested in taking that further & not finding it of any interest to discuss- a sort of “there is no god – next question?”

        1. Or Paul Davies, whose science books I enjoy. Davies is very coy. He appears to be an agnostic who is just “spiritual” enough to cash in on a Templeton.

          1. Paul Davies is even more coy than that.

            “Davies adheres to no standard religious creed and makes it clear that his notions of a deity are far from what many people hear in Sunday school class.

            God is neither “an old man in the sky pressing a button” nor an “interventionist God,” he said, but rather a “timeless, eternal thing, an abstract notion” that lies outside the ken of conventional science.

            Two years ago, Davies resigned his chair in mathematical physics at Adelaide to free himself to write, lecture and otherwise “bring the message of science and religion to the people.” He said he will use the Templeton money to support his research into the natures of time and consciousness and extraterrestrial life.

            “All have far-reaching theological implications,” Davies said.

            [ https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1995-03-11-me-41323-story.html ]

        2. However, Miller did write and host the excellent TV program “Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief” (known in the US as “A Brief History of Disbelief”). The interviews conducted for the program were also made available later on as “The Atheism Tapes.”

          All of the programs can be watched here:

    1. A reading of commentary by Sophisticated Theologians® (them as Knows) leads me to believe that suffering is simply the manner in which the god of the Sons of Abraham (the Templeton God) prepares its puppets to enter Paradise, apparently operating rather in the manner of my meat tenderizer. We know this because no one who has never suffered has ever been admitted to Heaven; Sophisticated Theologians® tell us so. This is also why religious folk prohibit those who are dying horribly from obtaining humane medically-assisted death; the suffering is simply the god’s manner of tenderizing ’em, and they by God deserve it.
      This being said, I believe I have solved this question of suffering, and will now graciously accept my three million American dollars. My preference is that delivery be made privately, and in the form of unmarked American legal tender, and my humble thanks to all.

  2. he says that faith provides the answer,

    He must like Monopoly because Monopoly has get out of jail free cards too.

    1. It is; just ask Paul Manafort. (He’s home now from his tax-fraud & money-laundering beef regarding all his foreign income so available for consulting work.)

        1. I reckon publicity precludes him from taking the money off the books, in a suitcase fulla cash, Manafort-style.

          1. Depends. Not all to his church, I hope. If he gives it to medicine and science I will be happy. And we will know where his true allegiance lies.

            1. I hope he doesn’t pay for 1000 shamans to pray for the end to the pandemic. As a medical man, I rather suspect he’ll put aside his delusions and invest in vaccine development.

  3. In an atheistic, naturalistic Cosmos, the reason that natural evil happens is because evil [i]can[/i] happen. As for why there is something rather than nothing, Dr. Collins would do well to Google the Quantum Eternity Theorem. As I recall, Dr. Collins took courses in Quantum Mechanics while in college. I believe that the normalization of the Schrodinger Equation implies a beginningless Universe. Professor Wes Morriston addresses this question on his website. Professor David Griffiths also discusses the normalization of the Schrodinger Equation is his classic undergraduate text, stating that such implies eternal time. The debate between Professor Sean Carroll of the California Institute of Technology and Dr. William Lane Craig, an evangelical Christian apologist (available on YouTube), is both entertaining and informative, well worth a few hours of Dr. Collin’s time, since he is able to find time to sit for interviews regarding his religious faith.

    1. As for why there is something rather than nothing, my answer is were there nothing we wouldn’t be here to ask the question. Something just is. This seems so obvious to me I fear I may be wrong. Please advise.

      1. If we weren’t here, there would still be ‘something’ since we know very well that our universe carried on for billions of years just fine before our solar system was even formed. So why is there something is a mystery, but it ain’t here for us.

        1. Do I understand you to be saying even though human consciousness may never have arisen there would still be something?

        2. That question has always irritated me, just because it’s given such an absurd weight that it doesn’t deserve.
          The truth is that ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ does. not. make. sense. A writer-philosopher called Jim Holt wrote an entire book* delving into it when the truth is he was just asking a nonsensical question.

          The reason it’s nonsense turns on the fact that everyone who takes the question seriously inevitably conceptualises ‘nothing’, and as soon as they conceptualise it(in any way at all) they’ve turned it into something. But nothing really is nothing: and it therefore can’t be framed in opposition to ‘something’. It’s the ultimate category error…talking about something that isn’t as though it is.

          When people say ‘the alternative to something is nothing’ what they’ve actually said is ‘there is no alternative to something’. Something, whatever that something is, necessarily has to exist simply because there is no alternative to it.

          *an entertaining book, but IMO wrong from the start and all the way through. Still worth a read though.

  4. Seems to me Collins illustrates a psychological tendency of reverting to childhood in the face of stresses. It’s comforting to think you have an ersatz parent looking over your shoulder to keep you safe. Like college kids petting kittens. The really notable thing is, here we can see that the syndrome afflicts very accomplished adults, not just the low information and low status segment of the population. The phenomenon is truly remarkable and worthy of serious study.

    1. I believe that it is lamas, not kittens. At least that is what they were doing at Northwestern, my daughter’s school.

    2. ” It’s comforting to think you have an ersatz parent looking over your shoulder to keep you safe. Like college kids petting kittens.”

      It has just occurred to me that it might be the other way round, with Jesus being the ersatz kitten.

  5. In Bill Maher’s movie, Religulous, he interviews Collins. He comes across as a confused dolt! I think his conversion story has to do with a couple of frozen waterfalls that he saw.

  6. Just a shout out to Dawn. Dig the phrase, “beginningless universe”. Its worthy of Monty Python—worthy of the befuddled Collins as well. No malice intent. Just a random remark on a curious phraseology.

  7. I continue to be offended that devotees of
    “the Big Questions” never mention the BIGGEST question of them all: when we close the door of our refrigerator, does the little light really turn off or does it stay on? And the second biggest question, I feel, is this: is the 25-year old jar of Nate’s Pickled Shrimps discovered in the back of my frig still edible?

    1. I heard someone say the answer is ‘yes the light goes off, now let me the fuck out, I’m freezing’.

  8. As per usual I would like to ask Collins how he testably defines “nothing” and why we would consider such an extraordinary claim when we don’t have such extraordinary data? After all, all we see is “something” with no apparent initial or final horizons in space and time.

    And ask how he then can turn around and assert that magic isn’t testable. After all, all we see is natural and so on and so forth.

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