The Strange Case of Francis Collins

August 6, 2009

[Note: My recent op-ed in the New York Times, in which I questioned the appointment of Francis Collins as head of the NIH, inspired a fair amount of discussion in the media and on the Internet. As many of Collins’ defenders do not seem to be fully acquainted with his beliefs, or take it for granted that others won’t be, I have written a longer essay on the subject. While most of this material is new, a few passages were previously published.]


It is widely claimed that there can be no conflict, in principle, between science and religion because many scientists are themselves “religious,” and some even believe in the God of Abraham and in the truth of ancient miracles. Even religious extremists value some of the products of science—antibiotics, computers, bombs, etc.—and these seeds of inquisitiveness, we are told, can be patiently nurtured in a way that offers no insult to religious faith.

This prayer of reconciliation goes by many names and now has many advocates. But it is based on a fallacy. The fact that some scientists do not detect any problem with religious faith merely proves that a juxtaposition of good ideas/methods and bad ones is possible. Is there a conflict between marriage and infidelity? The two regularly coincide. The fact that intellectual honesty can be confined to a ghetto—in a single brain, in an institution, in a culture—does not mean that there isn’t a perfect contradiction between reason and faith, or between the worldview of science taken as a whole and those advanced by the world’s “great,” and greatly discrepant, religions.

What can be shown by example is how poorly religious scientists manage to reconcile reason and faith when they actually attempt to do so. Few such efforts have received more public attention than the work of Francis Collins.  At the time of this writing, Collins seems destined to be the next director of the National Institutes of Health.  One must admit that his credentials are impeccable: he is a physical chemist, a medical geneticist, and the former head of the Human Genome Project. He is also, by his own account, living proof that there is no conflict between science and religion. In 2006, Collins published a bestselling book, The Language of God, in which he claims to demonstrate “a consistent and profoundly satisfying harmony” between 21st-century science and Evangelical Christianity. Let it be known that “consistency” and “harmony” can be in the eye of the beholder.

In fact, to read The Language of God is to witness nothing less than an intellectual suicide. It is, however, a suicide that has gone almost entirely unacknowledged: The body yielded to the rope; the neck snapped; the breath subsided; and the corpse dangles in ghastly discomposure even now—and yet, polite people everywhere continue to celebrate the great man’s health.

Dr. Collins is regularly praised by his fellow scientists for what he is not: he is not a “young earth creationist,” nor is he a proponent of “intelligent design.” Given the state of the evidence for evolution, these are both very good things for a scientist not to be. But as director of the institutes, Collins will have more responsibility for biomedical and health-related research than any person on earth, controlling an annual budget of more than $30 billion. He will also be one of the foremost representatives of science in the United States. For this reason, it is important to understand Collins’ religious beliefs as they relate to scientific inquiry.

Here is how Collins, as a scientist and educator, currently summarizes his understanding of the universe for the general public (what follows are a series of slides, presented in order, from a lecture that Collins gave at the University of California, Berkeley in 2008):

Slide 1

Almighty God, who is not limited in space or time, created a universe 13.7 billion years ago with its parameters precisely tuned to allow the development of complexity over long periods of time.

Slide 2

God’s plan included the mechanism of evolution to create the marvelous diversity of living things on our planet. Most especially, that creative plan included human beings.

Slide 3

After evolution had prepared a sufficiently advanced “house” (the human brain), God gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the Moral Law), with free will, and with an immortal soul.

Slide 4

We humans use our free will to break the moral law, leading to our estrangement from God. For Christians, Jesus is the solution to that estrangement.

Slide 5

If the Moral Law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as good or evil. It’s all an illusion. We’ve been hoodwinked. Are any of us, especially the strong atheists, really prepared to live our lives within that worldview?

Is it really so difficult to perceive a conflict between Collins’ science and his religion? Just imagine how scientific it would seem if Collins, as a devout Hindu, informed his audience that Lord Brahma had created the universe and now sleeps; Lord Vishnu sustains it and tinkers with our DNA (in a way that respects the law of karma and rebirth); and Lord Shiva will eventually destroy it in a great conflagration. Is there any chance that he would be running the NIH if he were an outspoken polytheist?

It is worth recalling in this context that it is, in fact, possible for a brilliant scientist to destroy his career by saying something stupid. James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, a Nobel laureate, and the original head of the Human Genome Project, recently accomplished this feat by asserting in an interview that people of African descent appear to be innately less intelligent than white Europeans. A few sentences, spoken off the cuff, resulted in academic defenestration: lecture invitations were revoked, award ceremonies cancelled, and Watson was forced to immediately resign his post as chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Watson’s opinions on race are disturbing, but his underlying point was not, in principle, unscientific. There may very well be detectable differences in intelligence between races. Given the genetic consequences of a population living in isolation for tens of thousands of years it would, in fact, be very surprising if there were no  differences between racial or ethnic groups waiting to be discovered. I say this not to defend Watson’s fascination with race, or to suggest that such race-focused research might be worth doing. I am merely observing that there is, at least, a possible scientific basis for his views. While Watson’s statement was obnoxious, one cannot say that his views are utterly irrational or that, by merely giving voice to them, he has repudiated the scientific worldview and declared himself immune to its further discoveries. Such a distinction would have to be reserved for Watson’s successor at the Human Genome Project, Dr. Francis Collins.

Early in his career as a physician, Collins encountered a woman suffering from severe angina who appeared to take great comfort in her faith. She put the young doctor on the spot by asking him what he believed. This question shook Collins to his core. He says, “suddenly all my arguments seemed very thin, and I had the sensation that the ice under my feet was cracking.” Collins assures us that up until this moment he had been a staunch atheist.

How something breaks often says a lot about what it was. Collins’s claim to have been an atheist seems especially suspect, given that he does not understand what the position of atheism actually entails. For instance:

If God is outside of nature, then science can neither prove nor disprove his existence. Atheism itself must therefore be considered a form of blind faith, in that it adopts a belief system that cannot be defended on the basis of pure reason. (Collins, 2006, p.165)

Elsewhere he says that of “all the possible worldviews, atheism is the least rational” (Ibid, p. 231). I suspect that this will not be the last time a member of our species will be obliged to make the following point (but one can always hope): disbelief in the God of Abraham does not require that one search the entire cosmos and find Him absent; it only requires that one consider the evidence put forward by believers to be insufficient. Presumably Francis Collins does not believe in Zeus. I trust he considers this skeptical attitude to be fully justified. Might this be because there are no good reasons to believe in Zeus? And what would he say to a person who claimed that disbelief in Zeus is a form of “blind faith” or that of all possible worldviews it is the “least rational”?

After being destabilized by his patient’s faith, Collins attempted to fill the God-shaped hole in his life by studying the world’s major religions. He admits, however, that he did not get very far with this research before seeking the tender mercies of “a Methodist minister who lived down the street.” In fact, Collins’ ignorance of world religion is prodigious. For instance, he regularly repeats the Christian talking point about Jesus being the only person in human history who ever claimed to be God (as though this would render the opinions of an uneducated carpenter of the 1st century especially credible). Collins seems oblivious to the fact that saints, yogis, charlatans, and schizophrenics by the thousands claim to be God at this very moment, and it has always been thus. Forty years ago, a very unprepossessing Charles Manson convinced a rather large band of misfits in the San Fernando Valley that he was both God and Jesus. (Should we consult Manson on questions of cosmology? He still walks among us—or at least sits—in Corcoran State Prison.) The fact that Collins, as both a scientist and as an influential apologist for religion, repeatedly emphasizes the silly fiction of Jesus’ singular self-appraisal is one of many embarrassing signs that he has lived too long in the echo chamber of Evangelical Christianity.

But the pilgrim continues his progress. Next, we learn that Collins’ uncertainty about the identity of God could not survive a collision with C.S. Lewis. The following passage from Lewis proved decisive:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—- on a level with the man who says He is a poached egg—- or else He would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

Collins provides this text for our contemplation and then describes how it boosted him over the church transom:

Lewis was right. I had to make a choice. A full year had passed since I decided to believe in some sort of God, and now I was being called to account. On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains during my first trip west of the Mississippi, the majesty and beauty of God’s creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ. (Ibid, p. 225)

It is simply astounding that this passage was written by a scientist with the intent of demonstrating the compatibility of faith and reason. While Collins argues for the rational basis of his faith, passages like this make it clear that he “decided” (his word) to believe in God for emotional reasons. And if we thought Collins’ reasoning could grow no more labile, he has since divulged that the waterfall was frozen into three streams, which put him in mind of the Holy Trinity.

It should be obvious that if a frozen waterfall can confirm the specific tenets of Christianity, anything can confirm anything. But this truth was not obvious to Collins as he “knelt in the dewy grass,” and it is not obvious to him now. Indeed, it does not seem to be obvious to the editors of Nature. This journal, which remains the most influential scientific publication on earth, praised Collins for engaging “with people of faith to explore how science — both in its mode of thought and its results — is consistent with their religious beliefs.” According to Nature, Collins was engaged in the “moving” and “laudable” exercise of building “a bridge across the social and intellectual divide that exists between most of US academia and the so-called heartlands.” And here is Collins, hard at work on that bridge:

As believers, you are right to hold fast to the concept of God as Creator; you are right to hold fast to the truths of the Bible; you are right to hold fast to the conclusion that science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence; and you are right to hold fast to the certainty that the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted…. (Collins, 2006, p.178)

God, who is not limited to space and time, created the universe and established natural laws that govern it. Seeking to populate this otherwise sterile universe with living creatures, God chose the elegant mechanism of evolution to create microbes, plants, and animals of all sorts. Most remarkably, God intentionally chose the same mechanism to give rise to special creatures who would have intelligence, a knowledge of right and wrong, free will, and a desire to seek fellowship with Him. He also knew these creatures would ultimately choose to disobey the Moral Law. (Ibid, p. 200-201)

Imagine: the year is 2006; half of the American population believes that the universe is 6,000 years old; our president had just used his first veto to block federal funding for the most promising medical research on religious grounds; and one of the foremost scientists in the land had that to say, straight from the heart (if not the brain).

Collins has since started an organization called the BioLogos Foundation, whose purpose (in the words of its mission statement) is to demonstrate “the compatibility of the Christian faith with what science has discovered about the origins of the universe and life.” BioLogos is funded by the Templeton Foundation, a religious organization that, because of its astonishing wealth, has managed to purchase the complicity of otherwise secular scientists as it seeks to re-brand religious faith as a legitimate arm of science.

Would Collins have received the same treatment in Nature if he had argued for the compatibility between science and witchcraft, astrology, or Tarot cards? Not a chance. In fact, we can be confident that his scientific career would have terminated in an inferno of criticism. As a point of comparison, we should recall that the biochemist Rupert Sheldrake had his academic career neatly decapitated by a single Nature editorial. In his book A New Science of Life, Sheldrake advanced a theory of “morphic resonance,” in an attempt to account for how living systems and other patterns in nature develop. Needless to say, the theory stands a very good chance of being utterly wrong. But there is not a single sentence in Sheldrake’s book to rival the intellectual dishonesty that Collins achieves on nearly every page of The Language of God.  What accounts for the double standard? Clearly, it remains taboo to criticize mainstream religion (which, in the West, means Christianity, Judaism, and Islam).

As should come as no surprise, once the eyes of faith have opened, confirmation is everywhere. Here Collins considers whether to accept the directorship of the Human Genome Project:

I spent a long afternoon praying in a little chapel, seeking guidance about this decision. I did not “hear” God speak—in fact, I’ve never had that experience. But during those hours, ending in an evensong service that I had not expected, a peace settled over me. A few days later, I accepted the offer. (p. 119)

One hopes to see, but does not find, the phrase “Dear Diary” framing these solemn excursions from honest reasoning. Again we find a peculiar emphasis on the most unremarkable violations of expectation: Just as Collins had not expected to see a frozen waterfall, he had not expected an evensong service. How unlikely would it be to encounter an evensong service (generally celebrated just before sunset) while spending “a long afternoon praying in a little chapel”? And what of Collins’ feeling of “peace”? We are clearly meant to view it as some indication, however slight, of the veracity of his religious beliefs. Elsewhere in his book Collins states, correctly, that “monotheism and polytheism cannot both be right.” But doesn’t he think that at some point in the last thousand years a Hindu or two has prayed in a temple, perhaps to the elephant-headed god Ganesh, and experienced similar feelings of peace? What might he, as a scientist, make of this fact?

There is an epidemic of scientific ignorance in the United States. This isn’t surprising, as very few scientific truths are self-evident, and many are deeply counterintuitive. It is by no means obvious that empty space has structure or that we share a common ancestor with both the housefly and the banana. It can be difficult to think like a scientist (even, we have begun to see, if one is a scientist). But it would seem that few things make thinking like a scientist more difficult than religion.

Collins argues that science makes belief in God “intensely plausible”—the Big Bang, the fine-tuning of Nature’s constants, the emergence of complex life, the effectiveness of mathematics, all suggest to him that a “loving, logical, and consistent” God exists; but when challenged with alternate (and far more plausible) accounts of these phenomena—or with evidence that suggests that God might be unloving, illogical, inconsistent, or, indeed, absent—Collins declares that God stands outside of Nature, and thus science cannot address the question of His existence at all. Similarly, Collins insists that our moral intuitions attest to God’s existence, to His perfectly moral character, and to His desire to have fellowship with every member of our species; but when our moral intuitions recoil at the casual destruction of innocent children by, say, tidal wave or earthquake, Collins assures us that our time-bound notions of good and evil can’t be trusted and that God’s will is a mystery.

Like most Christians, Collins believes in a suite of canonical miracles, including the virgin birth and literal resurrection of Jesus Christ. He cites N.T. Wright and John Polkinghorne as the best authorities on these matters, and when pressed on points of theology, he recommends that people read their books for further illumination. To give the reader a taste of this literature, here is Polkinghorne describing the physics of the coming resurrection of the dead:

If we regard human beings as psychosomatic unities, as I believe both the Bible and contemporary experience of the intimate connection between mind and brain encourage us to do, then the soul will have to be understood in an Aristotelian sense as the “form,” or information-bearing pattern, of the body. Though this pattern is dissolved at death it seems perfectly rational to believe that it will be remembered by God and reconstituted in a divine act of resurrection. The “matter” of the world to come, which will be the carrier of the reembodiment, will be the transformed matter of the present universe, itself redeemed by God beyond its cosmic death. The resurrected universe is not a second attempt by the Creator to produce a world ex nihilo but it is the transmutation of the present world in an act of new creation ex vetere. God will then truly be “all in all” (1Cor.15:28) in a totally sacramental universe whose divine infused “matter” will be delivered from the transience and decay inherent in the present physical process. Such mysterious and exciting beliefs depend for their motivation not only on the faithfulness of God, but also on Christ’s resurrection, understood as the seminal event from which the new creation grows, and indeed also on the detail of the empty tomb, with its implication that the Lord’s risen and glorified body is the transmutation of his dead body, just as the world to come will be the transformation of this present mortal world. [Polkinghorne JC (2003) Belief in God in an age of science. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. pp. 22-23]

These beliefs are, indeed, “mysterious and exciting.” As it happens, Polkinghorne is also a scientist. The problem, however, is that it is impossible to differentiate his writing on religion—which now fills an entire shelf of books—from an extraordinarily patient Sokal-style hoax. If one intended to embarrass the religious establishment with carefully constructed nonsense, this is exactly the sort of pseudo-science, pseudo-scholarship, and pseudo-reasoning one would employ. Unfortunately, I see no reason to doubt Polkinghorne’s sincerity. Neither, it would seem, does Francis Collins.

Even for a scientist of Collins’ stature, who has struggled to reconcile his belief in the divinity of Jesus with modern science, it all boils down to the “empty tomb.” Indeed, Collins freely admits that if all his scientific arguments for the plausibility of God were proven to be in error, his faith would be undiminished, as it is founded upon the belief, shared by all serious Christians, that the Gospel account of the miracles of Jesus is true. For a scientist, Collins speaks with remarkable naïveté about the Gospel account being the “record of eyewitnesses.” Biblical scholars generally agree that the earliest Gospel, the Gospel of Mark, was written several decades after the events it purports to describe. Of course, no one has access to the original manuscript of Mark, or of any of the other Gospels: rather, there are thousands of fragmentary copies of copies of copies, many of which show obvious errors or signs of later interpolation. The earliest of these fragments dates to second century, but for many other sections of the text we must rely on copies that were produced centuries later. One would hope that a scientist might see that these disordered and frequently discordant texts constitute a rather precarious basis for believing in the divinity of Jesus.

But the problem is actually much worse than this: for even if we had multiple, contemporaneous, first-hand accounts of the miracles of Jesus, this would still not constitute sufficient support for the central tenets of Christianity. Indeed, first-hand accounts of miracles are extremely common, even in the 21st century. I’ve met scores of educated men and women who are convinced that their favorite Hindu or Buddhist guru has magic powers, and many of the miracles that they describe are every bit as outlandish as those attributed to Jesus. Stories about yogis and mystics walking on water, raising the dead, flying without the aid of technology, materializing objects, reading minds, foretelling the future are circulating right now, in communities where the average levels of education, access to information, and skeptical doubt are far higher than we would expect of first century fishermen and goatherds.

In fact, all of Jesus’ powers have been attributed to the South Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba by vast numbers of eyewitnesses who believe that he is a living god. The man even claims to have been born of a virgin. This is actually not an uncommon claim in the history of religion, or in history generally. Even worldly men like Genghis Khan and Alexander were once thought to have been born of virgins (parthenogenesis apparently offers no guarantee that a man will turn the other cheek). Thus, Collins’ faith is predicated on the claim that miracle stories of the sort that today surround a person like Sathya Sai Baba—and do not even merit an hour on cable television—somehow become especially credible when set in the pre-scientific religious context of the 1st century Roman Empire, decades after their supposed occurrence, as evidenced by discrepant and fragmentary copies of copies of copies of ancient Greek manuscripts. It is on this basis that the future head of the NIH recommends that we believe the following propositions:

1. Jesus Christ, a carpenter by trade, was born of a virgin, ritually murdered as a scapegoat for the collective sins of his species, and then resurrected from death after an interval of three days.

2. He promptly ascended, bodily, to “heaven”—where, for two millennia, he has eavesdropped upon (and, on occasion, even answered) the simultaneous prayers of billions of beleaguered human beings.

3. Not content to maintain this numinous arrangement indefinitely, this invisible carpenter will one day return to earth to judge humanity for its sexual indiscretions and skeptical doubts, at which time he will grant immortality to anyone who has had the good fortune to be convinced, on mother’s knee, that this baffling litany of miracles is the most important series of truth-claims ever revealed about the cosmos.

4. Every other member of our species, past and present, from Cleopatra to Einstein, no matter what his or her terrestrial accomplishments, will be consigned to a far less desirable fate, best left unspecified.

5. In the meantime, God/Jesus may or may not intervene in our world, as He pleases, curing the occasional end-stage cancer (or not), answering an especially earnest prayer for guidance (or not), consoling the bereaved (or not), through His perfectly wise and loving agency.

How many scientific laws would be violated by such a scheme? One is tempted to say “all of them.” And yet, judging from the way that journals like Nature have treated Collins, one can only conclude that there is nothing in the scientific worldview, or in the intellectual rigor and self-criticism that gave rise to it, that casts these convictions in an unfavorable light.

Some readers will consider any criticism of Collins’ views to be an overt expression of “intolerance.” Indeed, when I published an abbreviated version of this essay in the New York Times, this is precisely the kind of negative response I received. For instance, the biologist Kenneth Miller claimed in a letter to the Times that my view was purely the product of my own “deeply held prejudices against religion” and that I opposed Collins merely because “he is a Christian.” Writing in the Guardian, Andrew Brown called my criticism of Collins a “fantastically illiberal and embryonically totalitarian position that goes against every possible notion of human rights and even the American constitution.” Miller and Brown seem to think that bad ideas and disordered thinking should not be challenged as long as they are associated with a mainstream religion and that to do so is synonymous with bigotry. They are not alone.

There is now a large and growing literature—spanning dozens of books and hundreds of articles—attacking Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and me (the so-called “New Atheists”) for our alleged incivility, bias, and ignorance of how “sophisticated” believers practice their faith. It is often said that we caricature religion, taking its most extreme forms to represent the whole. We do no such thing. We simply do what a paragon of sophisticated faith like Francis Collins does: we take the specific truth claims of religion seriously.

Many of our critics also worry that if we oblige people to choose between reason and faith, they will choose faith and cease to support scientific research. If, on the other hand, we ceaselessly reiterate that there is no conflict between religion and science, we can hope to cajole great multitudes into accepting the truth of evolution (as though this were an end in itself). Here is a version of this charge that, I fear, most people would accept:

If the goal is to create an America more friendly toward science and reason, the combativeness of the New Atheists is strongly counterproductive. If anything, they work in ironic combination with their dire enemies, the anti-science conservative Christians who populate the creation science and intelligent design movements, to ensure we’ll continue to be polarized over subjects like the teaching of evolution when we don’t have to be. America is a very religious nation, and if forced to choose between faith and science, vast numbers of Americans will select the former. The New Atheists err in insisting that such a choice needs to be made. Atheism is not the logically inevitable outcome of scientific reasoning, any more than intelligent design is a necessary corollary of religious faith. A great many scientists believe in God with no sense of internal contradiction, just as many religious believers accept evolution as the correct theory to explain the development, diversity, and inter-relatedness of life on Earth. The New Atheists, like the fundamentalists they so despise, are setting up a false dichotomy that can only damage the cause of scientific literacy for generations to come. It threatens to leave science itself caught in the middle between extremes, unable to find cover in a destructive, seemingly unending, culture war. [Mooney C, Kirshenbaum S (2009) Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future New York: Basic Books. pp. 97-98]

The first thing to notice is that Mooney and Kirshenbaum are confused about the nature of the problem. The goal is not to get more Americans to merely accept the truth of evolution (or any other scientific theory); the goal is to get them to value the principles of reasoning and educated discourse that now make a belief in evolution obligatory. Doubt about evolution is merely a symptom of an underlying problem; the problem is faith itself—conviction without sufficient reason, hope mistaken for knowledge, bad ideas protected from good ones, good ideas occluded by bad ones, wishful thinking elevated to a principle of salvation, etc. Mooney and Kirshenbaum seem to imagine that we can get people to value intellectual honesty by lying to them.

While it is invariably advertised as an expression of “respect” for people of faith, this accommodationism is nothing more than naked condescension, motivated by fear. Mooney and Kirshenbaum assure us that people will choose religion over science, no matter how good a case is made against religion. In certain contexts, this fear is probably warranted. I wouldn’t be eager to spell out the irrationality of Islam while standing in the Great Mosque in Mecca. But let’s be honest about how Mooney and Kirshenbaum view public discourse in the United States: watch what you say, or the Christian mob will burn down the library of Alexandria all over again. By comparison, the “combativeness” of the “New Atheists” seems entirely collegial. We merely assume that our fellow Homo sapiens possess the requisite intelligence and emotional maturity to respond to rational argument, satire, and ridicule on the subject of religion—just as they respond to these discursive pressures on all other subjects. Of course, we could be wrong. But let’s admit which side in this debate currently views our neighbors as dangerous children and which views them as adults who might prefer not to be utterly mistaken about the nature of reality.

Finally, we come to the kernel of confusion that has been the subject of this essay—the irrelevant claim that “a great many scientists believe in God with no sense of internal contradiction.” The fact that certain people can reason poorly with a clear conscience—or can do so while saying that they have a clear conscience—proves absolutely nothing about the compatibility of specific ideas, goals, and modes of thought. It is possible to be wrong and to not know it (we call this “ignorance”). It is possible to be wrong and to know it, but to be reluctant to incur the social cost of admitting this publicly (we call this “hypocrisy”). And it may also be possible to be wrong, to dimly glimpse this fact, but to allow the fear of being wrong to increase one’s commitment to one’s erroneous beliefs (we call this “self-deception”). It seems clear that these frames of mind do an unusual amount of work in the service of religion.

The world’s religions are predicated on the truth of specific doctrines that have been growing less plausible by the day. While the ultimate relationship between consciousness and matter has not been entirely settled, any naïve conception of a soul can now be jettisoned on account of the mind’s obvious dependency upon the brain. The idea that there might be an immortal soul capable of reasoning, feeling love, remembering life events, etc, all the while being metaphysically independent of the brain becomes untenable the moment we realize that damage to the relevant neural circuits obliterates these specific capacities in a living person. Does the soul of a completely aphasic patient still speak and think fluently? This is like asking whether the soul of a diabetic produces abundant insulin. What is more, the specific character of the mind’s dependency on the brain suggests that there cannot be a unified subject lurking behind all of the brain’s functionally distinct channels of processing. There are simply too many separable components to perception and cognition—each susceptible to independent disruption—for there to be a single entity to stand as rider to the horse. 

The soul-doctrine suffers further upheaval in light of the fatal resemblance of the human brain to the brains of other animals. The obvious continuity of our mental powers with those of ostensibly soulless primates raises special difficulties. If the joint ancestors of chimpanzees and human beings did not have souls, when did we acquire ours?  Most religions ignore these awkward facts and simply assert that human beings possess a unique form of subjectivity that has no homolog among lower animals. Indeed, Collins asserts this. He claims that the human mind cannot be the product of the human brain or the human brain the product of unguided evolution: rather, at some glorious moment in the development of our species God inserted crucial components—including an immortal soul, free will, the moral law, spiritual hunger, genuine altruism, etc. This claim makes a mockery of whole fields of study—neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science, behavioral economics, among others—and, if taken seriously, would obliterate our growing understanding of the human mind. If we must look to religion to explain our moral sense, what should we make of the deficits of moral reasoning associated with conditions like autism, frontal lobe syndrome, and psychopathy? Are these disorders best addressed by theology?

According to Collins, the moral law applies exclusively to human beings:

Though other animals may at times appear to show glimmerings of a moral sense, they are certainly not widespread, and in many instances other species’ behavior seems to be in dramatic contrast to any sense of universal rightness.(Collins, 2006, p.23)

One wonders if the author has ever read a newspaper. The behavior of humans offers no such “dramatic contrast”??? How badly must human beings behave to put this “sense of universal rightness” in doubt? While no other species can match us for altruism, none can match us for sadistic cruelty either. And just how widespread must “glimmerings” of morality be among other animals before Collins—who, after all, knows a thing or two about genes—begins to wonder whether our moral sense has evolutionary precursors in the natural world? What if mice showed greater distress at the suffering of familiar mice than unfamiliar ones? (They do.) What if monkeys will starve themselves to prevent their cage-mates from receiving painful shocks? (They will.) What if chimps have a demonstrable sense of fairness when receiving food rewards? (They might.) Wouldn’t these be precisely the sorts of findings one would expect if our morality were the product of evolution?

Collins’ case for the supernatural origin of morality rests on the further assertion that there can be no evolutionary explanation for genuine altruism. Because self-sacrifice cannot increase the likelihood that an individual creature will survive and reproduce, truly self-sacrificing behavior stands as a primordial rejoinder to any biological account of morality. In Collins’ view the mere existence of altruism offers compelling evidence of a personal God. But a moment’s thought reveals that if we were to accept this neutered biology, almost everything about us would be bathed in the warm glow of religious mystery. Does our interest in astronomy owe its existence to the successful reproduction of ancient astronomers? (What about the practices of celibacy and birth control? Are they all about reproduction too?) Collins can’t seem to see that human morality and selfless love may be elaborations of more basic biological and psychological traits, which were themselves products of evolution. It is hard to interpret this oversight in light of his scientific training. If one didn’t know better, one might be tempted to conclude that religious dogmatism presents an obstacle to scientific reasoning.

There are, of course, ethical implications to believing that human beings are the only species made in God’s image and vouchsafed with “immortal souls.” History shows us that concern about souls is a very poor guide to ethical behavior—that is, to actually mitigating the suffering of conscious creatures like ourselves. Concern about souls leads to concerns about undifferentiated cells in Petri dishes and to ethical qualms over embryonic stem cell research. Rather often, it leads to indifference to the suffering of animals believed not to possess souls but which can clearly suffer in ways that three-day old human embryos cannot. The use of apes in medical research, the exposure of whales and dolphins to military sonar—these are real ethical dilemmas, with real suffering at issue. Concern over human embryos smaller than the period at the end of this sentence—when, for years they have been the most promising door to medical breakthrough—is one of the many delusional products of religion, which has led to one of its many predictable failures of compassion. While Collins appears to support embryonic stem cell research, he does so after much (literal) soul-searching and under considerable theological duress. Everything he has said and written about the subject needlessly complicates an ethical question that is—if one is actually concerned about human and animal wellbeing—genuinely straightforward.

The Obama administration still has not removed the most important impediments to embryonic stem cell research—allowing funding only for work on stem cells derived from surplus embryos at fertility clinics. Such delicacy is a clear concession to the religious convictions of the American electorate. While Collins seems willing to go further and support research on embryos created through somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), he is very far from being a voice of ethical clarity in this debate. For instance, he considers embryos created through SCNT to be distinct from those formed through the union of sperm and egg because the former are “not part of God’s plan to create a human individual” while “the latter is very much part of God’s plan, carried out through the millennia by our own species and many others” (Collins, 2006, p. 256) There is little to be gained in a serious discussion of bioethics by talking about “God’s plan.” (If such embryos were brought to term and became sentient and suffering human beings, would it be ethical to kill them and harvest their organs because they had been conceived apart from “God’s plan”?) While his stewardship of the NIH seems unlikely to impede our mincing progress on embryonic stem cell research, his appointment seems like another one of President Obama’s efforts to split difference between real science and real ethics on the one hand and religious superstition and taboo on the other. 

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 NIH. Understanding human wellbeing 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? How can we achieve the deepest forms of happiness? 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, constitute “atheistic materialism”? Must we really entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who believes that understanding ourselves through science is impossible, while our resurrection from death is inevitable?