A case against God

Okay, so I wrote my FaithBeat column Saturday about Dr. Francis Collins, the decorated scientist who is President Obama’s choice to head the National Institutes of Health and is an outspoken believer in God as designer of the universe.

I noted on Monday an op-ed in the NYTimes by non-believer Sam Harris that questioned Collins’ fitness for the role based on his religious beliefs.

Just so happens, I got a private email from a scientist on the faculty of an Ivy League university who thinks that Collins’ case for God is a poor one and that there is no room for a personal God in the universe, based on what we know through science.

I asked this writer if LoHud could use his email as a letter to the editor, but he declined. Put it this way: He fears that believers may not respond graciously.

So I asked if I could post his thoughts right here without identifying him. He said sure.

So, in the interest of providing an alternative view (to Collins’ beliefs, as expressed in my column), here’s what the scientist wrote:

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I understand the basis for perspectives on religion offered in your column: your own beliefs. However, there are two aspects of Francis Collins’s beliefs (“Geneticist strikes balance and embraces science,” July 25, 2009) worth noting. The first, as you mention, is that Collins is an anomaly. Most scientists are atheists – for reasons that are a lot more interesting than the fact of their majority status – and an even greater proportion of the best scientists (e.g., Nobel laureates). The second is that there is a huge difference between acknowledging the possibility of phenomena beyond our present comprehension (e.g., Richard Dawkins’s stance) and accepting the God of contemporary religion. By the latter, I mean the God that not only willed the Universe into existence in the manner suggested by Collins, but the one who cares about you and me as individuals, and about our every action and challenge. That latter God is surely a human invention. Why do I think so?

In the greater scheme of things, the God of modern religion makes no sense. Please consider our context. We inhabit one small rocky planet in a galaxy composed of 100 billion stars, and in a Universe of 100 billion galaxies. Our molecular biology links us with confidence to all other life on Earth, going back at least 3.9 billion years. We’re not unique, therefore, just temporarily successful. Our very existence as a species for only 150,000 years or so depends on a huge array of contingent events over 13.7 billion years to the beginning of the Universe. Had any detail been different, there would be no you or me. (One example: The most recent mass extinction, the one that killed the dinosaurs and permitted the radiation of mammals, depended on an asteroid intersecting the Earth’s orbit within a single seven minute span. Had the asteroid been a few minutes late or early, the Earth as we know it today would be utterly different.) Conclusion: We are entirely the product of chance, not design. We’re alone, as individuals and as a species. And like all species that have gone before, our ultimate fate is extinction. The good news is that we have a life, and we can choose to do something useful with it.

That some scientists (e.g., Collins) can be aware of the above and still struggle to incorporate some concept of God into their lives is a measure not of the correctness of the God of religion, but of our innate human need for religion and of the efficiency with which religion is transmitted from one generation to another in early childhood. Scientists are after all human. So it comes as no surprise that some find it hard to escape a normal human impulse.

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He added in a final note to me:

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All of the facts are readily verifiable, though there is a plus or minus on all of the numbers …. with no bearing whatsoever on the conclusions that flow from them: 1) It is absurd (OK, not plausible) to imagine that the Universe was in some sense created for us. We are simply irrelevant at that scale, and at best, temporary residents of the Earth. 2) The beauty of nature – and it’s fabulous – relates not to design, but to the incredible array of evolutionary, chemical and physical steps needed to arrive at the present, and to the complex interactions and feedbacks that are inherent in all natural systems. I am glad that Francis Collins enjoys waterfalls. So do I.

Sam Harris ‘troubled’ by God-fearing fellow scientist

I happened to write Saturday’s FaithBeat column about Dr. Francis Collins, President Obama’s nominee to become head of the National Institutes of Health. Collins is quite outspoken about his belief in God, particularly how his knowledge of science informs such belief.

I mentioned that Collins had a debate a few years back with Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist who thinks that belief in the God of the Bible is nutty — and contradicts all that we know from science.

Today, Sam Harris, another fervent atheist, has an Op-Ed in the NYTimes, in which he questions Obama’s choice of Collins. (NOTE: I originally said it was Dawkins who wrote the piece. My mistake. I mixed up my high-profile atheists).

Harris writes:

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Most scientists who study the human mind are convinced that minds are the products of brains, and brains are the products of evolution. Dr. Collins takes a different approach: he insists that at some 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.

As someone who believes that our understanding of human nature can be derived from neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science and behavioral economics, among others, I am troubled by Dr. Collins’s line of thinking. I also believe it would seriously undercut fields like neuroscience and 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 frontal lobe syndrome and psychopathy? Are these disorders best addressed by theology?

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In sum: Harris seems to feel that Collins’ crazy beliefs in supernatural powers must limit his ability to see the world in scientific terms and will affect his judgment as a scientist.

Science and religion — in one man!

Are you familiar with Francis Collins, God-fearing geneticist?

He is the former head of the Human Genome Project who was recently nominated by President Obama to serve as director of the National Institutes of Health.

He is also well-known in the science community as a committed Christian who sees God’s work in the human genetic map. He’s started the BioLogos Foundation to promote “a perspective of the origins of life that is both theologically and scientifically sound.”

A couple of years ago, I read that the head of the Human Genome Project had written a book about his faith, “The Language of God.” So I read it. Collins is no Updike, but the book was pretty engaging at points.

I’ll write about Collins and his beliefs for Saturday’s FaithBeat column.

Two religious views on draft stem cell guidelines hit my email at once

At exactly 2:40 p.m., I received two statements about the new draft guidelines for embryonic stem cell research that were put forth Friday by the National Institutes of Health.

One statement came from Cardinal Justin Rigali, chairman of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities.

The other came from the Rabbinical Council of America, which represents Orthodox rabbis.

The timing was a coincidence.

First, here’s the lead from AP’s story Friday:

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WASHINGTON (AP) — When President Barack Obama eased limits on federally funded embryonic stem cell research, the big question became how far scientists could go. Friday, the government answered: They must use cells culled from fertility clinic embryos that otherwise would be thrown away.

Draft guidelines released by the National Institutes of Health reflect rules with broad congressional support, excluding more controversial sources such as cells derived from embryos created just for experiments.

“We think this will be a huge boost for the science,” said Acting NIH Director Raynard Kington. “This was the right policy for the agency at this point in time.”

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Rigali isn’t happy. His statement, says, in part:

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Despite supporters’ constant claim that this agenda involves only embryos that “would otherwise be discarded,” the guidelines provide that the option of donating embryonic children for destructive research will be offered to parents alongside all other options, including those allowing the embryos to live. For the first time, federal tax dollars will be used to encourage destruction of living embryonic human beings for stem cell research – including human beings who otherwise would have survived and been born.

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The Orthodox rabbis group, meanwhile, is satisfied. Their statement (addressed to Obama):

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We write to you on behalf of this nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish rabbinical organization to congratulate you on the decision you have taken to remove barriers to federal funding of responsible scientific research involving human stem cells.

We reaffirm the position we took in 2001 following consultations with rabbinic authorities in our community and with scientists cognizant of and sensitive to traditional Jewish values, in expressing our firm support for embryonic stem cell research conducted with appropriate scientific guidelines and careful ethical oversight. That position, as subsequently reconfirmed by the RCA on October 22 2004, can be seen at http://www.rabbis.org/news/article.cfm?id=100553.

At the same time we emphasize that vigilance must be taken to protect against the erosion of the value that American society affords to human life, including potential human life, in the execution of such research.

We admire your courage in taking a difficult decision on an issue which divides loyal Americans with different legitimate perspectives and we wish you the continued paramount blessing for political leaders that the Jewish tradition offers – wisdom.