Francis Collins and the New Atheists

The politics of anti-religious intolerance.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Any Christian in a scientific field probably has stories to tell about mild, sometimes even innocent, forms of discrimination they have experienced simply for being a Christian in science. I still recall my first day in graduate school–which was in history & philosophy of science, not science per se. I walked down the hallway (there was only one) knocking on doors, just to get acquainted with those faculty who were in that morning. Most of the pleasantries exchanged were just that, but one of the philosophers made a point of saying (based on what he or she had inferred from my application, not from anything I said that morning), So, you’re an evangelical Christian. We’ll see if you still believe that when you’re finished.

I finished five years later, and I still was an evangelical Christian. That same person eventually came round–not to Christian faith, mind you, but to accepting my presence in the department as a serious student. In fact, that person asked me to take charge of several classes when that person had surgery–and afterwards, gave me a nice copy of a rare book I really needed to have.

As always, questions and comments are invited.


Thanks for another wonderful post by Stephen Snobelen. Keep them coming. I remember Coyne and Harris’ (and there were others, less famous) reactions to Collins’ appointment, especially since I joined the NIH only a few weeks before Francis. I attended a few meetings with him during the course of my career there, and of course, as everyone knows, he was always, and remains an amazing administrator and a brilliant scientist. I never heard him (nor did I ever hear about him) say anything related to his faith while on the job. On the other hand his is widely admired for his (Christian) patience, humility and humanity. Although I have since retired from the NIH, I know that almost everyone there (as well as in the entire US biomedical research community) was thrilled that he was chosen to stay on as Director, (lets pray that that continues).

I agree that the new atheist attacks on Francis Collins betray the ugliest aspect of this very ugly philosophy. I will add that Coyne has made it quite clear that despite the title of his blog, he has very little interest in why evolution is true, but is entirely devoted to why faith in God is false. I think by his words, he, rather that Collins, has eroded his credentials as a scientist.


I admit, I don’t see the value in rehashing uncharitable comments made by our intellectual/theological opponents. Would Jerry Coyne or Sam Harris, upon reading this, be more or less likely to consider the claims of Christianity (Jesus Christ)? Francis Collins got Dr. Coyne thinking, apparently. And the way Dr. Collins did it is instructive.

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I’m more than a little sympathetic with your point, @Doug_Bodde. You’re right that Francis Collins’ steady, humble witness is the best kind of response to such attacks. The editorial decision to invite Dr. Snobelen to put a new version of his essay here came on my initiative, and I accept the lion’s share of responsibility, though of course the views (which I endorse) are those of Dr. Snobelen.

I’ve said or written very little about the New Atheists myself, partly b/c I am still trying to get up to speed with the substance of their criticisms of religion and religious people. The more I learn, however, the more disturbed I am about the dominant tone. IMO, that tone needs to be challenged directly, and you can’t fairly do that without citing specific instances of it, or you run the risk of creating a straw man who is too easily toppled. Hence, a recitation of bad behavior is appropriate in this instance. IMO.

I should have added that I find Dr. Snobelen’s comments considerably more charitable than the comments he quotes.

Many of my best friends (in professional circles) are agnostics or atheists, almost none of whom are prone to make snide comments about religion (or me), or even to say that science virtually equates with atheism. Why not? My guess is that they are more intellectually humble than the voices quoted above: they know that they are not omniscient, that many other very bright & well informed people believe in God, and they understand that jumpshot questions about God and ultimate meaning(s) do not produce slamdunk answers. That’s the lesson that Coyne, Dawkins, Harris, and others have not yet learned, and perhaps never will learn. I’ll speak to that directly myself, in a photo caption I’ve added at the end of Dr. Snobelen’s next installment.

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I think that the comments of Coyne & Co. need to be 3examined in their intellectual context.

They are materialist monists. That means that they believe that only energy/matter exists, therefore there is no room in Reality for the rational and the spiritual. This puts them at a great disadvantage with Christians who believe that Reality is material and rational and spiritual.

Thus their understanding of Reality is limited and this is why they refuse to give ecology its full significance in the way evolution works, They are looking for a simplistic, cause and effect relationship with does not exist.

Materialism tends to be black and white and this is probably why they have an intolerant simplistic black and white understanding of faith.


I can certainly imagine the tension of interactions like that.

I wonder what that professor would have thought about my own upside down experience of what he thought would have changed my world view - - and it did - - but in completely the opposite sense.

Through my college years, I was a rather ardent determinist … a “casualit-ist” of the most complete type. Whether there was Quantum randomness or not, I certainly didn’t construe such randomness as how the human mind could be Free, or how consciousness had anything to do with a soul.

And that was all decades ago!

But, it was only a few years ago that I listened to a lecture by Daniel Dennett. Someone on this list (or probably another?) described him as one of the Four Horsemen of Atheism. I don’t recall who said that.

But in his talk he discussed a friend’s book on magic. When he asked his friend if the book was about Real Magic, the friend chided Dennett and they agreed that the only Real Magic is the kind that just can’t exist! Dennett was comparing this point to Free Will… that the only Real Free Will is the kind that just can’t exist!

At this point, I would have ordinarily said: “Ah ha… just what I’ve been saying … there just isn’t any room in the Cosmos for Free Will!” But this time, I didn’t say this in my mind. I was caught by the mystery of something Being Real and Not Possibly Existing, all at the same time. Sometimes linguistics can be a terrible trap; and sometimes linguistics helps a person make new leaps into seeing the world around him!

What one of the English-Speaking World’s “Four Horsemen of Atheism” did was convince me that there IS a God. (Say what?) It would take a God to make it possible for my conscious mind to operate outside of the dimensions of causality that we all rely on to be dependable. It would take a God to provide a place for our mind, our consciousness, to be Free, to not be ensnared by the logical chain of determinism and causality, and make our Consciousness something more than just an epiphenomenon!

No doubt there are those who would “poo poo” this Eureka moment for me. Frankly, I don’t think there is anyway to really explain it to someone who doesn’t already understand it. And so I won’t try to hard to do so here.

But I owe a great thanks to Prof. Daniel Dennet, my unintended Mentor, my sponsor into an awakened view of the Cosmos. Thank you!

George Brooks

In this case the purpose is not simply to rehash uncharitable comments, but to demonstrate that the New Atheists are in danger of the very intolerance of which they accuse Christians. The reason for this, as articulated by Steve Snobelen, is that it is counter-productive for the atheist’s aim of having science increasingly accepted within the broader society. Steve also very fairly gives Coyne his due when appropriate. I don’t see the aim of this post to be reaching out to Coyne, but I can see it as an accessible cautionary tale for other atheists.

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This inspired me to read Sam’s criticism of Dr. Collins. I thought Sam put forth some good reasons for concern but, boy oh boy, the concerns of 2009 seem so silly these days.

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Hi Jon,
Thanks for your comment. Leaving aside comparisons with 2017, I’m genuinely curious to know what you think Harris’s “good reasons for concern” are. I wouldn’t want to claim that Harris (who is obviously an intelligent man) never talks good sense. But to turn the matter of concern around, isn’t it reasonable in a pluralist society for people–both religious and non-religious–to be concerned about rhetoric that suggests that certain beliefs–however mainstream and though they do not come into the laboratory–should bar a person from a top scientific post?

Hi Doug,
I’m grateful for your perspective. With respect to personal attacks and the like, there is always the danger of responding to pettiness in kind. But it might be worth me reiterating the purpose of my study, which is rather different. When I was first asked (five years ago) to lecture on the New Atheism at an academic conference, I decided that what I could offer was 1) a perspective from the history, philosophy and sociology of science and 2) an examination from the standpoint of scholarship on the relationship between science and religion. Just how would the New Atheists look when examined through these lenses? An early hint at how one with both perspectives might characterise the New Atheists can be found in the work of historian of science (and atheist) Michael Ruse, whose comments on the New Atheists are cited in the next instalment. I have approached the New Atheists as I would any other subject in science in the past or present. This involves looking at the data and presenting findings based on this evidence–and hopefully doing so in a fair-minded way. I have identified for examination seven major characteristics of the New Atheists (my list is not meant to be completely exhaustive) and one of them happens to be intolerance. To avoid covering this aspect would be to avoid an important part of the evidence, just as an account of religious history that missed examples of religious intolerance would not provide the complete picture. If we truly want to understand this movement, we need to consider this aspect. I don’t want to delve too much into what will be presented in the next instalment, but I will say this: there are certain valuable take-away messages from an examination of New Atheist intolerance that go beyond the movement itself. So, please do hear me out on this; perhaps what I am doing will make more sense once you’ve read the second piece on intolerance. However, I fully agree that if one were not doing stone cold academic history, but rather was responding to unfair attacks, the best policy is graciousness, a good example and to rise above the pettiness.
I hope that makes sense! If not, please do let me know.
Best wishes,