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Sam Harris, Francis Collins and God, Part 2

This is a guest post by Andrew Murphy, and follows on from this post

Sam Harris is back again in regards to Dr. Francis Collins. As a follow up to his New York Times Op-Ed, Harris has written a lengthy elaboration of his case against the good doctor on his Reason Project website, addressing some of the issues many of his critics including myself raised about his objection to the appointment of Dr. Collins asDirector of the National Institutes of Health(NIH).

Regretably, Mr. Harris’ elaboration still is not very convincing and in the end, its still boils down to objecting a man simply because he is not an atheist. This ironically enough, a form of religious test from an opposite end.

Harris’ is confusing.  He starts out writing,

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.”

Next paragraph starts,

“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”

One would think after reading those affirmations, Sam Harris would be on the Collins’ bandwagon for NIH directorship.  Harris likes everything about Dr. Collins but for one thing, his theism.

Let’s address Harris concerns.

After all mentioning a lecture Dr. Collins gave in 2008 at the University of California Berkeley where in a PowerPoint presentation, Dr. Collins lays out his theistic beliefs and how evolution is not irreconcilable with Christianity, Harris writes,

“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.”

The logical fallacy here is that men who confess some sort of Christian theism, rather then Hinduism have least a tradition of supporting science throughout the ages. Where would science be today without the input of great men like Copernicus, Bacon, Newton, Galileo, Mendel or Kelvin?  Or one could mention the Scholastics in the Middle Ages who tried to reconcile blind faith with Aristeolion logic.  Likewise,William of Ockham helps give skeptics one of their greatest tools against blind faith,his razor.

But Harris is right in one regard here, the contributions of Hinduism to western science would indeed be a very small book.

This writer found it strange that Harris would bring up Eastern faith here since in his book End of Faith, he tap dances trying to claim that Buddhism is not really a religion on pages 215-217. Harris writes,

“Nevertheless, when the great philosopher mystics of the East are weighed against the patriarchs of the Western philosophical and theological traditions, the difference is unmistakable: Buddha, Shankara, Padmasamnhava, Nagarjuna, Longchempa and countless others down to the present have no equivalent in the West.”

In fairness to Harris, he does concede in his footnotes (pages 293-294) that many Buddhists mistakenly worship Buddha like a god and much ignorance is found in eastern mystic tradition but then writes that Buddhism is not really a religion in the western sense. Really?

Throughout the ages, Buddhists have thought that Buddha was born in a slit in his mothers’ side.  Buddhists have monks, prayer beads, incense burners, begging bowls, religious art, relics, and a Thangka. Also the Dalai Lama is considered a “Pope” to thousands of Buddhists. Tibetan Buddhism has for a long time been much like Calvin’s Geneva, enforced moralism especially about sex. However, unlike Calvin, the Lamateaches, “To have sexual relations with a prostitute paid by you and not by a third person does not constitute improper behavior.”

Furthermore, tradition holds Padmasambhava subdued demons and that he flew on the back of a flying tigress.

Sam Harris may not consider Buddhism a religion but the followers of Buddha certainly are under the impression that it is.  If anybody is going to envoke the Hindu god, Lord Vishnu, it is more the likely to come from Sam Harris then Dr. Francis Collins.

Harris is very concerned about the fact that millions of Americans believe the world is only 6,000 years old, opposed to stem cell research and think evolution is a dirty, 4 letter word and because of this, USA can’t afford to have a theist as director of NIH.

Here Harris is comparing apples with oranges. Dr. Collins has nothing but contempt for all of this. He opposes young earthers and Intelligent Design arguments, he pioneered stem cell research and believes in evolution. In fact, Collins’ work with mapping our DNA has shown that we all come from a common ancestor. If anything his appointment will show millions of Christians that one can be theist and still be a scientist who opposes all the pseudo-scientific nonsense they are taught in Evangelical circles.

But Harris look sat it from a glass half empty. He writes,

“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”

That perhaps, maybe a legitimate argument especially if Obama had picked an Intelligent Deign advocate or worse a Young Earthier but the challenge to Sam Harris is to show where in his professional life has Dr. Collins sacrificed science to religion. If Harris can’t, he is charging Dr. Collins as being guilty and then must prove his innocence.

Sam Harris’ opposition to Dr. Francis Collins is clearly a case of his atheism getting the best of him, nothing more and nothing less.

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