Infuriatingly silly

Jerry Coyne has a post about why Francis Collins pollutes science with religion. It’s a succinct piece that basically nails Collins for all his silly, childish, superstitious, frankly stupid beliefs.

The most inane and disingenuous part of Collins’s argument is his claim that without religion, the concepts of good and evil are meaningless. (Collins’s slide 5 in Harris’s piece: “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?”) That’s palpable nonsense. Good and evil are defined with respect to their effects and the intents of their perpetrators, not by adherence to some religious code. It is beyond my ken how a smart guy like Collins can make a claim like this, even going so far as to argue that “strong atheists” like Richard Dawkins have to accept and live their lives within a world in which good and evil are meaningless ideas

It’s inconvenient for Collins or any other religiously-driven person to admit that morality is a purely human affair. And really, it’s getting to be a tiresome argument. Explanations abound for how morality could have naturally evolved. That should be good enough to force any reasonable person to admit that, no, morality need not have a god, it need not adhere to the whims of one individual entity, and it definitely is not universal. Our ideas of morality change with the times, with cultures, with known facts, with context. The only real constant is that every human society has developed a moral system. The details within each system may vary wildly – in bin Laden’s, the death of most of America is just – but they are always put within some sort of construct. That does not mean that bin Laden’s version of morality is equal to any other version which may exist. One key component in any moral system is basing premises on facts. That’s the main reason that god-based moral systems tend to fail or be wacky (see inane hatred of homosexuality among, well, almost all the religions). It’s one of the reasons bin Laden’s system doesn’t work and is not equal to mine or yours or most Americans’ or other Westerners’ (or even most Muslims’).

Collins, like most Christians who think they somehow own the moral high horse, despite all the contrary evidence, does not understand that morality is not universal. It is only moral systems. His is broken and can only work because he’s made it malleable to the progression of secular values and understanding. Indeed, if religions weren’t so agreeable to such change, Christianity would be as much a relic as slavery. Of course, that isn’t to suggest that religion so easily moves along with reason. It doesn’t. It usually comes kicking and screaming, forced by the hand of rationality.

There are, of course, also statements made without evidence, including this one: “God gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the Moral Law), with free will, and with an immortal soul” And this (slide 4): “We humans used our free will to break the moral law, leading to our estrangement from God.” How does he know? What’s the evidence? Isn’t the distinction between the science slides and the faith slides being blurred here?

One thing I’ve been forcing myself to ask myself a lot lately is “Where’s my evidence?” I recently went on a big hike through the 100-Mile Wilderness, the most remote and difficult section of the Appalachian Trail. I recall passing a tree root that had made a sort of rainbow shape. Each end was in the ground, but the middle was up in the air (as opposed to laying against the ground). It was unusual, but I quickly thought “It must have been buried at some point before being exposed, thus causing it to pop up”. I had to stop myself right there. How did I know that? I didn’t. It was a plausible guess, but other explanations were also plausible. It could have grown that way. Another tree could have been there before being removed, long ago, by the Maine Appalachian Trail Committee (MATC). It could just be a brief, weird angle I had making me think it was a root when in reality it was just a fallen branch that appeared buried in the ground. All I had was a hypothesis, and one I wasn’t about to test. I had to settle with “I don’t know” as an answer. Sometimes that isn’t just a temporary answer. Every single claim/question about the after-life that Collins makes deserves a permanent “I don’t know”. He doesn’t have the evidence. As a scientist, he should value that above all else in his work.

But then again, he is a Christian. Religions do not value evidence.

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