Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum continue, in Newsweek, the bizarre attack they began in their book Unscientific America.
As soon as Francis Collins … was floated as the possible new director of the National Institutes of Health … the criticisms began flying. Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago, for one, said Collins is too public with his faith. Collins wrote a book called The Language of God, frequently talks about his religious conversion during medical school, and recently launched the BioLogos Foundation, which declares, “We believe that faith and science both lead to truth about God and creation.”
The critics, though, have it exactly backward: the United States needs more scientists like Collins—researchers who show by their prominence and their example that a good scientist can still retain religious beliefs. The stunning irony in the longstanding tension between science and religion in America is that many scientists who merely claim to be defending rationality from religious fundamentalism may actually be turning Americans off to science, doing more harm to their cause than good.
First, note the dismissive “the criticisms began flying.” Apparently these were not criticisms that need have been taken seriously.
Second, a fact-check. Did Jerry Coyne say that Francis Collins is “too public with his faith”? I searched Coyne’s blog for the phrase “too public”. It was not found. This is classic projection. Mooney and Kirshenbaum believe that Coyne is being too public with his atheism. Jerry Coyne is concerned, not that Collins is too public with his faith, but that his faith might compromise some of his scientific or policy decisions. And it’s not as if we’ve never seen that happen.
What we have not seen is outspoken atheists “turning Americans off to science”. Do Mooney and Kirshenbaum have any examples or measurements of this effect? If there is no evidence of the phenomenon, then it is not exactly a “stunning irony”, and they need not have written a book about it.
Do we really need, more than we need outspoken atheists, “researchers who show … that a good scientist can still retain religious beliefs”? Why do we need that — so that religious believers are not afraid to go into science? It’s never stopped them before! Maybe Mooney and Kirshenbaum, looking at the fact that very few serious scientists are hard-core believers, surmise that the scientists are scaring the believers away. But there is a much more plausible explanation. People who possess the intelligence and acquire the education necessary for a career in science tend to be too smart to believe in fairy-tales.
The New Apologists never mention the so-obvious-we tend-to-forget-about-it reason for outspoken atheism: religious doctrines, every last one of them, are false. Hard to reconcile that with the scientific method! If you really want us to take seriously the idea that religion might in certain cases be a good idea even though it is made entirely of lies, then you’ll have to come up with something much more convincing than the idea that atheists are “turning Americans off to science”.
And Collins’s approach isn’t just good as a strategy to get the public to better appreciate science. The idea that science and religion can be compatible is strong on the intellectual merits as well. … [I]f we consider religion more broadly—in its own considerable diversity—we find many sophisticated believers who’ve made a peace between their belief and the findings of modern science. It’s not just Collins; consider the words of the Dalai Lama: “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.”
That there are people who seem to be doing it does not make compatibility between science and religion “strong on the intellectual merits”. By that measure, science and alcoholism are compatible too.
“It’s not just Collins”, Mooney and Kirshenbaum write — and then they quote the Dalai Lama as saying that he would change the tenets of his religion if he found them to be in conflict with science. This is unlike anything Francis Collins has ever said. To imply that Collins agrees with the Dalai Lama on this point is misleading in the extreme. Collins’s style is to insist that there never could be a conflict. He agrees with Mooney and Kirshenbaum; he does not agree with the Dalai Lama.
Distortions like this are typical of religious apologias. The reason is obvious: it’s terribly hard to come up with good reasons for religion, if you limit yourself to telling the truth.