Some Pagans might be tempted to think that there’s little or no point in defending a conservative evangelical Christian like Francis Collins against a nice liberal atheist like Sam Harris. Some might even be tempted to think that Harris has some valid points to make. That could be a very serious mistake.
The thing that Harris cannot stand about Francis Collins is that Collins proves, just by his very existence, that being a deeply religious person is perfectly compatible with being a good, even a great, scientist. And the thing for Pagans to realize is that Harris would be just as outraged, as he has made clear in his own own words, or possibly even more outraged, if Collins were a Pagan rather than a Presbyterian.
Sam Harris is especially incensed by the fact that the prestigious science journal Nature (“which remains the most influential scientific publication on earth”) favorably reviewed (Building Bridges, Nature 442, 110) Collins’ 2006 book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. In fact, the Nature review
praised Collins for engaging “with people of faith to explore how science — both in its mode of thought and its results — is consistent with their religious beliefs.”
Harris is certain that the editors of this esteemed scientific institution must have been duped, or cowed, or bought off, or put under a magical spell, or something like that. To dramatize just how wrong-headed Harris thinks the Nature editors to have been he asks us to consider this question:
Would Collins have received the same treatment in Nature if he had argued for the compatibility between science and witchcraft, astrology, or Tarot cards?
Harris answers his own question:
Not a chance. In fact, we can be confident that his scientific career would have terminated in an inferno of criticism.
[The Strange Case of Francis Collins]
All that is missing is the MWAhahahahahaha as Harris rubs his hands together and licks his lips at the thought of scientific careers being “terminated in an inferno of criticism” on the basis of the religious beliefs of the scientists in question. In case anyone could possibly not see where Harris is going with this, he approvingly points to how “biochemist Rupert Sheldrake had his academic career decapitated, in a single stroke, by an editorial in Nature.” And in case even that doesn’t spell this out clearly enough for anyone, one only needs to know that the title of the editorial in question was, and I am not making this up, A Book for Burning? (Click here to download the pdf for that review.)
There are, of course, a great many scientists, physicians, engineers, etc. who do, as a matter of fact, not only believe in “witchcraft, astrology or Tarot cards” but dare to believe that such beliefs are compatible with science. And as I discussed in a recent post (“detached from the masses and usually disempowered”), such things as Alchemy and Astrology were accepted parts of western intellectual culture from antiquity up until the early 18th century. This period includes the so-called “scientific revolution”, and we now know that Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, and many other paragons of modern science, were heavily involved in just the kinds of things that Sam Harris now insists are far beyond the pale.
I have a PhD in physical chemistry (as does Francis Collins). I also probably have more sets of Tarot cards than Collins has Bibles, and at least that many books on Astrology (including several ancient ones written in Latin or Greek), and I am also a member of a Wiccan tradition whose members consider “Witch” to be a title of honor and respect. And the only PhD that Sam Harris has, by the way, is the type that stands for “Piled higher and Deeper”, as we used to say back home in Indiana.
Sam Harris apparently would like to see a purge of all scientists (especially prominent scientists employed by the government) who do not adhere closely enough to the party line. Those who are deemed to be insufficiently atheistic should have their careers “terminated in an inferno of criticism” or, better yet, “decapitated in a single stroke”.
Harris is already well on his way to promulgating a list of proscribed subjects and authors. Anyone found to be in possession of such forbidden literature will be terminated, decapitated, etc. Banned authors would include Carl Jung, who wrote about Astrology, Alchemy and even Tarot; Margot Adler, Starhawk, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and all other Wiccans, Witches, etc; Rupert Sheldrake and anyone sympathetic to him, which would include noted mathematician Ralph Abraham, and physicist David Bohm; Arthur C. Clarke who showed an unhealthy interest in reincarnation, psychic phenomena, and communication with non-human species; Arthur Koestler, author of Darkness at Noon, one of the greatest anti-totalitarian works of literature ever written, who also bequeathed almost a million English pounds to the study of parapsychology; not to mention such obviously verboten authors as Aldous Huxley, Alice Walker, Kim Stanley Robinson, Deepak Chopra, Erica Jong, Philip K. Dick, Herman Hesse, William Butler Yeats, Shelley, Wollstonecraft, Goethe, Shakespeare, Milton, and so forth. Also, all books on Buddhism and Hinduism must be banned because those religions promote reincarnation, karma, mantra recitation, meditation and other similarly ridiculous ideas.
I realize that some people might think I am exaggerating the sinister nature of Sam Harris’ intentions. But consider what Sir John Maddox, who was editor of Nature for 22 years, had to say when interviewed on BBC television in 1994, 13 years after writing A Book for Burning?:
Sheldrake is putting forward magic instead of science, and that can be condemned in exactly the language that the Pope used to condemn Galileo, and for the same reason. It is heresy.
Harris goes out of his way to say that in his opinion Francis Collins is worse than Rupert Sheldrake, and to imply that what he would like to see happen to Collins should be worse than the “career decapitation” that happened to Sheldrake!
The next logical step would seem to be for all scientists to be required to take some kind of Rationality Oath. Also graduate students should be encouraged to denounce professors who are suspected of being soft on religion. Any scientist who comes from a religious family, or who is married to a spouse known to frequent synagogues, churches, Hindu temples, New Age bookstores, or other off-limits venues should be subject to proportionately greater scrutiny.
And the case of Rupert Sheldrake makes it painfully obvious that mere career decapitation is not enough to silence these dangerous heretics. More effective measures must be brought to bear to rid the world of Presbyterians, Pagans, Tarot card readers, and all those who threaten to confuse our public discourse and sap and impurify our precious bodily fluids. But don’t worry, because Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne & Co. are doing their best to bring us closer to that bright, shining, spiritually sanitized future when science will have already answered all of our questions before they are even asked.
[Thoth Tarot card images were downloaded from the keepsilence.org website.]