When Atheists Cry “Heresy!”: Sam Harris Condemns Obama Pick for NIH

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, atheist writer Sam Harris challenges President Obama’s pick for the next National Institutes of Health director, Francis Collins.

His reasons for doing so reveal something important about the “new” atheism, of which Harris is a leading figure. Unlike the atheist academics I knew as I pursued my degrees in philosophy—atheists who were characterized at worst by a kind of quiet intellectual disdain for religion—the new atheists are driven by something more ideological. They see the world as divided between the children of light (the atheists) and the children of darkness (the religious). They do not see any ambiguity about the fundamental nature of reality; they are certain that they have the truth; and, finally, they insist those who are still benighted enough to fail to see this truth ought to be marginalized—they should certainly not be allowed to hold positions of power.

In short, the new atheism looks a lot like the kind of religion that progressives such as myself find so disturbing: religion that’s characterized by the cry of heresy, the marginalization of those who disagree with “us,” the sharp in-group/out-group dichotomies based on differences in fundamental worldviews, and the view that “salvation” depends upon the right beliefs.

If, like me, you think that this sort of ideological division based on fundamental worldviews is one of the forces that makes human conflicts intractable and drives cycles of hostility and violence, then Harris shows us that this sort of dangerous ideological thinking is not the sole purview of religion.

Failed Fundamentalists

But is Harris really guilty of this kind of thinking? Let us look a bit more closely at what he says. In this op-ed, Harris opposes Collins for NIH director; not because Collins’ scientific qualifications aren’t impeccable (they are), but because Collins believes in the transcendent God of Christianity and the existence of an immortal soul. That is, Collins believes in realities that transcend what science can study. And this, according to Harris, is enough to call into doubt his capacity to lead the NIH. In Harris’ words, “few things make thinking like a scientist more difficult than religion.”

One wouldn’t know this supposed truth by looking at Collins, who headed the Human Genome Project and is universally regarded as a stellar research scientist. Of course, there are religious communities that, out of unswerving allegiance to ancient dogmas or scriptures, treat scientific discoveries that challenge those teachings as an enemy. This kind of religion is often called fundamentalism. What religious scientists like Collins reveal to us, I think, is that what makes thinking like a scientist difficult isn’t religion as such, but fundamentalism.

But Harris doesn’t make this sort of distinction. In his book, The End of Faith, Harris treats moderate religious persons as “failed fundamentalists” who “betray faith and reason equally” by having neither the honesty to go where reason leads nor the boldness to be as irrational as religion demands. For him, religion is about blind allegiance to some religious text or other authority in defiance of all reason and evidence. When religious moderates fail to show such blind allegiance, this “is not some sign that faith has evolved” but is just “the product of the many hammer blows” of modern science and the Enlightenment.

In Harris’ view of things, religion and reason are at war, and there is no such thing as “rational religion.” There are only wishy-washy people who can’t get themselves to take sides; people who are, in his words, “on the wrong side of an escalating war of ideas.” There are atheists who have the truth, and religious people who are still gripped, more or less completely, by the lie.

What this view of religion fails to take seriously is the possibility that religion isn’t about blind allegiance to a text or institution, but can be about living in what I call “ethico-religious hope”: the hope that reality, in some essential way, is on the side of goodness. For the religious among us, this is a hope that is fueled by experiences of an astonishing kind, experiences which seem to bring us into contact with something extraordinary, something wondrous beneath the empirical surface of things. Faith is about the decision to follow the hope gestured toward in religious experience, rather than dismissing such experience as delusional, as nothing more than neural misfirings in the brain.

Living in such a hope is not incompatible with accepting the scientific facts as they are. After all, science doesn’t teach us that science is the final arbiter of all that is real and true. It can’t. To put it bluntly, science cannot discern whether there is more to reality than science can discern. And so, if there are those who say that the empirical world of science is all that there is, that there is nothing transcendent, they haven’t been taught this by science.

Nor does an allegiance to science preclude participating in a faith tradition that offers a portrait of the transcendent; in other words, a tradition that offers a holistic religious worldview in which the world of ordinary experience is interpreted and invested with meaning in the light of beliefs concerning what lies beyond it. Rather, what allegiance to science precludes is refusing to adjust one’s worldview in the light of what science teaches. A religious worldview is a holistic interpretation of the world we encounter in experience. It isn’t and shouldn’t be a holistic interpretation of some fantasy world.

But as I have argued in my work, there is plenty of room for interpretation; even when we all agree on the empirical facts. Human experience includes elements (such as the sense of objective goodness in the world) that are hard to fit into a reductively naturalistic worldview. And while the facts of science preclude some views about the transcendent, there are religious worldviews that not only fit with the facts but offer resources for making sense of our experience; resources unavailable in naturalism. And so religious worldviews are still in the game, so to speak, when it comes to worldviews that orient our lives.

As Alister McGrath has put it, there is a “conceptual malleability” to the world discovered by science, allowing for multiple interpretations. As such, when atheists express certainty that they have the truth and all those who live in the ethico-religious hope are living in the grip of delusion, they are expressing a false certainty. And it has every appearance of being the same sort of false certainty that, in the history of religion, has so often led to condemnation of dissenters. There have been times in which a professed disbelief in God has disqualified one from public leadership. And here we have Harris wishing that Collins’ belief would disqualify him. Were Harris to have his way, there’d be a new public orthodoxy according to which allegiance to a materialist worldview is a qualification for meriting positions of leadership and influence.

But, to be fair, Harris doesn’t just assert this without backup. He gives reasons why he thinks Collins, despite his credentials, should be excluded from a position of scientific leadership because of his faith. And there is a difference between the ideological marginalization of all people who have heretical beliefs and so don’t belong to the “chosen group,” and a legitimate exclusion of people whose specific beliefs are relevant for assessing their qualifications. A devout follower of a faith that rejects modern medicine is probably not the best choice to serve as chief administrator of a hospital.

So does Harris offer compelling reasons for thinking that being a Christian undermines Francis Collins’ capacity to lead the NIH? First, Harris suggests that Collins’ Christian views undermine his capacity to be a rationally consistent thinker. His evidence is twofold. First, Collins believes there’s scientific evidence that makes the existence of God “intensely plausible”—but in the face of challenges to this so-called evidence or contrary evidence, Harris insists that “Dr. Collins will say that God stands outside of Nature, and thus science cannot address the question of his existence at all.”

Would Collins say this? Perhaps so. But if he does, he might very well mean something along the following lines: A worldview is an interpretation of the meaning of the world of ‘experience.’ Insofar as a worldview includes postulates that transcend the limits of science (for example, that there might be more to reality than science can discern), the assessment of such worldviews falls outside of the scope of science. But this does not mean that some worldviews don’t “map” more easily onto our experience, including our scientific experience, than others. And science has uncovered things (such as the so-called “fine-tuning” of the universe) that are amenable to theistic interpretation, even if they can also be incorporated with some effort and argument into a nontheistic worldview.

Such a position is perfectly consistent, even though its subtleties are hard to capture in brief soundbites, and even though attempts to express this position are sometimes less precise than they should be, opening the door for uncharitable interpretations and caricatures.

The Problem of Evil

But Harris raises another charge of inconsistency: namely that Collins invokes a kind of moral argument for God’s existence, to the effect that “our moral intuitions attest to God’s existence,” while refusing to take seriously those moral intuitions which tell us that the world is riddled with moral evils.

This, of course, is a gesture towards the so-called “problem of evil”: how could an all-powerful and wholly good God permit all the evils that we experience in the world? And, of course, Harris is hardly the first to think of this problem. Nor is he the first to utterly ignore the rich tradition of subtle thinking about it that has gone on for thousands of years.

But I will say this: When you are dealing with whether there is far more to reality than meets the eye, you are dealing with the question of whether there is potential for the evils we encounter to be redeemed. Atheists look at the evils that afflict people in this lifetime and often think in the following terms: if this is the whole story, then these afflictions strip all meaning and positive value from the lives of those who endure them. And since this is the whole story (because, obviously, there is no God), it follows that these afflictions are decisively devastating in just this way. But God wouldn’t allow such devastating, life-crushing evils. Therefore, there is no God.

As should be clear, the force of this argument diminishes rapidly once you don’t assume the atheistic conclusion in advance;that is, once you consider the possibility that this world is but the surface of something far deeper, and that the evils of this world may therefore be situated within a broader reality that redeems them.

Evil is a problem, but is it really irrational for to choose to live in terms of a hopeful possibility when the alternative is despair? Perhaps Dr. Collins is so deeply empathetic to those who have suffered devastating evil that he is moved and inspired by the redemptive possibilities of a richer, vaster universe than the world of mechanism and quantum indeterminacy. Does such empathy and hope make him unqualified to oversee our National Institutes of Health?

The Hard Problem

Harris has other arguments. He points out that “most scientists who study the mind are convinced that minds are the products of brain, and brains are the products of evolution.” Collins, however, believes there is more to human consciousness and human nature than what can be discerned through a study of the brain and our evolutionary history. This troubles Harris, because he thinks that such a belief “would seriously undercut fields like neuroscience.”

But belief that there is more to the human person than what neuroscience can see does not mean that neuroscience is useless. It does not mean that what neuroscience can discover should be dismissed or ignored. It certainly doesn’t mean that someone like Collins “believes that a scientific understanding of human nature is impossible,” as Harris maintains.

Rather, it means that a purely scientific understanding of human nature will be part of a more complex puzzle, and that there is more to the human story than we can glean through neuroscience and evolutionary theory. Even if these disciplines can teach us a great deal of enormous value, Collins believes there will be more. And I wonder what lessons might never be learned about the human person if this possibility is denied in advance, in the way that Harris and others like him do.

The fact is that, while most brain scientists do operate on the assumption that the mind is a product of the brain, the evidence falls short. We know there are deep correlations between what happens in consciousness and what happens in the brain; we rely on the brain for our conscious experience. But while the image on my computer screen depends upon the operation of the computer’s hardware and software, that image is nothing more than an array of illuminated pixels without a consciousness to interpret them.

What the eminent philosopher of mind, David Chalmers, has called “the hard problem”—namely, the problem of explaining how neural firings and other physical phenomena can give rise to the subjective experiences of a self—remains entirely unsolved. That it can be solved is merely a sort of pious hope or faith among neuroscientists who have committed their careers to the endeavor. I don’t begrudge them their hopes, but it seems a mistake to dismiss as irrational and dangerous those who have pinned their hopes elsewhere.

And so it seems Harris’ accusations against Collins amount to this: Collins and Harris take opposing stances on a set complex philosophical questions about which reasonable people can and do disagree. This observation is hardly a basis for excluding Collins from the leadership of the NIH—unless, of course, one is ideologically aligned with Harris’ view in such a way that differences of opinion amount to intolerable heresy.


Eric Reitan, an award-winning scholar and writer, teaches philosophy at Oklahoma State University. His most recent book, Is God a Delusion? A Reply to Religion’s Cultured Despisers was named a Choice Outstanding Academic Title of 2009.