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Sam Harris: The Language of Ignorance

Posted on Aug 15, 2006
The Double Helix and the Cross
Illustration: Karen Spector

By Sam Harris

In this essay, the bestselling secularist author of “The End of Faith” delivers a scathing review of “The Language of God,” a new book by Human Genome Project head Francis Collins that attempts to demonstrate a harmony between science and evangelical Christianity.

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Francis Collins—physical chemist, medical geneticist and head of the Human Genome Project—has written a book entitled ?The Language of God.? In it, he attempts to demonstrate that there is ?a consistent and profoundly satisfying harmony? between 21st-century science and evangelical Christianity. To say that he fails at his task does not quite get at the inadequacy of his efforts. He fails the way a surgeon would fail if he attempted to operate using only his toes. His failure is predictable, spectacular and vile. ?The Language of God? reads like a hoax text, and the knowledge that it is not a hoax should be disturbing to anyone who cares about the future of intellectual and political discourse in the United States.

Most reviewers of ?The Language of God? seem quite overawed by its author?s scientific credentials. This is understandable. As director of the Human Genome Project, Collins participated in one of the greatest scientific achievements in human history. His book, however, reveals that a stellar career in science offers no guarantee of a scientific frame of mind. Lest we think that one man can do no lasting harm to our discourse, consider the fact that the year is 2006, half of the American population believes that the universe is 6,000 years old, our president has just used his first veto to block federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research on religious grounds, and one of the foremost scientists in the land has this to say, straight from the heart (if not the brain):

As believers, you are right to hold fast to the concept of God as Creator; you are right to hold fast to the truths of the Bible; you are right to hold fast to the conclusion that science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence; and you are right to hold fast to the certainty that the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted?.

God, who is not limited to space and time, created the universe and established natural laws that govern it. Seeking to populate this otherwise sterile universe with living creatures, God chose the elegant mechanism of evolution to create microbes, plants, and animals of all sorts. Most remarkably, God intentionally chose the same mechanism to give rise to special creatures who would have intelligence, a knowledge of right and wrong, free will, and a desire to seek fellowship with Him. He also knew these creatures would ultimately choose to disobey the Moral Law.

According to Collins, belief in the God of Abraham is the most rational response to the data of physics and biology, while ?of all the possible worldviews, atheism is the least rational.? Taken at face value, these claims suggest that ?The Language of God? will mark an unprecedented breakthrough in the history of ideas. Once Collins gets going, however, we realize that the book represents a breakthrough of another kind.

After finding himself powerless to detect any errors in the philosophizing of C.S. Lewis (a truly ominous sign), Collins describes the moment that he, as a scientist, finally became convinced of the divinity of Jesus Christ:

On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains ? the majesty and beauty of God?s creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ.

If this account of field research seems a little thin, don?t worry—a recent profile of Collins in Time magazine offers supplementary data. Here, we learn that the waterfall was frozen in three streams, which put the good doctor in mind of the Trinity?

It is at this point that thoughts of suicide might occur to any reader who has placed undue trust in the intellectual integrity of his fellow human beings. One would hope that it would be immediately obvious to Collins that there is nothing about seeing a frozen waterfall (no matter how frozen) that offers the slightest corroboration of the doctrine of Christianity. But it was not obvious to him as he ?knelt in the dewy grass,? and it is not obvious to him now. Indeed, I fear that it will not be obvious to many of his readers.

If the beauty of nature can mean that Jesus really is the son of God, then anything can mean anything. Let us say that I saw the same waterfall, and its three streams reminded me of Romulus, Remus and the She-wolf, the mythical founders of Rome. How reasonable would it be for me to know, from that moment forward, that Italy would one day win the World Cup? This epiphany, while perfectly psychotic, would actually put me on firmer ground than Collins—because Italy did win the World Cup. Collins? alpine conversion would be a ludicrous non sequitur even if Jesus does return to Earth trailing clouds of glory.

While the mere sighting of a waterfall appears to have been sufficient to answer all important questions of theology for Collins, he imagines himself to be in possession of further evidence attesting to the divinity of Jesus, the omnipotence of God and the divine origin of the Bible. The most compelling of these data, in his view, is the fact that human beings have a sense of right and wrong. Collins follows Lewis here, as faithfully as if he were on a leash, and declares that the ?moral law? is so inscrutable a thing as to admit of only a supernatural explanation. According to Collins, the moral law applies exclusively to human beings:

Though other animals may at times appear to show glimmerings of a moral sense, they are certainly not widespread, and in many instances other species? behavior seems to be in dramatic contrast to any sense of universal rightness.

One wonders if the author has ever read a newspaper. The behavior of humans offers no such ?dramatic contrast.? How badly must human beings behave to put this ?sense of universal rightness? in doubt? And just how widespread must ?glimmerings? of morality be among other animals before Collins—who, after all, knows a thing or two about genes—begins to wonder whether our moral sense has evolutionary precursors in the natural world? What if mice showed greater distress at the suffering of familiar mice than unfamiliar ones? (They do.) What if monkeys will starve themselves to prevent their cage-mates from receiving painful shocks? (They will.) What if chimps have a demonstrable sense of fairness when receiving food rewards? (They have.) Wouldn?t these be precisely the sorts of findings one would expect if our morality were the product of evolution?

Collins? case for the supernatural origin of morality rests on the further assertion that there can be no evolutionary explanation for genuine altruism. Because self-sacrifice cannot increase the likelihood that an individual creature will survive and reproduce, truly self-sacrificing behavior stands as a primordial rejoinder to any biological account of morality. In Collins? view, therefore, the mere existence of altruism offers compelling evidence of a personal God. (Here, Collins performs a risible sprint past ideas in biology like ?kin selection? that plausibly explain altruism and self-sacrifice in evolutionary terms.) A moment?s thought reveals, however, that if we were to accept this neutered biology, almost everything about us would be bathed in the warm glow of religious mystery. Forget morality—how did nature select for the ability to write sonnets, solder circuit boards or swing a golf club? Clearly, such abilities could never be the product of evolution. Might they have been placed in us by God? Smoking cigarettes isn?t a healthy habit and is unlikely to offer an adaptive advantage—and there were no cigarettes in the Paleolithic—but this habit is very widespread and compelling. Is God, by any chance, a tobacco farmer? Collins can?t seem to see that human morality and selfless love may be derivative of more basic biological and psychological traits,  which were themselves products of evolution. It is hard to interpret this oversight in light of his scientific training. If one didn?t know better, one might be tempted to conclude that religious dogmatism presents an obstacle to scientific reasoning.

Having established that our moral sensitivities are God-given, Collins finds himself in a position to infer the nature of our Creator:

And if that were so, what kind of God would this be? Would this be a deist God, who invented physics and mathematics and started the universe in motion about 14 billion years ago, then wandered off to deal with other, more important matters, as Einstein thought? No, this God, if I was perceiving him at all, must be a theist God, who desires some kind of relationship with those special creatures called human beings, and has therefore instilled this special glimpse of Himself into each one of us. This might be the God of Abraham, but it was certainly not the God of Einstein?. Judging by the incredibly high standards of the Moral Law ? this was a God who was holy and righteous. He would have to be the embodiment of goodness?. Faith in God now seemed more rational than disbelief.

I hope the reader will share my amazement that passages like this have come from one of the most celebrated scientists in the United States. I find that my own sense of the moral law requires that I provide a few more examples of Collins? skill as a philosopher and theologian…

Next page:  How does Collins settle the problem of theodicy—the mystery of why there is evil and misfortune in a world created by an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly benevolent God? He takes it very much in stride….

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By Ed W., August 16, 2006 at 6:14 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This is frustrating, why is that christianity needs its apologists.  Isnt faith enough?  This is just proof that people crave reasons and explanations for their beliefs - we are finally reaching the point where simply faith isn’t enough.  Maybe its only a matter of time before people start to think about their unsubstantiated beliefs. 

Sam Harris, you are god.

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By ralph mathekga, August 16, 2006 at 5:52 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

a wonder piece that exposes the weaknesses of monty python reasoning behind christian fundantalism…

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By Sophia, August 16, 2006 at 4:15 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Sam Harris’ insight to the core of reality
is energizing to say the least !

Collins, the deluded devotee of an apparition
shows he is a writer of FICTION here:

>>A PAGAN question here.


On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains … the majesty and beauty of God’s creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ.

How is it that a hundreds of feet high waterfall
can be frozen while there is dewy wet grass underfoot ?

And this is in the FALL of the year?

Any Nature wanderer knows a whole waterfall wont
freeze as it is FED in constant motion.

Only a very small water fall will freeze where the back up
feed is small enough to also freeze and has had to
dry up as Spring rains and melts ran scarce so
by FALL it is stagnant and CAN freeze.

A waterfall hundreds of feet high has a huge constant
year round feed, It cannot freeze.

In a mountain area cold enough to freeze a water fall
there wont be any DEW on any GRASS which will be
dry brown crunch. NOT dewy wet green .

If ANY waterfall ANYWHERE more than a foot high
is EVER frozen it IS time to see appirations!

This guy is writing FICTION and claiming some super
natural vision and Pauline encounter.

His recompense for using his academioc stature to
press the GREAT LIE must have been as big as his lies.

Reminds of when a famous radio host sold his
soul for $295 million to preach the same BS
for the same MASTERS. <<

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By Dr. Kenneth Noisewater, August 16, 2006 at 3:43 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Sam Harris is sounding a lot like Fundamentalist Right-wing Christians: “I am uncomfortable with your position, so rather than offering dialogue, or attempting to understand you, I will attack you personally, and counter your arguements with pseudo-science and sarcasm.”

Congratulations, Sam; you’ve come full-circle,

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By morgan-lynn lamberth griggsy, August 16, 2006 at 3:14 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Collins,following Lewis ,shows again my contention that logic is the bane of theists.All theists are creationists -they believe in a creator without any reason .They put forth spurious reasons why they believe in a Sky Phallus ,but it redounds to sucking on that Sky Phallus-faith .McGrath in his shallow book on Dawkins states that , in effect, although A Sky Phallus is redundant,the believer has the right to believe because of awe.If something is redundant ,it is useless .So ,he does not accept the principle of parsimony and thus is contemptuous of logic.He states that to use faith for blind faith , one is wrong;but in using that redundancy ,he shows blind faith. He further states it is wrong to compare Santa Claus to Sky Phallus,for no one seriously maintains wants to worship Santa ,but that is an ignoratio elenchi-beside the point, which is that both are redundant .The child learns that dad puts the presents around the tree and we learn that natural causation does the job of creating. Yes, my contention holds.Why should one put her head in the cesspool of faith and logical falllacies when reality beckons? We are the believers in reality; they the, unbeievers therein. Sam Harriss is so right.And Dawkins book on religion will outclass McGrath’s shallow one on him !

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By erie miller, August 16, 2006 at 2:22 am Link to this comment
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well, sam, you did it again. you’ve impaled another poor christian! but don’t worry, your logic and reason will roll off of him like water off of a beaver’s back, and you’ll have to do it again with some other damp-eyed religioso who’ll take his place.

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By William Belote, August 16, 2006 at 1:44 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Mr. Harris is a writer with a rare combination of eloquence and reasoning ability.  Reading him is humbling for someone like myself who harbors notions of “Christlike” love blossoming in open hearts, compassion for all and cosmic intelligence.  I am a believer in the ancient Vedic idea of some intelligence beyond our own collective consciousness that is not subject to the normal constraints of time and space.  However, it is clear to me that I could not prove this notion true or false to anyone outside of myself, and a ‘proof’  that personal is of no use to others.  It is a personal belief.  There is nothing inherently dangerous about that as long as the believer can maintain the humility that seems a natural response to an amazing universe, and a world of such diversity.  There is so much we don’t know.  Yet, we do know something about our history on this planet, and Mr. Collins’s dismissal of Christian persecution as noted with Galileo is sad and rather obscene.

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By heavywithsediment, August 16, 2006 at 12:34 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

i am so looking forward to reading the rest of this article…

but before i fall asleep, i would like to make this statement.

speaking as an ‘agnostic’ that nevertheless finds religion fascinating for all its present political, social, and economic machinations, i would like to caution would be fans of mr. harris in that, in due time, his adamantly atheistic, rational materialist mysticism will eventually mature into an egually adamant and mystical ‘christianity’; as soon as he realizes that all the great christian ‘minds’ (st. augustine, thomas a kempis, thomas aguinus, st. francis, and the saints, all of the saints) were essentially theist buddhists (figure out the possibility), far removed intellectually from the fundamentalist mutts that we commonly associate with contemporary popular christianity. his task then, hopefully, if he retains any of his current integrity, will be to rewrite the ‘language of god’ in a way that will offer sanctimonious fodder against the zealots that currently want to destroy the planet, instead of, as i assume this other bastard’s book does, feed their flame.

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By Tommy Gleason, August 16, 2006 at 12:30 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Collins says: “The Big Bang cries out for a divine explanation. ...I cannot see how nature could have created itself. Only a supernatural force that is outside of space and time could have done that.”

Fine. Now what created the supernatural force?

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By Lexi, August 16, 2006 at 12:09 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Thank you Sam, for not being shy. Revolting and shame are appropriate words to describe the writing of this scientist who dishonors his profession and his country with such trash. I saw this man interviewed on TV and didn’t have the stomach to keep watching.

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By Dr Mark, August 15, 2006 at 11:44 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Another razor sharp dissection of religious nonsense, and this from a leading scientist! Your outrage is warranted, as I read in disbelief what Collins has written. Unbelievable jibberish. One can only imagine what would have happened if Collins had seen the face if GW Bush frozen in the waterfall. Great work as usual sam. I’ve got your new book on pre-order already.

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By David Reed, August 15, 2006 at 10:58 pm Link to this comment
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I’m always delighted to see a posting from Sam Harris.  He seems to keep getting more resourceful with his logic and his examples.
I’m gratified to see such emotional judgmental language used skillfully from a secularist - words like “vile”, “repellant” and “sins.”  A scientific mindset does not need to be vacant of human feeling, quite the opposite.  The harsh light of dogma and authority desaturates the colors of our experience (as I’ve learned as an artist the harsh light does to a subject’s color in painting) and reason offers a better seat from which to view the world.

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By Jim, August 15, 2006 at 10:17 pm Link to this comment
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I haven’t read “The Language of God”, and I don’t know if I ever will.  Perhaps as a kind of inadequate penance for living in this country.  Is DNA the language of God?  If so, then why not bury a message from Jesus in the nucleotides?  Too obvious, I guess.  I am woefully ignorant of genetics, and yet I get the sense of a man using his expertise in one field of study to browbeat the world.  C.S. Lewis could be annoyingly subtle in his thinly veiled apologies, and yet from the few examples of Collins quoted in this essay, I get the sense of a shell with no sublimity at all.  The prose is all bland surfaces, like linoleum. 
Anyway, thanks again to Sam Harris for this essay and for his last book, “The End of Faith”, which I did read (and love).  I think he started this as a reaction to the growing danger of Islamists with nuclear weapons.  And yet, there is a revival in this country that would be risible if it weren’t for the level of military spending.  Come to South Carolina sometime, if you really want to be depressed.

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By KT, August 15, 2006 at 9:53 pm Link to this comment
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Thank you, Sam Harris.

Just more proof that some Americans are just insane despite all their “credentials.”

Just looney. Personally, I prefer Zeus and Thor over all the apocalyptic nonsense.

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By Stanley Gluck, August 15, 2006 at 9:22 pm Link to this comment
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Sam Harris has done it again! Another wonderful piece exposing the absurd “logic” of dogmatic religious fanatics disguised as scientists.


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