Steven Pinker comes clean: It’s not about science, it’s about atheism

angry atheism atheism science

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Francis Collins’ reputation is as is the brilliant scientist who cracked the human genome. Because of his outstanding qualifications, not too long ago he was appointed at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It’s also no secret – because Dr Collins makes it no secret – that he is a Christian. It is the latter fact that has rubbed Steven Pinker the wrong way.

It’s not, Pinker wants us to rest assured, the mere fact that Dr Collins is a Christian that’s a problem. “But in Collins’s case,” Pinker tells us, “it is not a matter of private belief, but public advocacy.” What Pinker would have preferred is a policy of don’t ask – don’t tell. What we really can’t have, you see, is for people to know that a public advocate of science is a Christian. And why is that?

The major concern for Pinker is here:

Collins, in his book, eggs on fellow evangelical Christians in their anti-scientific beliefs. He tells them that they are “right to hold fast to the truths of the Bible” and to “the certainty that the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted.” Granted, he is not a young-earth or intelligent-design creationist. But he has stated that God interacts with creation, in particular, that he designed the evolutionary process to ensure that human intelligence, morality, and Judaeo-Christian religious belief would evolve. That is far more than just expressing an opinion. That is advocacy, which gives incalculable encouragement the forces that have been hostile to science for the past eight years.

So instead of Collins’ work serving as an obvious counter-example to the stereotypical and clearly false claim that religious people are enemies of science, Pinker only welcomes Christians who stay in the closet, so that the myth can be perpetuated! Unfortunately, Pinker’s failure to voice equal condemnation of the public role of the likes of Richard Dawkins puts the lie to any thought that his concern is a genuinely scientific one. Dawkins holds a position as Oxford’s Professor For The Understanding Of Science, and yet he has gained more fame in recent years for his advocacy of atheism than for anything else.

Pinker’s rationale is clear: We want Science to be positioned in opposition to religion, so nobody who advocates religion should be welcomed into the hallowed halls of science. Those who fly off the handle at God, on the other hand, we welcome with open arms. Dr Pinker, if you want to convince people that there are no gatekeepers, trying to “expel” the openly religious due to a desire to push the view that science is atheism, then – as the kids say online, you’re doing it wrong.

Glenn Peoples

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{ 21 comments… add one }
  • Phil C December 3, 2009, 10:40 pm

    Hello, thanks for this post. Just on a point of accuracy: Dawkins gave up the Simonyi Professorship Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at the end of last year. It is now held by Marcus du Sautoy, who has said that he will focus much more on science.

  • Glenn December 3, 2009, 11:18 pm

    Thanks for that Phil – I didn’t know that Dawkins gave the chair up. It’s certainly encouraging that the current chair for the public understanding of science is going to focus on, well, science!

    Still, Pinker never complained while Dawkins held the position so I think the point is worth making.

  • ZenTiger December 3, 2009, 11:55 pm

    A very good observation.

  • Mike Crowl December 4, 2009, 8:39 am

    Anyone who’s read Pinker’s books would know that he’s the pot calling the kettle black here. His books continually advocate an evolutionary approach to everything without justification; in other words his ‘philosophy’ of evolution far outweighs his ‘science’ of evolution.
    Personally I find it a little difficult that Collins advocates evolution – it’s a bit as though he wants to have his cake and eat it. Can we really truly reconcile evolution and a God who creates?

  • Bob December 4, 2009, 9:47 am

    Only in science that someone who has proven himself in the field, who has tremendously help advanced his field is called anti-science … merely because he has a view different from the majority in the field and he is not silent about it

    After reading the comments in the article I can only say … what a bunch of … !

  • Kristian Joensen December 4, 2009, 3:32 pm

    “merely because he has a view different from the majority in the field and he is not silent about it”

    This view is even about a question OUTSIDE the field. [sarcasm]How tolerant and open minded of them[/sarcasm]

  • Mike December 5, 2009, 5:10 am

    “Can we really truly reconcile evolution and a God who creates?”

    Yes

    Why does this myth continue? There are many many scientists who are Christians and “believe” evolution. I am one of them. There are also evolutionary biologists who think that the ID / YEC position is bunk.

    I have read Collins’ book and he is one of them.

  • Mike December 5, 2009, 5:28 am

    It should read…

    * There are also Christians who are evolutionary biologists that think the ID / YEC position is bunk. *

  • Glenn December 5, 2009, 2:00 pm

    Mike, I agree with the sentiment, I just wish people wouldn’t say “ID/YEC,” linking them closely. True, YEC people embrace ID, but the reverse is often not the case.

  • Eric Olthwaite December 6, 2009, 10:39 am

    You missed Pinker’s point. The head of the NIH has to live and breathe science.

    Think of it as analogous to the Attorney General, Chief of Police or other like jobs. he (or she) has to be completely above suspicion. They have to have an unblemished record and even a drink-driving conviction could make them lose their jobs.

    It is the same here. Could someone be a great Chief of Police or Attorney General with a conviction? Most probably, everyone makes mistakes but we don’t want people with mistakes in high profile jobs such as these.

    Could Collins be a good NIH director? Maybe. But he has a huge mark on his record with his belief in an imaginary friend *without any scientific justification* – as Pinker says

    “Collins has said that he came to accept the Trinity, and the truth that Jesus is the son of God, when he was hiking and came upon a beautiful triple waterfall. Now, the idea that nature contains private coded messages from a supernatural being to an individual person is the antithesis of the scientific (indeed, rational) mindset. It is primitive, shamanistic, superstitious. The point of the scientific revolution was to do away with such animistic thinking.”

    The director of the NIH has to be “all science, all the time” and can’t be seen to lapse into fairy stories about how he sees the world working.

  • Glenn December 6, 2009, 2:52 pm

    Eric, not only did I not miss Pinker’s point, but you’ve just confirmed my point.

    You, like Pinker, have basically said that the only real scientist who can be all science all the time is an atheist scientist.

    You, like Pinker, might entertain the private belief that theism is without any proper justification (a belief that is contradicted by the beliefs of many other scientifically minded people). But to impose that private belief as a litmus test of who can and cannot filly public roles in science is a tacit admission that it’s all about religion, not science.

    I wish people would let science be about science.

  • ropata December 7, 2009, 4:15 pm

    Eric,
    You might also want to prevent all rugby players from playing golf, as clearly golf does not obey the laws of rugby.

  • Madeleine December 8, 2009, 1:10 am

    But he has a huge mark on his record with his belief in an imaginary friend *without any scientific justification* – as Pinker says

    He also believes rape is wrong ought statements like this can’t be justified scientifically so presumably that disqualifies him as well.

    So by your logic only people who do not think rape is wrong should be allowed to be director NIH.

  • Mike December 8, 2009, 4:39 am

    Glenn,

    I understand that there is a difference between the YEC and ID stance but both come under scrutiny but the academic community for similar reasons.

    I did not mean to imply that YEC and ID are one in the same. Sorry for the misunderstanding.

    Mike

  • Bob December 8, 2009, 5:54 pm

    “the YEC and ID stance but both come under scrutiny but the academic community for similar reasons.”

    It only shows the ignorance of the people from academic community that scrutinize the two for similar reasons.

  • Glenn December 8, 2009, 7:15 pm

    Here are two claims:

    1) The universe is about 6,000 years old.

    2) The complexity of life at the biochemical level is such that it cannot have come about only via the natural selection of random mutations over time.

    Anyone who, on serious reflection, believes that the two claims should be scrutinised and doubted for basically the same reason, is at least somewhat crazy. I doubt that even those who make the claim really believe it. I think it is instead a shorthand way of saying “both views are wrong/silly/indefensible.”

  • Mike December 9, 2009, 3:54 am

    “I think it is instead a shorthand way of saying “both views are wrong/silly/indefensible.”

    This is basically my point….from the academic standpoint.

  • Glenn December 9, 2009, 11:27 am

    Even if ID were wrong, there are some quite respectable views that might be, in the final analysis, incorrect. I’m not convinced that ID is wrong, but if I were I would still never put it in the same category of “rejectability” with YEC.

  • Mike December 10, 2009, 3:11 am

    Glenn,

    I agree with you 100% as well as most reasonable people.

    We frequently discuss the issue in my lab and most people can understand where the ID crowd is coming from…..not so much the YEC crowd.

  • Dr. Bulldog December 10, 2009, 2:10 pm

    Excellent post. As a physicist who believes in God, it is always refreshing to read stories like this that exposes the bullying by atheists in the scientific community. Some of the most brilliant scientists I know are deeply religious, but have been forced into, as you say, a policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

    Cheers

  • Peter Byrom January 5, 2011, 3:07 am

    “Dawkins gave up the Simonyi Professorship Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at the end of last year. It is now held by Marcus du Sautoy, who has said that he will focus much more on science.”

    Thank goodness. Think of all the wasted time and energy Dawkins poured into militant atheism over helping people to understand science. One can argue he’s even done harm, as he’s spread the myth that science and God are opposed. He hijacked the post into “the Public (mis)Understanding of Science (VS God)”.

    On the ID and YEC stuff, yes, they are completely different:

    YEC begins with a holy book and presupposes that a certain God made the universe, in a certain way, and they try to make the science fit their own interpretations (key word!) of their scripture.

    ID begins by examining nature itself – by looking for traces of, and clues for, design within natural artefacts. Even if their evidences and arguments proved that elements of nature (e.g. the cell) were intelligently designed it wouldn’t tell us anything about WHO the designer was – let alone WHICH God!

    I think YEC is complete nonsense, but ID I have a lot more time and respect for, because their findings can simply be examined and stand/fall on their own emperical merits.

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