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Austin Cline

Francis Collins' Conversion from Atheism to Christianity: What's the Truth?

By June 30, 2009

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Francis Collins is a popular figure among liberal Christians today. Many regard Francis Collins as an excellent authority on how science and religion, but especially evolution and religion, can be reconciled. Collins' authority depends, however, on not only the quality of his arguments but also the accuracy of his claims about religion and science. Both are highly debatable, especially since he gives us reason to question even the accuracy of his claims about his own life and beliefs.
On the one hand, Collins says, "I had never really seriously considered the evidence for and against belief." On the other hand, he says, "...if I could no longer rely on the robustness of my atheistic position..." It makes no sense to consider a position never seriously examined to be robust.

Source: The Barefoot Bum

Both can't be true — it can't be the case that Collins held an "atheist position" that was "robust" and that Collins "never really seriously considered the evidence for and against belief." A "robust" position is one that is necessarily strong, sound, well-reasoned, multi-faceted, hardy (stands up to many challenges), etc. You can't have a robust position if you've never spent much time seriously examining arguments for and against it.

What's the truth? We may never know and perhaps Collins just isn't introspective enough to know himself — that would be one reason why he's unable to provide a consistent account of his own position even over the course of a couple of paragraphs.

Personally, I think it's far more likely the case that he "never really seriously considered the evidence for and against belief." Why? Because I think it's abundantly clear that he still hasn't done so — his current rationalizations for his Christian beliefs are so profoundly weak that they don't even qualify as good rationalizations:

Collins turns to Christianity because he finds "no satisfactory explanation in Darwinian evolution" for the presence of moral law. But why do we teach to children precisely those fundamental ethical beliefs that C.S. Lewis (whom Collins references as key to his conversion) uses to support the idea of moral law, especially fairness and the mutual benefit of sharing? And why do we blame the parents, teachers and/or culture, not God, when those beliefs are not properly inculcated?

The inability to find an explanation of moral law in specifically Darwinian (presumably biological, genetic) evolution should not immediately turn one to a supernatural explanation; perhaps the scientific explanation might lie in scientific psychology, sociology, anthropology or some as-yet-undiscovered social science.

What's more, even if the inability to find a naturalistic explanation for some feature of the world could reasonably justify a supernatural explanation, it doesn't necessarily justify "god" as an explanation — any other supernatural claim is equally justified given the absence of reliable information about gods or any other alleged "supernatural" entity. Furthermore, Christianity in particular isn't automatically justified by such a situation either — another religion like Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam has just as much to support it. We can hardly consider it a coincidence that Francis Collins just happened to decide upon the religion that is most prevalent where he grew up and where he lives.

However, we could hypothesize that Collins never thought very much about arguments for or against theism and lacked the skills to address the claims and arguments made by apologists around him. Eventually such arguments may have inclined him to adopt Christianity but at the same time he needed to rationalize this in order to maintain an image as a rational, reasonable person — so he ends up emphasizing his earlier atheism as if it were a reasoned, considered atheism while describing abysmal arguments as if they were powerful proof for his position.

Now why is it again that anyone should regard Francis Collins as an authority for how and why religion and science can be reconciled? If Collins can't even provide serious, sound, reasonable arguments for believing in a god, how can his arguments on behalf of reconciling belief in that god and science be trusted?

June 30, 2009 at 1:58 pm
(1) mobathome says:

The link “The Barefoot Bum” is dead.

July 1, 2009 at 12:34 am
(2) ChuckA says:

“Oh, look…a frozen waterfall!…what a revelation!”
“I guess I was wrong all this time…Jeebus DID die for our sins…and Eternal damnation in hell does exist!” [snark]
Which reminds me of a brief reference by Neil deGrasse Tyson(at Beyond Belief ’06)to Collins’ “Frozen Waterfall” in his very humorous, yet very insightful, thoughts regarding “Intelligent Design”…
“Neil deGrasse Tyson – Stupid Design”:
(Yeah…Copy/paste bracket contents, as usual. FYI, I post links that way to permit them showing up more “immediately”! I’ve had several instances of comments NEVER appearing because of contained links. Any suggestions, Austin? What’s that?…Go Away? ;) )

July 1, 2009 at 3:28 am
(3) Mark Barratt says:

I don’t know which I find more convincing, Collins rejection of an atheism he admits he never seriously thought about, or Lee Strobel’s rejection of the atheist position that he only held because it allowed him to sin all the time and be a mean, mean person.

It’s like somebody saying the converted from Judaism because they were tired of being greedy, dishonest and obsessed with money. It’s just parroting hideous stereotypes of the group in question. It’s not designed to convince us at all, just to reinforce THEIR particular prejudices about us.

You’d think that if apologists had decent responses to actual atheist arguments then they’d use them, instead of relying on misrepresentation and stereotyping.

July 15, 2009 at 4:03 pm
(4) Drew says:

Bingo Mark. There are precisely zero arguments for gods, and zero arguments that actually work against atheism.

Collins is just another example of the Christian who falsely claims to have been an atheist as part of the need to Lie for Jesus. We see this on the internet regularly, yet these people can never actually articulate any of the viewpoints that atheists hold. By contrast, ex-Christian atheists are easily able to explain their thought processes from when they were believers. Go figure.

We can all pretty much guess what happened to Collins, even without reading his books, because the story is so common. When he was a teen or young adult he either (a) wandered away from the church of his parents, or (b) had parents who vaguely purported to be some religion but didn’t actually attend a church. Because his immediate family wasn’t very religous, and since religion serves no purpose if you don’t give it one, he didn’t think much about something inconsequential to his life. This is hardly a stretch, since most people who claim they are a certain religion don’t actually attend a church.

Then, as a young adult, he either (a) had a traumatic life event that he couldn’t handle with his existing social or family circle; (b) made friendships or sexual relationships with a practicing religionist who influenced him; or (c) attributed things in his life, or life generally, to the religion and god he was taught about as a child but hadn’t thought about recently. This may have been a reaction to atheists he disliked, or theist/deists he admired. It may have just been the result of constant societal reinforcement of religious belief as “normal”.

Next thing you know, he’s claiming he was an “atheist” for the purpose of proselytising. Much like CS Lewis did. Religionists do this because (a) lying is an important component of both personal faith and evangelising; (b) there is a need to “rally the troops” in the face of the undeniable decline of religious adherence and actual numbers; and (c) there is a need in (bad) apologetics to pretend that, if something bad is happening to your ‘side’ (ie people are leaving it), it’s important to create the impression, however false, that the other side is also losing numbers.

My Christian friend didn’t enjoy reading Collins, so I didn’t bother doing so. Maybe I’m wrong therefore about Collin’s personal history. But I doubt it.

October 3, 2012 at 12:09 am
(5) Kevin says:

Francis Collins is a popular figure among liberal Christians

You could have short-circuited this article at that oxymoron.

But since we are here, how about reconciling scientific inquiry with the atheist belief that, ultimately, there is nothing to look for?

October 4, 2012 at 10:22 am
(6) Austin Cline says:

But since we are here, how about reconciling scientific inquiry with the atheist belief that, ultimately, there is nothing to look for?

What atheistic belief are you talking about?

October 19, 2012 at 5:02 pm
(7) casiano531 says:

This world is not ruled by logic. Reason can be a guide but there are times that you cannot hold on to it. that’s when you have to rely on faith.

October 21, 2012 at 2:50 pm
(8) Austin Cline says:

that’s when you have to rely on faith.

And what do you mean by “faith”?

October 24, 2012 at 7:17 pm
(9) Bill says:

So you question is various philosophical views because he can’t satisfy your curiosity about his early atheism? This is a very weak article.

October 27, 2012 at 8:00 am
(10) Austin Cline says:

So you question is various philosophical views because he can’t satisfy your curiosity about his early atheism?

No. I question his claims because his claims contradictory. His statements can’t be all true, so some must be false.

This is a very weak article.

Well, I must have made some mistake somewhere if my statement that his two claims about his alleged atheism can’t both be true couldn’t be clearly understood.

Then again, I’m not sure how much clearer I can be other than to quote him and say “both can’t be true.” Perhaps you can explain where, exactly, you had so much trouble.

February 22, 2013 at 5:48 pm
(11) Len de Ruiter says:

Tyson’s “Stupid Design” argument was so ridiculously weak. Played out it means that when a space shuttle blows up it proves it wasn’t built by intelligent scientists. What a laugh!

February 24, 2013 at 3:58 pm
(12) Austin Cline says:

Played out it means that when a space shuttle blows up it proves it wasn’t built by intelligent scientists.

If that’s so, then you should be able to show how.

Merely claiming it’s true doesn’t make it true. Your failure to actually advance a real, substantive argument means that your position simply cannot be taken seriously.

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