Wednesday, September 29, 2010

That Happiest of Mediums

The current director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Francis Collins, is profiled in a recent New Yorker article by Peter Boyer, and he doesn't miss the opportunity to rattle off several of the most hackneyed anti-atheist tropes:

He was an agnostic when he went off to the University of Virginia, and by the time he was studying physical chemistry as a graduate student, at Yale, he’d become what he calls a “fundamentalist” atheist—the sort of non-believer who would share his dining table with a believer, just for the chance to expose the folly of faith. “I was fairly obnoxious about it,” he says.
It's not clear if "fundamentalist" is Collins's word or Boyer's, but either way, the tendentious representation of atheism is underway before he even gets to "obnoxious." It sounds like Collins was an asshole before he saw the light bouncing off of Jesus, but no, what seems more plausible is that, in hindsight, now-Christian Francis Collins regards his former-atheist self and interpolates "asshole," and in particular, seizes the moment of a profile in the New Yorker to score some anti-atheist bonus points. The "once I was lost -- and a total asshole" story is a just-so redaction we've heard many times from converts.

The manner in which he came to the one true belief system is another one we've heard before:
As a physician in training, he frequently found himself at the bedside of desperately ill patients, many of whom displayed a surprising equanimity and were only too happy to tell him why.  ... One day, an elderly woman suffering from untreatable acute angina asked Collins what he believed ... He had nothing to say, which slightly embarrassed him; he was more bothered by the realization that he didn’t know why he didn’t believe ...
For those playing Anti-Atheist Bingo as they read this, cross off the highlighted text on your playing card: back when he was an atheist, and was forced to confront Big Life Questions, Collins suddenly realized that he didn't know why he didn't believe in god. Soon after that, he pointed to a particular spot in the bleachers and drove the next pitch directly to that spot, winning game seven for his team; and then he cut down six tall oak trees with a single mighty blow of his ax; and then he went over Niagara Falls in a wooden barrel, twice.

Was he, at the same moment, or a nearby moment, seized with the realization that he didn't know why he didn't believe in Bigfoot? The Loch Ness monster? Unicorns? A teapot floating in orbit among the planets? Today, does he know why he doesn't believe in those things? I would hope so; I would like to suggest it's not difficult to answer those questions, and likewise to apply the same to whether god exists.

I don't want to go too far in trashing Francis Collins. He is an accomplished scientist and doctor, he is personally involved in trying to treat the gravely ailing Christopher Hitchens, and it's easy to imagine worse -- let's appreciate that President Chickenshit McOutreach didn't appoint, I don't know, Pastor Rick Warren to run the NIH. Speaking of whom, I am still waiting for the big payoff in public opinion that the president was hoping to attain by letting that bigoted sack of crap speak at his inauguration -- or did I already miss it?

Then again, and above all, I am just another insufferable atheist issuing obnoxious snarks, so readers are advised to ignore all of this unless and until I am, in a post-conversion glow, declaiming against my former folly and devotedly seeking that pitch-perfect compromise between bullshit and reality in all things, especially matters of medical research. You know, the happy medium that will resonate with every interested observer, get at least 60 votes in the Senate, inspire "tea party" louts to throw less scat, please every currently-serving and retired officer in every branch of the US armed forces, and set lions peaceably beside lambs.


Laura said...

I'm always amazed when people go from 'atheist' to 'believer' in adulthood (not so much the other way round) especially when the 'atheist' was a presumably well-educated person, as in this case. I'd love to see a poll that tracks the stats to and from each position.

Dale said...

@Laura, I wish more converts would cut the crap out of the account and just say something like, "I hadn't really given it much thought either way, and when I finally did, I decided to join team Jesus." I wouldn't agree with the conclusion they reached, but it just sounds more plausible.

The notion that a multiple-degreed scientist suddenly realized that his atheism was groundless, and that the realization came from some lady's "what do you believe?" question posed to him one morning, strikes me as utter bullshit. Especially when, as he himself mentioned in the same story, he formerly made a sort of sport of arguing with believers about their beliefs. Clearly he *had* put some thought into it, and had repeatedly articulated his thoughts, arguments, counter-arguments, and so on.

Laura said...

Good point.