The New Atheists on Francis Collins - Soteriological Chain of Causation

Having considered John Horgan’s review of abiogenesis theories we also considered his interview with Francis Collins. It seemed timely to further consider some, non-scientific, criticisms of Francis Collins made by various atheists.

Time and time, and time again, atheist make well within the box arguments against Christians which end up not only leaving Christians unscathed but only result in discrediting the atheist.

Sam Harris writes, “Francis Collins physical chemist, medical geneticist and head of the Human Genome Project[…]As director of the Human Genome Project, Collins participated in one of the greatest scientific achievements in human history.”
Yet, he concludes, “His book, however, reveals that a stellar career in science offers no guarantee of a scientific frame of mind.”
But why? Amongst the easiest targets that the New Atheists find attached to Francis Collins is his waterfall experience. Steve Paulson (in The Believer) had occasion to ask Francis Collins about this episode:

You've said you were once an obnoxious atheist. What changed you? Why did you turn to religion?

I became an atheist because as a graduate student studying quantum physics, life seemed to be reducible to second-order differential equations. Mathematics, chemistry and physics had it all. And I didn't see any need to go beyond that.
Frankly, I was at a point in my young life where it was convenient for me to not have to deal with a God. I kind of liked being in charge myself. But then I went to medical school, and I watched people who were suffering from terrible diseases.
And one of my patients, after telling me about her faith and how it supported her through her terrible heart pain, turned to me and said, What about you? What do you believe? And I stuttered and stammered and felt the color rise in my face, and said, "Well, I don't think I believe in anything."
But it suddenly seemed like a very thin answer. And that was unsettling. I was a scientist who was supposed to draw conclusions from the evidence and I realized at that moment that I'd never really looked at the evidence for and against the possibility of God.

You also write about a seminal experience you had a little later, when you were hiking in the Cascade Mountains in Washington.

Nobody gets argued all the way into becoming a believer on the sheer basis of logic and reason. That requires a leap of faith. And that leap of faith seemed very scary to me. After I had struggled with this for a couple of years, I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains on a beautiful fall afternoon.
I turned the corner and saw in front of me this frozen waterfall, a couple of hundred feet high. Actually, a waterfall that had three parts to it -- also the symbolic three in one. At that moment, I felt my resistance leave me. And it was a great sense of relief.
The next morning, in the dewy grass in the shadow of the Cascades, I fell on my knees and accepted this truth -- that God is God, that Christ is his son and that I am giving my life to that belief.

Sam Harris notes the following (in The Language of Ignorance):

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 the mere sighting of a waterfall appears to have been sufficient to answer all important questions of theology for Collins.

Other New Atheist have chimed in so as to demonstrate the power of group think:

Christopher Hitchens, “someone like Francis Collins admit the existence of God evidenced by observation of a frozen waterfall in the Appalachians.”

PZ Myers, “If the waterfall had two parts, would he have converted to Zoroastrianism?”

Do not misunderstand; I get the appeal of belittling others based upon elbowing your buddy in the ribs whilst expressing your own cleverness. This is particularly so when you cannot help but elbowing you buddy’s ribs because your buddy in packed tightly within your little box of group think.

Did Francis Collins infer the existence of God by observing a waterfall? Did he accept the Trinitarian doctrine based on the waterfalls tripartite nature? Was he convinced of the divinity of Jesus Christ at the sight of frozen H2O?

I very seriously doubt it for various reasons two being that 1) Francis Collins was an atheist who had been thinking deeply and studying issues such as God 2) there is typically (if not always) a soteriological chain of causation which at long last concludes in a dewy grass sort of event.

Interestingly enough, Francis Collins and I came to believe the way we do at the same age—27 yrs. Where I to retell what brought me to my dewy grass event is a 27 year long story. This story would include a very wide variety of events: personal experiences, logic, emotions, much musing, prayer, rejection, joy, rebellion, study, etc., etc., etc.

In fact, where I to confine myself to describing just the night of my dewy grass event, the story would include a combination of the emotions, logical syllogism, the spiritual, etc., etc., etc.

To state that Francis Collins believes in the Trinitarian God because he saw a tripartite frozen waterfall is convenient for the sake of mockery but it betrays a complete misunderstanding of what I would think is a basic human modus operandi: we do not accept anything without there being a history which lead us to the point of acceptance.

May I mock atheists who choose to reject God’s very existence based on the death of a loved one? Surely, there was a chain of causation behind that decision.

May I mock Prof. Richard Dawkins because he accepted Darwinian evolution because some taught it to him? There was, in fact, a chain of causation behind that decision (see my essay The Gap Filler).

May I mock my children who believe what I tell them? Even this is based on their previous knowledge about my reliability.

And may I mock the New Atheists for concluding that Francis Collins believes as he does simply based upon a waterfall and only a waterfall? Tempting as it is, there is quite a history behind this chain of causation.

There is a chain of causation behind Francis Collins acceptance—a 27 years long chain. What confuses the New Atheists is that in their eagerness to mock, they have not bothered to find the missing links.


  1. This was a very interesting and rather elucidating lecture. But if you try to figure out these chains of causation, what would you find?.. Some kind of subjective experiences, or maybe some definitions made by other based on pure and blind faith?. Do you think Gods existence can be explained by reason and logic?. If not, What do you think it would take to convince an atheist that he’s wrong?.

  2. Hello.
    its just me or i´m being considered belligerent or ex-christian?.. I hope i am misunderstanding the update 5/4/09.
    I a not ex-anything... I could be anything but an atheist.
    GOD bless.

  3. Good post. I just stumbled upon this site while reading up on our new Director of the NIH. You bring up two points beside the causal chains that resonated with me.
    One: The "how could God let my loved one die?" atheist (which doesn't even sound like an atheist to me, btw)SHOULD be mocked for his/her illogic dressed in logic

    Two: The smugness of atheists toward non-believers is unsettling and downright divisive. Whether or not there's a here after, we're all in it together in the here present.

  4. The new atheists forgot to mention that a large chunk of what convinced Francis Collins in his conversion(among other things) was his reading of the book "Mere Christianity" by C.S. Lewis. When Francis Collins tells his story, he mentions that book, at least from what Ive seen. Hearing him talk about it was the reason I read the book. His "waterfall experience" was merely the nail in the coffin, not the whole of his conversion.

  5. whew -- what a load of crap. This site deserved to die!