Sam Harris, Francis Collins and the NIH

Science and religion bicker in the backseat. Collin Purrington / Creative Commons

With Francis Collins' nomination as head of the National Institutes of Health I felt it was appropriate to bring up Sam Harris' letter to the journal Nature objecting to what he called "high-minded squeamishness" on the part of the editors for their praise of his book The Language of God. In the book Collins states:

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 . . .

To this Harris responded by stating:

An Editorial announcing the publication of Francis Collins's book, The Language of God ('Building bridges' Nature 442, 110; doi:10.1038/442110a 2006) represents another instance of high-minded squeamishness in addressing the incompatibility of faith and reason. Nature praises Collins, a devout Christian, for engaging "with people of faith to explore how science -- both in its mode of thought and its results -- is consistent with their religious beliefs".

But here is Collins on how 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."

What does the "mode of thought" displayed by Collins have in common with science? The Language of God should have sparked gasping outrage from the editors at Nature. Instead, they deemed Collins's efforts "moving" and "laudable", commending him for building a "bridge across the social and intellectual divide that exists between most of US academia and the so-called heartlands."

At a time when Muslim doctors and engineers stand accused of attempting atrocities in the expectation of supernatural reward, when the Catholic Church still preaches the sinfulness of condom use in villages devastated by AIDS, when the president of the United States repeatedly vetoes the most promising medical research for religious reasons, much depends on the scientific community presenting a united front against the forces of unreason.

There are bridges and there are gangplanks, and it is the business of journals such as Nature to know the difference.

I don't doubt Collins' skills as a scientist or as an administrator, however, it seems rather clear that part of the reason for his nomination was to undercut challenges from the religious right that would likely be raised during his confirmation hearing. As head of the NIH, Collins would be in charge of the federal agency charged with reviewing national stem cell policy. Collins supports federal funding for stem cell science, but is opposed to creating them for the purposes of research. However, it is his Christian evangelism that makes some researchers uncomfortable, who insist that someones religious perspective should not influence their role as the manager of a scientific agency.

According to Science Insider:

Earlier this year, Collins launched a Web site, Biologos, expanding on his 2006 book explaining how he reconciles his evangelical Christian beliefs with the science of evolution. The project sparked speculation that he was no longer in the running for NIH--or that these extracurricular activities could instead be a plus with the culture-bridging Obama Administration. One question now is whether he will step down from the Biologos project; Varmus, for one, says "he should" to avoid "interference with his effectiveness."

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One question now is whether he will step down from the Biologos project; Varmus, for one, says "he should" to avoid "interference with his effectiveness."

He should, on account of being associated with an organisation that quote-mines Stephen Hawking ain't good.

1. "Bring back Maddox" ?!

2. As an interim appointment whilst getting some policy past the religious right, perhaps a strategy of appointing a leader with religious background of some kind might have some justification. If there isn't any of this kind of substance, or the appointee himself is against these things, what's the justification for this strategy?

Alternatively, there may be no such motivation: it's possible, for example, it simply to be a case of appointing someone known to the public, as opposed known to scientists. (I'm not saying that I think this is a good thing to do.)

3. Any appointee has to keep their personal (or other outside) interests and the appointment separate, right?

By Heraclides (not verified) on 11 Jul 2009 #permalink

I am confused. The article begins with a quote discussing faith and reason and finishes with examples of religious extremism (no reason involved at all).
Perhaps faith and religion should be defined first,to avoid arguing at cross purposes. They are not the same.
Belief in God does not either make one an ineffective scientist or imply agreement with atrocities done in the name of any/all religion.

By Margaret Smith (not verified) on 11 Jul 2009 #permalink

That Collins quote is a diamond. He really couldn't say more directly that science and religion are not always compatible and that when there is a conflict, religion wins. I suppose there is a little wiggle room on the meaning of "the most pressing questions of human existence," but it would be hard for him to somehow exclude 'where we come from'.

After the tsunami killed hundreds of thousands of men, women and children I emailed Collins to get his reason for believing in a god that could permit this to happen. He had no response except to say that this was a difficult matter and to refer me to some book or other. I think it is a question that we should continue to ask him.

By eric stone (not verified) on 12 Jul 2009 #permalink

I'm deeply disturbed (but not all that surprised) that the person, who Obama has picked to head the NIH, is on a mission to inject religion into science. This will definitely open the doors for IDers to bring religion into science classrooms across the US. What's even more disturbing about this is that it will open doors to Christian radicals to push for America to be redefined as a Christian nation.

Thinking back, when Obama invited Rick Warren, the poster child for Christian radicalism, to give the inaugural prayer, Obama was sending a clear message that he couldn't care less about preserving the wall separating church from state (science included). Obama is making it loud and clear that he doesn't give a rat's ass if our secular nation morphs into a theocracy.

But Obama, and other like-minded politicians, are too narrow-minded to see that every time they do things like add more pork to faith-based programs, which adds more fuel to our church-industrial-complex, they are pushing America closer and closer towards becoming a full-blown theocracy. Then again, Obama and others like him are too narrow-minded to see that theocracies in general are notorious for undermining civil liberties, which will ultimately lead to lots of civil unrest. Then to control all of this civil unrest, more pork will have to be injected into law enforcement, which adds more fuel to our prison-industrial-complex. Then before you know it, America will be looking at fascism square in the face.

And it goes without saying that theocracy along with its bosom buddy, fascism, flies into the face of anything and everything having to do with democracy. So, not only is Obama too narrow-minded to see that theocracy goes hand in hand with fascism, he's also too blind to see that theocracy in lockstep with fascism runs counter to democracy.

Another disturbing thing about theocracies is that they tend to have a very poor and uneducated populace. In other words, theocracies tends to have very few people living in the middle of the socioeconomic spectrum. And it goes without saying that democracy can't thrive, much less survive, in a country which lacks a strong and vibrant middle class. So by pushing for more religion in government, Obama is not only morphing our secular democracy into a fascist theocracy, he's also putting the axe to our middle class. Simply put, Obama is selling America down the river to the ports of Banana-Republic-Land!

I'm not religious at all, but when someone like Collins says that "science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence", I assume he's referring to the "why are we here? what does it all mean?" sort of questions. And I think he's right that science doesn't answer these questions.

I think science and religion are on separate, non-intersecting planes. As long as Collins and others keep the two separate, I don't have a problem with it. But if he can't, that's a big problem.

Collins has been the head of the National Human Genome Research Institute for over a decade. I have yet to see a paper coming from the institute that mentions god in any way, shape, or form. He has, however, proven to be an effective scientist and administrator. Seems like much ado about nothing...