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.”