Culture At Large

Faith, science, and explanation: Francis Collins and his critics

Steve Matheson

Francis Collins is one of the most accomplished scientists in the world. A pioneer in the field of molecular human genetics, Collins developed a genetic mapping technique that enabled his research group to identify the gene that is mutated in cystic fibrosis. His continued success as a geneticist led to his appointment as the director of the Human Genome Project in 1993, and he famously guided that effort to phenomenal success. He is a well-spoken advocate for science, one of the few truly outstanding scientists who can communicate effectively with lay audiences.

This past summer, President Obama nominated Collins to be the new director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the nation's premier biomedical funding agency. Collins was confirmed in August, and is currently leading NIH effectively. But interestingly, there was significant unease, even controversy, surrounding the nomination. Why?

Well, you may know that Francis Collins is an evangelical Christian and an outspoken defender of the compatibility of science and Christian faith. You may know that he wrote a fine book (The Language of God) on the subject, that he co-founded the Biologos Foundation to advance the ideas in the book, and that he is regularly attacked by various prominent atheists.

And so you may wonder if the controversy surrounding the nomination could be attributed to anti-Christian bias – you know, the antipathy toward faith that seems to be so common among scientists and especially among loud scientists.

Well of course that's part of the story. But I'm not sure it's the most interesting part of the story. Because I think some of the criticism of Collins is valid, in the sense that it ought not be dismissed as mere anti-faith ranting.

Consider the complaints of the often-obnoxious Sam Harris (in an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times in July). Harris seems to raise two objections to Collins. First, he doesn't like the idea of science and religion together, and so he mutters darkly about religion making scientific thinking more difficult. He might be right about that, but it's hardly a legitimate reason to questions Collins' nomination. But second, he notes that Collins seems to have roped off certain aspects of human nature (morality, in particular) and identified them as lying beyond the purview of science. Harris concludes: “Must we really entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who sincerely believes that a scientific understanding of human nature is impossible?”

Harsh? Shrill? Even insincere? Perhaps. But that second concern is a valid one, I think. It's one thing to identify aspects of the natural world as specially connected to particular works of God. It's another to claim that those things cannot, in principle, be explained naturally. Maybe Harris has a point. And maybe we Christians should all think more carefully before we talk like that.

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