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Obama Puts Evangelical in Charge of National Institutes of Health -- Will His Religion Get in the Way of Science?

Francis Collins has defended practices derided by the God squad. But a man committed to reconciling faith and science brings back bad Bush memories.

This week, news broke that President Barack Obama plans to nominate geneticist Dr. Francis Collins to head the National Institutes of Health, the premier federal medical research facility in Bethesda, Md., just outside Washington.

Collins's claim to fame is having led the Human Genome Project, the ambitious scientific endeavor that achieved a landmark goal: unlocking the DNA code of humanity.

In 2000, Collins stood alongside President Bill Clinton in the East Room of the White House as he announced this epic breakthrough. "Today, we are learning the language in which God created life," Clinton declared, lending the event a touch of religious gravitas. "We are gaining ever more awe for the complexity, the beauty and the wonder of God's most divine and sacred gift."

If Clinton's religious pronouncement raised eyebrows at the time, it was Collins who would attract lasting controversy for his own religious beliefs. In an article published Thursday, the New York Times described his "very public embrace of religion" as one potential barrier standing in the way of his confirmation. Indeed, writing about that momentous day at the White House a few years later, Collins recalled Clinton's words and made a surprising admission:

"Was I, a rigorously trained scientist, taken aback at such a blatantly religious reference by the leader of the free world at a moment such as this? Was I tempted to scowl or look at the floor in embarrassment? No, not at all. In fact, I had worked closely with the president's speechwriter in the frantic days just prior to this announcement and had strongly endorsed the inclusion of this paragraph. When it came time for me to add a few words of my own, I echoed this sentiment: 'It's a happy day for the world. It is humbling for me, and awe-inspiring, to realize that we have caught the first glimpses of our own instruction book, previously known only to God.' "

This passage is included in the introduction to Collins's 2006 book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. The title was inspired by Clinton's words upon announcing the discovery of the human genome, and in it, Collins sought to make the case that science and faith do not have to be mutually exclusive.

Collins, who says he found God at the age of 27, while hiking, "read, and was persuaded by, the arguments of C.S. Lewis, who said that faith could be a rational choice," according to a 1993 profile in the New York Times. Likewise, in writing The Language of God, he said his goal was to show "that belief in God can be an entirely rational choice and that the principals of faith are, in fact, complementary with the principles of science."

Not surprisingly, for many reviewers, The Language of God failed to make the case. In a blistering piece titled "The Language of Ignorance," secularist author Sam Harris called the book's argument "predictable, spectacular and vile."

"The Language of God reads like a hoax text, and the knowledge that it is not a hoax should be disturbing to anyone who cares about the future of intellectual and political discourse in the United States," Harris warned.

"Lest we think that one man can do no lasting harm to our discourse, consider the fact that the year is 2006, half of the American population believes that the universe is 6,000 years old, our president has just used his first veto to block federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research on religious grounds, and one of the foremost scientists in the land has this to say, straight from the heart (if not the brain):