Human Rights

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):

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.
God, who is not limited to space and time, created the universe and established natural laws that govern it. Seeking to populate this otherwise sterile universe with living creatures, God chose the elegant mechanism of evolution to create microbes, plants and animals of all sorts. Most remarkably, God intentionally chose the same mechanism to give rise to special creatures who would have intelligence, a knowledge of right and wrong, free will, and a desire to seek fellowship with Him. He also knew these creatures would ultimately choose to disobey the Moral Law.

"If one wonders how beguiled, self-deceived and carefree in the service of fallacy a scientist can be in the United States in the 21st century," Harris concluded, "The Language of God provides the answer."

Ouch.

So that was 2006. Earlier this year, Collins made an unfortunate appearance in comedian Bill Maher's anti-religion cinematic romp, Religulous, in which he referred to the New Testament as containing "the record of eyewitnesses who put down what they saw." (He then backtracked, saying they were "close to that ... within a couple of decades of eyewitnesses.")

"Religion and genetic research have long had a fraught relationship, and some in the field complain about what they see as Dr. Collins's evangelism," reports the Times. Given the passages of his book that exhort readers to "hold fast to the concept of God as Creator," it's hard to simply dismiss Collins's "evangelism" as merely the perception of his critics.

As the head of NIH, Collins will oversee a massive research budget; $37 billion in research grants and $4 billion on research programs, according to the Times. With the years President George W. Bush spent mixing faith and politics (often at the expense of science), an all-too recent memory for many Americans, one might be forgiven for recoiling in horror at the thought of Collins heading up one of the country's most prestigious medical research institutions.

Interestingly, however, those who seem to be recoiling the most so far are Collins's detractors on the religious right, in particular the creationist heavyweights at the Discovery Institute, the mothership of the intelligent design movement. In May, the institute launched a new Web site, Faith and Evolution, which poses the question: "Can you believe in God and evolution at the same time?"

According to a reporter for The New Scientist:

"The new Web site appears to be a response to the recent launch of the BioLogos Foundation, the brainchild of geneticist Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project and rumored Obama appointee-to-be for head of the National Institutes of Health. Along with 'a team of scientists who believe in God' and some cash from the Templeton Foundation, Collins, an evangelical Christian who is also a staunch proponent of evolution, is on a crusade to convince believers that faith and science need not be at odds. He is promoting "theistic evolution" -- the belief that God (the prayer-listening, proactive, personal God of Christianity) chose to create life by way of evolution."

For casual observers with little patience for mixing God and science at all, "theistic evolution" versus "intelligent design" might seem like a distinction without a difference. And visiting the BioLogos sitedoesn't exactly inspire confidence: the site mixes images of the cosmos with such artwork as Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam." "We believe that faith and science both lead to truth about God and creation," the home page reads.

Taking the job at NIH would mean stepping down as the head of BioLogos, of course. But whether his mission to "search for truth in both the natural and spiritual realms seeking harmony between these different perspectives" will inevitably inform his position is a question worth asking.

At a time that Obama continues to build upon his newly established Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships -- an unprecedented office in the White House -- his nomination of a man so committed to reconciling faith and science inevitably brings back bad Bush memories.

But in a clear break from Bush's nominees, despite his religious beliefs, Collins has a demonstrated record of defending practices derided by the God squad. These include supporting stem-cell research -- Collins was present at the White House when Obama signed his executive order on stem cell research in March -- as well as defending women's reproductive rights.

(Asked in a 2006 interview for BeliefNet about the ethics of aborting a fetus that is found to have Down syndrome, Collins responded: "The reason I went into this field was to figure out how to treat illnesses, rather than try to stop such individuals from even being born. But, of course, in our current society, people are in a circumstance of being able to take advantage of those technologies. And we have decided as a society that that choice needs to be defended.")

For a man with such big ideas when it comes to the origins of human life, he does not appear particularly interested in using his religion to justify restricting medical research -- and that is a good thing.

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