Renowned geneticist Francis S. Collins may have “impeccable credentials” and “seem a brilliant choice” to direct the nation’s premiere medical research agency, but one of the nation’s most controversial atheists still has his doubts.
“Francis Collins is an accomplished scientist and a man who is sincere in his beliefs. And that is precisely what makes me so uncomfortable about his nomination,” expressed The End of Faith author Sam Harris in an Op-Ed that appeared Sunday in the New York Times.
“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,” he asked nearly a month after President Obama announced his intent to nominate Collins as director of the National Institutes of Health.
As an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the NIH serves as the steward of medical and behavioral research for the nation, providing leadership and direction to programs designed to improve the health of the country by conducting and supporting research.
Though Collins has been touted as one of the nation's leading geneticists and recognized for his lead role in the breakthrough unraveling of the human genetic code and his landmark discoveries of disease genes, Obama’s July 8 announcement of Collins’ nomination drew a considerable volume of protest within scientific and nonreligious communities.
“In spite of his professional qualifications and accomplishments, many in the scientific community are less than enthusiastic about the President's decision to appoint a self-described evangelical Christian to lead the world's leading organization for scientific research,” noted conservative leader Ken Connor of the Center for a Just Society in Washington.
“This skepticism results from a prejudice against a theistic worldview that has become entrenched in the scientific community – an irrational attitude born of historical ignorance and intellectual myopathy that is increasingly dismissive of moral questions and ethical concerns,” he added.
In his comments Sunday, Harris illustrated his concerns by referring to a lecture on science and belief that Collins gave last year at the University of California in Berkley. In the lecture slides he used, Collins asserted that “Almighty God, who is not limited in space or time, created a universe 13.7 billion years ago” and later “gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the moral law), with free will, and with an immortal soul.”
“If the moral law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as good or evil. It’s all an illusion. We’ve been hoodwinked. Are any of us, especially the strong atheists, really prepared to live our lives within that worldview?” Collins posed.
In response, Harris said he is “troubled” by Collins’ line of thinking, “[a]s someone who believes that man’s understanding of human nature can be derived from neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science and behavioral economics, and other fields of science.”
Particularly, Harris was bothered by Collins’ claim that “science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence.”
“One can only hope that these convictions will not affect his judgment at the institutes of health,” the militant atheist wrote. “After all, understanding human well-being at the level of the brain might very well offer some ‘answers to the most pressing questions of human existence’ - questions like, Why do we suffer? Or, indeed, is it possible to love one’s neighbor as oneself? And wouldn’t any effort to explain human nature without reference to a soul, and to explain morality without reference to God, necessarily constitute ‘atheistic materialism’?”
However, as Connor noted, some of the most brilliant philosophical minds of the western intellectual tradition – dating all the way back to the time of Plato and Aristotle – operated on the assumption that man’s existence came into being through the actions of a divine creator.
“Groundbreaking advances in astronomy, chemistry, physics, mathematics, genetics, and other fields of knowledge were made by men dedicated to systematically investigating God's creation – men like Copernicus, Kepler, Pascal, Boyle, Kelvin, Mendel, and Faraday,” he added.
Connor said the idea that Collins’ faith impedes his fitness to serve as the head of the NIH operates on the “absurd premise” that only atheists and agnostics are capable of being good scientists.
“One might argue the precise opposite of this,” he added.
Despite concerns from some camps within the scientific and non-religious communities, Collins confirmation by the Senate “is all but certain,” as conservative evangelical leader Chuck Colson pointed out.
Though Colson admitted having some “profound disagreements” with the theistic evolutionist, who believes classical religious teachings about God are compatible with the modern scientific understanding about biological evolution, the respected conservative said he still holds Collins in high esteem-both as a scientist and as a brother in Christ – “living proof that one can be a great scientist and a serious Christian.”
In announcing his intent to nominate Collins, Obama hailed Collins as “one of the top scientists in the world” whose “groundbreaking work has changed the very ways we consider our health and examine disease.”
“I look forward to working with him in the months and years ahead," Obama remarked.
Collins, 59, had stepped down as director of the National Human Genome Research Institute last summer after serving there for 15 years. The NHGRI is the NIH arm dedicated to advancing human health through genetic research.