Field of Science

Can a religious person head the National Institutes of Health?

Francis Collins is an unusual scientist. A physical chemist and doctor who rose to prominence as the leader of the Human Genome Project, he has recently been appointed by President Barack Obama as head of the NIH, the largest biomedical funding and research organization in the country. Collins is unusual because along with this undoubtedly distinguished scientific credentials he brings another kind of background to the job; that of a pious, church-going Christian. A few years ago Collins published a book that argued for a scientific basis for belief in God, and not just a theological one. Needless to say, his views have caused concern among a number of atheist scientists and secular scientists in general.

It is one thing to be a deist, namely someone who believes in the kind of abstract God embodied in the laws of nature who could have set the universe in motion and then let it run its course without interfering, but quite another to be a proper theist, a person who believes in the kind of material God that most people who believe in God invoke, one who helps out or doles out punishment in daily life and personal matters. Collins seems to be more of a theist. And therefore his appointment to the NIH again raises a question which has fomented reams of arguments, and sometimes almost violent argument, on blogs and in books. The central question is; can a scientist truly be religious? Since this question immediately gets you into a morass of conflicting views and definitions, I will simply state my one line answer to the question in this specific context; from an empirical standpoint of course you can be religious and a scientist, as demonstrated by the existence of many religious scientists like Collins. But from a philosophical standpoint, you then have to accept that there is some very strange compartmentalization in your mind that allows you to essentially sustain two opposite and clearly conflicting paradigms simultaneously, one paradigm in which faith without evidence is positively eschewed and another in which faith without evidence is positively extolled. As an aside, it is a fascinating scientific question how such compartmentalization can occur.

Collins has come under fire from, among others, one of my favorite writers Sam Harris, whose controversial book The End of Faith made a compelling case against religious faith. In a piece in the New York Times, Harris criticizes Collin's views, best enumerated in his book, which essentially proclaim that God must exist since some things are beyond the scope of science. Both Harris and me find this kind of reasoning remarkably simple-minded. How does someone know that things that are beyond the scope of science today would always be so? For instance Collins quips that God must have adjusted the values of the so-called fundamental constants of nature (such as Planck's constant, the speed of light etc.), since life seems to depend on an incredibly precise fine-tuning of their values. But how do we know that science is never going to provide an answer for their origin? If "God" is simply a place card for "we don't know" then it sounds fine, but Collins seems to actually imply some kind of interventionist God here.

More importantly, does such a belief in God mean that we should automatically stay away from certain things and not apply critical questioning to them because they have been declared by religions to be supernatural by definition? Even Collins will admit that pushing any question under the rug by default by declaring that it is beyond the purview of science is completely antithetical to rational inquiry.

Harris is particularly concerned about Collins's enunciations about neuroscientific research. The last few decades have provided spectacular and remarkable insights into attributes that were for many years considered almost mystical, things like human emotions, love and the nature of faith itself. But in recent years, science is gradually opening a window into these attributes, answering questions like; What happens when someone is praying? How does the brain look when it is experiencing intense emotion? Studies like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) are making significant headway into answering such questions and detecting common patterns of neuronal activity that are at play. Collins essentially says that there is something special about faith and human emotions and that God injected these qualities into human beings at some point in our evolution. Would Collins then have us not explore the scientific basis of such human attributes by assuming that they are beyond scientific inquiry? These questions worry Harris and some others like evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago, and they worry me. Some of Collins's statements from a set of slides that are cited by Harris and Coyne really sound preposterous.

Is it dangerous to have a bona fide Christian heading the most important biomedical research agency in the country, and one of the most significant of its kind in the world? In spite of the above concerns I would say not per se. I would say that Collins should be given the benefit of doubt. After all, there does not seem to be a shred of evidence that his religious leanings have affected his capacity for objective scientific judgement. The NIH is a scientific organization and Collins's leadership of it should be judged purely based on his handling of the science. We should not care as much about what he says as about what he does. In the absence of evidence that his religious views are affecting his ability to allocate funding for specific kinds of research, he should be closely watched but not condemned.

At the same time, I share Harris, Coyne and others' sense of unease for a totally different reason; Collins's appointment might unfortunately have the disastrous side effect of enabling creationists and proponents of intelligent design to clamor and push their agenda for turning science and religion into convenient bedfellows. Creationists might make Collins's appointment a case for asserting that not only is religion compatible with science but it's even necessary, as purportedly exemplified in the highest echelons of science policy and research. Collin's appointment may sadly make it easier for the creationists to weasel their way into sensible scientific debate. For this reason the appointment may cause problems, and we will have to make sure that Collins is constantly watched and criticized wherever appropriate. The price of scientific freedom, it seems, is indeed eternal vigilance.


  1. To answer the title of your post: Yes.

    It's a bit like a question I got asked when I was in high school in my history class, "Was Hitler successful in his goals?"

    Uh... no. (In my teacher's defense, the question was asked in a more convoluted way and she realized how dumb it was after she asked it.)

    Really though, this business of "watching", "keeping an eye on", or otherwise "poking the canary" smacks more than a little of paranoia. As you have stated, there is no evidence he'll suddenly go Jesustastic on us.

    Meanwhile, paying attention to an NIH director's statements, looking for quackery. should be standard practice.

    It's not as though something is going to slip by unnoticed if people don't hang on to his every word looking for subtle signs of theistic interference. In fact, doing that could easily go very wrong, very fast.

  2. "Watch" does not mean we will have the Stasi on his trail. But you got to admit that some of his pronouncements especially as reflected in those slides are rather bizarre. I don't doubt that as far as funding is concerned he will do a good job at NIH; technically the quieter he keeps about the science-religion debate the better I think.

  3. The situation is reminiscent of that facing Everett Koop M. D. when he was proposed for Surgeon General by Reagan. A devout Christian and pro-lifer, Koop was pilloried by Ted Kennedy among others. But, Koop was a legend in medicine, having virtually invented pediatric surgery as a specialty. He was revered at Penn when I was a med student there, and I think I was on rounds with the great man once or twice.

    Suffice it to say, Koop took the lead on attacking the AIDS epidemic (then in its very early stages in the 80s) rather than denying its existence or regarding it as plague inflicted on sinners. Pronouncements from Koop to the profession carried great weight. Later, Kennedy had the grace to apologize to him.

    Contrast this with current nominee for Surgeon General -- basically a social worker and an admirable individual who has made no medical advances on her own. Anything she says will be regarded as political by the profession (and indirectly by the public) and carry relatively little weight.

    The analog for Collins would be a professional fundraiser for biomedical research or foundation president, with no research bona fides. Collins has done great work and has shown the ability to coordinate large numbers of people. Worrying about his religion, and how it will be used by those of his persuasion has a nasty litmus test flavor to it. I think he'll be fine.

    In a way his appointment will even be useful, as some of the atheists have become as smug as the religious used to be. They will have to confront the paradox of a highly intelligent and scientifically productive individual who is nonetheless a believer. It will be salutary for all concerned.


  4. Ashtosh you write, "two opposite and clearly conflicting paradigms simultaneously, one paradigm in which faith without evidence is positively eschewed and another in which faith without evidence is positively extolled" I suppose if this were true then you may be on to something. It seems to me however that what you have written is a misrepresentation.

    Have you considered testing if indeed this premise is accurate? If yes, how would such an inquiry begin? I would like to suggest a "first principles" approach i.e., begin with Aristotle. I suggest that you see for yourself, free from the agendas and prejudices of today's "chattering classes" (Caveat Emptor), exactly how faith and science have developed and co-existed over the course of 2500+ years.

    On a personal note... as a youngster I had met a sufficient number of irrational folks of a religious persuasion to posses a "settled mind" on the topic. Unfortunately, as I grew older I met just as many (if not more) irrational folks who were either antagonistic or indifferent re religious matters. I decided that it was time to "get to the bottom" of this issue and thus began my journey into the writings of Aristotle and his intellectual progeny. I vowed to continue until I was able to figure it out once and for all (and of course to confirm my prejudices along the way :)).

    By the time I got to Aquinas & Averoes I realized the chasm between where I thought I had been versus where I was. It was a delightful pie of humility that inculcated a genuine appreciation for philosophy as truly the "mother" of all scientific inquiry.

    It seems your keen mind would be gratified in a similar manner. Btw... keep up the great work w/ the blog! Cheers :)

  5. Quite true. Some of the New Atheists seem far too hung up on methodology and motivation compared to consequences

  6. Anon; thanks for your interesting comments. Maybe it's time to dust off some old books!

  7. the question is if the difficulty to separate between science and religion is more of a psychological nature (as you are also mentioning) or of a strictly logical nature

    if you are used to empirical, reproducable science, it is mentally difficult to adjust to religion. but strictly logically spoken you don't know


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