The roots of the controversy stem from Collins’ book, “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.” The basic questions seem to be: Is Collins mixing his religious views into science? And, for a nominee to a highly visible position as one of our nation’s top scientists, is this appropriate?
Steven Pinker has made a long statement of concern about the appointment, which includes the following:
Collins has said that he came to accept the Trinity, and the truth that Jesus is the son of God, when he was hiking and came upon a beautiful triple waterfall. Now, the idea that nature contains private coded messages from a supernatural being to an individual person is the antithesis of the scientific (indeed, rational) mindset. It is primitive, shamanistic, superstitious. The point of the scientific revolution was to do away with such animistic thinking. This is not just autobiographical. Collins, in his book, eggs on fellow evangelical Christians in their anti-scientific beliefs. He tells them that they are “right to hold fast to the truths of the Bible” and to “the certainty that the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted.”
The weave of science and religion doesn’t stop there. Collins also founded Biologos.org, a site that:
addresses the central themes of science and religion and emphasizes the compatibility of Christian faith with scientific discoveries about the origins of the universe and life
The site was founded using funds from the John Templeton Foundation, a group associated with conservative and “intelligent design” leanings.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with a public official holding religious views, but espousing them publicly and positioning them as a boundary on scientific inquiry is questionable, especially within an administration Obama himself has claimed is interested in “promoting scientific integrity and pioneering scientific research.”
How far has Collins gone? Here is an answer on the Biologos.org site to the question, “What is the proper relationship between science and religion?”
Science and religion are sometimes thought to offer entirely separate bodies of knowledge. However, science is not the only source of factual statements, and religion does reach beyond the realm of values and morals.
Let that sink in a moment. Here is the nominee to head the NIH saying that religion can be a source of “factual statements.” It seems anti-scientific to say that religious doctrines are as “factual” as the results of objective investigation and controlled scientific research.
This is a controversy worth following, arguably as significant to our community as the Sonia Sotomayor nomination to the Supreme Court is to the law.
But given the number of things on the national agenda, it’s likely this will advance under the radar. We may soon have as the head of the NIH a man who has recently gone on record with NPR as saying:
Science is not particularly effective — in fact, it’s rather ineffective — in making commentary about the supernatural world. Both worlds, for me, are quite real and quite important.
Update (7 August 2009): Francis Collins was confirmed by the Senate today in a unanimous vote.