Francis Collins Is a Good Pick to Head National Institutes of Health

Francis Collins, the famed geneticist, was selected to head the National Institutes of Health by President Obama.

Here’s what I’ve been hearing from other atheists.

Pro: He’s a brilliant scientist.

Con: He believes in God.

They all bring up that he’s an evangelical Christian and the author of The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. In that book, he explains how he came to Christianity after he saw a frozen waterfall separated into three parts — i.e. Trinity.

Ok, so that’s comical, and he really does believe that. But this is the same man who said:

… If God has any meaning at all, God is outside of the natural world. It is a complete misuse of the tools of science to apply them to this discussion.

He’s the rare scientist who happens to believe in God. It’s a personal belief and not one that he uses while working (though he may say he’s using science to understand how God works). It’s not like Collins is about to use federal funding to investigate Jesus.

We’re doing a disservice by going after him just because he’s a Christian. He is exactly the type of person we want in that position — a man who knows his science and separates his personal beliefs from his work.

Even if you believe that science and religion cannot go together, it’s irrelevant here.

If he has any influence beyond the strict science, I think it’s far more likely that he’ll get Christians thinking about science in a more positive way than getting atheists to convert to Christianity.

I suspect he’ll be a good NIH Director, not because of his faith or despite his faith. He’s just a great scientist and I trust his expertise in the profession.

So what if he believes in God? In terms of the work he’ll do at the NIH, how will he be any different from an atheist in the same position?

Let’s save any criticism for the religious people who try to mix their faith and their work and who use improper science. There’s enough of them to go around. Like those Christians from Texas and Arizona. They deserve it.

Not Collins.

(Unless, of course, he uses his platform to preach to the country. Then we criticize relentlessly. Thankfully, I don’t think that will happen.)

(Thanks to Claudia for the link!)

  • Kate

    WELL-SAID!!!

    Just as there shouldn’t be a religious litmus test that says “you must be X religion to hold this job”, there shouldn’t be something that says “you cannot have this job if you are religious”. As long as you can DO THE JOB, why do we care?

    Good job! :)

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Let’s save any criticism for the religious people who try to mix their faith and their work and who use improper science.

    Okey dokey. Please read his book The Language of God and tell me whether Collins fits in that category. My opinion is yes.

    Collins is OK speaking up for evolution, and uses his knowledge of genetics to make that argument, but his acceptance of evolutionary explanations does not extend to such things as morality. I.e. his own science of gene-hunting has not been corrupted, but his acceptance of other people’s science seems a bit dodgy.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    It is unlikely that the country will experience another “Sputnik” that causes everybody to close their bibles and open science books.

    Let’s hope he can be a good “cheerleader for science” with a special connection to the religious majority in the country.

  • Gabriel

    He is a brilliant scientist and I don’t think he will demand that the members of his lab partcipate in prayer circles. I think he can seperate the two poritons of himself. I think he will work hard at this new job.

  • http://yrif.org Joel

    The problem is not that he believes in god, it’s that he used his scientific credentials to start an entire foundation whose explicit mission is to “emphasize the compatibility of Christian faith with scientific discoveries about the origins of the universe and life.”

    To me that counts as “mixing faith and work.”

  • http://www.baconeatingatheistjew.blogspot.com/ The Atheist Jew

    Young Earthers will say he isn’t a real Christian because you can’t be a real Christian and accept evolution….you just can’t dang nab it.

  • Epistaxis

    (Unless, of course, he uses his platform to preach to the country. Then we criticize relentlessly. Thankfully, I don’t think that will happen.)

    Uh, that’s exactly what happened when he was head of NHGRI. In your own post you talk about his book. He used his position to get attention for his beliefs, exactly like you say he shouldn’t.

  • Claudia

    My only real worry about Dr. Collins is that he’s notoriously slippery about where he puts God. Depending on his audience he’ll give it a more prominent role (with theists or soft reporters) or a less prominent one (when challenged, like with Dawkins).

    I dunno, it just seems that when you make it to the core of his faith he panics and suddenly the rules of rationality and inquiry he uses for everything else to such an admirable degree go out the window. The classic example is the waterfall. He claims to want to take you through a rational explanation of god-belief, but in the end resorts to an experience that is mere “revelation” and has no core of intellectual honesty or rationality. This is a worrisome trait for a scientist.

    However, I have no evidence whatsoever that he ever resisted inquiry because of some perceived threat to his faith, or that he ever elected a scriptural explanation over a scientific one, or that he discriminates against non-theists (which would be hard to do since we are a crushing majority in the biological sciences).
    Beliefs are important, but actions are far more indicative of a persons worth. He is a good scientist with a passion for inquiry that appears to handle the cognitive wall between his rational mind and his religious mind very well. Under those circumstances I think he’ll do fine at NIH.

  • TXatheist

    Yep, we Texans make it so easy to note our ignorance concerning legitimate education leaders when we select McLeroy and then Dunbar.

  • http://sandwalk.blogspot.com Larry Moran

    I suggest you read Mixing Science, Religion, and Politics.

    Let me know if you’ve changed your mind.

  • Tom

    We can also expect to see him used as an excuse for religion for years to come.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    I realized Christianity was bunk when I once looked out my window and didn’t see three frozen waterfalls. ;)

  • Sibs

    I totally agree with you.

  • Curtis

    Collins is a great ally to anyone who understands evolution. The scientific chapters of his book are wonderful and contains one of the best explanation for evolution and why we know it occurred. The fact that he is strong Christian should help his credibility among most American.

    IMO, he is one the many smart people (e.g. Shockley, Pauling) who have blind spots outside of their specialties. When it comes to spiritual and health issues, people (myself included) can lose their critical thinking and let their emotions take over.

    Collins’s arguments for god are pathetically weak and will never convince anyone with a brain (I re-read his “conversion” story 3 times looking for any substance). His arguments for evolution are brilliant and I hope can convince Christians. Overall, I am a fan of his.

  • http://noadi.blogspot.com Noadi

    I don’t care if he believes in leprechauns so long as he leaves it out of his job. So long as he can separate his job from his faith (as most reasonable people do) then I think he’ll be a good director because he is a good scientist and from what I’ve heard a good administrator.

    If however he proves to be unable to do that, I’ll be first in line to criticize him.

  • SarahH

    As long as he leaves it out of his job, it’s fine by me. And if the fact that he’s known to be a Christian results in a lessening of hostility towards science in some Christian circles, then awesome :-)

  • Epistaxis

    Collins is a great ally to anyone who understands evolution. The scientific chapters of his book are wonderful and contains one of the best explanation for evolution and why we know it occurred. The fact that he is strong Christian should help his credibility among most American.

    If anything, then, maybe he should be in a top federal position because he’s a Christian. But he’s definitely going to use it as a pulpit; in stark contrast to Hemant’s original post, Collins has already made his religion our business.

  • http://www.burningtheletters.net Miranda Hale

    He’s already indicated that he has no problem mixing his religious beliefs with his scientific research/activities, though. BioLogos is enough evidence of that. I don’t see how anyone can legitimately argue that he doesn’t mix faith and work.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com miller

    Oddly enough, I often find myself agreeing with both Hemant and PZ Myers. Cognitive dissonance! ;)

  • George Cunningham

    I know Francis Collins professionally and he is a first rate scientist and a likable person. I have written a book “Decoding the Language of God” to be released from Prometheus Books in December that dissects his claim that his scientific worldview and his personal faith in Jesus are rationally compatible. If he is confirmed as Chief of NIH, which appears to be case, I believe he will do a good job except for some religious based limitations on cloning and embryonic stem cell research and possibly some other areas. I didn’t know he would be appointed but this makes my book a needed tool for atheists and freethinkers who will now be assaulted with the argument that science and religion are reconcilable because the great genetist Francis Collin has proved it. I hope that a some point he would agree to debate the issue.

  • Aj

    He called Dawkins a “dogmatic athiest fundamentalist” which I think says far more about Collins. I don’t think his hilarious propensity towards wishthinking will get in the way of his job, because it didn’t as a scientist or administrator in the field of genetics. I can’t say I’m happy that someone who attacks atheism, agnosticism, and promotes belief in Christianity based on seeing a waterfall and really bad cosmology arguments is being placed in a prominent position. Collins is going to use his station to preach, Christians are going to use Collins’s position to preach, it’s not good. No, I think he deserves the criticism he gets.

  • Thilina

    The fact that he’s a christian scientist isn’t much of an issue. Its quite hard to call your self a scientist (specially if you’re the head of the National Institute of Health) if everyone in the field disagrees with you. And he’s obviously capable of doing the job.

    The only real thing i have against Collins is that he’s a bit more pushy about the fact that he is a christian scientist (probably want to write another book), than most other scientists who are also religious. And the whole waterfall thing.

  • Pseudonym

    Well said, with only one point of dissension.

    He’s the rare scientist who happens to believe in God.

    Rare?

  • Claudia

    He’s the rare scientist who happens to believe in God.

    Rare?

    Vague religious belief can’t be called rare amongst scientists, though various studies have shown that it is a minority position, and even more so outside the US. More limited studies additionally show that scientists in biology and biochemistry are among the least religious of the already not very religious scientists.

    What IS rare amongst scientists, and most certainly amongst biologists, is a STRONG theistic belief. Few scientists are really overtly theistic in the way Collins is and very tiny minority are fundamentalist Christians. This is even more accentuated amongst the elite scientists, of which Collins is a member.

    The minority of scientists that don’t identify as atheist or agnostic are more likely to identify as deists or “spiritual” or “soft” theists. Collins is triply unusual: He’s a member of the scientific elite who not only believes in a god, but actually buys into the whole Bible orthodoxy.

  • http://ethicalfocus.org Ken Karp

    Until we get to a time when all scientific leaders are 100% rationalistic in their professional and private lives (which ain’t gonna happen while anyone reading this blog are alive!) we are well-advised to take a page from President Obama’s playbook and work together. Francis Collins is a good example of a scientist who indeed keeps his personal beliefs out of his professional work, by and large.

    (As an aside, remember how foolish he looked in Religulous?)

  • Aj

    …except for some religious based limitations on cloning and embryonic stem cell research and possibly some other areas.

    Can the director of the NIH do things like that? I would hope that Obama would have asked him about it before offering him the job.

  • Curtis

    According to Slate.com, “Collins is clear on his support of stem-cell research.”
    http://www.slate.com/id/2222562/

  • http://www.burningtheletters.net Miranda Hale

    He called Dawkins a “dogmatic athiest fundamentalist” which I think says far more about Collins. I don’t think his hilarious propensity towards wishthinking will get in the way of his job, because it didn’t as a scientist or administrator in the field of genetics. I can’t say I’m happy that someone who attacks atheism, agnosticism, and promotes belief in Christianity based on seeing a waterfall and really bad cosmology arguments is being placed in a prominent position. Collins is going to use his station to preach, Christians are going to use Collins’s position to preach, it’s not good. No, I think he deserves the criticism he gets.

    I completely agree. He’s already demonstrated that he’s very happy to combine his faith with his work, and that he is willing to insult those darn “atheist fundamentalists” who understand that it’s critically important to keep faith completely out of science.

  • Pseudonym

    Claudia:

    What IS rare amongst scientists, and most certainly amongst biologists, is a STRONG theistic belief.

    I’d like to see some figures to back that up, if you know where they can be found, because it doesn’t pass the “does it make sense” test.

    Just thinking about the life scientists, I’d certainly expect that strong US-style Evangelical Christianity is likely to be rare. However, based on the people I work with, I would also expect that, say, Modern Orthodox Judaism is likely to be more prevalent than in wider society.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    Pseudonym:

    I’d like to see some figures to back that up, if you know where they can be found, because it doesn’t pass the “does it make sense” test.

    It’s not totally on-point with Claudia’s statement, but this study finds that 40% of scientists, and 7% of “great” scientists believe in God:

    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v386/n6624/pdf/386435a0.pdf

    http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/news/file002.html

    I’ve known a number of scientists with strong theists beliefs, so I’m not exactly sure I’d call them “rare,” but they were definitely the minority, and stood out as the exception.

  • Aj

    I remember reading that belief in a personal God is incredibly low in the elite scientific groups the NAS and the Royal Society compared to the general population. I wouldn’t be surprised if a belief in a personal God was the minority position among biologists. Polls tend to separate atheism and agnosticism in ways I don’t agree with, so I’m including them together.

  • Pseudonym

    I’m okay with “minority”. It’s the word “rare” that I have a problem with.

    Bear in mind that the NAS is a self-selecting sample. Richard Feynman famously resigned because they spent most of their meeting time deciding who’s “in” and who’s “out” and relatively little of it promoting science.

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