Praise for Francis Collins

Christopher Hitchens has been writing a lot about his illness lately, and in his latest Vanity Fair piece, he mentions a close Christian friend:

Dr. Francis Collins is one of the greatest living Americans. He is the man who brought the Human Genome Project to completion, ahead of time and under budget, and who now directs the National Institutes of Health… I know Francis, too, from various public and private debates over religion. He has been kind enough to visit me in his own time and to discuss all sorts of novel treatments, only recently even imaginable, that might apply to my case. And let me put it this way: he hasn’t suggested prayer, and I in turn haven’t teased him about The Screwtape Letters. So those who want me to die in agony are really praying that the efforts of our most selfless Christian physician be thwarted. Who is Dr. Collins to interfere with the divine design? By a similar twist, those who want me to burn in hell are also mocking those kind religious folk who do not find me unsalvageably evil. I leave these paradoxes to those, friends and enemies, who still venerate the supernatural.

It’s not often that an anti-theist goes out of his way to praise a Christian, so Collins must be doing something to please the atheists. Sticking up for good science over bad faith is definitely one way to win rational people over.

Even PZ has changed his attitude about Collins lately:

Collins has the right goals: he’s wrangling with congress to open up opportunities for more stem cell research. His opponent is the Christian pro-life contingent, and hey, look, Collins speaks their language — he’s One of Them. Could that help? Will he get through to them and break the logjam? Stay tuned!

I’m a bit cynical. I think we’re looking at a deep-seated ideological conflict, and that the right wing won’t budge no matter how folksy and friendly and religiously copacetic Collins might be. But this is a case where, if Collins succeeds in battling the bureaucratic believers and overcoming the hurdles to stem cell research support, I will grudgingly admit that he was a politically astute choice for his position, despite my earlier contrary sentiments. I still think he’s a dingbat, but maybe we need a few dingbats on the interface between science and politics.

I think that’s a pretty high form of compliment coming from him :)

If you haven’t read it yet, there’s a lengthy profile of Collins in the New Yorker this week, portraying him as a staunch defender of science despite his evangelical Christianity. If you can get through the beginning, you might gain some newfound respect for the guy.

  • Bob

    I don’t think Collins will gain much ground with the evangelical crowd.

    I was recently informed by one such Christian that I could not possibly believe in evolution and be a Christian. The Bible is 100% inerrant truth, no ifs, buts, or ands.

    The reasoning faculties of these people seems to consist of convoluted spiritual Venn diagram (illustrations, anyone?) that excludes anyone not within their core group.

  • http://centerforinquiry.net/dc Simon

    Calling Collins a dingbat was complimentary?

  • Hitch

    New atheists are dogmatic just like religious extremists, if you don’t follow the rules then… oh wait.

    And dingbat is a word of endearment from PZ. You don’t want to see what he calls people he actually dislikes.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    He is the man who brought the Human Genome Project to completion, ahead of time and under budget…

    Ah, but Craig Venter is the man who forced Collins to finish ahead of schedule, by providing stiff competition, and by starting later and finishing at the same time.

    Here’s what Venter says about Collins in a recent interview by Der Spiegel:

    SPIEGEL: Some scientist don’t rule out a belief in God. Francis Collins, for example …
    Venter: … That’s his issue to reconcile, not mine. For me, it’s either faith or science – you can’t have both.
    SPIEGEL: So you don’t consider Collins to be a true scientist?
    Venter: Let’s just say he’s a government administrator.

  • Lost Left Coaster

    I have yet to see any evidence that Collins’s faith is compromising his government work. I’m not saying skepticism was unwarranted, since he has made a big public show about being able to reconcile science and faith, etc., and has that rather ridiculous BioLogos Foundation. But I think he’s doing a fine job at his post at NIH.

  • SL8ofhand

    There is no reason to reconcile belief/faith with science. There has never been any data linking the two. It is like linking Mary Poppins and Albert Einstein…

  • Jordan

    Is his Christianity that ‘evangelical’ though? From everything I’ve read he’s about as close to deistic a Christian as you’re going to find. He’s CONSTANTLY writing pieces about how Christianity is being misunderstood and the so-called advances in theological thought are going unnoticed.

  • http://irenedelse.wordpress.com Irene Delse

    And Jerry Coyne chimed in too with his post “Collins is okay”.

    The fiercest atheists are not indiscriminately “dicks”… ;-)

  • Laura

    Honestly, I think he was a very shrewd pick. Even if some of the literalists aren’t willing to change their views, he’s going to get a lot farther with less ire from the religious right than any atheist could. I remember someone (Harris?) making a big stink about a lecture in which he ascribes some airy and ill-defined “inner moral sense” to god, but the objections raised (that he would withhold funding for psychology research, or something?) didn’t hold any water. It sounds a bit mean but someone doesn’t need to be a groundbreaking iconoclast to do good work in science.

  • Pseudonym

    The unsubtle implication that Collins is not a “rational person” was odd. I also think he’s a dingbat, but saying that he’s not “rational” is stretching the definition of “rational” beyond breaking point.

  • http://www.unreasonablefaith.com Custador

    Hmmmm. This is a tricky one. Ultimately we have to accept that everything we think, say and do is tainted with our own prejudice. Ordinarily it’s not much of an issue.
    For example, I have a deep and abiding dislike of Manchester United Football Club; since I’m a student nurse and my private activities consist mostly of delivering verbal beat-downs to religious fundamentalists, that particular prejudice is not massively important. If, however, I was a sports reporter covering football, IT WOULD MATTER!
    That’s where I go with this one: Ultimately, he is famous for researching a subject on the origins of which he is massively biased and unreceptive to contrary evidence. That instantly puts the quality of his work in doubt, and if he was a fundamentally honest person he would recognise that and avoid the subject.


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