Editor’s Note: It’s possible that there are many friendships between people with very differing views of the world. However, it’s rare that the people involved are so famous for their disparate views and that they express them so clearly. Thanks to the TCP member who discovered this friendship and to the magazine that chronicled it. /Linda LaScola, Editor
By Chris Highland
In an interview with Francis Collins in The Atlantic (March 17, 2020), the National Institutes of Health Director talks about the virus, his faith and his unusual friendship with Christopher Hitchens.
Collins has some rather remarkable things to say about science and religion:
“To Christians I would say, think of science as a gift from the Creator. The curiosity that we have been instilled with to understand how the universe works can inspire even greater awe of the Creator. This gift could hardly be a threat to God, the author of it all. Celebrate what science can teach us. Think of science as a form of worship.”
Secular freethinkers might not accept that language, but we can appreciate his invitation to fellow Evangelicals—in terms they will understand—to take science more seriously. However, Collins follows this with comments on science that causes us to wonder how a scientist can be so skeptical of science itself.
“Scientists, by their nature, are trying to understand how nature works. And I think the message to scientists has to be there are really important questions that fall outside of what science is able to address meaningfully, such as ‘Why is there something instead of nothing? What is the meaning of love? Is there a God? What happens after you die?’ Those are not questions for which science or scientific methods can be applied.”
While I find this view of science and critical thinking somewhat myopic and surprisingly naive, I understand the mindset. I used to believe and say similar things. It’s a worldview that seriously suspects the extent of the reasoning mind: Certainly our minds can’t grasp that idea, our reason can’t go there, that’s beyond investigation — just have faith. As he goes on to say:
“It constricts the universe of important questions to assume they are all questions that science can address.”
Yet, we might respond: there are no questions that the reasoning mind cannot ask, address and sometimes answer—that is, if a “final” answer can be found or expressed. For instance, as Collins raises: Is there a God? If science cannot answer that, can faith? Which faith? Which God? The thing is, if science (or our rational minds) cannot answer the question, faith can’t either. “Just believe” is no answer. “I don’t know” is more honest. Science or Philosophy might say, “We see no evidence for a deity, but show us something we can test and we’ll investigate.”
Science is not as closed-minded as Collins presents, and he should know better. Yet, he wants to “witness” to the truth of his own evangelical faith. That makes sense, though I wouldn’t agree.
Collin’s friendship with the atheist writer Christopher Hitchens (who passed away in 2011) is notable. They met in Washington, D.C. in 2007 and locked horns immediately over the basis for ethics. Is there no “objective moral grounding to good and evil?” Collins asked. Hitchens was rude and dismissive. At a later dinner meeting, the conversation was more respectful and “more useful” according to Collins. Here’s where it gets interesting. As the Atlantic article describes:
“After the gathering broke up, Collins and Hitchens engaged in a more personal discussion that started them ‘on a pathway where we could be completely at opposite ends when it came to the harmony of science and faith, but we could also have a meaningful conversation about other life matters without bringing too much baggage into it.’”
Those “other life matters” took on deeper meaning a few years later when Hitchens was dying of cancer. They continued to have conversations and, as Collins explains: “We became good friends in that circumstance, although obviously with very different views about the fundamental truths of Christian faith, which he continued to discount.” As a health professional, Collins was able to offer some practical advice to Hitchens as he endured treatment.
According to Collins, toward the end of his friend’s life:
“He was very respectful. I never really had a circumstance in a private conversation where Christopher would say derogatory things about faith or about people of faith. Curious, yes, probing, oh, yes, but not denigrating.”
Shortly before he died, Hitchens spoke affectionately of Collins as “the best of the faithful” and “a great humanitarian.”
This brought back memories of several Evangelical pastors I’ve known who became friends and colleagues. As we focused our attention and efforts on managing shelters for homeless people, we didn’t have the time to be distracted by differences in our beliefs. Our friendly, cooperative relationships were more important both personally and professionally.
When Collins was asked to reflect on his unusual friendship with Hitchens, he remarked:
“It’s a reminder of the fact that if we really want to understand each other, we can’t be put off by those kind of superficial, admittedly sometimes difficult to listen to, perspectives. There is real humanity in everyone. This was a guy who was intensely curious about everything. It was a guy … who cherished the chance to develop a friendship, and especially with somebody who was very different from him.”
This takes courage for people on both sides of the faith/freethought divide, to lean toward another person rather than away, and perhaps to challenge the divide itself, asking whether most of that gulf is either an illusion or an artificial distraction from the work that presents itself— especially if that “work” is to grow or strengthen a friendship.
At the memorial service for Hitchens, Collins played a piano sonata he wrote especially for his friend. That says more, perhaps, than any other words about faith or freethought. Honoring a friendship that began as a debate and grew into a valued relationship. There’s a lesson in that, don’t you think?
Bio: Chris Highland was a minister and chaplain for many years in the SF Bay Area. Now teaching courses on Freethought in Asheville, North Carolina, he writes a weekly “Highland Views” column for the Citizen-Times. His new book, A Freethinker’s Gospel, is now available from Pisgah Press. Chris has been a member of The Clergy Project since 2012. To learn more, see www.chighland.com.
>>>>>Photo Credits: By Fri Tanke – http://www.mynewsdesk.com/se/images/christopher-hitchens-29854, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45188781https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/a0/Francis_Collins_official_portrait.jpg/512px-Francis_Collins_official_portrait.jpg