Many of us “seculars” worked hard to elect Obama, believing, among other things, that he would work to restore science to its proper place of influence in governmental affairs. Religion being an unfortunate part of the landscape in Washington, we were under no illusions that he would eliminate it entirely, but we were certainly hoping that he would place the best available scientific minds in the most critical positions.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is an agency of the United States Department of Health and Human Services and is the primary agency of the United States government responsible for biomedical and health-related research. The NIH mission is to uncover new knowledge that will lead to better health for everyone. NIH works toward that mission by: conducting research in its own laboratories; supporting the research of non-Federal scientists in universities, medical schools, hospitals, and research institutions throughout the country and abroad; helping in the training of research investigators; and fostering communication of medical and health sciences information.
The President has nominated Francis Collins, a brilliant physical chemist, a medical geneticist, and the former head of the Human Genome Project to serve as the next director of the NIH. At first, the choice didn’t really bother me, although I was, of course, aware of his “religiosity,” or at least I thought I was. In 2006, he published “The Language of God,” in which he claimed there was a harmony between science and evangelical Christianity.
Sam Harris wrote an OP-Ed for the NY Times this morning, in which he spoke about a talk Dr. Collins gave at Berkeley in 2008:
What follows are a series of slides, presented in order, from a lecture on science and belief that Dr. Collins gave at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2008:
Slide 1: “Almighty God, who is not limited in space or time, created a universe 13.7 billion years ago with its parameters precisely tuned to allow the development of complexity over long periods of time.”
Slide 2: “God’s plan included the mechanism of evolution to create the marvelous diversity of living things on our planet. Most especially, that creative plan included human beings.”
Slide 3: “After evolution had prepared a sufficiently advanced ‘house’ (the human brain), God gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the moral law), with free will, and with an immortal soul.”
Slide 4: “We humans used our free will to break the moral law, leading to our estrangement from God. For Christians, Jesus is the solution to that estrangement.”
Slide 5: “If the moral law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as good or evil. It’s all an illusion. We’ve been hoodwinked. Are any of us, especially the strong atheists, really prepared to live our lives within that worldview?”
“Why should Dr. Collins’s beliefs be of concern?
There is an epidemic of scientific ignorance in the United States. This isn’t surprising, as very few scientific truths are self-evident, and many are counterintuitive. It is by no means obvious that empty space has structure or that we share a common ancestor with both the housefly and the banana. It can be difficult to think like a scientist. But few things make thinking like a scientist more difficult than religion.”
What concerns me most about Dr. Collins’s talk is that he presented these slides as though they were the result of the interpretation of actual empirical evidence, rather then plain old Christian dogma backed-up with nothing but faith – his faith. I’m bothered most by the fifth slide, concerning the so-called “moral law.” What he says there is absolute nonsense! Good and evil are defined with respect to their effects, and the intent of the perpetrator, not by adherence to some bronze-age religious code. And do I want to live within the worldview that morals are about how we treat one another? You’re damned right I do!
Collins is, no doubt, a conscientious scientist and an excellent administrator, a skill set that will probably make him an outstanding Director. My concern is that that he pollutes science by pretending, number one, that the existence of God (His God) can be proven by empirical evidence, and two, that science cannot delve into the realm of morals and ethics.