By Eric Von Salzen
I don’t read the New York Times anymore. (That once great newspaper was always dull, but it used to be the place to go for reliable, in-depth reporting of national and international news. Now it’s just dull.) So it was only by chance that I saw the Times article a few days ago about Francis S. Collins, MD, the director of the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Collins is controversial because, you see, Dr. Collins believes in God.
As the Times explains, “many scientists view [Collins’] outspoken religious commitment as a sign of mild dementia.”
Collins is a scientist, the former head of the Human Genome Project, and a Christian. His 2006 book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, does just what its subtitle claims. It’s a fine book for intelligent Christians and open-minded skeptics.
The Times says that in this book Collins “preaches about his belief” in God. “Preaches”. Do you get the sense that that word – “preaches” – is meant to be just a tiny bit pejorative, that it’s somehow unseemly for a scientist to “preach”? Maybe I’m overly sensitive. I would say that Dr. Collins “discusses” his faith in the book. But that’s just me.
One of the scientists quoted by the Times, physicist Robert L. Park , says that Dr. Collins’ description of an event that started him on his faith journey “is enough to cause concern”. Here’s what Dr. Collins said about this event in his book.
When he was a third year medical student and was working in a hospital with sick and dying patients, Collins was struck by the fact that in many cases the patients’ faith “provided them with a strong reassurance of ultimate peace, be it in this world or the next, despite terrible suffering . . . .” He goes on:
My most awkward moment came when an older woman, suffering from severe untreatable angina, asked me what I believed. It was a fair question; we had discussed many other important issues of life and death, and she had shared her own strong Christian beliefs with me. I felt my face flush as I stammered out the words, “I’m not sure.” Her obvious surprise brought into sharp relief a predicament that I had been running away from for nearly all of my twenty-six years: I had never really seriously considered the evidence for and against belief.
So young Collins started reading about religion, and before long he came upon C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. You can guess the rest.
What does the scientist Dr. Park say about this event, which causes him “concern” about Dr. Collins? He says that Collins, as a man with a medical degree and a Ph.D. in chemistry should have realized that “the moment was nothing but a hormonal rush” and should not have given it “a higher meaning”. Please re-read what Dr. Collins said about this experience. Did he say that his face flushing (that must be the “hormonal rush” Park talks about) was a message from God or in any other way was freighted with “higher meaning”? No, really he doesn’t. In this part of Collins’ story, he’s moved by the faith of some of his patients to begin reading about Christianity. Is that really evidence of mild dementia?
(I’d bet Dr. Park never even read what Dr. Collins wrote, except that Dr. Park is an eminent scientist and would never reach a conclusion without considering the data.)
The rest of the times article portrays Dr. Collins on the defensive, claiming that he has no “religious agenda” for NIH, and that he supports therapeutic cloning. He promised not to let faith interfere with scientific judgment. “I’m a scientist”, Dr. Collins says, “I have a lab”; also, “I drive a Harley”. He played guitar with Joe Perry of Aerosmith. He went on the Colbert Report. When Stephen Colbert asked him to take off his glasses and shake out his hair “to make science sexy and cool”, Dr. Collins did so.
What is wrong with this picture? Is believing in God so freakish that you have to drive a Harley and play the guitar to prove that you’re normal?
Around 80% of Americans believe in God, perhaps 1-2% are atheists or agnostics. Who’s out of step? Who needs to justify himself?
That’s a rhetorical question. No one in a just society should have to justify his/her faith or lack of it. No one should have to drive a motorcycle and play a guitar in order to get away with being a Christian.
I can't play the guitar. And I drive a Volvo.