Should Evangelical Christian Francis Collins Step Down as Director of the NIH?

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Over at evolutionary biologist and author Jerry Coyne’s blog, an interesting discussion has broken out about whether Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), should be allowed to use his position to promote theological arguments, or if he’s gone too far and should step down. 

Collins is a geneticist and evangelical Christian most famous for managing the human genome project. He’s reputedly a stellar administrator and a smart guy, both solid credentials in support of his selection at the NIH.  But he’s also a prolific writer of essays and books on what he considers to be “evidence” for belief in the Christian God. His latest is titled Belief: Readings on the Reason for Faith.

Legally, of course, he can write and say whatever he wants about his faith – no debate there.  But Coyne makes a compelling argument that Collins has blurred the line between being the director of the highest profile science position in the U.S. and being a proselytizing believer to the point of incoherence. If he were an atheist or represented almost any other religious position so fervently, he’d probably already have been asked to resign.

Here’s Coyne (emphasis mine):

Collins is director of the NIH, and is using his office to argue publicly that scientific evidence—the Big Bang, the “Moral Law” and so forth—points to the existence of a God.  That is blurring the lines between faith and science: exactly what I hoped he would not do when he took his new job.And to those who say that he has the right to publish this sort of stuff, well, yes he does.  He has the legal right.  But it’s not judicious to argue publicly, as the most important scientist in the US, that there is scientific evidence for God.  Imagine, for example, the outcry that would ensue if Collins were an atheist and, as NIH director, published a collection of atheistic essays along the lines of Christopher Hitchens’s The Portable Atheist, but also arguing that scientific evidence proved that there was no God.  He would, of course, promptly be canned as NIH director.

Or imagine if Collins were a Scientologist, arguing that the evidence pointed to the existence of Xenu and ancient “body-thetans” that still plague humans today. Or a Muslim, arguing that evidence pointed to the existence of Allah, and of Mohamed as his divine prophet.  Or if he published a book showing how scientific evidence pointed to the efficacy of astrology, or witchcraft.  People would think he was nuts.

Collins gets away with this kind of stuff only because, in America, Christianity is a socially sanctioned superstition.  He’s the chief government scientist, but he won’t stop conflating science and faith.  He had his chance, and he blew it.  He should step down.

What do you think? Has Collins taken too many liberties with his public position? Should he step down?  Check out the rest of Coyne’s post here.

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4 thoughts on “Should Evangelical Christian Francis Collins Step Down as Director of the NIH?

  1. Collins’ work on this subject was well known when he was appointed (he’s written similar books in the past). As long as he’s not exploiting his position at the NIH for personal profit, I don’t see that, to the extent that this is a problem, this book makes it any worse.

    I think it’s tragic that Coyne is correct that someone writing any of those other books would get booted form the NIH (there’s an obvious difference in that Collins isn’t arguing for a particular religion, of course, but the atheism example still holds). The problem is that people are barred from positions because they speak about their religious beliefs, not that a vocally devout person who is nonetheless proficient at his job was appointed.

    Also, given that a large chunk of the most dangerous anti-science rhetoric is coming from the Evangelical community, putting Collins in position to bridge between the Evangelical and scientific communities could be very important. The country is sorely lacking in unimpeachable, public scientific experts.

  2. I have met Francis Collins on several occasions, have read his books and followed his career ever since his team’s groundbreaking discovery of the gene for cystic fibrosis back in 1989. I tend to agree with poster Zach Hensel. As a non-believer myself, I think there is some value in having a card-carrying scientist who also happens to believe in God take on the crucial role of trying to bridge science with the often irrational demands of the modern faith-based community. Calling for his resignation is an example of liberals eating their own. Outside of publishing another book (this is by no means his first), has he caused any offense?

    I agree with Coyne that there is clear bias against atheists and clear favoritism for Christians in government. But ‘evening the score’ for this bias by removing a fully competent public servant based on his religious views hardly gets us closer to the tolerant society we all claim to want.

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