President Obama wants to appoint Dr. Francis Collins to be the next director of the National Institutes of Health. Collins is a physical chemist, a medical geneticist and the former head of the Human Genome Project and also wrote the book The Language of God. Pop Atheist Sam Harris says that's a bad idea because, as good as Collins' credentials may be, he is fundamentally unqualified because he believes in God and describes himself as an evangelical.
So which is worse? Appointing a person to a post solely because of their religious faith or denying a post to a person because it appears to some that religious faith is compatible with the job?
Harris applies a religious test in his understanding of the NIH director position because, as he writes,
As someone who believes that our understanding of human nature can be derived from neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science and behavioral economics, among others, I am troubled by Dr. Collins’s line of thinking. I also believe it would seriously undercut fields like neuroscience and our growing understanding of the human mind. If we must look to religion to explain our moral sense, what should we make of the deficits of moral reasoning associated with conditions like frontal lobe syndrome and psychopathy? Are these disorders best addressed by theology?
Dr. Collins has written that “science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence” and that “the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted.”
One can only hope that these convictions will not affect his judgment at the institutes of health. After all, understanding human well-being at the level of the brain might very well offer some “answers to the most pressing questions of human existence” — questions like, Why do we suffer? Or, indeed, is it possible to love one’s neighbor as oneself? And wouldn’t any effort to explain human nature without reference to a soul, and to explain morality without reference to God, necessarily constitute “atheistic materialism”?
Ari Eisen at Religious Dispatches disagrees with Harris and says that in this case the atheist is being unreasonable.
First of all, and most importantly, (as Harris himself points out), Collins is a well-known and well-respected scientist, who among other significant achievements helped lead the NIH project to completely sequence the human genome. No one questions Francis Collins’ science or administrative credentials.
But, as we see regularly now in so many nomination proceedings, that’s not enough. The next question: Will the nominee be biased by their personal beliefs? Which is really another way of asking Does he or she believe in the same things I do?
So, here’s my reasoning on Collins. First, the NIH spends American tax dollars to help make Americans leaders in scientific and medical discovery and innovation. At last count , more than 90% of Americans believe in God or a higher power; more than half of us pray regularly. Now, this doesn’t prove, of course, that God exists, but given these statistics, isn’t it reasonable that the American representing and making decisions as NIH Director be both—of course a good thinker and scientist, but also someone who understands religion and believes in God?
Second, again as Harris points out, "there is an epidemic of scientific ignorance in the United States." Now, much of what Harris calls ‘ignorance’ I would call "lack of open discussion and education" and much of this lack occurs between scientists and people of faith who often simply yell past each other.
So, who then could possibly make more sense to help address this ‘epidemic’ than a well-respected scientist who also claims himself among the 100 million evangelical Christians in America? What better person to lead, decide, think, bridge, and help us think better and more cooperatively on science and religion than Francis Collins?
What many atheists forget is they practice theology even when they deny God's existence, warn people about the dangers of belief, and promote the virtues of unbelief. If it is wrong to apply a religious test to assure that only evangelicals can hold government posts, it is equally wrong to apply a religious test that only atheists can make governmental decisions about scientific policy.