May 4, 2022 Wayne Northey

Commentary on: Faith, Science, and Francis Collins

As an evangelical Christian, the retiring N.I.H. director has built bridges across America’s cultural divide. Have they burned?

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April 7, 2022

photo above: Wikipedia–Francis Collins is the only Presidentially appointed N.I.H. (National Institutes of Health) director to serve in more than one Administration, let alone three.

WN: We read that when in 2009, Dr. Collins was nominated by Barack Obama to head the N.I.H.,

The prominent Harvard cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, who has been an outspoken proponent of atheism, called Collins “an advocate of profoundly anti-scientific beliefs.” In an Op-Ed in the Times, the public intellectual Sam Harris, another prominent atheist, argued that “few things make thinking like a scientist more difficult than religion,” and expressed concern that Collins’s views would undermine efforts to understand the human mind. “One can only hope that these convictions will not affect his judgment at the institutes of health,” Harris wrote.1

Secular theorists, by accepting “the lid placed on thought by the methodological atheism of social science,” by refusing to permit “the horizon [to be] truly opened up to comprehend the divine source of life” (p. 96), are unable to achieve satisfactory explanation of evil.Charles Bellinger

As I say in another post, Easter Song: and Reflections on the Resurrection, about opposition to Francis Collins’ faith:

So much for vaunted atheistic religious/ideological tolerance; so much for atheistic anti-belief dogmatism . . .

For a brilliant, mischievous take-down of two proponents for the belief system of atheism, please see my book review of: Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, by renowned Irish literary critic, Terry Eagleton. I write:

I had generally felt uninterested in the recent spate of neoatheistic publications, including The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, and God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, by Christopher Hitchens. Both books and the “God Debate” are the focus of the book under discussion. In 2010, Eagleton, a noted literary critic and theoretical Marxist, gave the most prestigious series of theological lectures in English today: The Gifford Lectures, at the University of Edinburgh.2

That lecture series continued his probing this theme. With Eagleton’s offering, I suddenly realized how vital to our very humanity this discussion is! What, if after all, both the dilemma of the human condition and its solution cut far more deeply than the best offerings of secular good works done by say the International Red Cross, the Canadian International Development Agency, or the American Peace Corps?3

What if, after all, most of the Christian West with its early inversion of the Cross into ultimate symbol of violence, the Sword, was massively unfaithful to humanity’s ultimate destiny of peace that Judeo-Christian Scripture knows as the Kingdom of God? This publication raises these issues exquisitely and much more.

Eagleton playfully amalgamates the above atheistic authors under the signifier “Ditchkins,” so alike, and so incredibly ignorant (in the strict sense of meaning “not knowing”) are the two authors about their subject matter.4 The book itself is based on Reason, Faith, and Revolution – Eagleton, Terry Lectures series: given by Eagleton in 2009 at Yale University.

I have similarly generally felt uninterested in more than a century of “Historical Jesus Quest Studies,” and usually put issues of atheism and New Testament revisionism together–over against hermeneutical revisionism of the Bible. New Testament theologian Luke Timothy Johnson says of Historical Jesus Questers generally:

Perhaps after all these authors have not escaped the tendencies so acutely described by [Albert] Schweitzer. Does not [one such author’s] picture of a peasant cynic preaching inclusiveness and equality fit perfectly the idealized ethos of the late twentieth-century academic (quoted in Richard Hays’ The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation – A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics, p. 167)?

It seems that both kinds of naysayers too often trade in arrogance and disdain towards the traditionally “faithful.” The naysayers also seem to aver we’d all be much better off if we or “God” or Jesus were made in their image: “liberal dogmatists, doctrinaire flag-wavers for Progress, and Islamophobic intellectuals (p. 169),” or early twenty-first century (mainly) white male academic ultimately “enlightened” Historical Jesus Questers. C.S. Lewis wrote decades ago ruefully that there is regularly a fresh crop of publications every fall of such tiresome revisions. This appears to be still the case.

As to “science”5, retired physicist Stephen M. Barr writes:

The question before us, then, is whether the actual discoveries of science have undercut the central claims of religion, specifically the great monotheistic religions of the Bible, Judaism and Christianity, or whether those discoveries have actually, in certain important respects, damaged the credibility of materialism (Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (2003), pp. 2 & 3.)

The author, in an irenic, often understated manner, concludes the latter, saying at the end of the book:

It is certainly conceivable, if to many of us not credible, that materialism is true, but surely it is not irrational to ask for somewhat stronger arguments on its behalf (p. 256).

So with issues of historical reliability of the New Testament: it is conceivable that the documents are overall not very historically reliable. But the evidence does not compel one towards that conclusion. It is not irrational to assert that.

Finally, I take solace in the concluding words of the article:

But, for Collins, this pursuit [of bringing together two tribes that he hopes to connect: conservatives [in particular Evangelicals], and [possibly anti-religious] scientists6 is not an abstract ideal or a political goal. It is, in some sense, a higher calling. For our nation and our species, the future depends on its success.

excerpts:

On June 26, 2000, the physician Francis Collins, then the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, stepped up to the podium in the East Room of the White House in front of President Bill Clinton, high-ranking U.S. officials, and foreign dignitaries. A team of more than a thousand scientists, led by Collins, had just assembled a first draft of the three billion letters in the human genome. Clinton called this a “stunning and humbling achievement,” rivalling Galileo’s. Collins told the audience, “We have caught the first glimpse of our own instruction book, previously known only to God.” By 2003, he would bring the Human Genome Project, one of the largest scientific collaborations in history, to a successful completion, nearly half a billion dollars under budget and two years ahead of schedule.

While a medical student at the University of North Carolina, Collins saw religion comfort patients in physical and existential pain. When an elderly woman with an incurable heart condition asked him what he believed, he found himself at a loss. With time, the question began to feel overwhelming, urgent, and unavoidable. Even as Collins held on to the idea that science could untangle the mechanics of life, he read C. S. Lewis and consulted his first wife’s pastor. Eventually, he came to the conclusion that faith, more than science, could help illuminate morality and existence. One day, while hiking in the Cascades, he saw a waterfall frozen in three parts and took it as a sign of the Holy Trinity. In the decades that followed, he argued that science and religion could exist alongside each other. In 2006, he published “The Language of God,” a best-selling book 7 that presents evidence that, in his view, justifies faith. In it, Collins argues that faith is rational, that it can help answer life’s deepest questions, and that the challenges of the twenty-first century require a harmony between science and religion, not just a ceasefire. He then founded BioLogos, an organization that supports the view that God created all things through the instrument of evolution.

In July, 2009, President Barack Obama nominated Collins to lead the National Institutes of Health [N.I.H.], the largest supporter of biomedical-research in the world. Collins was by then a renowned geneticist who had helped to discover key genes behind cystic fibrosis, Type 2 diabetes, Huntington’s disease, neurofibromatosis, and other conditions. Still, he faced high-profile opposition from within the scientific community. The prominent Harvard cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, who has been an outspoken proponent of atheism, called Collins “an advocate of profoundly anti-scientific beliefs.” In an Op-Ed in the Times, the public intellectual Sam Harris, another prominent atheist, argued that “few things make thinking like a scientist more difficult than religion,” and expressed concern that Collins’s views would undermine efforts to understand the human mind. “One can only hope that these convictions will not affect his judgment at the institutes of health,” Harris wrote. The U.S. Senate appeared not to share these concerns: it confirmed him with a unanimous vote.

In his twelve years as the director of the N.I.H.—the longest that anyone has held the position in half a century—Collins oversaw twenty-seven institutes, forty-six thousand employees and contractors, and a budget that grew to forty-two billion dollars. He became the only Presidentially appointed N.I.H. director to serve in more than one Administration, let alone three; he helped to secure budget increases of more than forty per cent, using them to fund a slew of new programs and initiatives related to, among other things, brain health, addiction research, and the development of covid-19 therapies and vaccines.

Please click on: Faith, Science, and Francis Collins | The New Yorker

 

Footnotes
  1. By contrast, in relation to the social sciences, theologian Charles Bellinger states in The Genealogy of Violence: Reflections on Creation, Freedom, and Evil: (My book review is here.)

    I suggest that the closure to transcendence inherent in methodological atheism [of contemporary social science in the Academy] prevents its theorists from fully understanding the phenomenon they are seeking to grasp. Concerning the religious vision of the relationship between humanity and its Creator, they presuppose that ‘we have no need of that hypothesis.’ (p. 96).

    Secular theorists, by accepting “the lid placed on thought by the methodological atheism of social science,” by refusing to permit “the horizon [to be] truly opened up to comprehend the divine source of life” (p. 96), are unable to achieve satisfactory explanation of evil because:

    The most basic root of violence is the alienation of human beings from their Creator; thus, non-theological ‘explanations’ of violence are actually caught up in and expressive of the same atmosphere of human alienation from God out of which violence arises. [A footnote adds that secular social philosophy “is complicit with an ‘ontology of violence,’ a reading of the world which assumes the priority of force and tells how this force is best managed and confined by counter-force.”]

    As such, they are unable to master their subject: the ‘explanations’ are themselves trapped in the tragedy of human history. (p. 96, italics in original)

    Secular theorists of violence, in other words, says Bellinger, are like the little girl looking for a coin under the street lamp “because there is more light there” than where the coin was really lost further up the street. The author refers to the present-day intellectuals’ flight from God as embrace of a

    . . . shrunken, contracted self, . . . in alienation from God, [that] is at the same time the root of violent actions and also the root of the inability of modern intellectuals to truly understand human behaviour (p. 97).

    Philosopher Nicholas Maxwell makes clear that like religion, there is a significant amount of faith involved in scientific endeavour, explained in an interview with David Cayley:

    I thought at first that no scientist would ever believe this account because it’s too much at odds with the official view. It seems to imply that there is an article of faith in science, and scientists always want to distance themselves from religion and say there’s no article of faith. Everything is just evidence. But then it dawned on me that in a way Einstein had believed in something like this, because he’d once said, for example, that the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible. So I started to read Einstein, and I came to the conclusion that I’d been anticipated, and that he’d more or less held a view like this one.

    Cayley explains:

    String theory answers the need for a unified explanation of the phenomena of physics. It is pursued out of a deep conviction that there must be such an explanation. But according to Nicholas Maxwell, this must finally be a matter of faith, rather than knowledge. It’s what he calls a problematic aim, and science generally has not wanted to face up to the fact that it rests on such meta-physical foundations. The consequence, Maxwell argues, is that science has become neurotic. It is, as we say today, in denial.

    Maxwell adds:

    For scientists I think the big problem is that to acknowledge this does violence to the official view about the nature of science, especially when one comes to defend science against other things like religion and politics. What is it that is so special about science? In science nothing is taken as an article of faith. Nothing is taken on trust. Everything is open to being assessed empirically, and that’s an extremely simple line to take. In politics, there is dogma of various kinds. In religion there is a book. There is an oracle of some kind or other. There is faith. In science there isn’t. But if I’m right, and if you acknowledge that for science to be possible at all you have to make these highly problematic assumptions, then there is in a sense an article of faith. And it’s an article of faith that you can’t do without. So that simple way of distinguishing science from religion and science from politics doesn’t work anymore.– CBC Ideas broadcast, by David Cayley, How To Think About Science, 2008; pp. 216 & 217[]

  2. See: The God Debate–YouTube.[]
  3. See: On the Front Lines by acclaimed former CBC Correspondent Brian Stewart. He writes:

    For many years I’ve been struck by the rather blithe notion, spread in many circles including the media, and taken up by a rather large section of our younger population, that organized, Mainstream Christianity has been reduced to a musty, dimly lit Backwater of contemporary life, a fading force. Well, I’m here to tell you from what I’ve seen from my “ring-side seat” at events over decades that there is nothing that is further from the truth. That notion is a serious distortion of reality. I’ve found there is NO movement, or force, closer to the raw truth of war, famines, crises, and the vast human predicament, than organized Christianity in Action. And there is no alliance more determined and dogged in action than church workers, ordained and lay members, when mobilized for a common good. It is these Christians who are right “On the Front Lines” of committed humanity today and when I want to find that Front, I follow their trail.

    I don’t slight any of the hard work done by other religions or those wonderful secular NGO’s I’ve dealt with so much over the years. They work closely with church efforts, they are noble allies. But no, so often in desperate areas it is Christian groups there first, that labor heroically during the crisis and continue on long after all the media, and the visiting celebrities have left.

    Another excellent piece making the above point, this time about the sheer social radicality of the Apostle Paul is: Paul and Christian Social Responsibility. I introduce it thus:

    New Testament scholar Chris Marshall first published this piece in 2000.

    There is another piece on this site (Is Paul the Father of Misogyny and Antisemitism?), by Pamela Eisenbaum, Pauline scholar, practising Jew, feminist, and professor at a Christian seminary (Iliff School of Theology). She subsequently wrote Paul was not a ChristianThe Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle.

    This, read conjointly with Pamela Eisenbaum’s piece above on this site, points to my belief that other than Jesus, Paul was the most radical social reformer the world has ever seen! He was decidedly not:

    • misogynist
    • anti-semitic
    • perverse founder of a new faith called “Christianity” over against Judaism
    • socially status quo

    He was quite the contrary on all accounts. To read Paul is to hold unholdable for long, fiery hot potatoes! I will never recover from the sheer energy of Paul’s profound radicality! Atheist philosopher Alain Badiou also argues that the

    Pauline figure of the subject still harbors a genuinely revolutionary potential today: the subject is that which refuses to submit to the order of the world as we know it and struggles for a new one instead. (from back cover of: Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism.)

    For much on my website about the second most socially revolutionary person who ever lived, the Apostle Paul, please see here.

    As well: If you are open to having your mind changed about Paul; or if you are like a friend who began a written piece with the words, “Paul, damn him!,” please read the following book, by gifted classics scholar and translator, Sarah RudenPaul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own. If you do not experience a big surprise, you either know much of this (doubtful), or your prejudice, like my friend’s, is complete.

    Canadian prelate Bishop Thomas Dowd reviews the book thus:

    ***

    Paul Among the People is, as the subtitle claims, a reinterpretation of the writing of the apostle Paul according to the usages of his own time. The author, Sarah Ruden, is a scholar of classics, i.e. she is an expert in the culture and literature of Greek and Roman antiquity. While doing her studies, however, she discovered that, while students of classics and students of the New Testament were very often taking courses that were complementary (e.g. koinḕ Greek), there was very little interaction between the two groups. She wondered what it might be like to read Saint Paul, not so much in a theological context, as a classics context. This book is a collection of her insights gained as a result of this process of inquiry.

    The bottom line of her conclusions is as follows: while Paul is often portrayed by modern readers as a fuddy-duddy who hated fun, when compared to the actual pagan culture of his day Paul was, in fact, a revolutionary thinker who greatly promoted human dignity. After all, how else could an underground religious movement like Christianity get any real cultural traction? Paul demonstrated how faith in Christ led to ethical conclusions superior to those of pagan cultures–something that comes out, mind you, only if his works are read in parallel with those of pagan writers.

    Take, for example, Paul’s admonition against sorcery. Sorcery in a Greco-Roman context was not the so-called wicca we see on TV shows today. The Roman poet Horace describes how a young boy was buried up to his neck, left to starve to death facing a plate of food so that his liver and bone marrow (now filled with his frustrated longing) could be harvested as a love charm.

    Or take Paul’s statements against “carousing” and “reveling.” Taken out of context, it might seem that Paul is against parties. In fact, Paul was criticizing the pagan tradition of komos, a drunken parade that often turned into a drunken riot, including kidnapping and rape.

    Paul’s comments against homosexuality are also well known and, in modern times, quite controversial. Some modern authors, like John Boswell, claim that Paul was not condemning homosexual acts between homosexual persons, but homosexual acts committed by heterosexual persons. Ruden points out that, in a Greco-Roman context, this is nonsense. Engaging in an active homosexual act, such as anal penetration, was a form of domination and violence, while being on the receiving end turned a person into a laughingstock. This brutality was regularly directed against boys, whose innocent appearance was prized. However else one might interpret Paul’s writings, he certainly was standing up to a culture that prized sexual dominance, conquest and pederasty.

    And then there is Paul’s attitude towards women, which Ruden describes as quite modest. Paul, for example, requires that women be veiled in church. However, in the culture of the day, a woman’s hair was considered an erotic symbol, and the veil was a sign of dignity. To require the veil was to erase class distinction among women and ask them not to be sexually provocative in church — imagine the stir it would make if someone came to mass in a bikini, and you get a sense of what this is about. Understood in his context, Paul does not come across as unreasonable at all.

    The list goes on, which is why this book is so important. The art of Biblical interpretation lies in the ability of the interpreter to translate, not only the language of the text, but its meaning, thus transporting the message of the Bible from one generation to another. Text, however, cannot be truly read without context. Ruden, as a classics scholar, helps provide the context which Biblical scholars can then use to further their own research.

    I can’t say that Paul Among the People is a perfect book. Ruden does not always seem to grasp the profoundly Jewish background from which Paul is writing, which is at least as important an element of context as the Greco-Roman culture surrounding him. I would also have liked to get her take on the supposed non-biblical letters of Paul, such as his correspondence with Seneca. This being said, I do believe that Ruden’s work is a solid contribution to the ongoing work of making Paul accessible to everyone. (Emphasis added) []

  4. But please read below further about Francis Collins and atheists, Christopher Hitchins and Stephen Pinker.[]
  5. In modernity, it was claimed that “Science” displaced Faith as authoritative portal to understanding. But this is modern mythology. As above, noted former CBC Ideas broadcaster David Cayley highlights this in How To Think About Science, 24 hours of broadcast interviews with top historians, sociologists and philosophers of science. (Yes, I listened to them all.) One may also read his subsequent book: Ideas on the Nature of Science. Though it does not include everything from the series. The full transcript may be found on Cayley’s website, and here.[]
  6. “A spokesperson for science who is not branded as a left-wing partisan is an asset for the wider acceptance of science across the political spectrum,” [Stephen] Pinker said. But Collins is more than a spokesperson for science. He is also a kind of representative, within the scientific community, of American communities that his peers sometimes fail to reach.[]
  7. Incidentally, University of British Columbia’s President and Vice Chancellor Santa J. Ono states that this is his favourite book.[]

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.

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