What does Francis Collins mean for the NIH?

You may have heard the news that the president has named Francis “Three Waterfalls” Collins to head the National Institutes of Health.  By all accounts Collins is a competent bureaucrat and respectable as a researcher (he was one of the leaders in the Human Genome Project, after all, and he was the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute).

But Collins is also an outspoken Christian who has spent years trying to bridge the gap between science and religion.  His 2006 book The Language of God criticizes young-earth fundamentalists and Darwinian atheists alike.  Still, the possibility that his religious beliefs might compromise his ability–or willingness–to implement policy in controversial areas (like, say, stem cell research) has made a great many pundits nervous.

Here’s how Collins described his conversion experience in an interview with Salon.com:

Nobody gets argued all the way into becoming a believer on the sheer basis of logic and reason. That requires a leap of faith. And that leap of faith seemed very scary to me. After I had struggled with this for a couple of years, I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains on a beautiful fall afternoon. I turned the corner and saw in front of me this frozen waterfall, a couple of hundred feet high. Actually, a waterfall that had three parts to it — also the symbolic three in one. At that moment, I felt my resistance leave me. And it was a great sense of relief. The next morning, in the dewy grass in the shadow of the Cascades, I fell on my knees and accepted this truth — that God is God, that Christ is his son and that I am giving my life to that belief.

Riiight.  But it doesn’t stop there.  Collins has founded something called the BioLogos Foundation, whose mission is to…well, here it is straight from their website:

The BioLogos Foundation promotes the search for truth in both the natural and spiritual realms seeking harmony between these different perspectives.

Dr. Francis Collins established The BioLogos Foundation to address the escalating culture war between science and faith in the United States. On one end of the spectrum, “new atheists” argue that science removes the need for God. On the other end, religious fundamentalists argue that the Bible requires us to reject much of modern science. Many people – including scientists and believers in God – do not find these extreme options attractive.

BioLogos represents the harmony of science and faith. It addresses the central themes of science and religion and emphasizes the compatibility of Christian faith with scientific discoveries about the origins of the universe and life. To communicate this message to the general public and add to the ongoing dialog, The BioLogos Foundation created BioLogos.org.

Funded by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, the Web site is a reliable source of scholarly thought on contemporary issues in science and faith. It highlights the compatibility of modern science with traditional Christian beliefs…

At the end of the day, there is ZERO chance Collins won’t be confirmed, so we’ll just have to hope for the best after that.  This also further confirms my belief that Barack Obama really buys into the religious wingnuttery he espoused during the campaign (and which his apologists waved off as so much rhetorical folderol meant only to woo undecided voters.  Which never made me feel much better: you excuse him from being a wingnut by claiming he’s a liar?).  First, Rick Warren; then the Office of Faith-based Initiatives gets to stick around; then the footdragging on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell; now Francis Collins for the NIH.

P.S. And for those who think that personally-held belief should be immune to criticism as long as it doesn’t interfere with professional actions, that’s fine.  But as PZ Myers has pointed out, were the NIH nominee an atheist even a fraction as outspoken as Collins is about his Christianity, he would have no chance at being approved.

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