Religious bigotry is alive and well in the scientific community, as evidenced by its response to President Obama’s decision to appoint Dr. Francis Collins as the head of the National Institutes of Health. Though renowned for leading the team of scientists that successfully mapped the human genome, Dr. Collins is making headlines for something else: his faith. In spite of his professional qualifications and accomplishments, many in the scientific community are less than enthusiastic about the President’s decision to appoint a self-described evangelical Christian to lead the world’s leading organization for scientific research.
This skepticism results from a prejudice against a theistic worldview that has become entrenched in the scientific community—an irrational attitude born of historical ignorance and intellectual myopathy that is increasingly dismissive of moral questions and ethical concerns.
The idea that a tension exists between science and theism is relatively new. The most brilliant philosophical minds of the western intellectual tradition—dating all the way back to the time of Plato and Aristotle—operated on the assumption that our existence came into being through the actions of a divine creator, described as the First Cause or Unmoved Mover. For centuries after, theology reigned as queen of the sciences, and scientific inquiry was animated by the belief that human reason was a gift imparted by God so that man might gain knowledge about Him, His attributes, and the laws which govern His creation.
Without this belief that the physical world is the result of an intentional design governed by fixed laws—laws which we discover through reason and experience—there would have been little cause to engage in scientific pursuits. Faith in the goodness of God’s creation and the intelligibility of its design inspired history’s great minds to forge ahead into new worlds of knowledge and discovery.
Indeed, many of the great heroes of science pioneered their discoveries under the auspices of this inspiration. Groundbreaking advances in astronomy, chemistry, physics, mathematics, genetics, and other fields of knowledge were made by men dedicated to systematically investigating God’s creation—men like Copernicus, Kepler, Pascal, Boyle, Kelvin, Mendel, and Faraday.
Over time, however, the scientific community came to question whether the advancement of human knowledge might be better served by separating itself from ethical constraints arising out of religious beliefs. The idea that man should be guided by transcendent moral principles in his quest for answers to life’s mysteries, the idea that some boundaries should not be crossed, was an intolerable thought. Scientists wanted to answer the question “can I?” without having to ask “should I?”
Hence today, when a man who professes faith in the Risen Christ is given the reigns of America’s preeminent scientific organization, eyebrows raise in skepticism. Prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins go on late-night TV talk shows to denounce the ridiculous notion that any intelligent person, let alone a scientist, could actually embrace the fantastic teachings of the Bible. Believing that the world is the result of an intentional act of creation on the part of a benevolent and loving God is likened to believing in unicorns or the tooth fairy—Peter Pan fantasies embraced by those too young or too dumb to cope with the cold hard facts of reality.
Regardless of the specifics of Dr. Collins’s Christian identity, the idea that his faith impedes his fitness to serve as the head of the NIH operates on the absurd premise that only atheists and agnostics are capable of being good scientists. One might argue the precise opposite of this. If, as previously stated, the origin of scientific inquiry was based upon the belief that the physical world operates according to fixed and intelligible laws, one might ask what kind of foundation underlies a scientific worldview which denies an intelligent design or an ultimate purpose? If there’s no designer, no fixed laws, no first principles, then there is no real meaning—no context in which to evaluate the value and significance of newly acquired knowledge. When there is no acknowledged moral source to draw a clear line between the permissible and the forbidden, then human curiosity and ambition are left as the only arbiters of science’s use.
Those who profess a commitment to science while rejecting a belief in God want to expand the breadth of scientific inquiry without being subject to ethical constraints. Inevitably, this kind of thinking leads to manipulating or destroying the weaker among us in order to empower the stronger. This is the philosophy that has animated some of our history’s most gruesome acts of scientific “experimentation,” and it is espoused today by none other than President Obama’s “science czar,” John Holdren, who has advocated forced abortion and mass sterilization in the name of environmental responsibility.
If this is the kind of ideology that results when the age-old relationship between faith and science is destroyed, then Dr. Collins’s “embrace” of religion is the least of America’s troubles.