As soon as Francis Collins, an evangelical Christian geneticist who headed up the pioneering Human Genome Project during the 1990s, was floated as the possible new director of the National Institutes of Health—he was officially named to the post on Wednesday—the criticisms began flying. Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago, for one, said Collins is too public with his faith. Collins wrote a book called The Language of God, frequently talks about his religious conversion during medical school, and recently launched the BioLogos Foundation, which declares, "We believe that faith and science both lead to truth about God and creation."
The critics, though, have it exactly backward: the United States needs more scientists like Collins—researchers who show by their prominence and their example that a good scientist can still retain religious beliefs. The stunning irony in the longstanding tension between science and religion in America is that many scientists who merely claim to be defending rationality from religious fundamentalism may actually be turning Americans off to science, doing more harm to their cause than good.
The poster boy for the so-called New Atheist movement today is biologist Richard Dawkins, author of the bestselling book, The God Delusion. He and other New Atheists attack faith without quarter, and insist that science and religion are fundamentally irreconcilable. In the process, they are helping to keep U.S. society polarized over science and likely helping to make it still harder for many religious believers to accept scientific findings in areas like evolution.
Although the New Atheists are not so numerous, and much younger as a movement than their polar opposite—the Christian right—they've amassed a powerful following, especially online, and have sold millions of books by prosecuting a culture war in precisely the opposite direction from the one waged by Christian conservatives. Science is their watchword, but it has always been about much more than that. The New Atheist science blogger PZ Myers, for instance, has publicly desecrated a consecrated communion wafer, presumably taken from a Catholic mass, and put a picture of it, pierced by a rusty nail and thrown in the trash, on the Internet.
The New Atheists are unswerving in their conviction that irrational religion is the source of many of our ills—especially when it comes to the public's poor understanding of science—and vociferous in their criticism of scientists who nevertheless retain religious belief, like Collins, even though Collins is himself a strong defender of evolution. But the truth is that religious scientists like Collins have the best chance of making religious Americans more accepting of modern science.
Consider the survey evidence, which shows that while most Americans want to have both science and religion in their lives, they'll only go so far to preserve the former at the expense of the latter. According to a 2006 Time magazine poll, for instance, 64 percent of Americans would hold on to a cherished religious belief even if science had disproved it. Many Americans who reject evolution—a stunning 46 percent, according to surveys—assuredly fall in this category.
The public's willingness to reject science for religious reasons is certainly lamentable. But by arguing that science contradicts religion and makes it untenable, many atheists reinforce the very concerns that are keeping people from accepting science to begin with. Someone like Collins, by contrast, can convince those who think science conflicts with their beliefs that this needn't be the case.
And Collins's approach isn't just good as a strategy to get the public to better appreciate science. The idea that science and religion can be compatible is strong on the intellectual merits as well. Granted, it depends how you define your terms: if your religion holds that Genesis must be read literally, then you are in direct conflict with scientific findings about the age of the Earth, the diversity of life on the planet, and so on. Yet if we consider religion more broadly—in its own considerable diversity—we find many sophisticated believers who've made a peace between their belief and the findings of modern science. It's not just Collins; consider the words of the Dalai Lama: "If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change."
Americans have serious problems with science, and religion is definitely part of the reason. But that doesn't mean fighting religion, indiscriminately, is the answer. A far better approach is to work with religious believers to help them separate their personal religion from everybody's shared science, and move toward a much needed middle ground.
The New Atheists will hardly be pleased by the Collins choice, but that's unpreventable and perhaps even to the good: science and atheism aren't the same, and the former must always remain a broader, more inclusive category.