Francis Collins's Faith Shouldn't Disqualify Him

I do not believe that the Christian faith of Dr. Francis Collins, recently nominated to run the National Institutes of Health, disqualifies him from that job. The only questions that need be asked of Collins are these: Is he a good enough scientist? And will he be a passionate and relentless advocate for science and scientific research?

President Obama announced the nomination on July 8, but the objections from the scientific community have coalesced slowly. The flash point is religion. Collins is a "born again" geneticist with a stellar résumé who has recently made his name by offering himself up as living proof that a rational person can also believe in God. His 2006 book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, made him a celebrity in "faith versus reason" circles, and in the wake of its success, he has traveled the country dueling with atheists, explaining how, as he puts it in that book, "there is no conflict in being a rigorous scientist and a person who believes in a God who takes a personal interest in each one of us." In opinion pieces, scientists Sam Harris and Steven Pinker express strong reservations about the ascension of Collins to this office. Pinker fretted about the symbolism of allowing such a vocal believer to represent U.S. science; in The New York Times, Harris worried that a man who believes that human morality is God-given might be disinclined to pursue neuroscientific research into the nature of the human mind.

In America, religion is not a litmus test. Few would argue that, on the merits, Collins does not deserve this promotion. In 1989 Collins discovered the gene for cystic fibrosis, and in 1993 he became the director of the NIH center that would eventually sequence the entire human genome. Indeed, the critique most often leveled at Collins by the scientific community—apart from his public religiosity—is that he is too much of a geneticist and biased in favor of Big Science. On a blog, anthropologist Kenneth M. Weiss complained recently that as Human Genome Project director, Collins "directly or indirectly intimidated other NIH agencies to get into the genome game … That did, and still does, co-opt funds that could be used for other things instead." The concern of some scientists, in other words, has nothing to do with religion. It's that his view of legitimate science doesn't extend to them.

What distinguishes Collins from other scientists, then, is not that he believes—about half of American scientists believe in God or something like God—but that he does it so publicly. He has made his belief part of his shtik. I was at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2007 when Collins, as a guest of President George W. Bush, whipped out his acoustic guitar and, before thousands, sang a little hymn—an event that promised to devolve into a sideshow (in a blog at the time I compared him to "a wacky -nursery-school teacher"), but that Collins pulled off, somehow, through massive personal charisma. My own misgivings relate not to his religiosity but to my suspicion of people who wear religion too outwardly, especially when that posture would seem to serve their own professional ends. Collins was an established scientist but hardly a household name before he "came out" so prominently as a Christian believer, and it's certainly no accident that Team Obama chose him (and not, say, an atheist) to lead the way through forthcoming battles over stem cells and cloning. NIH director is a scientific appointment, to be sure, but it's also a political one, and Collins's evangelicalism works to (his and) Obama's advantage. What better way to disarm the opposition than to install a member of that opposition as the general of your army?

Both Pinker and Harris say a religious world view is fundamentally incompatible with a rational one, but there is no evidence that Collins has ever shied from the pursuit of scientific truth. It is not his religion, then, but his political ambition that prevents him from being crystal clear on one of the most volatile issues facing the NIH: embryonic-stem-cell research. A publicist says his views are in line with Obama's, but in Bush-era interviews he chose his words carefully and in his book he frames his support rhetorically. Embryonic-stem-cell research, in which human embryos are destroyed to make stem cells for experimentation, is a complex moral issue, he says—as it is. And then he offers what would seem to be his solution. Agree never to create human embryos expressly for medical research. Use only embryos—unwanted and "destined for destruction"—left over from fertility treatments. "Would that be moral violation?" he asks. Dr. Harold Varmus, a former NIH director who helped in the selection process, says Collins's guarded responses reflect no ambivalence. "He definitely supports it. I've worked with him closely, and I've never seen any evidence that he's opposed to it. Zero. None." Let's hope Obama's shrewd scientist is prepared for the religious war ahead.