Posted August 5, 2009
by: Sam Harris (www.reasonproject.org)
It is widely claimed that there can be no conflict, in principle, between science and religion because many scientists are themselves “religious,” and some even believe in the God of Abraham and in the truth of ancient miracles. Even religious extremists value some of the products of science—antibiotics, computers, bombs, etc.—and these seeds of inquisitiveness, we are told, can be patiently nurtured in a way that offers no insult to religious faith.
This prayer of reconciliation goes by many names and now has many advocates. But it is based on a fallacy. The fact that some scientists do not detect any problem with religious faith merely proves that a juxtaposition of good ideas/methods and bad ones is possible. Is there a conflict between marriage and infidelity? The two regularly coincide. The fact that intellectual honesty can be confined to a ghetto—in a single brain, in an institution, in a culture, etc—does not mean that there isn’t a perfect contradiction between reason and faith, or between the worldview of science taken as a whole and those advanced by the world’s “great,” and greatly discrepant, religions.
What can be shown by example is how poorly religious scientists manage to reconcile reason and faith when they actually attempt to do so. Few such efforts have received more public attention than the work of Francis Collins. At the time of this writing, Collins seems destined to be the next director of the National Institutes of Health. One must admit that his credentials are impeccable: he is a physical chemist, a medical geneticist, and the former head of the Human Genome Project. He is also, by his own account, living proof that there is no conflict between science and religion. In 2006, Collins published a bestselling book, The Language of God, in which he claims to demonstrate “a consistent and profoundly satisfying harmony” between 21st-century science and Evangelical Christianity. Let it be known that “consistency” and “harmony” can be in the eye of the beholder.
In fact, to read The Language of God is to witness nothing less than an intellectual suicide. It is, however, a suicide that has gone almost entirely unacknowledged: The body yielded to the rope; the neck snapped; the breath subsided; and the corpse dangles in ghastly discomposure even now—and yet, polite people everywhere continue to celebrate the great man’s health.
Dr. Collins is regularly praised by his fellow scientists for what he is not: he is not a “young earth creationist,” nor is he a proponent of “intelligent design.” Given the state of the evidence for evolution, these are both very good things for a scientist not to be. But as director of the institutes, Collins will have more responsibility for biomedical and health-related research than any person on earth, controlling an annual budget of more than $30 billion. He will also be one of the foremost representatives of science in the United States. For this reason, it is important to understand Collins’ religious beliefs as they relate to scientific inquiry.