Why Is Collins Controversial?

The NY Times this week ran an article about Francis Collins headlined “For NIH Chief, Issues of Identity and Culture” focusing on possible areas of conflict for Collins. The top one, of course, is Collins’ Christian faith. Collins, the former head of the Humane Genome Project, is also author of The Language of God, founder of The Biologos Foundation, and well-known speaker on the connections between science and religion.

Here’s how the Times begins its discussion of Collins’ faith:

First, there is the God issue. Dr. Collins believes in him. Passionately. And he preaches about his belief in churches and a best-selling book. For some presidential appointees, that might not be a problem, but many scientists view such outspoken religious commitment as a sign of mild dementia.

The irony, in my view, is that Collins believes in evolution, supports embryonic stem-cell research, and even supports therapeutic cloning, a process by which human embryos are created for the sole purpose of using them of medical treatments. He has pledged not to let this religious beliefs influence his scientific work. What, exactly, is the concern of his opponents?

As far as I can tell, their sole concern is that Collins is an evangelical Christian. No one disputes his ability as a scientist or administrator. No one disputes that he is eminently qualified for the position. His critics cannot point to a single instance in which Collins’ private religious beliefs negatively affected his research or other work, yet they oppose his appointment. Collins’ views are clearly controversial from a theological or philosophical standpoint; I can’t even begin to imagine why they matter with regard to science or medicine.

If Francis Collins – one of our country’s premiere scientists, the man who decoded human DNA, someone who has proven his qualifications again and again – faces this kind of criticism, just imagine the pressure Emerging Scholars Network members face. Simply by admitting that they believe in Christ or think that the Bible is true, they open themselves up to all kinds of threats to their career. Many university departments have the good sense to realize that people from a variety of religious backgrounds can do excellent academic work. But the threat is always there, and that threat is usually enough to keep Christian academics “in the closet” regarding their faith. Several of the faculty I met at Vanderbilt admitted that they kept very quiet about their Christianity until they received tenure.

Few things are more damaging to one’s faith than sealing it off so that it doesn’t affect the rest of your life. Please join with me in praying for the careers and spiritual growth of ESN members. Pray especially that they will have the courage and wisdom to be open about their faith in the appropriate manner. And, if you would like to make a financial contribution to support my work with the Emerging Scholars Network, click here.

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