President Barack Obama made headlines earlier this year when he named physician and medical researcher Dr. Francis S. Collins—best known for heading the Human Genome Project—to head the National Institutes of Health. Why the fuss? Collins is an enthusiastic evangelical Christian who forcefully witnesses to his faith in the public square.
Ignoring the U.S. Constitution's prohibition of a religious test for public office, the Atheism R Us Crowd predictably howled in protest. Sam Harris, the author of End of Faith, moaned in the New York Times that Collins' overt religiosity made him a poor choice because "few things make thinking like a scientist more difficult than religion." For example, Harris's ludicrously opined that because Collins believes that free will, genuine altruism, etc, are signs of God's presence in the creation of the human soul, allowing him to head the NIH, "would seriously undercut fields like neuroscience and our growing understanding of the human mind."
Such intolerance is par for the course among the new atheists, of course. But, just as it is wrong for those who deny the existence of God to decry Collins' appointment because of his Christianity, so too Christians should resist the temptation to applaud simply because Collins is one of their own.
The real question should be what does Collins believe about public policy: Here, social conservatives are likely to be disappointed:
Collins supports embryonic stem cell research: Collins has often expressed support for embryonic stem cell research on so-called "leftover" embryos, telling interviewer Ben Wattenberg:
There are hundreds of thousands of those embryos currently frozen away in in vitro fertilization clinics. And it is absolutely unrealistic to imagine that anything will happen to those other than they're eventually getting discarded. So as much as I think human embryos deserve moral status, it is hard to see why it's more ethical to throw them away than to take some that are destined for discarding and do something that might help somebody.
Collins also supports human cloning research: In the same interview, he called human cloning research (somatic cell nuclear transfer) "the most interesting" in the stem cell field, and claimed falsely that a cloned embryo isn't really an embryo:
The part that's really showing the most promise is to take a skin cell from you or me and convince that cell, which has the complete genome, to go back in time and become capable of making a liver cell or a brain cell or a blood cell if you need it to...That's called semantic cell nuclear transfer in the current mode. And yet people still refer to those products as an embryo. Well, there's no sperm and egg involved here.
But the absence of sperm and egg does not mean that a cloned embryo isn't an embryo. After all, just as Dolly the cloned sheep was a lamb when born, she was also a sheep embryo when at the initial stage of development. Indeed, none other than James Thomson, the scientist who first derived human embryonic stem cells claimed that it is "disingenuous" to claim that a cloned embryo isn't really an embryo, telling an MSNBC interviewer, "If you create an embryo by nuclear transfer, and you give it to somebody who didn't know where it came from, there would be no test you could do on that embryo to say where it came from. It is what it is."
Collins is squishy about opposing eugenic abortion: In an interview on Beliefnet.Com, Collins was asked his opinion of the abortion of Down fetuses:
I'm troubled that the applications of genetics that are currently possible are oftentimes in the prenatal arena…But, of course, in our current society, people are in a circumstance of being able to take advantage of those technologies. And we have decided as a society that that choice needs to be defended.
It is disappointing that Collins couldn't muster the extra sentence to bemoan a toll that prevents 90 percent of babies with Down syndrome from ever being born.
Many professing Christians enthusiastically applaud Collins' appointment. Stanford University professor William Hurlbut, who served for eight years on the President's Council on Bioethics, told me, "I have known Francis for 20 years and hold him in high regard. I believe he will be sensitive to the full range of scientific and moral argument, and help keep the focus in medicine on positive human goals."
Michael Gerson, who served President Bush's chief speech writer, lauded Collins in the Washington Post
as a "peacemaker" between science and religion, writing, "[T]his seems to be a case where the president simply picked the best person for the job. In the process, Obama has affirmed something important: that anti-supernaturalism is not a litmus test at the highest levels of science."
That is certainly to be applauded.