Reilly Center Blog Post - Harris vs. Collins

Author: Kathleen K. Eggleson

On July 27, 2009, the New York Times published an Op-Ed contribution entitled “Science Is in the Details” by Sam Harris, co-founder of “The Reason Project,” which promotes scientific knowledge and secular values.  Harris protests President Obama’s nomination of Francis Collins as Director of the National Institutes of Health, despite credentials he admits are “impeccable,” because he is sincere in his evangelical Christian beliefs. 

Despite the many scientific accomplishments of Collins, not to mention those of countless other contemporary and historical scientists sincere in their own religious beliefs, Harris claims that “few things make thinking like a scientist more difficult than religion.”  Yet, Harris does not point to any evidence that Collins has failed to think and function as a scientist, but justifies his discomfort with his nomination with the possibility that his beliefs pertaining to human nature will ultimately impede progress in neuroscience.  (There is a difference between research in neuroscience, which is certainly a priority of the NIH, and scholarship primarily concerned with a quest to understand human nature and to answer “the most pressing questions of human existence,” which is not. Harris blurs these in his argument.) 

It is common practice to speculate about how an individual’s personal beliefs may shape decision-making that impacts all of us.  The religious affiliations and personal beliefs of presidential candidates are scrutinized suspiciously.  However, the suggestion that nomination for federal public office should be denied to someone who has generated massive evidence of his ability to function consistent with the demands of the position, solely on the basis of his religious beliefs and potential future actions related to them, seems to contradict our nation’s principles of religious freedom, justice, and antidiscrimination law.

Some scientists are atheists.  Others are believers, and the body of believers is itself highly fragmented.  For example, many scientists who are Christian would disagree with Collins’ rejection of any role of evolution in the moral law:   “If the moral law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as good or evil.  It’s all an illusion.  We’ve been hoodwinked.”  Yet, widely varying believers and non-believers alike function in the practice of science and are accepted as members of the scientific community.  No belief-defined subset of scientists has a monopoly on reason, and distrust and exclusion between subsets of this community would damage the collaborative endeavor of scientific progress.  Scientific work is difficult by its very nature, but its potential to benefit humanity is immense.  In the end, none of us can afford to allow scientists, especially accomplished leaders like Francis Collins, to become casualties in the culture wars.

- Kathleen K. Eggleson