Faith and Science Personified

The nomination of Dr. Francis Collins to head the National Institutes of Health brings progressive faith and science together in one superb appointee, writes Sally Steenland.

SOURCE: Flickr/Josh Thompson

Dr. Francis Collins

President Barack Obama’s nomination of Francis Collins to head the National Institutes of Health is good news for scientists, for people of faith, and for all Americans. Dr. Collins, a preeminent geneticist and devout Christian, is highly qualified for the job because of his skills and his values.

In the 1990s he led the Human Genome Project at NIH, which helped unlock the human genetic code, a key to finding cures and treatment for a wide range of diseases. Collins also knows how to translate complex scientific concepts into plain English, which is essential given the rapid pace of technologies that affect our lives. Collins is a person of deep faith—the nation’s top scientist believes in God.

This last quality is important, for it signals that the hyped conflict between science and religion has no place, either symbolically or pragmatically, in the work of the Obama administration. And certainly there is a lot of work to do, especially in Dr. Collins’ particular policy area of interest—personalized medicine—potentially one of the most important fields of science to emerge from the Human Genome Project for everyday Americans.

Suddenly, the war between religion and science seems so “last century,” a sort of obsolete appendage that has no function in today’s world. It is true that the politicizing of certain conservative religious creeds by the Bush administration—funding abstinence-only programs in schools when factual evidence showed their ineffectiveness, for instance, or limiting the use of U.S. aid funds overseas if the recipients offered abortion counseling—did real damage and should not be minimized. But the overstepping of narrow sectarian beliefs, which was pervasive in the last administration, did not represent the authenticity of diverse faith traditions in America.

What’s more, the yell fests that have raged on TV, radio, and print, pitting atheist scientists against literal creationists—or whatever the polarized extremes happened to be—seem increasingly unhelpful to the challenges that face all of us, whether atheist, agnostic, doubter, seeker, or believer.

This is not to say that religion and science will not again be used against each other, or that creating an alliance between the two is easy. But these realms are not as oppositional as they once seemed. Most major religions continue to be shaped by advances in science, incorporating new understandings of how the world works to broaden and deepen their comprehension of the divine.

Dr. Collins understands all this. His intellectual curiosity, scientific expertise, ethical depth, and commitment to alleviating suffering make him the right man for the job. And he’s very good at explaining his faith and his science to everyday Americans. What more could the senators who need to confirm him to the post need to know?

Sally Steenland is Senior Policy Advisor for Faith and Progressive Policy at the Center for American Progress. To read more about this project please go to the Faith and Progressive Policy page on our website.

Photo by Flickr user Josh Thompson.

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Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative