Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
Sam Harris is unhappy with President Obama’s choice of Francis Collins to be the new director of the National Institutes of Health. The issue is religion. Harris is an ardent atheist, and Collins is an Evangelical Christian. In Harris’s view (New York Times, July 26, 2009); Dr. Collins’s faith is a cause for concern.
Harris admits that “Dr. Collins’s credentials are impeccable: he is a physical chemist, a medical geneticist and the former head of the Human Genome Project.” Harris is glad that Collins is not a Creationist, or even an advocate of Intelligent Design. In fact, Collins sees no conflict whatsoever between Christianity and Evolution. What troubles Harris is that Collins intertwines his scientific understanding of Evolution with his concept of God. In a lecture on science and belief given at Berkeley in 2008, one of Collins’s slides said:
“After evolution had prepared a sufficiently advanced ‘house’ (the human brain), God gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the moral law), with free will, and with an immortal soul.”
In explaining why this troubles him, Harris writes:
“There is an epidemic of scientific ignorance in the United States. This isn’t surprising, as very few scientific truths are self-evident, and many are counterintuitive. It is by no means obvious that empty space has structure or that we share a common ancestor with both the housefly and the banana. It can be difficult to think like a scientist. But few things make thinking like a scientist more difficult than religion.”
Let’s look at this verse by verse.
First, he’s right about the epidemic of scientific ignorance. That is a major issue on all sorts of public policy debates. Global warming and Creationism would be prime examples.
Second, the observation about the counter-intuitive nature of scientific truth is fascinating because that is true of the Gospel, as well. The Sermon on the Mount, for example, is totally counter-intuitive. Many of the most important truths of the Bible are not at all self-evident.
Third, the relationship between the housefly and the banana is, for Christians, a source of wonder. How amazing is this world? How incredible are the relationships? It reminds me of the angel’s declaration to Mary when he told her that Elizabeth in her old age would also bear a child, “nothing is too wonderful for our God” (Luke 1:37).
Fourth, it is difficult to think like a scientist, but I don’t believe that religion makes it more difficult, I believe it makes it easier. It opens us to a sense of wonder and possibility. Let’s not forget that Collins is not the first scientist to see himself as a Christian and see those world views as complementary. People of faith, in fact, ought to think like scientists in order to better understand their faith.
What Sam Harris really objects to, is biblical literalism and religious fundamentalism. And he should. There are plenty of religious people who hold those views and they really are anti-scientific. Unfortunately, what he apparently believes is that all of us who call ourselves Christians are really closet literalists and quasi-fundamentalists.
Harris is dismayed by Dr. Collins’s contention that “science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence” and that “the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted.” And then he concludes:
“Francis Collins is an accomplished scientist and a man who is sincere in his beliefs. And that is precisely what makes me so uncomfortable about his nomination. Must we really entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who sincerely believes that a scientific understanding of human nature is impossible?”
But he misses the point by a wide margin. The idea that “science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence” does not mean that “a scientific understanding of human nature is impossible.” It simply means that the truth of life is deeper than physical science. We can and we should do our best to achieve “a scientific understanding” of every aspect of our existence. But that will never tell the whole story.