Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Calling

 
I'm deeply suspicious of people who think they're doing God's will. But I'm positively frightened by people who believe they have been given responsible government positions (elected or appointed) because it is God's will.

Today I stumbled upon this passage from The Language of God by Francis Collins. He's discussing his appointment to head the Human Genome Project (pp. 118-119).
An intense national search ensued to find a new director. No one was more surprised than I to find the selection process converging on me. Being quite happy at the time leading a genome Center at the University of Michigan, and never having imagined myself as a federal employee, I initially indicated no interest. But the decision haunted me. There was only one Human Genome Project. This was going to be done only once in human history. If it succeeded, the consequences for medicine would be unprecedented. As a believer in God, was this one of those moments where I was somehow being called to take on a larger role in a project that would have profound consequences for our understanding of ourselves? Here was a chance to read the language of God, to determine the intimate details of how humans have come to be. Could I walk away? I have always been suspicious of those who claim to perceive God's will in moments such as this, but the awesome significance of this adventure, and the potential consequences for humankind's relationship with the Creator, could hardly be ignored.

Visiting my daughter in North Carolina in November 1992, I spent a long afternoon praying in a little chapel, seeking guidance about this decision. I did not "hear" God speak—in fact, I have never had that experience. But during those hours, ending in an evensong service that I had not expected, a peace settled over me. A few days later, I accepted the offer.


16 comments :

  1. That is exactly the kind of thinking that scares me when it comes to Collins heading the NIH.

    On the one hand, he's clearly capable of doing good science and excellent science administration. But on the other hand, what other decisions might he make as NIH Director because he believes God is calling on him?

    *shudder*

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  2. I guess I'm just as frightened. But, when you think about it, is there any way to scientifically prove that he's not there on "God's Will"? Or Satan's? Or Odin's? Or PZ's conflicted subconscious?

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  3. Disgusting

    Yet another one of the many proof he and others have given that you don't have to necessarily think like a scientist to work in science and even succeed in it

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  4. Collins was, presumably, on vacation, visiting his daughter, and sitting in a building that was quiet and peaceful: no phones ringing, no people talking or other distractions, no wonder "a peace settled over [him]. His surroundings were peaceful and he had time to hear himself think, as the saying goes, and this time helped him make his decision. Of course 'he did not "hear" God speak'; there is no God.

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  5. Being on a mission from God is perfectly compatible with science... and a very young pinot noir. But not at room temperature of course!

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  6. Some quotes from BioLogos:

    Science will never fully answer the why questions of religion. Moreover, a complete understanding of the mysteries of our existence will probably never be developed by the finite human mind.

    With this critically important distinction, BioLogos is thus compatible with the belief that part of Adam’s curse was the onset of physical death for the human race, because the human race in the full Imago Dei really began with Adam. Although many human-like creatures lived and died before the Fall, these Homo sapiens did not yet bear the image of God. After the bestowal of God’s image, there was no death of Homo divinus until after the Fall. As soon as image-bearing humanity fully emerged through God’s creative process of evolution, no member of that species experienced death until after the Fall.

    This is pure creationism...

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  7. I don't understand what is so frightening about this. Judging from the quote, Collins seems like an intelectually engaged and responsible person. Being non-religious myself, I don't believe he received the "call from god", but I fail to see what is so threatening about it.

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  8. Corneel said...

    "I don't understand what is so frightening about this."
    Give it more thought.

    Collins himself says. "I have always been suspicious of those who claim to perceive God's will in moments such as this...; however, he goes on to indicate that the "potential consequences" of the Human Genome Project were religious rather than scientific: "humankind's relationship with the Creator." Do you not see a flaw in his reasoning?

    The cobbler should stick to his last. In Collins case, Collins should decide whether he is a scientist or a proselytizer.

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  9. I am in the process of reviewing a grammar and writing textbook. The authors suggest including a quotation that compares writing to adding "an eighth day to creation." I can just imagine discussing that analogy in a classroom! However, the suggestion that this quote be included reinforces my feeling that religion creeps into everything.

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  10. Veronica Abbass said:
    Collins should decide whether he is a scientist or a proselytizer

    Perhaps, but is this something to be afraid of? I get the impression that Larry, and some of the bloggees here, are worried that he will abuse his position to inject religion into scientific matters. I don't know a lot about Collins, but I have seen nothing that suggests that he will. Sure, he is openly religious, but that shouldn't be a problem in itself, right?

    Again, I don't know a lot about Francis Collins, so correct me if I am wrong.

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  11. Sure, he is openly religious, but that shouldn't be a problem in itself, right?

    Having known about Collins' comments in the public sphere for a around 6 years now, it's my impression that he's become more actively 'openly religious', which may have something to do with the publication of his odd book.

    The other thing that worries me is the following: most religious people that I know see divine providence in everything. The best you can hope for is for him to not bring up God in reference to science because he actively avoids it, not because he actually doesn't think God has his hand in everything.

    What frightens me a bit about Collins - and don't get me wrong, he's a good speaker and a respectable scientist - is that he's not the typical Deist, devout Christian. He believes that God has directly intervened in the world in order to create 'miracles' and believes that such miracles are historical fact (or at least claimed to in an interview I saw). This brings God into the realm of empiricism, and that's worrisome.

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  12. The best you can hope for is for him to not bring up God in reference to science because he actively avoids it, not because he actually doesn't think God has his hand in everything.

    Thanks for your explanation. I also read the comment thread to the blogpost of last week, and I can see why some scientists are uncomfortable with Collins as head of NIH. I guess his nomination may even be motivated by his views on faith and science. Still, to be "frightened" by him seems a bit excessive.

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  13. Still, to be "frightened" by him seems a bit excessive.

    I quote from the BioLogos foundation website:

    Dr. Francis Collins established The BioLogos Foundation to address the escalating culture war between science and faith in the United States. On one end of the spectrum, “new atheists” argue that science removes the need for God. On the other end, religious fundamentalists argue that the Bible requires us to reject much of modern science. Many people — including scientists and believers in God — do not find these extreme options attractive.

    BioLogos is led by a team of scientists who believe in God and are committed to promoting a perspective of the origins of life that is both theologically and scientifically sound.

    So here's what I ask: What does it mean to 'promote a perspective on the origins of life that is both theologically and scientifically sound'? Why is this relevant and what implications could it have for the practice of science?

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  14. So here's what I ask: What does it mean to 'promote a perspective on the origins of life that is both theologically and scientifically sound'? Why is this relevant and what implications could it have for the practice of science?

    I don´t know, but he is free to pursue that cause, when he is not in his function as director of the NIH. Is there any reason to believe he cannot to be trusted to do that?

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  15. Apparently he's going to step down from the BioLogos kook organization.

    http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2009/07/16/collins-to-resign-from-biologos-foundation/

    So I guess he will be the former founder and president of a bunch o' kooks. That's a relief...

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  16. Is there any reason to believe he cannot to be trusted to do that?

    Umm, well maybe because he wrote a book that 'argues that belief in a transcendent, personal God—and even the possibility of an occasional miracle—can and should coexist with a scientific picture of the world that includes evolution.'

    Actually, I think you're being a bit too trusting. It is common practice to question the significance of people's extra-curricular activities if they are relevant to their perceived ability to do their job. We don't 'trust' scientists with a conflict of interest to objectively review their peer's research even though we have no evidence that they're going to be biased (other than general psychology studies). Similarly, I seriously doubt that anyone would have a problem with chewing out a similar appointment of a physicist who ran a very vocal pro-astrology organization on his spare time.

    The point is that, if we're going to be reasonable, I want to know where Collins stands with regards to the separation of faith and science. Is science interpreted through the lens of faith, or is the Bible a set of moral allegories that shouldn't be read as literal or whatever. This stuff is very important and it's perfectly reasonable to ask what his views on the difference between religious knowledge and scientific knowledge is. I'm not sure what that is when his book says 'the possibility of the occasional miracle'. Or:

    Collins insists that "science is not threatened by God; it is enhanced" and "God is most certainly not threatened by science; He made it all possible."

    It is perfectly reasonable and relevant to ask exactly what that means before asking whether I 'trust' him.

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