Can religious belief really be reconciled with a life in science? Gene Russo contemplates the contradictions.
The recent nomination of Francis Collins to direct the US National Institutes of Health does more than raise the question of the agency's future direction. It poses another question. Can a scientific career go hand in hand with religious belief? Put another way, can a great scientist be deeply religious?
Collins is well known as one of the architects of the Human Genome Project. He has also achieved notoriety as a highly respected scientist with deep-seated religious beliefs. An evangelical Christian since the age of 27, Collins detailed his views on reconciling religion and science in his 2006 book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.
The obvious reply to the suggestion of conflict is that religious belief can coexist perfectly well with scientific laws and methods — God simply exists outside nature. In Collins's book, for example, he calls himself a believer in “theistic evolution” — which espouses, in part, that “once evolution got under way no special supernatural intervention was required”.
Yet theistic evolution, writes Collins, also implies that humans are unique in ways that “defy evolutionary explanation and point to our spiritual nature”. And in a 2006 Time magazine debate with noted atheist and evolutionist Richard Dawkins1, Collins suggested that God could on rare occasions choose to “invade the natural world in a way that appears miraculous” — a peculiar outlook for a biologist.
How rare is a 'dual practitioner' such as Collins? In 1997, University of Georgia history professor Edward Larson and journalist Larry Witham reported survey results suggesting that 39% of scientists believe in God2. A 9 July 2009 survey, conducted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the US non-profit Pew Research Center, found that figure to be 33%.
But in a second survey3, Larson and Witham asked a slightly different question. Do leading scientists have religious faith of equal measure to scientists in general? They used members of the US National Academy of Sciences for their so-called “greater scientist” subgroup. Just 7% of respondents professed a belief in God.
University of Oxford chemist Peter Atkins assessed the Larson and Witham survey results in this way: “You clearly can be a scientist and have religious beliefs. But I don't think you can be a real scientist in the deepest sense of the word because they are such alien categories of knowledge.” Eminent Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker, in criticizing the Collins nomination, said much the same thing4. They may be right. Or perhaps it just takes a rare person to advance a scientific career while balancing belief and bioscience — without corrupting either.
Larson, E. J. & Witham, L. Nature 386, 435–436 (1997).
Larson, E. J. & Witham, L. Nature 394, 313 (1998).
Nature 460, 310–311 (2009).