Thursday, 8 October 2009

is faith a sign of dementia?

I’m lecturing on Theology and Experience in a couple of weeks time and so a recent article in the New York Times caught my attention. The piece is about Dr Francis Collins the new Director of the National Institutes of Health in the United States. Collins is no mug; he was in charge of the Human Genome Project, but his appointment seems to have caused some concern because as well as being a prominent scientist he is also a committed Christian. This has led to some questioning in the scientific community as to whether Collins is an appropriate choice for director. Gardiner Harris writing in the NYT comments:

First, there is the God issue. Dr. Collins believes in him. Passionately. And he preaches about his belief in churches and a best-selling book. For some presidential appointees, that might not be a problem, but many scientists view such outspoken religious commitment as a sign of mild dementia.

francis_collins Collins describes his journey to faith in his book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. In the book Collins relates how he was challenged by a patient who asked what he believed and he found himself flushed and stammering in response to the question. This incident caused Collins to explore the possible existence of God and he concluded that He does exist. Some critics have dismissed the experience as an easily explained medical condition, a hormonal rush, suggesting that Collins’s failure to recognise this and willingness to give it a higher significance was cause for concern. Others have been worried that there might be a conflict between Collins’s faith and, for example, developments in therapeutic cloning which will fall under his remit. Collins has assured colleagues that he is committed to therapeutic cloning and sees no conflict with his religious beliefs.

michael reiss The story is reminiscent of Michael Reiss who was forced to resign as director of science education at the Royal Society earlier this year. Dr Reiss is a priest and some Fellows of the Royal Society claimed his faith was incompatible with his role. One notable critic was Richard Dawkins who described Reiss’s appointment as a Monty Python sketch. The accusation against Reiss was that he was a Creationist and, even though he denied this, there were some in the scientific community who just couldn’t understand how his faith was not in conflict with his commitment to evolutionary biology.

When I hear of these incidents I find myself asking a question; who are the real fundamentalists? Who are the people so locked into their world view, their belief system, that they can’t allow for any experience or understanding of that experience outside their framework? On the evidence of these stories the real fundamentalists are not the Christians.

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