Making Peace with Sam Harris

By Ernesto Tinajero 08-03-2009

Dr. Francis Collins, President Obama's choice to head the National Institute of Health, has been met with much resistance from certain quarters of the scientific community. Sam Harris, a prominent atheist, recently expressed his own resistance to the idea of Dr. Collins heading the NIH in a recent New York Times Op-ed piece, "Science is in the Details."

Mr. Harris has one main complaint: "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." Of course calling Dr. Collins an "accomplished scientist" is an understatement equivalent to calling Lebron James a decent basketball player. As the head of Human Genome Project, Dr. Collins came in under budget and ahead of schedule. He has also been very prominent for isolating genes that cause cystic fibrosis and many other diseases. His work is largely unquestioned.

Unfortunately, not so his beliefs. What bothers Mr. Harris is that Dr. Collins is a Christian, and a vocal Christian to boot. Further, Dr. Collins apparently commits the sin of claiming to be both a scientist and a Christian. That Dr. Collins sees no conflict between science and faith clearly offends Sam Harris' belief that faith and science do not belong together. For those who believe faith and science are at war, there are just four logical conclusions to Dr. Collins' work as a scientist: A) Dr. Collins is not a true scientist; B) He can compartmentalize his work from his beliefs; C) His faith will sooner or later pollute his science; D) The premise of science in conflict with religion is mistaken.

Dr. Collins' work already eliminates option A. Few are questioning his previous work. Mr. Harris chooses option C, and yet Mr. Harris fails to give any evidence of polluted science in Dr. Collins' work, only the possibility of it. If there were such evidence, it would have emerged in Dr. Collins' already long career. It seems logic would dictate that only B or D are compatible with the facts, and with either conclusion, Mr. Harris has nothing to worry about with Dr. Collins' appointment.

Now from here it seems only two paths for dialogue are available. The first is to get into a debate about faith vs. atheism, which would be futile. I could offer no arguments to convince Mr. Harris of Christianity's truth and nothing he can say will dissuaded me from my faith in Jesus, nor I imagine could Mr. Harris convince Dr. Collins or me of atheism. The second is to get into a serious name calling session, which in reality is a devolved debate. Certainly, name-calling sometimes feels good, but it remains ultimately useless discourse, after which all we can do is go back to our own tribe for agreement. We will never find peace if we stay in the argument.

There is, however, a third option, which is the most difficult. As Christians, it is the one that beckons us to find peace with adversaries. Paul's often quoted line in Romans 3:23, that we "all fall short of the glory of God," means that we all commit the sin of judging people based on their labels, predispositions, and categories, but to do so is to devolve into useless discourse. It is the sin of playing God.

Instead of arguing until we are purple in the face, all sides of the God debate should first acknowledge the truth that religion is not going away, and neither are atheists. If we choose to live in an open society, then we must learn to live and, for Christians, love our neighbors, be they Muslim, Christian, or atheist. I cannot fault Mr. Harris for his fears based on his presuppositions about religion, but we must face the truth. We are more than our ideas and presuppositions, and we have no other option but to try to live with each other.

So how do we find peace? Step by step and side by side, facing the truth, for the truth will set us free.

Ernesto Tinajero is a freelance writer in Spokane, Washington, who earned his master's degree in theology from Fuller Seminary. Visit his blog at

To read Dr. Francis Collins' commentary on the relationship between faith and science, see this month's issue of Sojourners magazine, and also listen to our audio interview with Dr. Collins in this month's web extras.

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