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An Irreligious Test

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jul 28, 2009

 Dr. Francis Collins has been nominated by President Obama to become director of the National Institutes of Health. His credentials are strong, admits Sam Harris in a New York Times op-ed, but there's still a problem with the Collins nomination: He's a Christian.

The problem, observes Harris, is that the director of the NIH will be supervising scientists, and "few things make thinking like a scientist more difficult than religion. The writer tells us: "I am troubled by Dr. Collins’s line of thinking."

Read the piece carefully, and you'll find that Harris has no specific claim against the Collins nomination. He can put forward no hypothetical case in which Collins might be prejudiced against a worthy scientist; he acknowledges that Collins hews to the standard scientific positions on contested questions such as evolution and intelligent design. Still he has a lurking suspicion that Collins believes there may be some source of wisdom outside the laboratory:

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?

The US Constitution stipulates that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." That should be the end of this discussion, shouldn't it? So why does Harris have an argument at all? And let the record show that Harris is not just an isolated crank, but someone who commands op-ed placement in the Times. Why are we still discussing this matter, more than 200 years after it was authoritatively resolved?

Read through the history of a society engaged in an all-out culture war-- the Spanish Civil War, for example-- and notice how the proponents of militant secularism do their utmost to change the terms of the discussion. Religious beliefs are barred from the public square, on the grounds that they may be divisive. But secular ideology-- irreligious beliefs, if you will-- are classified as neutral, and therefore welcomed. What Harris proposes is not a test of religion for prospective public servants, but a test of irreligion. 

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