The National Institutes of Health recently received as its director a confessed evangelical Christian, Dr. Francis S. Collins, an appointment leading some to question whether or not Collins will be scientific and objective in his management and decisions.
At first glance, it would appear that Christianity and science are not compatible as concerns the matter of health, since in the past such issues have not seemed to be at the forefront of Christian thought. Indeed, Christianity has a long history of preaching self-abnegation that extends to the mortification of the flesh and neglect of the body. Many a saint has attained his or her exalted state through the willful and conscious abuse of his or her body, such as is evidenced, for example, by the use of sundry tools of self torture as well as the extreme isolation of monks and nuns.
Of late, however, evangelical Christians have become increasingly interested in the issues of health and nutrition, with devout Christian doctors writing books and making appearances on TV and radio programs. The tradition of there being Christian doctors, of course, can also be found throughout the history of Christendom, as there have existed physicians from the onset of the faith. Indeed, a number of early Church fathers were also "physicians" of a sort, although various of their insights and practices would not pass muster today, just as many during the medieval era would be deemed barbarous pseudoscience.
Christian medicine's track record
"Metallic Tractors" by James Gillray (1801)
The word "physician" comes from the Greek term physis meaning "nature," and "physicians" are meant to be keen observers of such; yet, early Church "doctors" were often swayed by faith rather than scientific observation and fact. For example, in City of God, in a defense of the myth of Noah's Ark and other biblical miracles, Church doctor St. Augustine declared that frogs were produced from the earth itself and that "in Cappadocia the mares are impregnated by the wind...." Also, Christian physicians during the Dark Ages and onward believed it was wise to "bleed" a patient for a variety of ailments, a procedure that naturally often led to death. The practitioners of such bizarre methods, which included wearing hideous masks with beaks designed to scare away demons, were often called "quacks." Nevertheless, some of these seemingly outrageous practices have been found by modern science to possess merit, such as the use of leeches, which were also utilized for those very same bleeding procedures.
The question facing us today is whether or not someone whose mind is uncompromisingly fixed upon the uncritical and unscientific belief that there is a giant man in the sky who took birth as his own son through the womb of a Jewish virgin can be relied upon for clear thinking when it comes to matters of national health. Since there have been many scientists in the past of one religious bent or another, yet the world goes on, the answer would appear to be "yes." However, much important data that could have changed the world for the better has been censored and suppressed based on religious fanaticism, so caution will always be warranted when someone of fervent faith is at the helm.
With such an individual as Dr. Collins as the head of the NIH, we might expect that there will be more interest in faith healing, prayer and other spiritual "health" issues, rather than a simple focus on less religious and more scientific methods of wellness. On the other hand, Collins may in fact be a good choice because he is undoubtedly keenly aware of the controversy in his appointment and will make a greater effort to ensure that his oversight is as scientific as possible, bearing in mind not his personal faith but the public interest. As a renowned Yale-educated geneticist with a long and illustrious list of credentials who, despite his religious devotion, disagrees with Creationism and Intelligent Design, and appears to favor controversial scientific endeavors such as cloning, Collins may in fact be the best person for the job.
Although religious fanaticism should be avoided at all costs, perhaps a little spirituality is warranted in America's national quest for health. In reality, injecting some true spirituality—which in essence constitutes empathy—would represent a welcome remedy for religious fanaticism, and remedies remain the realm of good medicine.