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Science versus religion: The debate comes to the NIH


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

The quack by James Gilray (1801)
"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 empathywould represent a welcome remedy for religious fanaticism, and remedies remain the realm of good medicine.


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  • Tom Cloud 5 years ago

    One need not go as far back in history as bleedings and Leeches to observe Christian influence on national policy. The Christian rally against same-sex marriage and adoption, their on-going influence on such national policy as the Drug War and the abortion issue, and their long-standing attempts to censor Arts and Entertainment is well known to every child.
    Once again, D.M. Murdoch raises important questions in regard to issues that affect every one of us on a daily basis. Such questions NEED to be asked, and analysis such as Ms. Murdoch brings to the table reflect both a contemporary as well as an historical perspective. "Who fails to learn from the past is doomed to repeat it..."

  • Vridar 5 years ago

    Glad to see you writing for

  • Don P 5 years ago

    D.M.Murdoch is the best in the field. Her observations are always illuminating and lively.

  • GTM 5 years ago

    This new column is terrific - looking forward to reading much more from Acharya S!

  • Noel Pratt 5 years ago

    Nice touch, Ms. Murdock!

  • Rob C 5 years ago

    Medical Science and Health Care should be free of religion, however everybody should have the right to information and the right to choose for themselves which treatments they wish to allow to be applied to themselves.

    Ascertaining which medical practices are agreeable to people of faith should not cost anyone other than those who believe these things financially.

  • David London 5 years ago

    Thanks for a great article!

  • Rob C 5 years ago

    I'd also like to thank D.M. Murdock for this unbiased article, I'm very glad to see an article bringing these important issues into the public domain without sensationalism!

    Excellent work.

  • Joy S 5 years ago

    Thank you for bringing some light into this dim world known as Journalism. This is a factual and fantastic article. I can't wait to read her next analysis.

  • Maxwell Jennings 5 years ago

    I'm sure it's possible for a confessed evangelical Christian to remain unbiased and neutral with regards to secular decisions made in that director capacity, but it is highly unlikely they would be able to separate Christian biases from work decisions completely. Although organized religions have tried to keep up with social evolution, they still do everything based on what their deity would dictate, which typically turns out to be archaically based and/or discriminatory or ridiculous or even dangerous.

  • Justyn Vallori 5 years ago

    Excellent article, Acharya! Good to see you are looking at this man from an unbiased angle.
    Religious fanaticism is dangerous but so is Scientific blindsight. Thanx for your open-mindedness.

  • Andrew Merritt 5 years ago

    finnally I can add Acharya's comments to facebook

  • johnf 5 years ago

    I think you would be hard pressed to find anyone in the medical field with identical moral values regardless of religion.Unless nihilism makes a comeback we all have values and biases...empathy? what do ya think this is the supreme court. haha

  • AM 5 years ago

    As Justyn Vallori said

    "Religious fanaticism is dangerous but so is Scientific blindsight. Thanx for your open-mindedness."

    Yes to the New Spirituality!

  • Neophyte 5 years ago

    Thank you for infusing an element of history to this important topic. I look forward to many other contributions from you on this forum.


  • Tony B 5 years ago

    Good words

  • Anthony 5 years ago

    Great article kiddo.

  • T. D'Angelo 5 years ago

    Very well written. I look forward to your future articles.

  • Tim Lang 5 years ago

    Prof. Murdock is multi-talented.
    She has a great radio voice, excellent writing skills, and she is a very good public speaker.
    Check out best seller " Christ in Egypt ", you will be amazed.

  • wayne 5 years ago

    acharya, you the most beutiful purveyor of truth in the history of the human race, love and light to you. you rock, girl!

  • Caroline PM 5 years ago

    OK, I plan to be a regular. You're pragmatic and based in fact. Some people can get so emotional with regard to these topics. I want to hear more from you!

  • Cheryl 5 years ago

    I also want to add that I am glad you are writing for the examiner. Looking forward to reading the next article.

  • J R Brock 5 years ago

    Bravo Ms. Murdock. Looking forward to your encore!!

  • Celeste 5 years ago

    Ms. Murdock, your life work involving decades of research, and generous dissemination of core truths hidden from the general public for so very long in human history, is to be admired and paid serious attention to. I am a grateful student of yours and have enjoyed this balanced, informing, and practical article very much! It gives us a good perspective in which to view this official appointment. Looking forward to the next one!

  • Drake D 5 years ago

    Lots of Christians have done good science. Religious people merely choose a theater in which to do their calculations and leave those things that are not understood to a yet explored realm. However your emphasis that self suffering and a lack of empathy are factually related is key. Similarly nurses and doctors who work 14 hour days can have little empathy for those who cannot pay or need more attention. Patriotism too is giving ones death to serve some near religious notion of country. Without derailed logic would humankind go so willingly to exploitation? In any case it is our debt based privately owned money system that has bankrupted our generosity. A society designed to sacrifice all and everything for the economy, another religion, will again build enterprise divorced from the common good. You can be sure it will be the health of business and not the business of health that will be observed.

  • Gary 5 years ago

    It's always a joy to read your clear, unbiased thought.

  • Aaron 5 years ago

    I wouldn't be alarmed at that unless he has a track record of mixing his religion and his job. A much more important point to me, is to get health leaders that understand the role that nutrition and quality vitamin supplements play in health.

    "Health Care" in American today, is too often carried out in the form of giving people damaging drugs, which mask symptoms and poison the body. The doctors and pharmacutical companies make oodles of cash by selling people dangerous drugs, yet we throw people in prison for 20 years for dealing a little weed.

    The Golden Rule is, he who has the gold, rules. So health practitioners who are actually do well for their patients are always bordering on being charged with malpractice, and they have a hard time getting their treatments certified by governmental agencies, who are in the back pocket of big pharma.

    Health care is bankrupting our nation, and our industries, and we're spending billions of dollars to get this ridiculous "disease care"

  • Gopinath 5 years ago

    A vital issue that needs more support from the people who understand the effects of mixing irrationality and science. Keep up the good work D.M.Murdock. It is also interesting to note few old practises are useful in mordern times. if anyone is intersted some ( and only some) of the ancient Indian medical science 'ayurveda' has helped a lot of people.

  • Michael F. Wright 5 years ago

    Thank you, you always have a refreshing approach to your words. In our daily media of right and left finger pointers; its good to have a unbiased article.

  • Horus 5 years ago

    Well, Dr. Collins has a new job. Will it be to promote health, as the name The National Institutes of Health implies, or will he continue to promote chemicals they call medication that ruin our health but make corporations lots of money? Have we really left the Dark Ages, when health is promoted and we are sicker than ever before? The mystery schools of religion are alive and well, having us believe that by only ingesting their poisons, we will be made well. So that's swab on the sunscreen, a poison that you would never ingest,close our eyes, and sing praises to the Son. Meanwhile the true healer, the Sun, who brings healing on his wings, will continue to search out seekers of truth. Seekers of truth like D.M. Murdock.

  • Edwin 5 years ago

    Excellent, you can tell when a comment is unbiased... looking foward for more stuff like this

  • blaziermissy 5 years ago

    This is a great article and I look forward to reading more.

    On a side note, I would like to say that profit trumps human concern, and politics and religion are intimate with each other. With that said, let us all please consider advocating a resource based society, as it is applying the scientific method to our economic and social policy, and conducive to humanity as a whole.

  • Allan 5 years ago

    Thanks for the informed and insightful article. It would have been unrealistic, of course, to have insisted upon a non-believer for this position - and perhaps just as controversial.

    'People of faith' are generally good people who do their best in whatever field. However, Dr. Collins is a high profile fervent believer, and for this reason alone, his performance in this secular position will be closely monitored. And, as Ms Murdock pointed out, he will be well aware of this.

    As the saying goes: "Keep your friends close but your enemies closer" :) He is not going to do anything stupid. But his appointment has kept alive the 'fact vs faith' debate and that can only be a good thing.

  • Mary Treherne 5 years ago

    In fact the conflict between science and religion has already been resolved with a new interpretation of the moral teaching of Christ.

    "A new teaching that delivers the first ever religious claim of insight into the human condition, that meets the Enlightenment criteria of verifiable, evidence based truth embodied in action. However unexpected or seemingly implausible, for the first time in history, a new moral tenet exists, offering access by faith, to absolute proof for its belief."

    Just don't expect existing religious tradition or the atheist fringe to appreciate it.

    Revolutionary stuff for those who can handle it? Google 'The Final Freedoms'

  • Jason O'Dwyer 5 years ago

    A well-balanced article, indeed, which brings to mind the important issues and historical contexts in such an appointment.
    Thank you Acharya, for your continual positive and open-minded contributions to issues of contemporary religion and spirituality.

  • deezul 5 years ago

    as ever Acharya balances the issue perfectly and with an ever present awareness of the reality of such an appointment. Great opening article - and more to come - xcellent

  • Jeff 5 years ago

    I really enjoyed this article. All the way up to where it read "Collins may be the best person for the job." The article is so enjoyable for its hard hitting non-nonsense approach and then gives up at the end, finishing with "a little spirituallity may be warranted." What evidence do we have that Dr. Collins has any so-called spirituality? And how is spirituality so easily defined as empathy.
    I have only recently been exposed to D.M. Murdoch's work and I am without doubt a huge fan (I currently await my first book written by her and have read many of her fine articles.) Nor am I qualified to criticize anyone's writing. I just think she wimped out at the end where she should have driven the dagger home.
    Having said that I do appreciate the tolerance she shows the doctor at the end.

  • Joseph H. Chrestos 5 years ago

    Once again, well done. In response to the first post by Jeff, I believe what Ms Murdock was saying was that this appointment may show fundamentalists that it's ok to be spiritual and to also apply reason as is shown by the Drs support for cloning, evolution, etc... The appointment may serve as a bridge. I don't think it was a sell out at the end.

    I for one am holding my skeptical breath to see if Dr. Collins does a flip-flop now that he is the head honcho. I put nothing past bible worshipers.

    Hypocrisy and distortion are passing currents under the name of religion. - Mahatma Ghandi

  • François 5 years ago

    Very interesting article, you made me think about the importance and relevance of the subject. I hope we'll have the chance to read more from you on spirituality and modern life.

  • Rick Newman 5 years ago

    It's always refreshing to have intelligent insight into today's issues.Well done Ms. Murdock! Thanks for presenting the possible future problems of having someone in the NIH.Hopefully he'll do some good but the general public does need to be aware of where his interests may lie.

  • Patty M 5 years ago

    Excellent as always Ms. Murdock! Looking forward to more.

  • Puff 5 years ago

    Great article, would like to see more of this author here.

  • 1-800 5 years ago

    I welcome you as an examiner and pray to god (figuratively) that your work will eventually enlighten all those who believe they have an all-powerful invisible friend. I applaud your continuing work in researching and examining the foundations of the superstitions that shape so many lives, and ultimately shape history.

  • jason 5 years ago

    Am I the only one who finds this a little prejudice against Christians? Dr. Collins’s ability for this position is to be questioned because of his faith? Why? – Because of what other Christians have done in the past or because of what people think his state of mind might be like because he’s a Christian?(which is a broad term)Can someone tell me how that is not prejudiced.

  • Blue Collar Goddess 5 years ago

    Well done! I'm linking this all over the place. What a blast of fresh air you are. Profound, concise, and intelligent; not to mention extraordinarily well thought out. Five stars. I can't wait to read more of you.

  • Mark Clifton 5 years ago

    What a pleasure to have Acharya's keen mind comment on the Collins appointment. She is both fair, and just, and her critique is what we need.
    Bravo. Great to have her on board.

  • Larry 5 years ago

    Well-balanced? I found this article shocking in it's "christo-phobia", linking obviously unsafe practices that can be attributed to cultural stereo-types as "christian". Christian people tend to follow the golden rule, way to lump 'em in with malevolent ruling class manipulators who act in complete contrast to what is taught in religion. It is well known that many natural healing forms came into being and were refined during medieval times such as acu-pressure, healing herbs, and should I mention that torure and pain were quite un-christian and the pain caused by early physicians were the exception and not the rule.
    Because a few catholics engaged in self-torture well then all christians are guilty? It is like a 6th grader got a hold of some book and now has publically determined that all Germans have serious immoral and degenerate personalities because of Hitler. The serious lack of preparation of this article is a big wake up call. Thanks for the christo-fascism. Real nice.v

  • Axe 5 years ago

    Lady you are an idiot. A verbose one, but none the less an idiot. You know not of what you speak.

  • Dave 5 years ago

    There is no debate ? Left up to science we would all live like rats in a cage,devoid of all morals and without the laws handed down from God through mosses . No moral bearings and devoid of all beauty.

  • Robert 5 years ago

    Those who want religious medicine should be allowed to have it. But they should not be allowed to impose it on those who don't want it.