This past week, atheist biologist Jerry Coyne posted at his blog a letter that Steven Pinker wrote in response to President Obama’s appointment of geneticist Francis Collins to be head of the NIH (National Institutes of Health). The full letter is rather long, and can be read in full at Coyne’s blog here, but I’d like to highlight at this site the opening and closing of Pinker’s letter. The letter begins this way:
I have serious misgivings about Francis Collins being appointed director of NIH. It’s not that I think that there should be a religious litmus test for public science administrators, or that being a devout Christian is a disqualification. But in Collins’s case, it is not a matter of private belief, but public advocacy.
Notice Pinker’s emphasis on “public advocacy.” Hidden religious beliefs are tolerable, but not publicly expressed ones. Collins has a foundation (The BioLogos Foundation) that explores issues surrounding the relationship of science to religion. Pinker doesn’t like the premise underlying the foundation (that science and religion can be compatible), or the content of the site, and so he returns to the issue of Collins’s “public advocacy” at the end of the letter as well:
Again, it’s important that there not be an atheist-litmus-test for science administrators. A person’s private beliefs should not keep him from a public position. But Collins is an advocate of profoundly anti-scientific beliefs, and it is reasonable for the scientific community to ask him how these beliefs will affect his administration of the Institute and his efforts on the behalf of the scientific enterprise in Congress and in public. At the very least, he should distance himself from the BioLogos Foundation and any other advocacy group.
Once again, notice Pinker’s hang-up with Collins’s “public advocacy.” Pinker wants those who hold a science position in the US government to be of only two sorts: (1) those who are atheists; or (2) those who are privately religious, but engage in no outside public advocacy. Here Pinker’s last sentence again:
“At the very least, he [Collins] should distance himself from the BioLogos Foundation and any other advocacy group.”
I’d ask those who call themselves liberals (as well as agnostics and atheists) to absorb the implications of that statement. Pinker is saying that to work for the US federal government you should drop the private projects that give your life meaning. This is, to put it bluntly, what is said by somebody who is a totalitarian of the spirit. If Steven Pinker truly believes that Francis Collins should step away from his BioLogos Foundation advocacy as part of the terms for Collins’s accepting of Obama’s appointment, then Pinker is simply being a Iago-like asshole towards Collins as a human being, or Pinker is an illiberal who treats such a move as necessary on principle (which is really scary).
Dr. Collins gives me every impression of being a mild-mannered and calm man, and I suspect his response would not be mine, but anyone who said to me—“The condition of your taking a job with the American government is that you relinquish the meaning making public projects that you engage in apart from your government job”—my response would be “F-u!”
Then I would be on the phone to my lawyer.
What an ugly, ugly thing for Pinker to say to a fellow human being, suggesting that Collins’s public service should be conditional to the relinquishing of his First Amendment guaranteed public advocacy practices. Even to suggest that Collins should voluntarily do this is gross.
I’ll give you a straightforward analogy, and ask what atheists or agnostics would feel on hearing it. Obama offers the NIH director job to Jerry Coyne, but then Intelligent Design advocate, William Dembski, writes a letter saying that the job ought to be conditional upon this: Coyne, if he accepts the job, should shut down his blog and cease association with atheist advocacy and humanist organizations. Imagine, for instance, the rhetorical hell to pay from atheists and agnostics if Jerry Coyne were given this appointment, and Dembski wrote:
“At the very least, Jerry Coyne should distance himself from his Why Evolution is True blog and any other advocacy group.”
Any. Other. Any other! Any other advocacy group! Has Steven Pinker ever read the First Amendment? What kind of totalitarian of the spirit says something like this in the United States of America?
Can you imagine having Steven Pinker on your tenure committee! You better not do or say anything off campus that doesn’t conform to his ideology because he’s watching, and he clearly doesn’t think that your public role at a public institution can be separated from your private meaning-making advocacy outside of that institution.
I feel strongly that Steven Pinker crossed a line of the spirit, trying to drive another human being into a “private-practice only” space with regard to something central to that person’s identity. It’s no different from a homophobe telling a gay person to stay closeted. Pinker is suggesting to Dr. Collins: “If you must be a Christian, Francis, please don’t carry a Bible in front of the children!” It’s patronizing not just to Collins, but to the American people. It presumes that we can’t be trusted to make up our own minds about Collins’s private obsessions and activities outside of his government job. And it’s a suggestion to Collins that is more than cruel. It’s ugly and illiberal.
You know, John Stuart Mill was an unbeliever. I can’t imagine Mill endorsing Pinker here. What’s happened to the liberalism and openness of spirit that ought to go with lack of religious faith? I think I prefer Mill’s atheism to Pinker’s. Pinker should read Mill.
And frankly, it’s a gauge of the liberalism of those of us who call ourselves agnostics or atheists if we don’t sass our fellow secularists, even otherwise beloved ones like Steven Pinker, when they try to put hindrances or obstacles before another person’s liberty of expression.