Dr. Francis S. Collins
Former Director of the National Institutes of Health Human Genome Project talks about ending the battle between science and faith
In 2007, explorefaith sat down with Dr. Francis S. Collins, M.D. Ph.D., then director of the Human Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health. Collins is also author of the award-winning book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Free Press). He is an outspoken believer in God, a Christian, and also one of the most respected scientists working today.
EXPLOREFAITH: You are Dr. Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., the director of the Human Genome Project—but you seem to have gained a certain notoriety as “the scientist who believes in God.” Do you feel “called” to that role, at this point in history?
FRANCIS COLLINS: I am reluctant to go that far, as a claim of being “called” implies some sort of special “mission from God,” and only God knows what those missions are. I have indeed been fortunate to be asked to lead a historic scientific undertaking, the Human Genome Project, and I still marvel at being chosen for this role. One of the goals of that project has been to consider the ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI) of these rapid advances in genetic research. Since most Americans are believers, it has been natural to include some theological reflections in the ELSI program as well, and my own musings about science and faith could be considered part of that tradition.
Many scientists like myself believe in God, but in general we have been rather quiet about our beliefs. I do think that we are at a critical time, however, especially in the United States, in deciding how we are going to seek truth and meaning in life in the 21st century. Clearly we will need science to help solve a lot of our problems—of illness, of communication systems, of care of our planet.
But a purely materialist approach, stripping away the spiritual aspect of humanity, will impoverish us—after all, that has been already tried (in Stalin’s USSR and Mao’s China) and found to be devastating. All truth is God’s truth, and therefore God can hardly be threatened by scientific discoveries.
We humans have started this battle between science and faith, and it’s up to us to end the battle. If I can contribute in some small way to rediscovering that harmony, then I will feel truly blessed.
EXPLOREFAITH: You have said that DNA is “God’s language.” Do you mean that in a literal, or more metaphorical, sense?
FRANCIS COLLINS: A little of both. I believe that the universe was created by God with the specific intention of giving rise to intelligent life. Given that we observe DNA to be the information molecule of all living things, one can regard therefore it as the “Logos” that God has used to speak life into being. Don’t misunderstand me, it is clear that the process of evolution by natural selection over hundreds of millions of years is the “how” that explains the marvelous diversity of life. But that doesn’t provide the answer to “why.” I think God provides that answer.
EXPLOREFAITH: As a scientist, you test your assumptions and beliefs. But as a Christian, you have said that you took “a leap of faith.” Why the two different paths?
FRANCIS COLLINS: Maybe they aren’t that different. Both science and faith are ways of seeking the truth. Science seeks truth about how the natural world works, and faith seeks answers to more profound questions such as, Why is there something instead of nothing?, or What is the meaning of life?, and Is there a God? All require a certain element of faith—you can’t be a scientist unless you have faith in the fact that there is order in nature, and that nature will behave in reproducible and predictable ways.
When I was an atheist and I decided to explore the rational underpinnings of belief in God, I expected to find none—and was astounded to discover that there are strong arguments from nature and philosophy that point to God’s existence. But those do not constitute a proof—apparently God intended to leave it up to us to make this decision. Perhaps such a leap of faith sounds rash to a committed materialist—but can you prove beauty? love?
EXPLOREFAITH: In a commentary that you recently wrote for CNN.com, you mentioned the “40 percent of working scientists who claim to be believers.” That number seems kind of startling to me. Is that true? Are many of them “in the closet”?
COLLINS: A famous survey done in 1917, and again in 1997, documented this percentage of belief amongst working scientists. Many people have been surprised by this statistic, and also surprised that the numbers haven’t changed during the 20th century. Why aren’t we hearing more from scientists who believe? There is an unwritten taboo about discussing matters of faith in scientific circles, and believing scientists are sometimes also fearful that they will be seen as less intellectually rigorous by their colleagues if they admit to faith in God.
EXPLOREFAITH: How do you nourish your spiritual life—daily, weekly?
FRANCIS COLLINS: I don’t try to compartmentalize it. I try to spend time in prayer in the morning while the world is still quiet. But I also try to keep my spiritual side awake and alert during the day. I keep a Bible in my desk at work. To be honest, however, I am far from a role model here. I often find at the end of the day that the inevitable urgencies have crowded out my intentions to be more balanced. And I am not currently a regular churchgoer. So it’s fair to say I am still working on deepening my relationship with God, and that is a lifelong task.
EXPLOREFAITH: Turning again to that commentary you wrote for CNN, I love your concluding sentence: “By investigating God’s majestic and awesome creation, science can actually be a means of worship.” I guess that means that your scientific work, itself, nourishes your spiritual life?
FRANCIS COLLINS: Absolutely. As a scientist who is also a believer, I find exploring nature also to be a way of getting a glimpse of God’s mind. You can find God in the laboratory, just as much as in the cathedral.
EXPLOREFAITH: You are a scientist who clearly loves the mysteries (that’s a word I’ve seen you use a lot) of the physical world. Wouldn’t many of your colleagues in the scientific community say that the purpose of science is to eliminate mystery as much as possible?
FRANCIS COLLINS: Of course! But there are always more to explore. And in my experience, unraveling the mystery of nature adds to one’s sense of awe, rather than subtracting from it. Faith is also a way of trying to understand profound mysteries that science can’t resolve—such as the meaning of life.
EXPLOREFAITH: Do you think it is significant that your book, The Language of God, has received the 2007 Book of the Year Award in Evangelism from Christianity Today magazine? Do you see this as a sign that the evangelical Christian community is at a tipping point with respect to dropping the culture war on mainstream science which has characterized so much of modern evangelicalism?
FRANCIS COLLINS: I would like to think that this might be true—but clearly there are many in the evangelical Christian churches who remain deeply suspicious of evolutionary thinking, and it will take a concerted effort by scientists, theologians, and pastors to develop and propagate a new theology that celebrates what science is teaching us about God’s awesome creation, rather than resisting it.
EXPLOREFAITH: Major shifts in worldview have historically had a profound effect on theology. For example, the Copernican revolution got us thinking very differently about heaven and its location. What do you see as the emerging theological shifts based on understanding creation in light of evolutionary process?
FRANCIS COLLINS: While I see no irreconcilable conflicts between the book of Genesis and evolutionary science, what we are learning about the relatedness of all living things through the information molecule of DNA offers the chance of a new and exciting interpretation of God’s plan in creating humans in His image. An ultra-literal interpretation of Genesis, as embraced by Young Earth Creationism, cannot be reconciled with the truths about the universe that God has allowed us to discover.
Intelligent Design, an alternative to Darwinism that has appealed to many Christians, is also scientifically flawed in fundamental ways. But a theology that embraces evolution as God’s plan for creation, which I call Bios (life) through Logos (God’s word), or just BioLogos, can be vibrantly supported by serious believers who are not afraid of seeking the truth.
EXPLOREFAITH: In The Language of God, you mention evangelical Christians reacting negatively to your presentations—members of the audience walking out, and so on. Has this increased or decreased since the book came out? And, as a believer, how does that make you feel?
FRANCIS COLLINS: Yes, I get regular e-mails from evangelicals who chastise me for “selling out” to science, or for choosing to worship science instead of God. I’ve even been threatened with excommunication by an incensed believer, though I am not a Catholic. I am of course troubled that information that seems so utterly compelling to me can cause such strong resistance from other God-fearing, reasonable, loving people—but that simply reflects the intensity of the current battle between extreme voices that has dominated the airwaves and bookshelves for too long.
If I can provide some basis for disarming that battle, by pointing toward the conclusion that one can both trust science to reach trustworthy conclusions about nature, and see God’s hand in the way nature was created, then this effort will be worth the occasional negative diatribe.
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