Scientist sees room for belief

Christian researcher defends science, faith

Dr. Francis Collins led the government quest to deliver the first draft of human DNA in 2000. The doctor-researcher runs a federal institute that funnels $480 million to genetics studies.

But right now, God is uppermost on his mind.

A devout Christian, Collins has written “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.” The book, which is being released this week, argues that faith in a divine creator can coexist with sound science, including the overwhelming evidence backing evolution.

“It is time to call a truce in the war between science and the spirit,” said Collins, 56, who is the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute and first became intrigued by faith while a medical school student at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“Science is not threatened by God,” he said. “It is enhanced. God is most certainly not threatened by science. He made it all possible.”

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With such words, Collins challenges some religious fundamentalists and atheists who insist that the world of instruments and measurements cannot be reconciled with faith.

His arguments may unsettle some conservative believers as well as nonbelievers, said Hessel Bouma III, a biology professor at Calvin College in Michigan and president of the American Scientific Affiliation. That group, to which Collins belongs, includes about 1,600 fervent Christians — scientists and people interested in research — a good share of whom do not embrace evolution.

“Among some conservatives, the authenticity of your Christian faith is that you believe God created humans uniquely. Francis Collins is challenging that,” Bouma said. “Some people are going to say: Wow, this is pushing us farther than we’ve been going.’ “

Others besides Collins view the sometimes hostile relations between faith and science with alarm. Both the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have launched projects to foster more dialogue between the two sides.

Lindon J. Eaves, a human genetics professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and an Episcopal priest, sees little gulf between mainstream religious traditions and science. But he observes intolerance for scientific inquiry among some Christians who embrace literal interpretations of the Bible. At the same time, he knows many scientists skeptical of all things religious.

Scientific and religious interests benefit from remaining engaged in intelligent debate, Eaves said. For instance, science explains much about the mechanisms of life, but it hasn’t yet been able to explain the full breadth of human experience.

“Theologians ask to what extent is science’s understanding of what it is to be human adequate. Does it give justice to our experience? Religion points to some important issues, such as why are we concerned with freedom, truth and justice,” Eaves said.

Arriving at belief

Collins wasn’t always on this path. He grew up a very bright kid with social-activist parents in rural Virginia. Their actions taught that caring for others was paramount. But God played a bit role at home.

During graduate training in chemistry at Yale University, Collins came to conclude that most of life could be reduced to high-level mathematical equations. But while studying medicine in Chapel Hill in the 1970s, he grew intrigued by the strength his patients drew from their faith.

Ever the empiricist, he decided to examine religion before rejecting it. With urging from Carrboro Methodist minister Sam McMillan, a neighbor, he read the Bible and the writings of C.S. Lewis, the British intellectual and prolific defender of Christian faith.

At age 27, the young doctor experienced a religious conversion while hiking the rugged Cascade Range in the Northwest. And he sustained it while climbing to the top of a growing, highly competitive field.

Before robotics and computers automated gene sequencing, Collins’ team at the University of Michigan devised ways — by hand — to hunt for genes linked to illness. He and collaborators were the first to find a mutation causing cystic fibrosis, making possible today’s genetic screens and years of molecular research.

Collins was an early believer that people could one day read the full length of DNA coiled inside human cells, the molecular code book that enacts heredity and life itself. When government and private-sector scientists succeeded, Collins said, “We have caught the first glimpse of our own instruction book, previously known only to God.”

Collins had long wanted to write this book, he said, but 100-hour workweeks prevented it. Growing hostility between camps divided over faith and science — including those who regard intelligent design as science that should be taught in schools — finally nudged him to start composing in the basement of his Maryland home.

The volume is part tutorial, conceived mostly for young people of faith struggling to reconcile the religious with the scientific. It explains exciting new frontiers in molecular biology, such as the potential of so-called therapeutic cloning. If perfected, it would use a person’s own DNA to create potentially healing stem cells.

But it is also a guide to how, from his viewpoint, science allows plenty of room for faith. Laboratory instruments and the scientific method capture aspects of the natural world, but they don’t detect the supernatural, he writes.

Seeing God at work

Collins rejects intelligent design, the idea that aspects of life are too complicated to result from evolution and must therefore be the handiwork of a talented creator. He sees God’s hand elsewhere, however, in some people’s unflagging loyalty to moral laws over the ages and in people’s ageless hunger for worship.

This thinking represents a set of beliefs called theistic evolution, ideas that some Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Christians — including some members of the American Scientific Affiliation — embrace.

Theistic evolution says the universe appeared 14 billion years ago specially tuned to create life. On Earth, it was evolution that created many varieties of life, including human beings.

All of that, Collins maintains, can be traced to God.

“The God of the Bible is the God of the genome. He can be worshipped in the cathedral or in the laboratory,” he writes.

Today, Collins prefers not to be described as born-again or evangelical. “Those particular terms carry a certain number of additional presumptions about biblical literalism — and even political views,” he said.

But he hopes especially to reach talented young people reared with faith who might otherwise run from science.

Appealing spokesman

Dr. William Roper, dean of the UNC-CH school of medicine, said he suspects that Collins, who retains ties to his alma mater, will be persuasive.

“He’s uniquely positioned,” Roper said, referring to Collins’ scientific stature. “He’s a very winsome person, well-spoken and modest. He’s not banging ideas over someone’s head. He’s trying to present a rational argument. That is very appealing.”

A veteran of scientific and government establishments, Collins knows his stand on behalf of faith may make him suspect to some other scientists. His publisher, The Free Press, keeps his government ties low-key in promotional materials, identifying Collins as a geneticist-physician in Bethesda, Md., not the head of a major public research institute.

But whatever happens, he said, it was time to speak out.

“What kind of society do we want to have? Do we want to be completely focused on science and ignore the spiritual? Or do we want to become suspicious of science and reject opportunities to limit suffering?” Collins asked. “The topic seemed too important to put off.”

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The News & Observer, Canada
July 21, 2006
Catherine Clabby

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