Speaking of Spirituality
Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes
of Health Human Genome Project, talks about ending the battle between
science and faith
Interview by Jon
sat down recently with Dr. Francis S. Collins, M.D. Ph.D., the director
of the Human Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health.
He is the author of the award-winning book, The
Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Free
Press; new in paperback July 2007). He is an outspoken believer
in God, a Christian, and also one of the most respected scientists
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
have said that DNA is “God’s language.” Do you
mean that in a literal, or more metaphorical, sense?
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.
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?
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
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?
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”?
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.
do you nourish your spiritual life—daily, weekly?
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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