The Common Good
February 2010

Interpreting the Language of God

by Jeannie Choi | February 2010

Geneticist Francis Collins -- new director of the National Institutes of Health -- talks about faith, science, and the spiritual practices that sustain him.

Francis S. Collins has long been known in the science world for his leadership of the Human Genome Project, an ambitious 13-year joint endeavor by the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Energy to identify all of the approximately 20,000 to 25,000 genes in human DNA. The project ended successfully in 2003, guaranteeing Collins’ place in history as a vital contributor to the progress of genetic research. More recently, however, Collins has been making a name for himself in a different realm—that of religion. As an evangelical Christian and advocate for the peaceful coexistence of faith and science, Collins is a controversial and puzzling figure for many. Conservatives call him a heretic for suggesting that Darwinian evolution is not just truth, but God’s truth, and liberals protested his appointment last summer as head of the National Institutes of Health, claiming his faith makes him unfit to be the director of a major scientific organization. In this interview with Sojourners assistant editor Jeannie Choi, Collins addresses the concerns from both sides, and shares how studying DNA sequences is not just research for him, but worship.

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Jeannie Choi: How did you come to faith?

Francis Collins: I wasn’t raised in a home where faith was considered important. I became an atheist and held that view as a graduate student in chemistry. It was only when I went to medical school and faced up to life and death issues that were surrounding me in hospitals and clinics that I realized my atheism had been arrived at pretty much because it was the answer I wanted, not because I’d really looked at the evidence. I realized that if I was facing death, I would be terrified. I needed to understand what the faith issues were that seemed to be such a comfort to so many of my patients.
I began to pursue whether there is a rational basis for faith. I assumed there wasn’t and that this was all about emotion and some sort of vague spiritual experience. I was surprised to learn that in fact there is a very strong rational case to be made for belief in God. I encountered that particularly in the writings of C.S. Lewis.
I finished my medical training, got into genetics, and then had this great privilege of leading the Human Genome Project. I was able to unravel all the details of our own DNA instruction book, which is a phenomenally complex and awesome experience. For me as a believer, I was given a chance, with my colleagues, to read the language that God used to speak life into being. That became an occasion not only of scientific exhilaration, but actually of worship, of feeling a little bit like you had glimpsed just a tiny bit of God’s mind in a way that humans hadn’t previously had the opportunity to do.
What reaction has your work received as you attempt to bridge science and faith?
Well, the reactions have been varied, as you might guess. I would say that the majority of the reactions, based on hundreds of e-mails and letters, has been positive, from people who wrote in and said “you know, I’ve always felt that there was a way of putting science and faith together, but I wasn’t hearing much about that because all of the conversations seem to be dominated by the extreme voices that said science and faith are incompatible.” I think people intrinsically find something is wrong with that kind of claim.
I have gotten some negative responses, particularly from those who are deeply troubled by the idea of accepting an old universe of 13.5 billion years, and the idea that evolution is actually the way in which God used this incredibly complicated and beautiful mechanism to create. Darwin’s theory is so undergirded now by science that to reject it is almost impossible if you’re really willing to look at the evidence. That is a great threat to those who have been taught, many of them from the time they first entered Sunday school, that evolution is the enemy, and that if you start accepting it in any way, you’ll go down a slippery slope and end up losing your faith. I can cite examples to the contrary, of young people who were in that circumstance, saw the evidence for evolution, felt that meant the end of their faith, but then encountered this alternative view that evolution is just God’s method of creation and found that to be a wonderful alternative that they could embrace.
Can you identify any changes in the way the Obama administration is using scientific discovery and knowledge to shape national policy?
I had the privilege of serving on the Obama transition team, focused explicitly on the National Institutes of Health as an engine of scientific discovery in biology and medicine. It was very clear from the beginning that Obama sees science as an opportunity to answer some of the really vexing questions that are facing our world, whether it’s about health care or global warming or climate change or new epidemics or viruses that are emerging, as we see right now with H1N1. President Obama sees science as a critical set of tools that we ought to unleash and apply to problems. In the past, that has gone up and down a bit, but I think you can certainly see from the speeches he’s made and the policies already implemented that this is a president who has a great confidence in the value of science, and is unwilling to have science be a tool for politics.
What are your views on using our biological know-how to change the way we live, such as in stem cell research?
Science is about the generation of knowledge, but it’s what you do with that knowledge that may require some moral character, and that’s where ethics comes in. Certainly there are things that we could learn how to do but should not do, such as, for instance, human reproductive cloning. Ethical voices need to be heard all the way along. There are certain instances where scientists probably are not the only people who ought to be at the table trying to make those decisions about boundaries. That’s something that all of society has to share.
What is your vision for your new role as NIH director?
I am greatly honored to have been asked by President Obama to serve in this role. With an annual budget of $30 billion, the NIH is the largest supporter of biomedical research in the world. I hope to steer this remarkable ship of discovery toward new understanding of the details of how life works, and how disease can strike when things go wrong. I will particularly be looking for ways to speed up the rate of discovery by utilizing revolutionary new technologies like genomics, nanotechnology, computational biology, and imaging. I will seek ways to push forward the translation of those basic discoveries to better diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of disease. This will include a heightened focus on the science of health-care reform and on opportunities in global health.
How do you hope your faith will enhance the work you do?
I have no religious agenda for the NIH. In fact, it would be utterly inappropriate for me to impose my spiritual beliefs on this scientific agency. But for myself, I will certainly be depending on my faith for encouragement and strength, as I face the many storms that no doubt lie ahead in such a visible and complex professional position.
What are your own spiritual practices? How do you experience the divine?
That’s a great question. I have a prayer life, as most of us who attempt to have a relationship with God need that in order to keep that channel open. I spend quiet time in the morning with scriptures or with a devotional book. If I’ve had a long, difficult day I may go home, sit down at the piano, and see what kind of tune God has in mind as an opportunity for worship.
Do you sometimes look at a DNA sequence and go into a mode of worship?
(Laughing) In a way, yes! I may go into the lab, especially if things have led to a new revelation about how life works, and do research. It is an opportunity to feel closer to God in a special kind of way—of being able to appreciate one more detail of God’s amazing creation.
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