Francis Collins: Celebrating God Through Science (Part I)

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Part 1, Part 2

Ten years ago, the average person had probably never heard the word "'genome," but Francis Collins was already the director of the Human Genome Project. It's a project many are calling the most important scientific undertaking of our time.

In 2000, Collins publicly presented the first draft of the human genome alongside President Clinton. According to his New York Times bestseller, The Language of God, Clinton's speech on that day took a surprisingly spiritual turn: "Today we are learning the language in which God created life. We are gaining ever more awe for the complexity, the beauty, and the wonder of God's most divine and sacred gift."

As an outspoken scientist, Christian, and theistic-evolutionist, Collins sits at an incredibly controversial crossroads. Many Christians fear his defense of evolution while many Darwinists shun his faith. Regardless of where you stand on these issues, there is no denying that Christians can learn something from Francis Collins' approach to worship and scientific research.

The scientific community and the religious community are both characterized as being hostile toward each other. Do you experience that conflict in your daily work?

There are certainly pockets of hostility in both communities, but I don't know that it's part of the mainstream. As somebody who works in the scientific community everyday, I generally find a respectful attitude towards people of faith.

We're not as much in the minority as some people think. Surveys would tell you that 40% of working scientists are believers in a God who answers prayer, and that's a lot bigger number than many people would have guessed. But in the scientific community, there's a kind of taboo about talking about faith. That topic will empty the seminar room about as quickly as anything you could bring up. There's a sense that it's not an appropriate topic to discuss at work. People are concerned that you're stepping outside of the scientific method, which in a certain way is true. There's also a concern that you might offend somebody if your particular religious beliefs are different than theirs, and scientists don't want to get caught up in those kind of arguments in the middle of the laboratory.

Nobody wants those kinds of arguments in their workplace.

In the religious community, there are certainly pockets of antagonism towards science, particularly the kind of science that involves studying DNA and the evidence for evolution. But in the main, most believers are actually intrigued by science and see it as a way of understanding the grandeur of God's creation.

What have you learned about God specifically through the study of genetics?

Oh goodness! Practically everything that we are able to uncover by studying DNA, the instruction book of all living things, is for me a reflection of the amazing awesome creation that God has put in place. In The Language of God, I compare this notion of DNA, which is this information molecule, as being the way in which God spoke life into being. As a scientist who is also a believer, virtually everything that we uncover day after day about the human genome and how it works is also a glimpse of God's mind. My work is a celebration of our understanding of nature, but more importantly a celebration of what God has done.

By the way, I loved the interview you did on the Stephen Colbert Show about your book.

That was a white-knuckled experience. But his show reaches an audience that scientists and believers don't often get to talk to, so it seemed like it was worth the risk. It was a lot of fun actually.

Now that your book has been out for awhile, has there been any response from the scientific community?

The majority of reactions have been positive. Some were just curious. They said things like, "Oh wow, I didn't know you believed that." And "How did you get to that perspective?"

I do get a fair number of emails from scientists who have felt rather lonely as believers. They were delighted to see somebody writing about how science and faith can come together in harmony. Then, yes, I get a smattering of much more negative responses from scientists opposed to religion of any sort. But some of those have actually led to interesting dialogues back and forth.

What specific issues of leadership did you face while you were working on the Human Genome Project?

The Human Genome Project was an international team effort unlike anything that had ever been done in biology before. The challenge was to convince people to work together in harmony, to divide up the labor in an equitable way, to try to be sure that the hundreds of people working on this project all were given some credit for what they were doing. They weren't just cogs in a wheel. We had to take full advantage of the incredible intelligence brought to the table by some of the best and brightest scientists of our generation.

Then you gave all of the data away.

Absolutely! I think when history looks back on this, that will be one of the defining characteristics of the project. This is the kind of information that just ought to be in the public domain and not used for commercial purposes. There was some resistance as you can imagine, but open access was the right answer. I think human altruism won out.

Human altruism?

Yeah. In fact, I think human altruism can be seen as one of strongest signposts to the existence of a personal God. I can see no fully satisfactory explanation for it coming from biology. But if God was seeking to develop a relationship with us, this altruistic impulse would be an interesting place to find a leaning towards Him within ourselves.