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Francis Collins: The Scientist as Believer
Photograph by Mark Thiessen
Francis Collins finds a balanced ride between science and religion.
The often strained relationship between science and religion has become particularly combative lately. In one corner we have scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker who view religion as a relic of our superstitious, prescientific past that humanity should abandon. In the other corner are religious believers who charge that science is morally nihilistic and inadequate for understanding the wonders of existence. Into this breach steps Francis Collins, who offers himself as proof that science and religion can be reconciled. As leader of the Human Genome Project, Collins is among the world's most important scientists, the head of a multibillion-dollar research program aimed at understanding human nature and healing our innate disorders. And yet in his best-selling book, The Language of God, he recounts how he accepted Christ as his savior in 1978 and has been a devout Christian ever since. "The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome," he writes. "He can be worshiped in the cathedral or in the laboratory." Recently Collins discussed his faith with science writer John Horgan, who has explored the boundaries between science and spirituality in his own books The End of Science and Rational Mysticism. Horgan, who has described himself as "an agnostic increasingly disturbed by religion's influence on human affairs," directs the Center for Science Writings at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey.
Interview by John Horgan
Horgan: As a scientist who looks for natural explanations of things and demands evidence, how can you also believe in miracles, like the resurrection?
Collins: I don't have a problem with the concept that miracles might occasionally occur at moments of great significance, where there is a message being transmitted to us by God Almighty. But as a scientist I set my standards for miracles very high.
Horgan: The problem I have with miracles is not just that they violate what science tells us about how the world works. They also make God seem too capricious. For example, many people believe that if they pray hard enough God will intercede to heal them or a loved one. But does that mean that all those who don't get better aren't worthy?
Collins: In my own experience as a physician, I have not seen a miraculous healing, and I don't expect to see one. Also, prayer for me is not a way to manipulate God into doing what we want him to do. Prayer for me is much more a sense of trying to get into fellowship with God. I'm trying to figure out what I should be doing rather than telling Almighty God what he should be doing. Look at the Lord's Prayer. It says, "Thy will be done." It wasn't, "Our Father who art in Heaven, please get me a parking space."
Horgan: I must admit that I've become more concerned lately about the harmful effects of religion because of religious terrorism like 9/11 and the growing power of the religious right in the United States.
Collins: What faith has not been used by demagogues as a club over somebody's head? Whether it was the Inquisition or the Crusades on the one hand or the World Trade Center on the other? But we shouldn't judge the pure truths of faith by the way they are applied any more than we should judge the pure truth of love by an abusive marriage. We as children of God have been given by God this knowledge of right and wrong, this Moral Law, which I see as a particularly compelling signpost to his existence. But we also have this thing called free will, which we exercise all the time to break that law. We shouldn't blame faith for the ways people distort it and misuse it.
Horgan: Many people have a hard time believing in God because of the problem of evil. If God loves us, why is life filled with so much suffering?
Collins: That is the most fundamental question that all seekers have to wrestle with. First of all, if our ultimate goal is to grow, learn, and discover things about ourselves and things about God, then unfortunately a life of ease is probably not the way to get there. I know I have learned very little about myself or God when everything is going well. Also, a lot of the pain and suffering in the world we cannot lay at God's feet. God gave us free will, and we may choose to exercise it in ways that end up hurting other people.
Horgan: Physicist Steven Weinberg, who is an atheist, asks why six million Jews, including his relatives, had to die in the Holocaust so that the Nazis could exercise their free will.
Collins: If God had to intervene miraculously every time one of us chose to do something evil, it would be a very strange, chaotic, unpredictable world. Free will leads to people doing terrible things to each other. Innocent people die as a result. You can't blame anyone except the evildoers for that. So that's not God's fault. The harder question is when suffering seems to have come about through no human ill action. A child with cancer, a natural disaster, a tornado or tsunami. Why would God not prevent those things from happening?
Horgan: Some philosophers, such as Charles Hartshorne, have suggested that maybe God isn't fully in control of his creation. The poet Annie Dillard expresses this idea in her phrase "God the semi-competent."
Collins: That's delightful—and probably blasphemous! An alternative is the notion of God being outside of nature and time and having a perspective of our blink-of-an-eye existence that goes both far back and far forward. In some admittedly metaphysical way, that allows me to say that the meaning of suffering may not always be apparent to me. There can be reasons for terrible things happening that I cannot know.
Horgan: I'm an agnostic, and I was bothered when in your book you called agnosticism a "cop-out." Agnosticism doesn't mean you're lazy or don't care. It means you aren't satisfied with any answers for what after all are ultimate mysteries.
Collins: That was a put-down that should not apply to earnest agnostics who have considered the evidence and still don't find an answer. I was reacting to the agnosticism I see in the scientific community, which has not been arrived at by a careful examination of the evidence. I went through a phase when I was a casual agnostic, and I am perhaps too quick to assume that others have no more depth than I did.
Horgan: Free will is a very important concept to me, as it is to you. It's the basis for our morality and search for meaning. Don't you worry that science in general and genetics in particular—and your work as head of the Genome Project—are undermining belief in free will?
Collins: You're talking about genetic determinism, which implies that we are helpless marionettes being controlled by strings made of double helices. That is so far away from what we know scientifically! Heredity does have an influence not only over medical risks but also over certain behaviors and personality traits. But look at identical twins, who have exactly the same DNA but often don't behave alike or think alike. They show the importance of learning and experience—and free will. I think we all, whether we are religious or not, recognize that free will is a reality. There are some fringe elements that say, "No, it's all an illusion, we're just pawns in some computer model." But I don't think that carries you very far.
Horgan: What do you think of Darwinian explanations of altruism, or what you call agape, totally selfless love and compassion for someone not directly related to you?
Collins: It's been a little of a just-so story so far. Many would argue that altruism has been supported by evolution because it helps the group survive. But some people sacrificially give of themselves to those who are outside their group and with whom they have absolutely nothing in common. Such as Mother Teresa, Oskar Schindler, many others. That is the nobility of humankind in its purist form. That doesn't seem like it can be explained by a Darwinian model, but I'm not hanging my faith on this.
Horgan: What do you think about the field of neurotheology, which attempts to identify the neural basis of religious experiences?
Collins: I think it's fascinating but not particularly surprising. We humans are flesh and blood. So it wouldn't trouble me—if I were to have some mystical experience myself—to discover that my temporal lobe was lit up. That doesn't mean that this doesn't have genuine spiritual significance. Those who come at this issue with the presumption that there is nothing outside the natural world will look at this data and say, "Ya see?" Whereas those who come with the presumption that we are spiritual creatures will go, "Cool! There is a natural correlate to this mystical experience! How about that!"
Horgan: Some scientists have predicted that genetic engineering may give us superhuman intelligence and greatly extended life spans, perhaps even immortality. These are possible long-term consequences of the Human Genome Project and other lines of research. If these things happen, what do you think would be the consequences for religious traditions?
Collins: That outcome would trouble me. But we're so far away from that reality that it's hard to spend a lot of time worrying about it, when you consider all the truly benevolent things we could do in the near term.
Horgan: I'm really asking, does religion require suffering? Could we reduce suffering to the point where we just won't need religion?
Collins: In spite of the fact that we have achieved all these wonderful medical advances and made it possible to live longer and eradicate diseases, we will probably still figure out ways to argue with each other and sometimes to kill each other, out of our self-righteousness and our determination that we have to be on top. So the death rate will continue to be one per person, whatever the means. We may understand a lot about biology, we may understand a lot about how to prevent illness, and we may understand the life span. But I don't think we'll ever figure out how to stop humans from doing bad things to each other. That will always be our greatest and most distressing experience here on this planet, and that will make us long the most for something more.