The believer

Francis Collins -- head of the Human Genome Project -- discusses his conversion to evangelical Christianity, why scientists do not need to be atheists, and what C.S. Lewis has to do with it.

Published August 7, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

As the longtime head of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins is one of America's most visible scientists. He holds impeccable scientific credentials -- a medical degree as well as a Ph.D. in physics -- and has established a distinguished track record as a gene hunter. He's also an evangelical Christian, someone who has no qualms about professing his belief in miracles or seeing God's hand behind all of creation. The cover of his new book illustrates this unusual mixture: The book's title, "The Language of God," is superimposed on a drawing of the double helix. "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."

Collins hopes to stake out the middle ground between Darwinian atheists and religious fundamentalists. "Both of these extremes don't stand up to logic, and yet they have occupied the stage," he told me. "We cannot let either side win." Unlike so many of those players most invested in this culture war, Collins sees no inherent conflict between science and religion. Yet his book is likely to alienate plenty of people on both sides of the debate. His frequent references to God's almighty power might be difficult for secular readers to swallow. And his scathing critique of both Young Earth creationism and intelligent design probably won't attract the hordes of readers buying Ann Coulter's latest diatribe against evolution.

"The Language of God" offers an unusually personal look at a leading scientist's search for meaning. Collins recounts his own struggles with faith, as well as his daughter's rape by a man who broke into her apartment and held a knife to her throat. This trauma became a test of faith for Collins and a lesson in how suffering can lead to personal growth. His book also recaps his scientific triumphs, including his discovery of the long-sought gene that causes cystic fibrosis. And later, when he stood by Bill Clinton's side as the president announced that the mapping of the human genome was complete. It turns out that Collins worked with the president's speechwriter to help craft Clinton's religious spin on this scientific breakthrough. "Today," Clinton said, "we are learning the language in which God created life."

I spoke with Collins by phone about various scientific and religious matters -- the existence of miracles, the mind of God, the ethics of stem cell research, and Collins' own conversion to Christianity at the age of 27.

You've said you were once an "obnoxious atheist." What changed you? Why did you turn to religion?

I became an atheist because as a graduate student studying quantum physics, life seemed to be reducible to second-order differential equations. Mathematics, chemistry and physics had it all. And I didn't see any need to go beyond that. Frankly, I was at a point in my young life where it was convenient for me to not have to deal with a God. I kind of liked being in charge myself. But then I went to medical school, and I watched people who were suffering from terrible diseases. And one of my patients, after telling me about her faith and how it supported her through her terrible heart pain, turned to me and said, "What about you? What do you believe?" And I stuttered and stammered and felt the color rise in my face, and said, "Well, I don't think I believe in anything." But it suddenly seemed like a very thin answer. And that was unsettling. I was a scientist who was supposed to draw conclusions from the evidence and I realized at that moment that I'd never really looked at the evidence for and against the possibility of God.

In your book you describe this as a "thoroughly terrifying experience."

It was. It was like my worldview was suddenly under attack. So I set about reading about the various world religions, but I didn't understand their concepts and their various dogmas. So I went down the street and met with a Methodist minister in this little town in North Carolina and asked him a number of blasphemous questions. And he smiled and answered a few them but said, "You know, I think you'd learn a lot if you'd read this book on my shelf. It was written by somebody who has traveled the same path -- a scholar who was an atheist at Oxford and tried to figure out whether there was truth or not to religion." The book was "Mere Christianity" by C.S. Lewis. And within the first three pages, I realized that my arguments against faith were those of a schoolboy.

So that one book totally changed your life?

Absolutely. It was as if he was reading my mind. As I read his arguments about the Moral Law -- the knowledge of right and wrong, which makes no sense from the perspective of basic evolution and biology but makes great sense as a signpost to God -- I began to realize the truth of what he was saying. Ultimately, I realized I couldn't go back to where I was. I could never again say atheism is the only logical choice for a scientifically trained person.

You also write about a seminal experience you had a little later, when you were hiking in the Cascade Mountains in Washington.

Nobody gets argued all the way into becoming a believer on the sheer basis of logic and reason. That requires a leap of faith. And that leap of faith seemed very scary to me. After I had struggled with this for a couple of years, I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains on a beautiful fall afternoon. I turned the corner and saw in front of me this frozen waterfall, a couple of hundred feet high. Actually, a waterfall that had three parts to it -- also the symbolic three in one. At that moment, I felt my resistance leave me. And it was a great sense of relief. The next morning, in the dewy grass in the shadow of the Cascades, I fell on my knees and accepted this truth -- that God is God, that Christ is his son and that I am giving my life to that belief.

You went on to become a hotshot gene hunter at the University of Michigan. And your lab made some important discoveries about the genes that cause several diseases. Did you keep your religious faith secret from your fellow scientists?

No, I didn't. I don't think I was particularly outspoken about it. But I was never secretive either. And I did at times offer to meet with medical students who wanted to discuss science and faith, and whether they were compatible. But certainly, the academic environment is not particularly welcoming to open discussions of this sort. There's a bit of an unwritten taboo that you can talk about almost anything else in terms of the search for truth, but maybe you ought not to talk about religion. It might offend somebody.

A lot of scientists say religious faith is irrational. Your fellow biologist Richard Dawkins calls it "the great cop-out." How do you respond to these critics of religion?

Certainly this has been one of the more troubling developments in the last several decades. I think that commits an enormous act of hubris, to say -- because we're now so wise about evolution and how life forms are related to each other -- that we have no more need of God. Science investigates the natural world. If God has any meaning at all, God is outside of the natural world. It is a complete misuse of the tools of science to apply them to this discussion.

So God is outside of space and time?

I would say so. And God is certainly outside of nature. So for a scientist to say, "I know for sure there is no God," seems to commit a very serious logical fallacy. Frankly, I think many of the current battles between atheists and fundamentalists have really been started by the scientific community. This is an enormous tragedy of our present time, that we've given the stage to the extremists.

Why do you say those arguments have been started by scientists? Because some of these scientists -- like Dawkins -- have said the theory of evolution leads to atheism?

That's been a very scary statement coming back towards the religious community, where people have felt they can't just leave that hanging in the air. There has to be a response. If you look at the history of the intelligent design movement, which is now only 15 or 16 years old, you will see that it was a direct response to claims coming from people like Dawkins. They could not leave this claim unchallenged -- that evolution alone can explain all of life's complexity. It sounded like a godless outcome.

So, one response then is simply to dismiss evolution -- to say it doesn't hold up as science.

I think that's what many well-intentioned, sincere believers have done. The shelves of many evangelicals are full of books that point out the flaws in evolution, discuss it only as a theory, and almost imply that there's a conspiracy here to avoid the fact that evolution is actually flawed. All of those books, unfortunately, are based upon conclusions that no reasonable biologist would now accept. Evolution is about as solid a theory as one will ever see.

Obviously, you're saying you should not read the Bible literally, especially the story of Genesis.

That also seems very threatening to many believers who have been led to believe that if you start watering down any part of the Bible, including a literal interpretation of Genesis One, then pretty soon you'll lose your faith and you won't believe that Christ died and was resurrected. But you cannot claim that the earth is less than 10,000 years old unless you're ready to reject all of the fundamental findings of geology, cosmology, physics, chemistry and biology. You really have to throw out all of the sciences in order to draw that conclusion.

Intelligent design is a more sophisticated critique of evolution. And the core argument is that certain natural phenomena, such as human blood clotting and the eye, are irreducibly complex; you can't get these through incremental genetic mutations. What's wrong with this argument?

It's a very interesting argument, but I fear there's a flaw. The intelligent design argument presumes that these complicated, multi-component systems -- the most widely described one is the bacterial flagellum, a little outboard motor that allows bacteria to zip around in a liquid solution -- that you couldn't get there unless you could simultaneously evolve about 30 different proteins. And until you had all 30 together, you would gain no advantage. The problem is it makes an assumption that's turning out to be wrong. All of those multi-component machines, including the flagellum, do not come forth out of nothingness. They come forth very gradually by the recruitment of one component that does one fairly modest thing. And then another component that was doing something else gets recruited in and causes a slightly different kind of function. And over the course of long periods of time, one can in fact come up with very plausible models to develop these molecular machines solely through the process of evolution as Darwin envisaged it. So intelligent design is already showing serious cracks. It is not subject to actual scientific testing.

This is what's often called "the God of the gaps." You use God to explain certain things that science can't explain. You're saying these arguments end up hurting religious people because once science does explain these things, it discredits religion.

And that has happened down through time. When God is inserted in a place where science can't currently provide enough information, then sooner or later, it does. My God is bigger than that. He's not threatened by our puny minds trying to understand how the universe works. And He didn't design evolution so that it had flaws and had to be fixed all along the way. My God is this amazing creator who at the very moment that the Big Bang occurred, already had designed how evolution would come into place to result in this marvelous diversity of living things.

Well, this gets at what I think is actually the more serious challenge that evolution poses to religious faith -- the whole business of random genetic mutations. Certainly, many evolutionists have argued that there is no inherent meaning to the course of evolution. It could end up any which way, and the fact that human beings ever evolved was blind luck. Without the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, it seems unlikely that large mammals, and eventually humans, would have ever evolved. Isn't this a problem for religion?

I don't think so. I can see the arguments that you just voiced and why they trouble people. But they are based upon the idea that God has the same limitations that we do. We cannot contemplate what it is like to be able to affect the future, the present and the past all at once. But God is not so limited. What appears random to us -- such as an asteroid hitting the earth -- need not have been random to Him at all. And in that very moment of creation, being as He is, outside of the time limitations, he knew everything, including our having this conversation. As soon as you accept the idea of God as creator, then the randomness argument essentially goes out the window.

Are you saying that God set the natural laws in motion so that somehow, billions of years later, humans would evolve? There was intent, there was purpose to humans evolving, and God made it so?

That is part of my faith -- to believe that God did have an interest in the appearance, somewhere in the universe, of creatures with intelligence, with free will, with the Moral Law, with the desire to seek Him.

Is this to say that God set in motion the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs so that human beings could eventually evolve?

Oh goodness, that's getting into more specific details than I would dare to imagine. But I would say that God had a plan for creatures like us. Need they have looked exactly like us? Does "in His image" mean that God looks like us and has toenails and a belly button? Or is "in His image" an indication of the spirit, the Moral Law, the sense of who we are, the consciousness? In which case perhaps it didn't matter so much whether that ended up occurring in mammals or some other life form.

What do you say to those evolutionists -- people like E.O. Wilson and Dan Dennett -- who look to evolutionary reasons for why human beings have come to believe in religion. They say religion is clearly a very powerful bonding force. It unites people. And even moral values like altruism have a genetic component. It may have evolved to help people related to you because there's a shared genetic interest.

I have trouble with the argument that altruism can be completely explained on evolutionary grounds. Evolutionists now universally agree -- I think Dawkins and Wilson and Dennett would all agree -- that evolution does not operate on the species. It operates on the individual. If that's the case, then it does seem that in any given circumstance, the individual's evolutionary drive should be to preserve their ability to reproduce at all costs. They're simply -- as Dawkins has described them -- a way of propagating DNA. That's what we are. But that's not what I see in my own heart. And it's not what I see in those around me. I see Oskar Schindler, who sacrifices his own potential for long- term survival by saving Jews -- not even people of his own faith. When I see Mother Teresa dedicating herself to help others, not even of her own tribe, we admire that. What is that all about? If I'm walking down the banks of a river and I hear someone who's drowning calling for help -- even if I'm not a good swimmer -- I feel this urge that I should try to help, even at the risk of my own life. Where is that coming from?

But you and I have grown up with certain moral lessons. We've been told that we should help people. This is the right thing to do. Couldn't you argue that doing good and helping people is just part of cultural evolution?

You could argue that, but if it was just a cultural tradition, you ought to be able to find some cultures where it is not present. If you read the appendix of C.S. Lewis' wonderful book "The Abolition of Man," he comes to the conclusion that there is this wonderful, monotonous repetition of morals across the world and across history. You are to reach out to those who are less fortunate. You are to aid the widow, you are to help the orphan. All of these altruistic things seem to be a universal feature of human beings. And yet, they're a scandal to evolutionary biology because they motivate people to do things that are exactly the opposite of what evolution would require.

The subtitle of your book refers to "evidence for belief." What do you find to be the most compelling evidence that there is, in fact, a Supreme Being?

First of all, we have this very solid conclusion that the universe had an origin, the Big Bang. Fifteen billion years ago, the universe began with an unimaginably bright flash of energy from an infinitesimally small point. That implies that before that, there was nothing. I can't imagine how nature, in this case the universe, could have created itself. And the very fact that the universe had a beginning implies that someone was able to begin it. And it seems to me that had to be outside of nature. And that sounds like God.

A second argument: When you look from the perspective of a scientist at the universe, it looks as if it knew we were coming. There are 15 constants -- the gravitational constant, various constants about the strong and weak nuclear force, etc. -- that have precise values. If any one of those constants was off by even one part in a million, or in some cases, by one part in a million million, the universe could not have actually come to the point where we see it. Matter would not have been able to coalesce, there would have been no galaxy, stars, planets or people. That's a phenomenally surprising observation. It seems almost impossible that we're here. And that does make you wonder -- gosh, who was setting those constants anyway? Scientists have not been able to figure that out.

What I find interesting about your argument is that, in many ways, it lines up with the deist position -- that God created everything to begin with, set in motion the laws of nature and didn't intervene after that. And yet, I don't think thats your position.

No, it's not.

You are talking about a God who intervenes in the world -- the presence of a personal God.

Right. I haven't quite finished my list of evidences. I started with the deist ones --which are the Big Bang and the Anthropic Principle -- very strong arguments, by the way. But that doesn't get you to a personal God. The argument that gets me is the one I read in those first few pages of "Mere Christianity," which is the existence of the Moral Law, something good and holy, that in our hearts has somehow written that same law about what is good and what is evil and what we should do. That doesn't sound like a God that wandered off once the universe got started and is now doing something else. That sounds like a God who really cares about us and wishes somehow to have a relationship with us.

But you've also said that God exists outside of nature, outside of space and time. So how can God intervene in our lives? How can God come into our hearts?

By saying that He's outside of space and time, I didn't mean that there is some wall around the natural that God is not also part of. I guess I should have said that God is not limited by space and time. So I have no trouble with that concept at all -- that God both knows the future and yet can hear my prayer as I'm seeking to find out what I should do in a given situation.

Do you think God answers your prayers?

I've never heard God speak. Some people have. I don't think prayer is really a way that you try to manipulate God's intentions and talk him into something. I don't think He's going to find me a parking space when I'm having trouble finding one. Prayer is really a way that you try to get in touch with God. And in the process, you learn something about yourself and your own motivations, often discovering things about yourself that you don't necessarily want to discover.

I guess I'm trying to figure out if you think God intervenes in the affairs of human beings. Virtually all of your arguments so far suggest He does not. God stays out of the realm of humanity.

I think God can intervene. That's what the great miracles are. Certainly God intervened in the person of Jesus Christ and in the most amazing miracle of all, the Resurrection. But I don't think God pops up in lots of circumstances and turns around the course of events or alters the way in which nature is going to behave. I think those are reserved for special moments, of special significance, with a special lesson involved.

Well, I have to ask you about a couple of the best known miracles in the Bible. Do you believe in the Virgin Birth?

I do.

And the Resurrection? Do you believe that what was resurrected was the physical body of Jesus?

Physical body? We should be careful in terms of exactly what you mean by that. Does that mean the cellular structure was exactly the same as it was when he was alive? I don't know. But I believe that he was resurrected in physical form and seen by witnesses whom he spoke to before he then ascended. That is the absolute cornerstone of the Christian faith.

But how can you as a scientist accept some of these ideas in the Bible that cut so directly against the laws of nature?

I have no trouble at all. Again, the big decision is, do you believe in God? If you believe in God, and if God is more than nature, then there's no reason that God could not stage an invasion into the natural world, which -- to our limited perspective -- would appear to be a miracle.

And yet, this does seem to be a case where religion and science are in fundamental conflict. Everything we know from science says this is not possible. The Virgin Birth is not possible. The resurrection of a dead person -- no matter how special -- is not possible. It's never happened in the history of the world, as far as we know.

Again, that would be the perspective if one had decided upfront that the only worldview that can be brought to bear on any circumstance is the scientific one. In that situation, all miracles have to be impossible. If, on the other hand, you're willing to accept the spiritual worldview, then in certain rare circumstances -- I don't think they should be common -- the miraculous could have a non-zero probability.

So far, we haven't talked about what you're best known for -- your work as head of the Human Genome Project. Why do you call the human genome "the language of God"?

Well, it's a metaphor. It's one that was used by President Clinton on June 26, 2000, when the announcement was made that the draft of the human DNA sequence was now in hand. I think it's a thought-provoking way to consider this whole question: Where did all this come from, anyway? If you accept my premise -- that God was actually the author of the evolutionary process, that it was His way of speaking life into being -- then you can think of the genome, the DNA, as God's language. And for the believer, it's also a small glimpse into God's mind.

Geneticists are sometimes accused of "playing God," especially when it comes to genetic engineering. And there are various thorny bioethical issues. What's your position on stem cell research?

Stem cells have been discussed for 10 years, and yet I fear that much of that discussion has been more heat than light. First of all, I believe that the product of a sperm and an egg, which is the first cell that goes on to develop a human being, deserves considerable moral consequences. This is an entity that ultimately becomes a human. So I would be opposed to the idea of creating embryos by mixing sperm and eggs together and then experimenting on the outcome of that, purely to understand research questions. On the other hand, there are hundreds of thousands of such embryos in freezers at in vitro fertilization clinics. In the process of in vitro fertilization, you almost invariably end up with more embryos than you can reimplant safely. The plausibility of those ever being reimplanted in the future -- more than a few of them -- is extremely low. Is it more ethical to leave them in those freezers forever or throw them away? Or is it more ethical to come up with some sort of use for those embryos that could help people? I think that's not been widely discussed.

So your position is that they should be used for research if they already exist and they're never going to be used to create a human life?

I think that's the more ethical stance. And I say this as a private citizen and not as a representative of the U.S. government, even though I'm employed by the federal government at the National Institutes of Health. Now let me say, there's another aspect of this topic that I think is even more confusing -- a different approach which is more promising medically. It's this thing called somatic cell nuclear transfer, which is where you take a cell from a living person -- a skin cell, for instance. You take out its nucleus, which is where the DNA is, and you insert that nucleus into the environment of an egg cell, which has lost its nucleus. Now think about this. We have a skin cell, and we have an egg cell with no nucleus. Neither of those would be things that anybody would argue has moral status. Then you give a zap of electricity and you wait a couple of days. And that environment convinces that skin cell that it can go back in time and it can become anything it wants to be. That is an enormously powerful opportunity because the cell would then be received by that same person who happened to need, say, neurons for their Parkinson's disease or pancreas cells for their diabetes without a transplant rejection.

Isn't this the process that is otherwise known as cloning?

Yeah, it's called cloning, which is a very unfortunate term because it conjures up the idea that you're trying to create a copy of that human being. And at this point, you're doing nothing of the sort. You're trying to create a cell line that could be used to substitute for something that a person desperately needs. It would only become a cloned person if you then intentionally decided to take those cells and reimplant them in the uterus of a recipient woman. And that, obviously, is something that we should not and must not and probably should legislate against. But until you get to that point, it's not clear to me that you're dealing with something that deserves to be called an embryo or deserves to be given moral status.

Is the question of when life begins a scientific question or a religious question?

It's a religious question. I mean, science can tell you what happens in terms of the mechanics of DNA coming out of the sperm and the egg and joining together to make a full set of chromosomes. And science can tell you all the steps that happen with various genes getting turned on and off and various cell types appearing. But none of that really tells you what your question is: At what point does this acquire the status of a human being as a moral entity? When does life begin? When does the soul enter? That's a religious question. Science is not going to be able to help with that.

By Steve Paulson

Steve Paulson is the executive producer of Wisconsin Public Radio's nationally syndicated program "To the Best of Our Knowledge." He has also been a Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science & Religion.

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