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The Question of God

Francis Collins
photo of Francis Collins
Francis Collins

No one knows better than Dr. Francis Collins how easy it might be for scientists to play God. As the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute since 1993 — what some call the most prestigious job in science — Collins has led the effort to decode human DNA, along the way developing a revolutionary method of screening genes for disease. Yet according to this widely respected scientist, the newfound power to "read our own instruction book" is no obstacle to faith in the existence of God. He converted from atheism to Christianity in his twenties after seeing how radically his patients' faith transformed their experience of suffering, and after reading several works by C.S. Lewis. Some 30 years later, he stands by his convictions, positioning science not as substitute for theology, but as a subset of it. Here, Collins traces out his personal path to God, and explains how his faith affects his work. What follows is an edited transcript of an interview conducted for the making of The Question of God.

An Interview with Francis Collins

You describe yourself as a rather obnoxious atheist in your youth. Tell me more about what you mean by that.

FRANCIS COLLINS: Well, growing up, I was vaguely aware of things that went on in church, because I was in the boys' choir at the local Episcopal church. But I got the clear message that I was supposed to learn music there, and not pay too much attention to the rest of it, and I followed those instructions very carefully. When I got to college and was challenged about what my beliefs were, I realized I had no idea what they were. I listened to others make an argument that religion and beliefs were basically a superstition, and I began to think — Yeah, that's probably what I believe, too.

"God gave us an opportunity through science to understand the natural world, but there will never be a scientific proof of God's existence."

Then I went off to be a graduate student in quantum mechanics at Yale, where I was very compelled with the notion that everything in the universe can be described in a second-order differential equation. I read a little bit about what Einstein had said about God, and I concluded that, well, if there was a God, it was probably somebody who was off somewhere else in the universe; certainly not a God that would care about me. And I frankly couldn't see why I needed to have any God at all. I was in a very reductionist frame of mind. That's often what science imposes upon your thought process, and it's a good thing when you apply it to the natural world. But I sought to apply it to everything else. Obviously the spiritual world is another entity.

So I concluded that all of this stuff about religion and faith was a carryover from an earlier, irrational time, and now that science had begun to figure out how things really work, we didn't need it any more. I think you wouldn't have enjoyed having lunch with me when I was in that phase. My mission then was to ferret out this squishy thinking on the part of people around me and try to point out to them that they really ought to get over all of that emotional stuff and face up to the fact that there really wasn't anything except what you could measure.

Lewis was not concerned with scientific endeavor like you were, but he shared some of those views. How did you come to discover his work, and why did that have an influence on you?

COLLINS: I finished up my graduate degree in quantum mechanics, but underwent a bit of a personal crisis, recognizing that I didn't want to do that for the rest of my life. It was too abstract, too far removed from human concerns. And so in considerable disarray as far as my own intentions of what I would want to do with the rest of my life, I decided to go to medical school as a way of trying to explore this more human side of science, namely biology.

So it was really as a medical student, and later as a resident, encountering the realities of what disease and the specter of death does to human beings, that I began to wonder about this. Some of my patients were clearly relying very heavily on their faith as a source of strength in circumstances that were pretty awful. They had terrible diseases from which they were probably not going to escape, and yet instead of railing at God, they seemed to lean on their faith as a source of great comfort and reassurance. They weren't, somehow, perceiving it as the really awful thing that it seemed to me to be. And that was interesting and puzzling and unsettling.

As I began to ask a few questions of those people, I realized something very fundamental: I had made a decision to reject any faith view of the world without ever really knowing what it was that I had rejected. And that worried me. As a scientist, you're not supposed to make decisions without the data. It was pretty clear I hadn't done any data collecting here about what these faiths stood for.

Now, I was still pretty sure that faith traditions were all superstition and something that would not apply to me, and something that I wouldn't be interested in. But I did feel compelled to find out a bit more about what it was that I had rejected. So with an intention of shooting this all down, I went to speak to a Methodist minister in Chapel Hill, which is where I was at the time. I sat in his office and made all sorts of accusations, and probably said blasphemous things about the faith that he stood for, but sincerely asked him to help me find out what it was all about. And he was very tolerant and patient and listened and suggested that, for starters, it might be good if I read a little bit more about what these faiths stood for. And perhaps the Bible would be a good place to start. I wasn't so interested in that at that point. But he also said, "You know, your story reminds me a little bit of somebody else who has written about his experience — that Oxford scholar, C.S. Lewis."

I had no idea, really, who Lewis was. The idea that he was a scholar, though, that appealed to my intellectual pride. Maybe somebody with that kind of a title would be able to write something that I could understand and appreciate.

So this wonderful minister gave me his own copy of Mere Christianity, Lewis's slim tome that outlines the arguments leading to his conclusion that God is not only a possibility, but a plausibility. That the rational man would be more likely, upon studying the facts, to conclude that choosing to believe is the appropriate choice, as opposed to choosing not to believe.

That was a concept I was really unprepared to hear. Until then, I don't think anyone had ever suggested to me that faith was a conclusion that one could arrive at on the basis of rational thought. I, and I suspect, many other scientists who've never really looked at the evidence, had kind of assumed that faith was something that you arrived at, either because it was drummed into your head when you were a little kid or by some emotional experience, or some sort of cultural pressure. The idea that you would arrive at faith because it made sense, because it was rational, because it was the most appropriate choice when presented with the data, that was a new concept. And yet, reading through the pages of Lewis's book, I came to that conclusion over the course of several very painful weeks.

I didn't want this conclusion. I was very happy with the idea that God didn't exist, and had no interest in me. And yet at the same time, I could not turn away. I had to keep turning those pages. I had to keep trying to understand this. I had to see where it led. But I still didn't want to make that decision to believe.

The decision was an important step that I hadn't been aware of. You can argue yourself, on the basis of pure intellect, right up to the precipice of belief, but then you have to decide. I don't believe intellectual argument alone will push someone across that gap, because we are not talking about something which can be measured in the same way that science measures the natural world, and then you decide what is natural truth. This is supernatural truth. And in that regard, the spirit enters into this, not just the mind.

I struggled with that for many months, really resisting this decision, going forward, going backward. Finally, after about a year, I was on a trip to the northwest, and on a beautiful afternoon hiking in the Cascade Mountains, where the remarkable beauty of the creation around me was so overwhelming, I felt, "I cannot resist this another moment. This is something I have really longed for all my life without realizing it, and now I've got the chance to say yes." So I said yes. I was 27. I've never turned back. That was the most significant moment in my life.

Of Lewis's arguments, which one was the most difficult for you to dispute?

COLLINS: To my surprise, I found myself fairly easily compelled by his arguments about the existence of some sort of a God, because even as a scientist, I had to admit that we had no idea how the universe got started. The hard part for me was the idea of a personal God, who has an interest in humankind. And the argument that Lewis made there — the one that I think was most surprising, most earth-shattering, and most life-changing — is the argument about the existence of the moral law. How is it that we, and all other members of our species, unique in the animal kingdom, know what's right and what's wrong? In every culture one looks at, that knowledge is there.

Where did that come from? I reject the idea that that is an evolutionary consequence, because that moral law sometimes tells us that the right thing to do is very self-destructive. If I'm walking down the riverbank, and a man is drowning, even if I don't know how to swim very well, I feel this urge that the right thing to do is to try to save that person. Evolution would tell me exactly the opposite: preserve your DNA. Who cares about the guy who's drowning? He's one of the weaker ones, let him go. It's your DNA that needs to survive. And yet that's not what's written within me.

Lewis argues that if you are looking for evidence of a God who cares about us as individuals, where could you more likely look than within your own heart at this very simple concept of what's right and what's wrong. And there it is. Not only does it tell you something about the fact that there is a spiritual nature that is somehow written within our hearts, but it also tells you something about the nature of God himself, which is that he is a good and holy God. What we have there is a glimpse of what he stands for.

I know this is not a new idea that Lewis came up with. It builds upon long traditions over centuries of careful scholarship and thought. But I'd never seen it before, and I don't think I've ever seen it explained as well as it is in his book.

Now, you describe a very intellectual process that led you to change your worldview. What about the emotional aspect of what happened on that day, and thereafter?

COLLINS: It certainly did carry with it this experience that life is now different. And along with that, this sense that God is not some distant concept, some ethereal, fuzzy entity. God became personal for me at that point. That really was the decision I was making, to believe not just in God, but in a God who wishes fellowship with me. That God is a God who both created the universe, and also had a plan that included me as an individual human being. And that he has made it possible for me, through this series of explorations, to realize that. It is not just a philosophy, it is a reality of a relationship.

For someone who has not had that experience, it sounds like a really elating and wonderful occurrence, that one would wish in one's own life. However, both you and Lewis describe it as something rather painful and chaotic. Can you talk a little bit about that?

COLLINS: That day of making the decision was a whole mix of emotions. There was this sense of great relief, because I felt like I had been running from this for a year, and maybe for my whole life. And finally that pursuit was over.

But there was also this sense of deep discomfort. Even in my rudimentary way, I had a sense that if you're going to accept the existence of God, at some level you have to give up control, and you can't just do what you want to because it feels good. And I liked very much being in control. I liked not having to answer to what was holy and vote for what was right. Maybe in some way, I was aware already without having put words to it, of the moral law — and aware that I wasn't living up to it.

So in recognizing my desire to have relationship with God, I also had to come face to face with my own massive imperfections. If God is holy, and if you can see God in some ways as a mirror to yourself, you realize just how far you fall short of anything that you could be really proud of. And that is a terribly distressing kind of experience for anybody who's first coming to that. So I would not say I was an ecstatic convert. I was very much, as Lewis was, a bit dejected about the whole thing.

I guess at that point, as an early believer, I had the sense that I had to fix all of those to become acceptable. This was before I really figured out that even though I'm imperfect and God is perfect, the person of Jesus Christ is that bridge that brings us together. And that's what Christ was all about. That took me a long time to begin to really absorb and accept and feel comforted by.

Now, when you went back to the office on Monday, how did that decision change the way you looked at what you do?

COLLINS: Well, this all came at an interesting time. I came to this belief at age 27, when I was a medical resident. I was already convinced that the area I wanted to work in was medical genetics, or the way in which inheritance influences disease. Some would say that that would be the most godless of all possible disciplines, because if misused, it tends to take the wonders of humanity and reduce it to the language of this organic chemical called DNA. Certainly, to many outside perspectives, the idea of both starting down a path towards that branch of science and becoming a convicted believer didn't seem like a very compatible circumstance. I think they have turned out to be intensely compatible, but at the time I wasn't so sure. I wondered, "Is this going to lead to some explosion within me? Am I going to find that there are parts of me that are at war?"

And it took me a while to get comfortable sharing this experience with other people in science. I was happy to talk about it with my family and with other people who were not in the scientific arena. But like most scientists, I had this fear that having accepted something in the way of a spiritual worldview, I would be perceived as having gone just a little bit soft; that this was not compatible with the rigorous "show me the data" attitude that a scientist is supposed to have towards all things.

Now, I might say that particular conclusion is, itself, all wrong. There will never be a scientific proof of God's existence. Science explores the natural, and God is outside the natural. So there is going to be no substitute for making a decision to believe, and that decision will never be undergirded by absolute data-driven proof.

As a scientist, do you believe in miracles?

COLLINS: If God is who God claims to be, and who I believe he is, then he is not explainable in natural terms. He is outside the natural world; outside of space and time. So if God chose to intervene from time to time in the natural world by allowing the occurrence of miraculous events, I don't see why that is an illogical possibility. Once one accepts that idea that there could be something outside the natural, then miracles also become possible. Lewis writes about this extremely well in his little book called Miracles.

However, I don't think miracles happen frequently. It seems to me reading the Bible there were times when miracles were occurring at greater frequency, such as in the time of Moses or Elijah or the time of Christ. I have not personally witnessed a spiritual miracle. And I reject the comments that people make sometimes like the fact that a flower is blooming is a miracle. I don't think so. That's a matter that science can actually explain. How did you go from that seed to that blooming flower? I can answer that. Now, why did the seed exist in the first place? That, perhaps, is a miracle. We don't really know how the universe got here.

Actually, I don't see that any of the issues that people raise as points of contention between science and faith are all that difficult to resolve. Many people get hung up on the whole evolution versus creation argument — one of the great tragedies of the last 100 years is the way in which this has been polarized. On the one hand, we have scientists who basically adopt evolution as their faith, and think there's no need for God to explain why life exists. On the other hand, we have people who are believers who are so completely sold on the literal interpretation of the first book of the Bible that they are rejecting very compelling scientific data about the age of the earth and the relatedness of living beings. It's unnecessary. I think God gave us an opportunity through the use of science to understand the natural world. The idea that some are asking people to disbelieve our scientific data in order to prove that they believe in God is so unnecessary.

If God chose to create you and me as natural and spiritual beings, and decided to use the mechanism of evolution to accomplish that goal, I think that's incredibly elegant. And because God is outside of space and time, He knew what the outcome was going to be right at the beginning. It's not as if there was a chance it wouldn't work. So where, then, is the discordancy that causes so many people to see these views of science and of spirit as being incompatible? In me, they both exist. They both exist at the same moment in the day. They're not compartmentalized. They are entirely compatible. And they're part of who I am.