Dieu n’est pas menacé par l’aventure scientifique
A genome researcher explains how he reconciles science with his deep Christian faith.
Francis Collins, a medical doctor, is director of the National Human Genome Research Institute and passionate about science. But the self-described Bible-believing Christian is just as passionate about his faith, which he came to after reading C.S. Lewis and seeing how religion sustained his gravely ill patients. Collins recently spoke with Beliefnet about his best-selling book The Language of God.
In your book, you say religion and science can coexist in one person’s mind. This has been a struggle for some people, especially in terms of evolution. How do you reconcile evolution and the Bible?
As someone who’s had the privilege of leading the human genome project, I’ve had the opportunity to study our own DNA instruction book at a level of detail that was never really possible before.
It’s also now been possible to compare our DNA with that of many other species. The evidence supporting the idea that all living things are descended from a common ancestor is truly overwhelming.
I would not necessarily wish that to be so, as a Bible-believing Christian. But it is so. It does not serve faith well to try to deny that.
But I have no difficulty putting that together with what I believe as a Christian because I believe that God had a plan to create creatures with whom he could have fellowship, in whom he could inspire [the] moral law, in whom he could infuse the soul, and who he would give free will as a gift for us to make decisions about our own behavior, a gift which we oftentimes utilize to do the wrong thing.
I believe God used the mechanism of evolution to achieve that goal. And while that may seem to us who are limited by this axis of time as a very long, drawn-out process, it wasn’t long and drawn-out to God. And it wasn’t random to God.
[He] had the plan all along of how that would turn out. There was no ambiguity about that.
That’s a question that troubles so many Christians who in many ways are very open to science. What would you say to Christians who feel that the randomness or the chaos that evolution can sometimes imply flies in the face of their most cherished beliefs?
I would say that I understand that and I’m sympathetic with how jarring that realization can be. I would say that the stance that some believers take, which is simply to reject evolution, is also to reject the information that God has given us, the ability to understand. I believe God did intend, in giving us intelligence, to give us the opportunity to investigate and appreciate the wonders of His creation. He is not threatened by our scientific adventures.
The answer to that sense of concern about randomness and chaos is to try to think beyond our own human limitations of time and space.
If God is real, and I believe he is, then he is outside of nature. He is, therefore, not limited by the laws of nature in the way that we are. He’s not limited by time. In the very moment of that flash in which the universe was created, an unimaginable burst of energy, God also had the plan of how that would coalesce into stars and galaxies, planets, and how life would arrive on a small planet near the outer rim of a spiral galaxy. And ultimately, over hundreds of millions of years, give rise to creatures with intelligence and in whom he could infuse this search for him and this knowledge of good and evil. And all of that happened in his mind in the blink of an eye. While it may seem to us that this whole process has the risk of randomness and, therefore, an unpredictable outcome, that was not the case for God.
What is something else you’ve learned from all your work with DNA that you think reveals something about God or spirituality?
Well, as a scientist who’s also a believer, the chance to uncover the incredible intricacies of God’s creation is an occasion of worship. To be able to look, for the first time in human history, at all three billion letters of the human DNA–which I think of as God’s language–it gives us just a tiny glimpse into the amazing creative power of his mind. Every discovery that we now make in science [is], for me, a chance to worship him in a broader sense, to appreciate just in a small bit the amazing grandeur of his creation. It also helps me appreciate though that as a scientist, there are limits to the kinds of questions that science can answer. And that’s where I have to turn to God and seek his answers.
The Limitations of Science
Science will tell me a lot about how things work. It will not tell me why we are all here, what the purpose is in life or what happens after we die. For that, I need my faith. And I’m grateful to be able to draw upon both of those ways of knowing in order to have a full appreciation of the wonderful gift of life that we’ve been given.
You also touch on some of your fears related to DNA. You talk about the « Gattaca » scenario and designer babies–parents being able to pick and choose what genes they want for their kids. What are your moral concerns?
I do believe that we have been given the gift of the ability to understand aspects of our own mechanical structures and that includes our instruction book. I also argue, of course, that that’s not the whole story. The knowledge that we get about human biology and human genetics is neither good nor evil. It’s just knowledge. The application that we choose for that knowledge can take on moral character.
In that regard, applications that we develop to prevent or cure terrible diseases are generally things that people embrace. Certainly the mandate of virtually all of the great faiths of the world is to try to alleviate suffering and to try to help those who are sick, give them a chance to get well. And it seems to me the study of DNA of the human genome is a wonderful, unprecedented opportunity in that regard.
But what are the boundaries? Are we comfortable with the idea of going beyond the treatment of disease to try to enhance certain human traits? Part of those discussions are predicated on the kind of science that we don’t know how to do. I don’t think we will get to the point of being able to dial in the characteristics of future generations because so much of that is determined not by genes, but by upbringing, by free will, by all of those wonderful things about being a human that are not hard-wired into our DNA.
But I do think there are some serious questions there about how far down that path we want to go. None of those opportunities are imminent, but it would be useful for us as a society, and particularly for people who are believers, to come to the table in a rational, thoughtful, non-emotional way and try to decide where are the limits that we want this technology to not go beyond.
It seems in some ways, it’s already happening; for example, sometimes when parents learn that their child has Down Syndrome, they terminate the pregnancy. What is your opinion of that sort of scenario?
I’m troubled that the applications of genetics that are currently possible are oftentimes in the prenatal arena. That is not the reason I went into this field.
The reason I went into this field was to figure out how to treat illnesses, rather than try to stop such individuals from even being born. But, of course, in our current society, people are in a circumstance of being able to take advantage of those technologies. And we have decided as a society that that choice needs to be defended.
But ultimately, that’s not where genetics is going to take us. We are going to learn from the opportunities now in front of us how to treat people who have cancer, how to cure them in ways that we currently can’t do, how to prevent diabetes in somebody who’s predisposed so that they don’t develop that terrible disease, how we do things to treat mental illnesses in ways that are much more effective than the options we have right now. Those are the real promises of this field, promises that are going to come true over the next decade.
What do you think of the recent prayer study about the efficacy of prayer for medical patients?
I find this to be an interesting but somewhat puzzling area of research–these studies in which people pray for other individuals that they do not know and where the individuals being prayed for are not aware that that is happening are potentially revealing. But, in other ways, they kind of fly in the face of what I think prayer is intended to be all about.
For me, in my Christian belief, prayer is not an opportunity to manipulate God into doing what you want him to. Prayer is an opportunity to have a conversation with God to try to get in tune with what his will is.
The words in the Lord’s Prayer are not « my will be done », but « your will be done. » And it seems to me that that kind of research is predicated on the assumption that if we just say the right words in a certain circumstance, we can get God to do what we want Him to.
That’s not quite consistent, it seems to me, with what I read about in the Bible in terms of the role that prayer has played in the lives of strong believers.
So, the fact that those research studies seem to leave one with ambiguous answers doesn’t really provide me much reassurance about whether or not prayer has value. The research studies are designed in a way that assumes a certain value of prayer that’s a bit different than what I find to be true in my own life.
Do you have a favorite prayer?
His Favorite Scripture
I don’t have a particular prayer that I’m attached to. I have various scriptures that I’m attached to, especially when I’m struggling, looking for answers. One of mine is James 1:5: « If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. »
I’m always feeling like I’m lacking wisdom. This reassurance that one can ask God for that and it will happen is certainly reassuring to me.
Again, I find that happens by getting into a prayerful attitude towards God. I’ve never heard God speak out loud. That has not been my own experience. But oftentimes, when I’m struggling looking for an answer, looking for a wise approach to a difficult problem, a prayer seems to get me there in a way that’s hard to describe. It’s not the sort of thing that a nonbeliever can quite grasp. But for those of us who are believers, I think that is what prayer is all about.
The cover of your book looks like a strand of DNA made into a stained-glass window. Is that what it’s meant to be?
Absolutely. It was inspired by a pair of images that I often use when I’m talking to groups about science and faith. [The images] compare what you see when you look at the rose window in Westminster Cathedral and what you see when you look at DNA. Imagine that you’re looking down the barrel of the double helix. It gives you this beautiful circular pattern which has a remarkable similarity to a circular stained glass window in a church.
What do you wish religious people knew about scientists, and what scientists knew about believers?
Scientists see sometimes a caricature of what belief is about. They draw the conclusion that belief is something that is arrived at purely by emotion. They don’t perceive the notion that faith can be a completely rational choice, as it was for me.
Just as scientists sometimes are exposed to caricatures of religious people, I think religious people oftentimes have a view of scientists that is based upon certain extremists. Forty percent of scientists are believers in a personal God to whom one can pray and expect an answer. That’s proven by various surveys.
We need all kinds of ways of knowing. We need all kinds of ways of speaking the truth. Science is one way. Faith is another. They are not really about opposite things. They’re about different ways of answering the most important questions.