Francis Collins, a Faithful Scientist

Drew Dyck’s book Generation Ex-Christian includes the following anecdote about the author’s visit to the Wheaton Atheist Club (Who knew such an organization existed?).

Somewhere in the midst of our conversations, a jovial young man named Dan came clean as a former Christian.  He’d left the faith only months earlier.

“I was in the Assemblies of God all my life,” he said.  “I even played in a Christian band.”

What had caused his crisis of faith?

“I always believed the earth was 6,000 years old,” Dan said bitterly.  “But now I know it’s not.”

For years Dan tried desperately to maintain his belief in the young earth theory.  He read material from Answers in Genesis, a Christian apologetics organization, consulted his pastor and people in his church.  But ultimately he said he just couldn’t deny what he saw as the evidence that the world was much older than 6,000 years.

“That’s when I realized that Christianity just wasn’t true.” he said.

Inwardly I cringed at the false-alternatives scenario that Dan had set up in his mind.  For him, one geological question (which the Bible doesn’t even address explicitly) was the deciding factor for faith.  Even Answers in Genesis, which holds unswervingly to a literal reading of the Bible’s first book, seems to place less importance on the earth’s age.  The first bullet point of their statement of belief reads: “The scientific aspects of creation are important, but are secondary in importance to the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as Sovereign, Creator, Redeemer and Judge.”  However, for Dan, the question of the earth’s age was paramount, and in his view Christianity had failed.

In part because of his concern over young people like Dan, Dr. Francis Collins founded an organization called BioLogos, which addresses issues of science and faith (www.biologos.org).  No one can dispute Collins’ credentials as a scientist: he holds both a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Yale and an M.D. from North Carolina, gained renown for finding the gene that causes cystic fibrosis, and directed the Human Genome Project toward its triumphant goal of mapping all three billion letters of the human genetic code.  Yet Collins identifies himself as an evangelical Christian and has engaged in public debates with some of the “New Atheists” such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins (the latter in a Time cover story).

I have attended two meetings sponsored by BioLogos and the Templeton Foundation, including one that took place last week in Manhattan.  Each brought together an assortment of scientists, theologians, and pastors in order to discuss how the findings of science shed light on our understanding of the Bible’s account of creation.  BioLogos accepts the findings of science that the earth is 4.7 billion years old and that the diversity of species has come about through the process of evolution.  At the same time, it affirms the classic Christian creeds and sees no necessary conflict between science and the Bible.

Francis Collins had to step back from direct management of BioLogos in 2009 when he accepted the position of director of the National Institutes of Health, the nation’s largest scientific organization.  In such a prominent role, he attracts strident criticism from both sides of the science/faith debate.  When he was nominated for NIH, one scientist accused him of suffering from dementia and another complained, “I don’t want American science to be represented by a clown.”  They were reacting to his outspoken beliefs in a personal God who created the universe, answers prayer, and performs miracles.  Meanwhile, Collins and BioLogos absorb flames and arrows from some in the Christian community who question their salvation or theological purity because they reject a young earth and affirm the common descent of species.  Truly, BioLogos walks a tightrope.

Gently yet persistently, Collins meets with both groups and explains why he sees science and faith as compatible expressions of God’s “two books”: God’s Works and God’s Word.  As he told Richard Dawkins, “I see no conflict in what the Bible tells me about God and what science tells me about nature.  Like St. Augustine in A.D. 400, I do not find the wording of Genesis 1 and 2 to suggest a scientific textbook but a powerful and poetic description of God’s intentions in creating the universe.  The mechanism of creation is left unspecified. If God, who is all powerful and who is not limited by space and time, chose to use the mechanism of evolution to create you and me, who are we to say that wasn’t an absolutely elegant plan?  And if God has now given us the intelligence and the opportunity to discover his methods, that is something to celebrate.”

Collins’s best-selling book The Language of God articulates his beliefs, as well as giving a kind of personal testimony.  Collins has sympathy for atheists, for as a student at Yale he was a “fundamentalist atheist” who took delight in arguing with believers.  His shift into medicine introduced challenges to his non-belief, especially as he encountered people who endured great suffering yet clung to their faith.  “If they believed in a God and he let them get cancer, why weren’t they shaking their fist at him?  Instead, they seemed to derive this remarkable sense of comfort from their faith, even at a time of great adversity.”

One day, an elderly woman suffering from an untreatable illness asked Collins what he believed.  He had no response, no answer to such questions as “Why am I here?”, “What happens after we die?”, and “Is there a God?”  He realized that as a scientist he had always insisted on collecting rigorous data, yet in matters of faith he had never even sought data.  After consulting with a minister he read the Gospel of John, then turned to the writings of C. S. Lewis, beginning with Mere Christianity.  As Lewis himself once said, an atheist can’t be too careful what he reads; the surprised and reluctant young doctor fell into the arms of faith.

Three decades later, having just turned 60, Collins heads one of the world’s most important scientific organizations, overseeing twenty thousand employees and grants to 325,000 outside researchers.  In personal style he breaks the mold.  Though his skin has the paleness of someone who spends all day at a desk job, he commutes to work on a red Harley-Davidson motorcycle.  A scientist with impeccable credentials, at Christian groups he will pull out a custom guitar inlaid with mother-of-pearl in the shape of the DNA double-helix and lead the gathering in praise choruses.  (Even at scientific gatherings he may perform a folk song composed on the spot; his parents ran a back-to-nature farm in Virginia that hosted actors and musicians, including Bob Dylan who spent his 18th birthday there.)

I have observed Francis Collins at two different workshops sponsored by BioLogos.  He never missed a meeting, always sitting on the front row, and unlike some participants he kept his Blackberry phone in his pocket.  Between meetings he worked on statements that scientists, theologians, and pastors could all agree on—periodically reminding us of our responsibility to students who faced a crisis of faith because of careless assumptions by both science and the church.  In contrast to many scientists, he spoke in complete sentences, free of jargon, as he distilled the various arguments that had been presented.

Two things, however, impressed me about Collins more than his many achievements.  First, I learned of how he treats his adversaries, some of whom speak of Collins with contempt.  Whenever he visits Oxford he tries to have tea with Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, who has called religious faith a “virus of the mind.”  Similarly, he has met often with the militant atheist Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great.  He told one reporter, “As you might have heard, Christopher has esophageal cancer, and I have actually been spending a fair amount of time with him and his wife, Carol, trying to help him sort through the options for therapy—including some rather cutting-edge approaches based on cancer genomics.”

The second thing that impressed me occurred in the early morning hours, before 5 am.  I had flown to New York from Europe the night before and my biological clock had not adjusted to the time change, so I got up and made my way down to a floor where the hotel provided a coffee machine.  I heard not a sound in the hallways, as all reasonable people were sleeping.  But when I got to the coffee room, to my surprise I found a familiar figure, Francis Collins, standing before the coffee machine in his pajamas.  “You know, e-mail, keeping up with the bureaucracy, all that stuff,” he explained.  Oh, yes—even though he would spend all day giving full attention to a group of Christians who were thrashing out matters of theology, he did have those 20,000 employees to worry about.

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15 Responses to Francis Collins, a Faithful Scientist

  1. John Bidwell says:

    We must not make the mistake of elevating human reasoning, intelligence and scientific achievement as a badge of authority. The true authority is the Word of God which trumps science. We must submit our understanding of scientific discovery to the Word. Mostly, there is no conflict, but macroevolution theory is based on unprovable assumptions. We see microevolution working within species, and survival of the fittest happens, but one species turning into another has only been observed in the minds of its advocates.

    Making sense of the cross depends on a literal interpretation of Genesis chapters 1 to 3, with a real Adam and a real fall. The real Adam did not evolve from a primate. In trying to win souls do we have to compromise by adopting the world’s explanation of the natural world? There is a difference between evidence and interpretation of evidence, a point that is not always discerned by biologists and geologists, scientific disciplines where the boundaries between true science and philosophy are blurred.

  2. Peter Bangs says:

    What a fascinating man. I attended a New Wine Christian conference with my family and some friends last year and one of the seminars I attended was “How should Christians react to science”. Of some 200 people in the seminar only myself and the woman sat next to me weren’t working in a scientific field. The seminar was lead by a man of science who had, after 15 years, entered a seminary and was now working in an Anglican church. He, wisely, offered no answers, only more questions but it seemed the majority of the attendees were looking for someone to tell them it’s okay to be a scientist. Many of our most famous scientists were Christians but it’s always a pleasure to discover someone who’s faith can withstand all the questions science can raise, and vice versa. I believe it was Einstein who said, the more he learnt about the universe, the more he knew there was a god.

  3. Greg in Philadelphia says:

    Philip, your books have been so instrumental in shaping my own understanding and articulation of my faith. Could this topic – the sadly misunderstood “battle” between science and religion (read: Christianity) – be the basis of a future work?

    I ask this because so few authors seem to have the ability to frame and explain the issue in a way that is understandable to a wide Christian audience. Even fewer can discuss the topic without inducing in so many readers an automatic, emotionally charged knee-jerk reaction against the ideas of evolution or an old earth.

    But perhaps these reactions are unavoidable, at least for so many Christians who have been taught that evolution & old Earth = atheistic naturalism. I was one raised under this assumption, and I have seen my best friend abandon his faith because as an educated, scientifically-minded person he came to know that a 6,000 year-old Earth is completely untenable in the light of mountains of evidence to the contrary. What is desperately needed, I believe, is a book that will clearly explain to a wide Christian audience the following:

    1) Accepting the now-obvious fact that the Earth is very, very old does not mean we must throw the baby out with the bathwater (i.e., our faith along with faulty teachings and assumptions).

    2) Rather than an idea to be feared (or ridiculed), evolution as the mechanism of Creation is actually an amazing concept that provides us with a breathtaking picture of God’s creative awesomeness!

    3) Clinging to a “literal” interpretation of the Genesis account of creation is history repeating itself. The church has been here before hundreds of years ago with the Copernican revolution! So many then believed that to remove the Earth from the center of the universe was to negate Scripture entirely, which of course it did not, and does not!

    In any case, I am always saddened to see posts such as those here from Paul and greg…

    Greg, I think you would find much of interest in the website for BioLogos, the organization that Francis Collins founded to address these very questions. And I know of some very capable writers who are working on what you describe. Thank you.

    Philip

  4. Ward Fenley says:

    Just as many have noted, the language in Genesis suggests something far deeper than a literal interpretion which rips out the profound meaning of Genesis, i.e. the beginning of *covenant* creation rather than cosmological creation. Once we realize this is what Genesis is about, it soon becomes evident this is what Revelation is about. It’s unfortunate that modern “Left Behind” eschatology affects the interpretation of Genesis as well. After all, if the beginning of the Bible is about literal days and literal creation, then why not have the end of the Bible be about the same, except that it is about the end of that same creation? What if, however, the Bible is about the beginning of God’s covenant dealings with a covenant people, and the purpose of that first covenant was to drive them to seek a second and better covenant “built upon better promises”? Perhaps Genesis isn’t speaking about physical creation at all. Perhaps the evolution/creation debate is a moot point as far as the Bible is concerned.

    Preterism, or the preterist interpretation of Scripture makes great inroads into the creation/evolution debate as well as answers many questions surrounding texts supposedly dealing with “physical” creation.

  5. Clay Knick says:

    Philip,

    This was splendid. What a gift he is to the church.

  6. Paul says:

    I was genuinely surprised by your endorsement of Dr Collins and his BioLogos group. Both Answers in Genesis and Creation Ministries International (among others) have written specific rebuttals to some of this group’s claims, but for me anyway, the question ultimately becomes what does one believe – AND WHY. If Genesis 1 is wrong, how about Exodus 1 or John 1 etc – how does one decide what is truth and what is not? Ask scientists?
    In Mark 10:6, Jesus said: “But at the beginning of creation God made them male and female”. According to BioLogos this can’t be true – so was Jesus wrong when he said that, or was he lying, and if one accepts either of those options, what does that say about any other of Jesus’ claims – such as being “the way, the truth and the life”? If HE was wrong about creation, then clearly HE could be wrong about other things. One can’t have it both ways, which it seems BioLogos is trying to do. Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, pointed out in a reply to Karl Giberson, vice president of Biologos: “If your intention in your book “Saving Darwin” is to show “how to be a Christian and believe in evolution,” what you have actually succeeded in doing is to show how much doctrine Christianity has to surrender in order to accommodate itself to evolution. In doing this, you and your colleagues at Biologos are actually doing us all a great service. You are showing us what the acceptance of evolution actually costs, in terms of theological concessions”.
    I believe Dr Mohler is right on.

  7. greg says:

    I am looking forward to the day in heaven when God replays the 6 days of Creation and the time of Noah’s Flood (which we will be able to see for we will no longer be limited by time{as the Bible says that time will be no more})and we will see that science and scripture match perfectly , and that an ALL MIGHTY GOD did not need any bit of a rediculous thing called evolution. Think about it–the Bible says that man comes from Man, and that an animal comes from animal,,,and evolution says that man comes from soup of some kind, and that animal may have come from a rock—-even just common sense says that evolution doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.

  8. Monex says:

    RE: 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. 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.

  9. Chandler Branch says:

    Many thanks for this thoughtful post, Philip. It came to my mind again today by way of a BBC report on a debate on religion between Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-11843586 . The friendship between Hitchens and Collins, which you mention here in this post, is indeed significant.

  10. Rob Guthrie says:

    Not to sound negative, because you are a hero to me, Philip (and I have been reading authors that reconcile faith and science for years), but one of the challenges lies in the enormous majority of churches that teach (some vehemently, and just as contemptuously as their counterparts in the argument) that the Bible is the “unerring Word of God”. This kind of belief opens the book to a (somewhat well-deserved) assault on literally every single claim (e.g. the earth and all its inhabitants were created in six days, or the earth is 6,000 years old). I’ve always viewed the Bible more as a book, written by humans, inspired by the love story of God. Yet the religious and the secular alike tear it apart, limb from limb (read: sentence from sentence). The reason for this is that believers (like myself) cannot “have their cake and eat it too”. If the Bible is the unerring Word of God, we must find a different interpretation of those Words. One of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read is by Gerald Schroeder, PhD. Schroeder is an astrophysicist who is also a devout Jew. His first book, Genesis and the Big Bang is a fascinating look at how the actually wording of Genesis may not be incorrect when taken from the perspective of altered time at the beginning of the Universe.

    In any case, thank you, Philip. You are truly an inspiration and continue to assist me in keeping the faith.

  11. timothy perry says:

    i am one of those who over came and chosen to recieve the truth involving science and alove story ,evolution and creation.but one thing is certain when this much positive is coming through the negatives do get agitated i could use some help getting this word in proper arrangment and publishing may i have suggestions ,i’ve even thought of giving it on,internet and to tell the truth i have thought burning it and letting the next evolution have this beautiful truth.

  12. G. Kyle Essary says:

    I heard Christopher Hitchens in a debate last week. I was somewhat shocked that the one book he recommended to everyone to understand science and faith issues was The Language of God by “his good friend” Francis Collins, whom he said has been side by side with him through his medical issues. The atheist group sitting near me all started mumbling and looking at each other at this point because he went on to say that the conflict with faith isn’t over these topics. They seemed both shocked that of all the books Hitchens would pick this one, and a little confused over how and why he would consider an evangelical to be such a dear friend.

    I’ve had many young atheists express this reason for leaving the faith (if they ever had it). Faith and science are in conflict. Why? Because Genesis 1 speaks of a Creation event 6000 years ago and gets the details wrong anyways.

    I used to believe a similar view on Genesis 1, but it was actually learning Hebrew in college that changed this for me. As you read the text in its original language, you see that much more is going on than a simplistic, straightforward historical narrative. And that’s a good thing! It speaks to us in a much deeper way once we remove the straightjacket that our American culture has placed upon it and let it speak for itself.

  13. Susan in Cincinnati says:

    I so appreciate your posting of this very interesting info…It always helps me to hear various angles of thought from the faithful. It keeps me from being so absolute and arrogant in those areas that are just not spelled out in the Bible. And then I wonder if God meant it to be that way so we don’t get hung up on the stuff that just isn’t as important as having a relationship with Him? We just won’t know the rest of the story until that day when we meet Him face to face.

  14. Dan McMonagle says:

    Thanks so much for posting. I’m glad to see there are people that don’t see a conflict with an old universe and the God of creation. For many years I’ve believed that the key is that God created, not necessarily how he created. I don’t necessarily buy into evolution as God’s method of creation of life, but I do believe that if evolution works, it is because it is the tool God chose to create (i.e., God is the force that pushed the ball up hill…. it didn’t roll up hill on it’s own.)

    Thanks for posting…..

  15. Marty Jones says:

    Philip- thanks for posting this. Dr. Collins is one of my current heroes. There are so many people who confuse the teachings of an arm of The Church for the teachings of Scripture. I’ve sat through the ‘young earth’ discussions, and they take about as much faith to believe as atheism… And yet, the Master of the Universe is difficult to understand. I suppose the greater difficulty is the hubris we present in trying to understand, and thinking we are capable of such understanding…

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