Could Francis Collins’ Faith Create Conflicts For His Potential Directorship of NIH?

Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., is probably best known for his leadership of the Human Genome Project, though his discoveries of the Cystic Fibrosis, Huntington’s, and Neurofibromatosis genes are also extraordinary accomplishments. Dr. Collins is a world-renowned scientist and geneticist, and also a committed Christian. In his recent best-selling book, The Language Of God, Dr. Collins attempts to harmonize his commitment to both science and religion.

Some critics (such as Richard Dawkins) have expressed reservations about Dr. Collins’ faith, wondering if it might cloud his scientific judgment. Since Collins is rumored to be the most likely candidate for directorship of the NIH, and because I wanted to know if Dawkins et al. had any reason for concern, I decided to read The Language Of God.

First of all, Christians are a rather heterogeneous group – with a range of viewpoints on evolution, science, and the interpretation of Biblical texts. On one extreme there are Christians (often referred to as “young earth creationists” or simply “creationists”) who believe in an absolutely literal interpretation of the Genesis story, and see evolution as antithetical to true faith. Dr. Collins suggests that as many as 45% of Christians may actually be in this camp.

On the other end of the spectrum are Christians who embrace evolution, accept and promote scientific thinking, and understand the Bible to be a blend of poetry, allegory, and historical literature. While they see the Genesis account of creation as poetic, the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings are considered to be more literal.

The good news is that Collins’ views are very representative of the scientific end of the Christian spectrum. In fact, he spends several chapters attempting to help creationists embrace evolution. He takes great pains to explain how irrational it is to deny the evidence we have (both from a genetic, and an archeological/basic science perspective) for evolution. He argues that evolution is not an enemy of faith, but rather an enlightening look at how God’s creative process works.

Collins also takes on “Intelligent Design (ID),” exposing it as a PR play, not a true scientific theory. He suggests that ID is an “argument from personal incredulity” expressed in the language of mathematics, biochemistry, and genetics. Furthermore, Collins explains that ID proponents have confused the unknown with the unknowable – there is no current “irreducible complexity” that cannot be explained by evolutionary theory. We don’t need a “God of the gaps” to explain what we’ve yet to learn.

One of the more interesting parts of the book is Dr. Collins’ mathematical review of the incredibly low odds of the right blend of atoms/elements and the correct rate of expansion of the universe to occur by chance. He argues that certain atomic particles needed to be present in unequal and varying amounts at the earliest moment of the Big Bang to produce – eventually – the right conditions for life as we know it. He uses this analogy: it’s possible that a poker player could randomly obtain a straight flush in 50 consecutive hands. However, a more plausible explanation is that he’s cheating. In the same way, the universe could have come into being by coincidence, but it’s more likely that it was a coordinated event.

Collins’ argument for the existence of God is compelling to me. His explanation of why he chose to become a Christian is a little less so. Collins often resorts to lengthy quotes of C.S. Lewis in lieu of his own theological rationale – but I suppose we can forgive him for this. He is first and foremost a scientist, not a theologian, and his book simply reflects that fact. [Those interested in a more compelling theological rationale for Christianity might try Timothy Keller’s, The Reason For God: Belief In An Age Of Skepticism.]

In summary, Collins claims to believe in “theistic evolution.” He says that few people have heard of it because it harmonizes science and religion – and “harmony is boring” and doesn’t have a PR agenda. Nonetheless, he finds it internally consistent and intellectually satisfying. The material world is best understood through scientific inquiry, the spiritual world cannot be tested or understood by science. Matters of conscience, morality, and a yearning for answers to questions that may not be resolved empirically (What happens to us after death? What existed before the Big Bang? Is there a soul?) are matters best left for religion.

After reading The Language Of God, I feel confident that Collins is a reasonable person. He embraces science more successfully than many people of faith, and I didn’t notice anything about his beliefs that would make me question his ability to lead the NIH in true, scientific inquiry. In fact, The Language Of God may embolden other Christians to join the Science-Based Medicine movement by offering them a rational way to allow faith and science to co-exist. I hope that  scientists who hold atheist or agnostic religious views will embrace this small group of evolutionary theists as religious moderates who fully support scientific orthodoxy.

Posted in: Basic Science, Book & movie reviews, Evolution

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