There are few scientists who have had as great an impact upon our understanding of human DNA as Dr. Francis Collins. Known for his leadership of the Human Genome Project and more recently as the Director of the National Institutes of Health, Collins holds a PhD in Physical Chemistry from Yale alongside a graduate degree in Quantum Mechanics from the same university.
Raised in a non-religious household, Collins saw no reason to ascribe any value to particular religious beliefs. This was a view that crystallised during his time in college.
“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.”
The presupposed methodological naturalism that has tightened it’s grip upon the hard sciences over the past one hundred and fifty years shaped Collins’ worldview. “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.” It became Collins’ mission to rid his religious friends and acquaintances of their superstitious beliefs.
After completing his graduate degree in quantum mechanics, Collins became dissatisfied with his direction in life. He felt his studies were taking him too far out into the conceptual away from real life. Collins then began to study medicine and it was while completing his studies as a doctor on ward that questions of faith and spirituality began to resurface.
“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.”
One of Collins’ patients at the time was an old lady struggling with heart disease. After he had helped he through one particularly difficult bout of pain, through which she prayed, she asked Collins, “what do you believe, Dr. Collins?” This simple question gave him pause for thought and began an investigative journey Collins never expected to take.
“I realised 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.”
This minister handed Collins a copy of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity and invited him to read it and come back to him with comments. What Collins found in the pages of Lewis’s classic was a bold, vibrant and intellectually stimulating Christianity, not the dry husk of sentiment mixed with illogic he had expected.
“I had always assumed that faith was based on purely emotional and irrational arguments, and was astounded to discover, initially in the writings of the Oxford scholar C.S. Lewis and subsequently from many other sources, that one could build a very strong case for the plausibility of the existence of God on purely rational grounds. My earlier atheist’s assertion that “I know there is no God” emerged as the least defensible.”
“Lewis’s slim tome 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.”
Though Collins found this conclusion irresistible he wrestled with his doubts for over a year until finally yielding to the call of God. Though it was the apologetic arguments of Lewis and Chesterton that initially drew Collins toward Christianity, it wasn’t these intellectual reasonings that eventually got him over the line: “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.”
“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 realise that. It is not just a philosophy, it is a reality of a relationship.”
by Graham Phillips
Collins: Why this scientist believes in God – CNN (2007)
An Interview with Francis Collins – The Question of God (pbs.org)