Challenging the notion that the scientific and the spiritual were incompatible, he spoke of faith in a personal and warm way, of Jesus as an intimate friend.
The scientific project he leads is daunting. 2000 scientists from six continents share in the unbelievable task of decoding and transliterating the 3-billion letters of the human genome. Collins called it “our own DNA instruction book.” Just reciting the letters with relentless rhetoric would require 31 years. And that information is stored in everyone of the 1-trillion cells in every human body.
Despite the diversity among us – height, weight, skin color, facial characteristics, athletic or arts in inclination, physical or fragile – we are 99.9% similar.
Collins was not a boy raised in church who held on to his faith despite the culture war against faith, particularly in the field of science and even medicine. Quite the opposite, he recalls growing up in a rather “freethinking” home with unconventional parents who attempted to expose their kids to literature and music, learning and arts. Religion was not a part of the family education diet. As he proceeded through the study of math and science, he remembers reducing the world to its physical laws. He was first agnostic, then atheist.
But chemistry and physics had led to medicine. It was in the early years of his practice that he encountered people for whom the world was more than hard facts. He found elements of life that could not be dealt with from a purely academic perspective. He recalls, “I found few atheist amongst those lying in hospital beds.”
With only a few weeks to live, a kindly grandmother, looking death in the face, calmly and confidently shared her faith in Christ with him. Her poise shook him. Her confidence puzzled him. But her question jolted him, “Doctor,” she asked, after sharing her faith so openly, with such quiet confidence and peace, “What do you believe?” Dr. Collins recalls stammering, finding himself at a complete loss for words. Silenced before her simple faith, he recalls, “I fled the room, having the disturbing sense that the atheist ice under my feet was cracking, though I wasn’t quite sure why.” It became clear to him that his scientific bias, all decisions made on the basis of empirical data alone had ruled out evidence for and against faith. He had never even considered Christ. Never allowed himself to examine faith.
His search led him to such scholars as C. S. Lewis. Suddenly he could see signposts previously ignored. Clearly there was something outside of nature, something or someone that could only be called – God. Science told him, how! But not, why? And ‘why?’ was the bigger question. Why? – does math work so beautifully to describe nature? Why? – do humans have a universal sense of right and wrong? And with an urge to do right?
Having discovered the inner markings, the lines of conscience on the walls of his own heart, he realized that the assumption which juxtaposed faith and reason as opposites was flawed. Faith, as the writer of Hebrews declares “is substance!” It is “evidence” itself. Chesterton had long ago asserted, “Atheism is indeed the most daring of all dogmas … for it is the assertion of a universal negative.” Collins conceded, “atheism was in fact the least rational of all choices.” He had made the great discovery, that of “a powerful creative force, a creative Mind, that existed outside of Nature.”
That discovery, however, placed him at another point of inquiry. The existence of God in the abstract was not enough. Having become aware of the God who is there, he wondered – Did that God care? And did he care about Francis Collins? He felt an increasing hunger to answer that question. His search led him to Jesus Christ, a man apart from all others – humble, kind, considerate of the poor and outcast, loving of enemies, forgiving of sins. He had assumed all his life that Jesus was a myth. Digging through the data, his scientific instincts fully alive, he was now overwhelmed by the historical evidence regarding the very real life of Christ.
He could no longer suppress his need for forgiveness and his desire for a new life. He became a follower of Christ. Collins calls Jesus “the rock upon which I stand, the source of ultimate love, peace, joy and hope.”
Still, people question Collins about conflicts between faith and science. He responds, “Science is the only reliable way to understand the natural world. But being a believer allows me to see the scientific discoveries in a wholly new light. In that context, science becomes a means not only of discovery, but of worship … As a believer I have the indescribable experience of having caught a glimpse of God’s mind.” Science a threat to faith? “The Almighty,” Collins says can “hardly be threatened by the efforts of our puny minds to understand his creation.” That creation – majestic, awesome, intricate and beautiful – cannot contradict itself.
Adapted from the address of Dr. Francis Collins at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC, February 1, 2007.