One of the World’s Most Powerful Scientists Believes in Miracles

When I talk to my students about the tempestuous relationship between science and religion, I like to bring up the case of Francis Collins. Early in his career, Collins was a successful gene-hunter, who helped identify genes associated with cystic fibrosis and other disorders. He went on to become one of the world’s most powerful scientists. Since 2009, he has directed the National Institutes of Health, which this year has a budget of over $40 billion. Before that he oversaw the Human Genome Project, one of history’s biggest research projects. Collins was an atheist until 1978, when he underwent a conversion experience while hiking in the mountains and became a devout Christian. In his 2006 bestselling book The Language of God, Collins declares that he sees no incompatibility between science and religion. “The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome,” he wrote. “He can be worshipped in the cathedral or in the laboratory.” Collins just won the $1.3 million Templeton Prize, created in 1972 to promote reconciliation of science and spirituality. (See my posts on the Templeton Foundation here and here). This news gives me an excuse to post an interview I carried out with Collins for National Geographic in 2006, a time when Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and others were vigorously attacking religion. Below is an edited transcript of my conversation with Collins, which took place in Washington, D.C. I liked Collins, whom I found to be surprisingly unassuming for a man of such high stature. But I was disturbed by our final exchanges, in which he revealed a fatalistic outlook on humanity’s future. Collins, it seems, has lots of faith in God but not much in humanity. – John Horgan

Horgan: How does it feel to be at the white-hot center of the current debate between science and religion?

Collins: This increasing polarization between extremists on both ends of the atheism and belief spectrum has been heartbreaking to me. If my suggestion that there is a harmonious middle ground puts me at the white-hot center of debate–Hooray! It’s maybe a bit overdue.

Horgan: The danger in trying to appeal to people on both sides of a polarized debate is–

Collins: Bombs thrown at you from both directions!

Horgan: Has that happened?

Collins [sighs]: The majority have responded in very encouraging ways. But some of my scientific colleagues argue that it’s totally inappropriate for a scientist to write about religion, and we already have too much faith in public life in this country. And then I get some very strongly worded messages from fundamentalists who feel that I have compromised the literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and call me a false prophet. I’m diluting the truth and doing damage to the faith.

Horgan: Why do you think the debate has become so polarized?

Collins: It starts with an extreme articulation of a viewpoint on one side of the issue and that then results in a response that is also a little bit too extreme, and the whole thing escalates. Every action demands an equal and opposite reaction. This is one of Newton’s laws playing out in an unfortunate public scenario.

Horgan: I must admit that I’ve become more concerned lately about the harmful effects of religion because of religious terrorism like 9/11 and the growing power of the religious right in the United States.

Collins: What faith has not been used by demagogues as a club over somebody’s head? Whether it was the Inquisition or the Crusades on the one hand or the World Trade Center on the other? But we shouldn’t judge the pure truths of faith by the way they are applied any more than we should judge the pure truth of love by an abusive marriage. We as children of God have been given by God this knowledge of right and wrong, this “Moral Law,” which I see as a particularly compelling signpost to His existence. But we also have this thing called free will which we exercise all the time to break that law. We shouldn’t blame faith for the ways people distort it and misuse it.

Horgan: Isn’t the problem when religions say, This is the only way to truth? Isn’t that what turns religious faith from something beautiful into something intolerant and hateful?

Collins: There is a sad truth there. I think we Christians have been way too ready to define ourselves as members of an exclusive club. I found truth, I found joy, I found peace in that particular conclusion, but I am not in any way suggesting that that is the conclusion everybody else should find. To have anyone say, “My truth is purer than yours,” that is both inconsistent with what I see in the person of Christ and incredibly off-putting. And quick to start arguments and fights and even wars! Look at the story of the Good Samaritan, which is a parable from Jesus himself. Jews would have considered the Samaritan to be a heretic, and yet clearly Christ’s message is: That is the person who did right and was justified in God’s eyes. 

Horgan: How can you, as a scientist who looks for natural explanations of things and demands evidence, also believe in miracles, like the resurrection?

Collins: My first struggle was to believe in God. Not a pantheist God who is entirely enclosed within nature, or a Deist God who started the whole thing and then just lost interest, but a supernatural God who is interested in what is happening in our world and might at times choose to intervene. My second struggle was to believe that Christ was divine as He claimed to be. As soon as I got there, the idea that He might rise from the dead became a non-problem. I don’t have a problem with the concept that miracles might occasionally occur at moments of greatsignificance where there is a message being transmitted to us by God Almighty. But as a scientist I set my standards for miracles very high. And I don’t think we should try to convince agnostics or atheists about the reality of faith with claims about miracles that they can easily poke holes in.

Horgan: The problem I have with miracles is not just that they violate what science tells us about how the world works. They also make God seem too capricious. For example, many people believe that if they pray hard enough God will intercede to heal them or a loved one. But does that mean that all those who don’t get better aren’t worthy?

Collins: In my own experience as a physician, I have not seen a miraculous healing, and I don’t expect to see one. Also, prayer for me is not a way to manipulate God into doing what we want Him to do. Prayer for me is much more a sense of trying to get into fellowship with God. I’m trying to figure out what I should be doing rather than telling Almighty God what He should be doing. Look at the Lord’s Prayer. It says, “Thy will be done.” It wasn’t, “Our Father who are in Heaven, please get me a parking space.”

Horgan: Many people have a hard time believing in God because of the problem of evil. If God loves us, why is life filled with so much suffering?

Collins: That is the most fundamental question that all seekers have to wrestle with. First of all, if our ultimate goal is to grow, learn, discover things about ourselves and things about God, then unfortunately a life of ease is probably not the way to get there. I know I have learned very little about myself or God when everything is going well. Also, a lot of the pain and suffering in the world we cannot lay at God’s feet. God gave us free will, and we may choose to exercise it in ways that end up hurting other people.

Horgan: The physicist Steven Weinberg, who is an atheist, has written about this topic. He asks why six million Jews, including his relatives, had to die in the Holocaust so that the Nazis could exercise their free will. 

Collins: If God had to intervene miraculously every time one of us chose to do something evil, it would be a very strange, chaotic, unpredictable world. Free will leads to people doing terrible things to each other. Innocent people die as a result. You can’t blame anyone except the evildoers for that. So that’s not God’s fault. The harder question is when suffering seems to have come about through no human ill action. A child with cancer, a natural disaster, a tornado or tsunami. Why would God not prevent those things from happening?

Horgan: Some theologians, such as Charles Hartshorne, have suggested that maybe God isn’t fully in control of His creation. The poet Annie Dillard expresses this idea in her phrase “God the semi-competent.”

Collins: That’s delightful–and probably blasphemous! An alternative is the notion of God being outside of nature and of time and having a perspective of our blink-of-an-eye existence that goes both far back and far forward. In some admittedly metaphysical way, that allows me to say that the meaning of suffering may not always be apparent to me. There can be reasons for terrible things happening that I cannot know.

Horgan: I think you’re an agnostic.

Collins: No!

Horgan: You say that, to a certain extent, God’s ways are inscrutable. That sounds like agnosticism.

Collins: I’m agnostic about God’s ways. I’m not agnostic about God Himself. Thomas Huxley defined agnosticism as not knowing whether God exists or not. I’m a believer! I have doubts. As I quote Paul Tillich: “Doubt is not the opposite of faith. It’s a part of faith.” But my fundamental stance is that God is real, God is true.

Horgan: I’m an agnostic, and I was bothered when in your book you called agnosticism a “copout.” Agnosticism doesn’t mean you’re lazy or don’t care. It means you aren’t satisfied with any answers for what after all are ultimate mysteries.

Collins: That was a putdown that should not apply to earnest agnostics who have considered the evidence and still don’t find an answer. I was reacting to the agnosticism I see in the scientific community, which has not been arrived at by a careful examination of the evidence. I went through a phase when I was a casual agnostic, and I am perhaps too quick to assume that others have no more depth than I did.

Horgan: Free will is a very important concept to me, as it is to you. It’s the basis for our morality and search for meaning. Don’t you worry that science in general and genetics in particular—and your work as head of the Genome Project–are undermining belief in free will?

Collins: You’re talking about genetic determinism, which implies that we are helpless marionettes being controlled by strings made of double helices. That is so far away from what we know scientifically! Heredity does have an influence not only over medical risks but also over certain behaviors and personality traits. But look at identical twins, who have exactly the same DNA but often don’t behave alike or think alike. They show the importance of learning and experience–and free will. I think we all, whether we are religious or not, recognize that free will is a reality. There are some fringe elements that say, “No, it’s all an illusion, we’re just pawns in some computer model.” But I don’t think that carries you very far.

Horgan: What do you think of Darwinian explanations of altruism, or what you call agape, totally selfless love and compassion for someone not directly related to you?

Collins: It’s been a little of a just-so story so far. Many would argue that altruism has been supported by evolution because it helps the group survive. But some people sacrifically give of themselves to those who are outside their group and with whom they have absolutely nothing in common. Like Mother Teresa, Oscar Schindler, many others. That is the nobility of humankind in its purist form. That doesn’t seem like it can be explained by a Darwinian model, but I’m not hanging my faith on this.

Horgan: If only selflessness were more common.

Collins: Well, there you get free will again. It gets in the way.

Horgan: What do you think about the field of neurotheology, which attempts to identify the neural basis of religious experiences?

Collins: I think it’s fascinating but not particularly surprising. We humans are flesh and blood. So it wouldn’t trouble me–if I were to have some mystical experience myself–to discover that my temporal lobe was lit up. I’d say, “Wow! That’s okay!” That doesn’t mean that this doesn’t have genuine spiritual significance. Those who come at this issue with the presumption that there is nothing outside the natural world will look at this data and say, “Ya see?” Whereas those who come with the presumption that we are spiritual creatures will go, “Cool! There is a natural correlate to this mystical experience! How about that!” I think our spiritual nature is truly God-given, and may not be completely limited by natural descriptors.

Horgan: What if this research leads to drugs or devices for artificially inducing religious experiences? Would you consider those experiences to be authentic? You probably heard about the recent report from Johns Hopkins that the psychedelic drug psilocybin triggered spiritual experiences.

Collins: Yes. If you are talking about the ingestion of an exogenous psychoactive substance or some kind of brain-stimulating contraption, that would smack of not being an authentic, justifiable, trust-worthy experience. So that would be a boundary I would want to establish between the authentic and the counterfeit.

Horgan: Some scientists have predicted that genetic engineering may give us superhuman intelligence and greatly extended life spans, and possibly even immortality. We might even engineer our brains so that we don’t fear pain or grief anymore. These are possible long-term consequences of the Human Genome Project and other lines of research. If these things happen, what do you think would be the consequences for religious traditions?

Collins: That outcome would trouble me. But we’re so far away from that reality that it’s hard to spend a lot of time worrying about it when you consider all the truly benevolent things we could do in the near term. If you get too hung up on the hypotheticals of what night happen in the next several hundred years, then you become paralyzed and you fail to live up to the opportunities to reach out and help people now. That seems to be the most unethical stance we could take.

Horgan: I’m really asking, Does religion requires suffering? Could we reduce suffering to the point where we just won’t need religion?

Collins: In spite of the fact that we have achieved all of these wonderful medical advances and made it possible to live longer and eradicate diseases, we will probably still figure out ways to argue with each other and sometimes to kill each other, out of our self-righteousness and our determination that we have to be on top. So the death rate will continue to be one per person by one means or another. We may understand a lot about biology, we may understand a lot about how to prevent illness, and we may understand the life span. But I don’t think we will figure out how to stop humans from doing bad things to each other. That will always be our greatest and most distressing experience here on this planet, and that will make us long the most, perhaps, for something more.

Further Reading:

In Defense of Disbelief: An Anti-Creed

Can Faith and Science Coexist?

Richard Dawkins Offers Advice for Donald Trump, and Other Wisdom

What Should We Do With Our Visions of Heaven and Hell?

Mind-Body Problems (free online book, also available as Kindle e-book and paperback). 


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