The Scientist as Believer (1/2)

The often strained relationship between science and religion has become particularly combative lately. In one corner we have scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker who view religion as a relic of our superstitious, prescientific past that humanity should abandon. In the other corner are religious believers who charge that science is morally nihilistic and inadequate for understanding the wonders of existence. Into this breach steps Francis Collins, who offers himself as proof that science and religion can be reconciled. As leader of the Human Genome Project, Collins is among the world’s most important scientists, the head of a multibillion-dollar research program aimed at understanding human nature and healing our innate disorders. And yet in his best-selling book, The Language of God, he recounts how he accepted Christ as his savior in 1978 and has been a devout Christian ever since. “The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome,” he writes. “He can be worshiped in the cathedral or in the laboratory.” Recently Collins discussed his faith with science writer John Horgan, who has explored the boundaries between science and spirituality in his own books The End of Science and Rational Mysticism. Horgan, who has described himself as “an agnostic increasingly disturbed by religion’s influence on human affairs,” directs the Center for Science Writings at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey.

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

Collins: I don’t have a problem with the concept that miracles might occasionally occur at moments of great significance, where there is a message being transmitted to us by God Almighty. But as a scientist I set my standards for miracles very high.

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 art in Heaven, please get me a parking space.”

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: 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, and 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: Physicist Steven Weinberg, who is an atheist, 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 philosophers, 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.”

National Geographic Magazine, February 2009

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