Francis Collins and the DNA of Faithfulness

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Christopher Hitchens was one of the most articulate persons ever to inhabit this planet. He employed that skill to promote every reason not to believe in God. In 2010, this world-renowned and bestselling atheist contracted esophageal cancer. Having heard this, Francis Collins, equally famous—in this case, as a voice for orthodox Christian faith and science—reached out to Hitchens. They became friends. Hitchens, who died in 2011, offered this stunning assessment: Francis Collins is “the best of the faithful,” a “great humanitarian,” and “one of the greatest living Americans.”

Collins’s Public Voice

This week I turn to your top write-in leading theological voice from our survey. (It’s not really worth trying to excuse our omitting him. It was simply an oversight.) And yet, Collins hardly had an auspicious upbringing for his current position as a premier voice in religion and science. Raised by free-thinking artistic parents, Collins didn’t take Christianity seriously until he encountered C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, while in medical school, and professed faith in Christ at 27.

It would be hard to write a contemporary sketch of science and religion without including the Human Genome Project that fully mapped and sequenced human DNA, finishing the work in 2003, on time and under budget. Collins headed that. After writing his 2009 bestselling The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, he found that he was fielding too many questions about the book. He sat down with a small team of specialists, and they worked out answers to common questions, which they posted on a website. Soon this became the basis for the BioLogos Foundation. Shortly thereafter, President Obama appointed Collins Director of the National Institutes of Health (and, as a result, he had to leave official work for BioLogos). He’s continued in his NIH post with President Trump. Serving under two vastly different administrations is no small feat. But maybe it shouldn’t surprise us. Collins embodies humility, intelligence, courage, and calm, traits which have also guided us well during the worst global pandemic in a century.

Besides all that (and more), this year he was awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize. This leads me to an invitation (and please share it): he’ll receive the prize and offer an address through a virtual ceremony on September 24th at 7pm Eastern.

Collins is the voice par excellence of faith and science integration. How to summarize his work? I can’t adequately. Instead, I turn to two of his most memorable quotations (which, admittedly, I often use in science and faith talks when I’m searching for something wise to say), “Studying the natural world is an opportunity to observe the majesty, the elegance, the intricacy of God’s creation.” And, “I have found there is a wonderful harmony in the complementary truths of science and faith…. The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. God can be found in the cathedral or in the laboratory. By investigating God’s majestic and awesome creation, science can actually be a means of worship.”

More Personally

I teach a Science and Religion course at least once a year, which includes this assignment: “Read both Francis Collins and Richard Dawkins. Watch Dawkins’ Ted Talk, ‘Militant Atheism’ and Collins’s lecture, ‘The Language of God.’ Write a paper on who is more persuasive and why.” Note that this is a secular state college where less than 50% say they are Christians when I make the next statement—over the past six years, by a margin of about five to one and sample size of at least 200, my students prefer Collins’s approach. “He talks about science.” “Dawkins is way too caustic and cynical.” “Collins is thoughtful and engaging.”

Yes, Collins is humble and down-to-earth, which brings me to a story Drew told me. Collins delivered a lecture at an American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) meeting and then answered a seemingly endless flow of questions. Afterward, in a separate, smaller nearby room, he sat on the floor with a dozen or so science students and post-docs, eating ice cream and responding to their questions until they had no more.

I don’t recall when I opened his famous The Language of God, but I do remember the first time I met Collins personally. I was one of a group of scholars in science and religion consulting with AAAS’s Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion. At our final dinner, we heard “there’s a very special speaker tonight.” Unfortunately, that speaker was running late. (I later found that he’d just been called to the White House for a meeting.) I soon returned to the conversation around the table. But, out of the corner of my eye, I thought I spied Collins, and so I asked my friend Se Kim, “Is that who I think it is?” She said, “Yes, it’s Francis. He’s talking tonight. Do you want me to introduce you?” Before I could reject the offer (due to my embarrassment), I heard “Francis, meet Greg Cootsona.”

I have met a few famous people for a variety of reasons, and rarely does the conversation go well. Most often it’s like this: “I read your books. I love what you have to say. You’re amazing.” And that leads nowhere. But with Collins, he immediately asked me what I do, whom I read, and when I mentioned that we shared a mutual interest in C.S. Lewis, he exclaimed, “Yes, let’s talk about him!” We were off to the races.

Collins embodies humanity and humility. He’s as compelling in person as he is in writing and speaking. Hichens was certainly correct—he is one of the “best of the faithful.”



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