Francis Collins: The Christian scientist looking for a Covid-19 vaccine
Renowned geneticist Dr Francis Collins recently won the Templeton Prize for his work reconciling science and faith. Now he faces a new challenge – defeating Covid-19
I’m fortunate to get an hour of Francis Collins’ time. He’s a busy man, currently working 100 hours or more per week on one of the most important jobs on the planet – researching a cure for Covid-19.
For more than ten years Collins has served as director of the National Institute of Health, an enormous medical research body funded by the US Department of Health. His previous roles have been no less auspicious, heading up the Human Genome Project, which sequenced the entire genetic makeup of the human body, and pioneering advances in gene technology and the treatment of conditions such as Cystic Fibrosis and Huntington’s disease.
Yet Collins says that nothing compares to the weight of responsibility he has felt leading the USA’s response to coronavirus. He also says his Christian faith has been critical in providing the spiritual and mental reserves needed to face this new challenge.
Ever since he converted to Christianity as an adult, the scientist has been upfront about his faith. In his bestselling book, The Language of God (Simon & Schuster) he told the story of his faith journey and why the God he discovered in Jesus Christ makes sense of science, history and human life.
You won’t find a scientific proof for God in the pages of the book, however. Collins is very wary of the ‘God of the gaps’ (the assumption that gaps in scientific knowledge are evidence for the existence of God). He’s critical of Intelligent Design theory for that reason, and BioLogos, the science-faith organisation he founded in 2007, adopts an explicitly evolutionary understanding of nature.
Against the prevalence of young earth creationism in the American church (40 per cent of US adults hold the belief, according to a recent poll), Collins has championed what he calls “evolutionary creationism”. He believes there is no conflict between a Darwinian account of human origins and the creation story in Genesis, which shouldn’t be understood “as a textbook of science”. Rather, he says, we should stand in awe at the way God has shaped the universe to “make it possible for humans to emerge through those laws”.
Although Collins says he was “stunned” to receive the 2020 Templeton Prize (he’ll be donating the $1.4m cash prize to worthy causes), this year’s recipient makes perfect sense given its intended purpose to “celebrate scientific and spiritual curiosity”.
Science may be able to precisely describe your genetic makeup, but there’s still something rather miraculous about being human, says Collins. It’s evidenced in his own professed love of music (he plays guitar in a rock’n’roll band, which is on hiatus during coronavirus). Some things can’t be explained by chemistry and biology alone, he says – music, beauty, purpose, our belief in right and wrong. It may not amount to a scientific proof, but it’s certainly a pointer towards a God beyond us.
What does daily life look like for you at the moment, given your role at the National Institute for Health and coordinating the coronavirus response with the White House?
It is an incredibly intense time right now. I’m trying to run this $42bn-a-year operation from my little office in order to maintain all of the safe behaviours of social distancing that I’m asking everybody else to do at this time. I’m spending a lot of time on Zoom, as you might guess. I’ve never worked harder. I think when you look at the hours that are necessary to manage everything we’re trying to do in terms of developing better diagnostics and therapeutics and vaccines for this darned virus, we are flat out in order to gather every possible scientific capability to try to accelerate that process.
How do you handle the weight of dealing with Covid-19?
Where I feel this burden of responsibility is in the idea that we can’t make mistakes and we can’t miss opportunities, and we can’t have even a day go by where something that could have happened didn’t, because of some disorganisation or lack of motivation. I’m surrounded by other people who feel the same way, but as the director of the largest supporter of biomedical research in the world, I do especially feel this upon me.
I’ve had plenty of experiences of running large, complicated projects, including the Human Genome Project, and those were intense, too, but this is much more so, because of the urgency; this feeling that lives are at stake.
How does your faith help you?
Many times I have to ask God for some help. That’s where prayer really has helped me a lot. Reading the Psalms, realising this is not the first time humanity has been faced with a plague, so I shouldn’t imagine that this is so exceptional that nobody else has ever experienced anything like it before. We’re all tied together that way. And with all of the teams that are assembled right now, and their willingness to do whatever it takes to make this happen, and with God’s grace (and I know God suffers along with all those who are suffering from this virus), we will get through this, we will figure it out. But the sooner we get there, the better that will be.
In the midst of all this, you’ve just been awarded the Templeton Prize for your work to reconcile science and religion. How are you feeling about that?
That was a stunner, I must say. I never imagined such a thing – when you look at the list of the previous prize winners, beginning with Mother Teresa and including the person I probably most admire who’s currently alive on the planet: Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The idea that somehow I ended up on this roster, I just have to conclude the committee made a big mistake!
You didn’t grow up with any great faith; it was something that you adopted as an adult. Tell us about that journey and how it dovetailed with your interest in science.
I grew up on a small farm with no indoor plumbing and lots of hippie-type people around. I didn’t really have much exposure to faith other than being sent to the local church to learn music. My dad encouraged me to ignore the theology!
By the time I got to college, I was probably an agnostic, although I don’t know that I knew the word. And by the time I got to graduate school in physical chemistry, I became deeply sceptical of anybody who wanted to talk about spiritual matters; it was all very reductionistic in my head. I guess at that point, I was an obnoxious atheist.
Then I had a change in my scientific interests and my life plan and decided to step away from physics and chemistry as my main focus and go to medical school, because I thought the science of human biology was getting increasingly interesting.
I managed to avoid any real facing up to spiritual matters until the third year of medical school where now I was sitting at the bedside of good, honourable people who were facing the end of their lives. And I’m wondering: what would that be like if that was me? I began to realise that their questions about God’s existence and about the meaning of life were questions I’d never really paid any attention to. Maybe it was time to have a look. And so I figured: OK, I’ll have a look. It’ll strengthen my atheism and then I can move on.
I understand that, as a junior doctor, you encountered a female patient who triggered this investigation…
I know exactly where I was sitting. I know which room it was, on which board in North Carolina Memorial Hospital, where this elderly woman was, who reminded me a lot of my grandmother. Her faith was very strong. She was facing the end of her life from really advanced cardiac disease, but would share her faith with me even as she was struggling with terrible chest pains.
At one point, after being very open about what she believed, she simply asked in the most straightforward way: “Doctor, I’ve shared my faith with you, what do you believe?” And it totally threw me. I was supposed to be, you know, a thoughtful, rational scientist who looks at important questions and collects evidence and decides what the right answer is, but I hadn’t done any of that.
Instead of running away from these questions, I realised I had to run towards them and figure out: what was a reasonable position for a thinking person to take? And, to my surprise, that reasonable position was ultimately to see all the pointers for there being a creator God; to ultimately recognising that God was interested in me; and then ultimately, on top of that, getting to know the historical person of Jesus Christ in a way that became utterly compelling.
Now, that happened not in a blink, but over about two years, with a lot of kicking and screaming on my part. But ultimately, age 27, I became a Christian, and ever since, that has been the rock upon which I stand, in terms of trying to deal with any of these profound issues of the meaning of life; what is good and what is evil and how we make moral decisions and how we love each other.
Is faith increasing or decreasing in the scientific community?
I don’t have good statistics, but I think interest in faith is probably slightly on the wane. You still will find 30–40 per cent of working scientists at all levels who will say they are believers. Interestingly, if you ask the so-called ‘top of the pile’, the members of the National Academy, that number drops pretty significantly down to the single-digit percentages, but it’s not zero, and I’m here as one of those.
Most scientists who say they’re not believers, frankly are not angry atheists, or even atheists at all; they’re in the agnostic category. And many of them, from my experience, just don’t really want to think about it.
I think the fact that lots of scientists are believers tells us that there must be something here in terms of the possible compatibility, and for me, it’s not only compatibility, it’s harmony. It’s a sense that these two ways of looking at truth enhance each other, as long as you’re careful about which kind of truth you’re talking about, which kind of question you’re trying to answer, and you don’t get it muddled up.
Have you had periods of doubt?
I think anybody who calls themselves a believer has doubts that pop up at various levels of severity over time; I certainly do. Paul Tillich wrote: “Doubt is not the opposite of belief, it’s an element of belief.” And doubts are an opportunity, also, to try to identify areas where one might need to dig a little deeper and to see where those doubts are coming from and how others who face those same doubts might address them.
What do you say to people who ask you for scientific proof of God?
I don’t have a proof. I don’t have the ability to tell you that the God that I have given my life to is really there. I know that I find closeness in that relationship by what happens at five o’clock in the morning when I’m up reading some verses from scripture (right now I’m reading the Psalms a lot, because Covid-19 seems to suggest that the laments and the praises and the despondency all kind of fit) but that brings me into a space that feels significant.
I don’t think it was God’s intention to give us the proof that we all long for and, suppose he had, then we would all be good little robots following a very predictable course. It wouldn’t be very interesting, would it? I think part of God’s intention is to call upon us to see what interests we’re able to develop in this space, and whether we are willing to take that leap without the proof, to put our trust in something other than ourselves. That’s a scary thing to do without a guarantee that it’s going to benefit you in this life or the next. But it’s the risk I’ve been willing to take, and it has paid back to me in terms of a sense of joy, the sense of God’s love and sense of seeing God in other people and other experiences. So even if it turns out I’ve been hoodwinked into something, it was worth it.
To hear the full interview, listen to Premier Christian Radio at 8pm on Saturday 18 July or download The Profile podcast