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August 30, 2021

Francis Collins: Science is ‘a glimpse of God’s mind’

DNA being sequenced. iStock / Filo

As a community anchored on the principle of truth, the church can play a leading role in guiding us out of the pandemic, says the director of the National Institutes of Health.

Having led the international team that mapped the human genome, Francis Collins said of that work: “We had now seen the language that God used to speak us into being.”

It might not be the prose that some would expect from a world-renowned scientist, but Collins, now the director of the National Institutes of Health, and at the forefront of the response to COVID-19, is as comfortable discussing Scripture as he is the “elegant equations” of quantum mechanics from his graduate studies.

Long conversant in the relationship between science and religion, he compares the laboratory to the cathedral, in that both can be considered places of worship.

“You get the chance once in a while, as a scientist, to discover something that no human knew before, but God knew it,” Collins has said. “It’s a little glimpse of God’s mind. In a way, that’s what science is doing. It’s glimpsing God’s mind and being in awe of it.”

The last 18 months have presented unique challenges, not only of a global pandemic but of widespread resistance to its realities and remedies. Among the most deeply resistant are people who cite the Bible and God’s protection for their positions. But Collins hears misunderstanding in their responses.

To him, the tools of science are a gift from God to alleviate suffering — a gift that church leaders, as trusted purveyors of accurate information, have a crucial role in sharing.

Collins received the 2020 Templeton Prize, joining the ranks of laureates such as the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and Jane Goodall. The honor recognizes research, public engagement and religious leadership that advance understanding of “the insights that science brings to the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s purpose and place within it.”

He spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Aleta Payne Aug. 19. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: What have the last 18 months been like for you as both a scientist and a person of faith?

Francis Collins: The last year and a half has been for me just about the most intense experience I’ve had as the NIH director, or even as a physician-scientist in previous settings. The NIH is the largest supporter of medical research in the world, with both an opportunity and a responsibility to bring every kind of idea and resource and talent together and to try to move things at unprecedented speed as this virus is spreading across the world and taking lives.

That’s meant turning the whole operation into a complete 24/7 kind of war-room mentality. In fact, I even have a regular meeting called the “war room,” where we do try to bring together all the folks who have opportunity to steer this effort and make sure we’re all steering in the same direction, ending on whatever we can learn as fast as we can.

The satisfying part of that has been to see how science has really risen to this challenge in amazing ways, probably most notably the development of safe and effective vaccines that now have saved countless lives because of the ability of those vaccines to protect people against severe illness from COVID-19.

We’ve done similar amazing things in terms of developing and testing therapeutics like monoclonal antibodies, and developing new kinds of testing for the virus that you can now buy in the drugstore and take home and test yourself. We’ve been in the middle of that in a fashion that has been exhausting but also felt like the place we were supposed to be.

For me, in terms of personal faith, this has felt very much like a calling — an exhausting one, one that has at times felt almost overwhelming, because of the gravity of what we are trying to deal with.

[It has] certainly caused me, in my reflections about science and faith, to feel linked up over the course of millennia to other circumstances where people have faced terribly difficult challenges and tried to reach out to God for insight, as I have been doing over the course of this year and a half.

I’ve been reading the Psalms a lot, because there are a lot of similarities and familiarity there in the words of David and others. Psalm 46 is posted right next to my computer: “God is my refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble …” — and that is where we have been. And yet we have, as people of faith, that particular rock to stand on, even if the winds are blowing hard and storms are raging.

F&L: You have spoken and written about the relationship between science and faith. You do not see those as distinct. Could you talk about your faith journey and how it has aligned with your vocation?

FC: I didn’t grow up with a particularly well-formed view of spirituality. In fact, I didn’t pay much attention to it at all. My parents were not interested particularly in faith issues, and as a college student and then a graduate student studying physics and chemistry, I essentially became an atheist.

When I was in med school and found myself at the bedside of people who were facing the end of their lives and saw the ways that they tried to deal with that, I was intrigued and mystified by the level faith seemed to play in many of their approaches to the end of life.

"...it seemed more and more that this makes sense — that there’s an intelligence behind all of this, and then ultimately, that intelligence seems to be reaching out looking for a connection with me."

I didn’t know what I would do in that situation. I even had a patient at one point ask me what I believed, and I realized I didn’t have a cogent answer.

I undertook a bit of a zigzagging, inefficient search of what people had said down through the centuries about faith and why somebody would actually choose to be a believer in something you cannot prove, thinking that in the process I would get a bit more comfortable with my atheism.

To my surprise, I discovered that, really, atheism was not going to fit with my sense as a scientist that you’re not supposed to apply a universal negative to something about which you can’t know everything you would have to in order to say that — for instance, that there’s no God.

Gradually, in looking at the evidence all around me from the amazing fine-tuning of the universe, which really got my attention, it seemed more and more that this makes sense — that there’s an intelligence behind all of this, and then ultimately, that intelligence seems to be reaching out looking for a connection with me.

That caused a great deal of struggle to try to understand how that would make sense. For me, it was then really digging through the world religions and encountering a person of Jesus that I couldn’t walk away from.

Reading the Sermon on the Mount and realizing the incredible power and clarity and truth of those words and recognizing that Jesus was not a myth, which is what I had assumed, but a person about whom the historical record is incredibly compelling — to the point where I felt like this was requiring a response. The response, ultimately, for me, was irresistible: to say, “I can’t prove it, but I believe it.”

I became a Christian at 27, and people did say almost immediately that this was putting me on a path toward a real intellectual crisis, because it certainly wouldn’t be possible to be both a Christian and somebody who studied science, particularly the science of DNA.

Here I am some 45 years later, and I have never really encountered what I considered to be a serious conflict. As long as you’re clear about which kind of question you’re asking and what kind of approach you would take to answer it, I find science and faith to be incredibly complementary and harmonious, and they inform each other.

As a scientist, I also have a chance as a believer, when I’m doing an experiment or admiring something that somebody has discovered we didn’t know before, to see that also as a glimpse of God’s mind.

F&L: You have referred to the tools of science as a gift from God to be able to alleviate suffering, which was just such a lovely way to say that.

FC: I have felt over the course of this year and a half, with so much suffering around us, an effort to try to find answers — and certainly, as a scientist laboring in those fields, praying that something good will come from it.

Then to see vaccines emerge that were not just pretty good; they were amazing in terms of their efficacy, 95% protection against the illness, and a very impressive safety record as well. That seemed like a wonderful scientific triumph — but also an answer to prayer.

It really troubles me, then, that believers, many of whom are still not ready to take advantage of this, sort of put forward the idea that if they accepted a vaccine, that might mean they weren’t trusting God to take care of them. From my perspective, this is how God is taking care of all of us.

This kind of answer to prayer is a gift, but we do have to unwrap it. That means if this is going to help you, you’ve got to roll up your sleeve and say thank you.

"This kind of answer to prayer is a gift, but we do have to unwrap it. That means if this is going to help you, you’ve got to roll up your sleeve and say thank you."

F&L: At this point, we certainly had all hoped to be further along in recovery from the pandemic. What do you see as the continuing role for faith communities as we address the Delta variant? What is it that churches and other faith-based organizations can be doing in this moment?

FC: I think there’s an absolutely critical role for churches and other faith-based organizations right now. We do see still great reluctance in many aspects of the Christian community toward taking advantage of these gifts from God, these vaccines. Those individuals who are still open to considering it are probably more likely to listen to trusted voices like their pastors than they are listening to people in the government like me.

Every pastor who has a flock that includes people who are still not protected has the opportunity to try to become well informed about this and try to be somebody who shares the truth and who believes, as in John 8:32, that the truth will set you free.

People need to be set free from all of the misinformation and disinformation that is out there that is causing them to be concerned about whether these vaccines are going to do them harm or make them magnetic or cause them to be tracked by some chip — all of these really wild ideas that are still so widely circulated that some people believe them.

I do hope that pastors, who are in a unique position to be trusted, will not be reluctant to share the truth about what people need to do to protect themselves and their families.

Look at the story of the good Samaritan if you’re wondering would Jesus actually approve of people using medical approaches to help each other.

Well, the good Samaritan didn’t just find this person by the side of the road who was beaten and stripped; he also ministered to that person, bound up the wounds with bandages and oils, the medicine of the time. I think we’re supposed to notice that.

That was the model of how we’re supposed to help each other, as basically representatives of God, providing that healing. Certainly, the vaccines are in that same space, if you think about it, and pastors maybe have a better chance to get that point across.

But it’s more than that, because people are hurting. Every church has people who have lost loved ones, maybe in ways that are really painful — people dying in ICUs when families could not even be there because of the concern about infection. The times around the graveyards that didn’t happen — big, lonely places. Economic distress.

The church is going to be called on for months and years to deal with the crisis that this has inspired. And then there are those people who have long COVID, the strange propensity of this virus, in as many as a third of the people who get sick, to keep them sick for weeks or months in ways that we don’t understand and that happen sometimes even to people who have a mild illness, and they just don’t get better. There again, there is going to be a great need for support that churches can do, both spiritually and just providing backup for people in distress.

There could hardly be a more appropriate moment for the church to rise to the occasion and try to help all those who have been stricken in various ways by this pandemic.

F&L: There is also language in the Bible about grace and compassion, but we’re hearing about a sort of “compassion fatigue” now, particularly from some who have gotten their vaccinations, who have worn their masks, toward others who are still resisting that. To those who are perhaps feeling weary in this ongoing work, what are some words of advice?

FC: I’m sympathetic. I’m weary, too. It’s been a long slog, and it’s not over. Many of us hoped by now we’d be in a more stable situation and not looking at another terrible surge. But we are told, “Do not become weary [in] doing good” (Galatians 6:9).

I think Christians have been called upon through the centuries to be both giving and selfless and also persistent and resilient, even in the face of what seems like a never-ending struggle. We’re being called upon once again to do that.

"The church is going to be called on for months and years to deal with the crisis that this has inspired."

What we have to back us up is our faith, our confidence that we’re not in this alone but are part of a healing effort that ultimately is God’s plan. But we’ve got to be God’s messengers, and if God doesn’t get tired of us — and I don’t think he does — then we shouldn’t get tired of serving this way if we have the chance to do so.

But I totally get it; people do need to occasionally take a break. Give yourself a little bit of time to rest and recuperate, but then come back at it with everything you’ve got to try to be as resilient and helpful as you can.

That means reaching out to those who are in trouble. It means, just for your own personal efforts, doing things you’re really tired of, like wearing that mask when you’re indoors with other people, because even though you’re vaccinated, you might actually be carrying that virus and spreading it to others who are still vulnerable, including people with cancer or organ transplants or kids under 12 who can’t get vaccinated right now.

So yes, we must not grow weary in doing good. We must continue. It’s easy to say those words; it’s harder sometimes to live them.

NIH Director Francis Collins gives remarks at the Washington National Cathedral at a special event in which local religious leaders and clergy received the COVID-19 vaccine. Photo courtesy of the NIH

F&L: That provides me with the excellent opportunity to ask, What gives you hope?

FC: I wear a pin on my lapel, and it’s shaped like a guitar pick, because I am a musician. But what does the pin say? It says “Hope at NIH” as a reminder that while we may be the National Institutes of Health, we think of ourselves as the National Institutes of Hope, trying to bring hope to a hurting world using the best tools of science that we can possibly assemble to try to prevent and cure disease. That’s certainly what we’ve been doing right now.

Even though I am incredibly distressed and disheartened about the fact that this terrible pandemic is still so much with us, I can maintain that hope that we’re going to get through it, because I can see the ways in which, through God’s grace, we’ve made a lot of progress.

We are better off than we were a year ago. That is quite true, and we are going to figure out, with all that hard work and all that determination and a lot of bumps along the road, how to find a path forward to a place where ourselves and our children are going to have a better shot at a life that will not be so constrained by illness that we are now fearful of. That’s not idle optimism. I think that’s hope based upon the realities of what we’re trying to do and the confidence in faith as a foundation for all of it.

F&L: Is there anything else you’d like to share?

FC: I’m glad we talked about how pastors have a particularly critical role to play, and I think that’s true just of average Christians as well. If we really are about caring for each other, loving our neighbors, then that also calls upon us to do things like avoiding infecting our neighbors by wearing that mask even when you maybe are tired of it.

I would love to see those who have really done the homework and learned more about the medical facts to be ambassadors, to share what they know with those who are still confused and troubled, maybe have had their heads filled with information that’s frankly wrong. The only way we’re going to get through something like this is to face up to what that means for all of us — to really decide to depend on the truth.

"That’s not idle optimism. I think that’s hope based upon the realities of what we’re trying to do and the confidence in faith as a foundation for all of it."

In my Templeton lecture, I mentioned — and it’s become more and more clear to me in the last few months — that we have two epidemics that are happening right now in the United States of America. One of them is COVID-19. The other is an epidemic of mis- and disinformation that is contaminating our society, including people of faith, with falsehoods that are somehow propagating really readily and easily, almost more so than the truth.

As a church, we need to face up to that and become part of the solution and not part of the networks that propagate those falsehoods. We’re all called upon to do that and, I hope, as we look at the circumstance and try to make a judgment about what has gotten us into such a strange place — it’s not just about COVID-19; it’s about all the other terrible polarizations and angers and grievances that seem to be all around us — to step back from that and say, “Well, for starters, let’s see if we can agree that there has to be shared information [everyone believes].”

Otherwise, our society can’t really function. We’ve lost a lot of that, and we need to get it back. The church as a place that’s anchored on the principle of truth ought to be leading that effort, and I can’t say at the moment that that’s really happened. Maybe that’s my final exhortation. Let’s become people where the truth is what really matters, and the truth will set us free.

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This was first published in Faith & Leadership, the online learning resource for Christian leaders and their institutions from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

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