Often, we think of Science and Religion as separate and competing concepts. Below is an excerpt of an interview with the chief U.S. scientist who is dealing with the current coronavirus crisis. He is a practicing Christian who clearly justifies his belief in GOD.
Ron Mangum, Master
Excerpt from an interview with U.S. National Institutes of Health director Dr.Francis Collins on the Corona Virus and Belief in GOD
Jebediah Reed, @jebediahreed, published in “The Intelligencer” on 1 July 2020
As someone who is both an acclaimed scientist and a public Christian, what’s your perspective on the pandemic as a cultural issue? Do you see any clear way around that?
It’s one of the great tragedies of this current moment that scientifically based public-health measures have somehow been captured as cultural or political phenomena. Your chance of spreading the coronavirus to a vulnerable person has nothing to do with what culture you come from or what political party you belong to. Your responsibility is to try to prevent that from happening to vulnerable people around you. But our country’s polarization is so extreme that it even seems to extend into a place like this — where it absolutely doesn’t belong. That is really troubling because it’s putting people at risk who shouldn’t be.
On a happier note, what was it like to recently win the Templeton Prize, the prestigious annual award recognizing individuals for their efforts to bridge the gap between science and faith? That must have been a nice surprise.
It was stunning to get that phone call and to look at the list of previous winners and try to imagine how this could possibly have happened — the first prize winner being Mother Teresa, and other prize winners along the way people I have incredible respect for, like Billy Graham and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I could only conclude the committee must have made a terrible mistake. I’m really grateful, just the same, because I’m an amateur theologian. I’m a pretty good scientist. But to be put on this roster with those heroic figures was beyond any expectation I ever could have had.
You have worked, in your capacity as a scientist, to fund a fair amount of brain research, and you’ve also written a book called The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. Before taking over at NIH, you started a foundation called BioLogos, which makes the case for a harmony between science and Christianity. What’s your perspective, at this point in your career, on what consciousness is?
That’s the big question in all of neuroscience. In terms of the scientific basis of consciousness, we really don’t have a clue. In terms of the spiritual significance, obviously it’s pretty important that we human beings seem to be special in our awareness of ourselves and our ability to imagine what other people are feeling at a given moment. All that is part of consciousness. I was an atheist when I entered medical school. I was a Christian when I left — and it was much driven by this experience of trying to integrate the reductionist aspects of science into the much more fundamental issues I saw my patients wrestling with, like is there a God and does God care about me and what happens after I die?
Those are uncomfortable questions for an atheist 23-year-old, but ultimately they became totally compelling and required some investigation and some answers. Ultimately, out of that, it came to me that it makes a lot more sense to believe in God than to deny God’s existence. A scientist isn’t supposed to make assertions that you would call universal negatives, because you can never have enough evidence to do that, and yet that’s what atheism calls you to do.
I surprised myself as I began to look at the pros and cons of belief versus nonbelief — that actually through science there seem to be a fair number of pointers, not proofs, but pointers toward the idea of a creator and a creator who was not only interested in creating something out of nothing, but also in having that something ultimately give rise to creatures with big brains who would have consciousness, who would have self-awareness, and who would have curiosity not just about nature, but also about who they are and what kind of spiritual creatures they might be.
It took me a couple of years to get through those many thickets of intellectual debate, but it led me then at that point in my life to see science and spirituality as not in conflict but actually quite compatible, quite harmonious, quite self- and co-reinforcing. People said my head was going to explode, that it would not be possible to both study genetics and read the Bible. I’ve never found a problem with this at all, despite the way in which some scientists have caricatured faith to make it seem incompatible. Most of those caricatures don’t resemble my faith.
Similarly, the way that some people have caricatured science as a threat to God, that doesn’t resemble the science that I’m doing. It’s been a terrible, I think, consequence of our last century or so that this polarization has been accepted as inevitable when I see it not at all in that light. There are many interesting scientific questions that tap into the kind of area that you’re asking about, like what is the neuroscientific basis of consciousness? What is the neuroscientific basis of a spiritual experience? If there is such a neuroscientific basis, does that make this spiritual experience less meaningful or more so? Those are fun conversations to have.
Very few people seem to stand publicly and effectively at the juncture of those two worlds. There are certainly some, but not as many as one might expect. From your perspective as head of the NIH, and someone who has also won the Templeton Prize — when you lie in bed at night, what gives you hope about the next 50 or 100 years for humanity? What are the really hard problems that test your optimism and your faith?
Boy, that’s a big one. What is our future? I don’t want to see a future where this science-versus-faith conflict leads to a winner and a loser. If science wins and faith loses, we end up with a purely technological society that has lost its moorings and foundation for morality. I think that could be a very harsh and potentially violent outcome. But I don’t want to see a society either where the argument that science is not to be trusted because it doesn’t agree with somebody’s interpretation of a Bible verse wins out. That forces us back into a circumstance where many of the gifts that God has given us through intellectual curiosity and the tools of science have to be put away.
So I want to see a society that flourishes by bringing these worldviews together by being careful about which worldview is most likely to give you the truth, depending on the question you’re asking.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.