"I do not believe that there are any collisions between what I believe as a Christian, and what I have learned as a scientist."
- Dr. Francis Collins
He had little religious training and once described himself as "a pretty obnoxious atheist." But sometime in his late 20s, and after serious study, Francis Collins became a Christian - not just a "Sunday Christian," he said, but someone who believed, "If your faith makes any sense at all, it's part of your whole life."
Even if he became director of the Human Genome Project, one of the most celebrated scientific programs in the country today?
"I think there are a lot more scientists whose faith is important to them than you know about," he said. "Maybe we should make a better effort to explain that faith does not require you to check your brains at the door."
What a loss to the world of medical research if this man who has been instrumental in identifying the genes for Huntington's disease and cystic fibrosis, and is tracking similar identities for a host of other diseases, had either remained a "pretty obnoxious atheist" or added only a casual layer of faith to his already full life.
Raised on a farm in Virginia and home-schooled until the sixth grade, Collins had already earned a Ph.D. in chemistry before his interest changed to genetics. He then went to medical school, pursued further study in genetics and, in 1993, became director of the National Center for Human Genome Research at the National Institutes of Health.
Genome, DNA, genetic engineering - cloning? How does a "serious faith" factor into what sounds to most people like "engineering" human life? This is precisely where Collins' faith is most evident.
"To say that genetic engineering is unacceptable because of its potential for some ethical dilemmas is the most unethical stance of all," he said. "If you study the life of Christ, you learn that He spent much of His time on earth healing the sick, and I believe His mandate for us to reach out to those who are suffering and try to heal their illnesses is a very strong one."
Collins recognizes the need to assume responsibility for the kinds of genetic engineering we do, that to "program" the traits of the unborn is irresponsible, while tending to the medical needs of humans already alive is entirely consistent with that "mandate." He also makes a profound connection between his profession and the God he has no trouble calling "Creator."
"Science is a roller-coaster experience. Most of our experiments fail; most of our hypotheses are wrong. But it's a remarkable experience to be part of the actual moment of discovery, to know something that until then no human being had ever known - but God already knew it. Those moments of discovery then become moments of worship, of appreciation for the incredible intricacies and beauty of life, and of God as the creator."
As he explained in a recent interview on CNN, "I see a creation, I assume a creator." Concerning the frequent arguments among those who don't consider science and faith compatible, Collins also assumes those differences would diminish if the faith community developed knowledge to match their zeal, and if scientists spent more time learning what faith is all about. Concerning the scientists, he says with a smile, "Some of them might surprise themselves and get converted."
I was drawn to the Collins story for several reasons, including the recent anti-God bombardment in the news. High on that list is the new book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, by Christopher Hitchens; and the report that an Iowa State University professor has been denied tenure, despite his "stellar academic record," because of his statement, "There is evidence for intelligent design in the universe."
Most of all I wanted to find out more about the man who will be delivering the dedicatory address when the new science center at my alma mater, Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., is completed next year. I'll always be grateful that, unlike Iowa State, Gordon is committed to "academic freedom within a framework of faith."
Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to seabara at aol.com.
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