Francis Collins came to speak this evening to speak on how science and religion can be compatible. He’s in a very unique position to speak on such a topic, having been director of the National Human Genome Research Institute and a well-respected geneticist. As far as his spiritual history goes, he was raised in a secular household, was an agnostic through college and then became an atheist in his college and graduate school years, but began questioning his beliefs in medical school and ultimately became a Christian.
As a sidenote, watch this clip of Collins on the Colbert Report on Dec. 7, 2006 (He showed this during his lecture, actually); it’s really funny:
Stephen Colbert: “I’m going to pop you into the Colbert autoclave and sterilize your ideas.”
Francis Collins: “Evolution is God’s way of giving upgrades.”
Collins’s lecture left me with many questions that I think I’ve always had in the back of my mind but comfortably decided to leave alone for another day. I accept and trust the scientific method; there is no question about that part of myself. But if I call myself an atheist, I’m doing so without considering all the evidence in a thorough and logical manner. I haven’t given faith as much thought as I would consider necessary in, say, evaluating a scientific theory. Even being an agnostic doesn’t seem like the right decision either because I’m the kind of agnostic who doesn’t know whether I believe in God — I haven’t looked into it enough to know what I really believe. I’m ignorant and shouldn’t be comfortable with that. I guess you could also say that I am irreligious — religion isn’t central in my life, and I feel I have a set of personal values and morals that keep me on course. But it’s not like I’m satisfied with my life at all or think that I am anywhere near being the person that I would like to be. Nor have I yet found a passion in life or some cause to which I can wholeheartedly devote myself. Looking into these questions of faith could be one way of becoming more self-realized.
I’m not sure if this is always how he organizes his presentations, but in the lecture tonight, Collins started from a science perspective. Maybe this was in an effort to reach the more scientifically-minded in the audience which would be presumably more prevalent at a research university like ours. He explained his scientific background and an overview of genetics (it was rather funny when he displayed a cartoon of a cell with a nucleus, and inside the nucleus was a picture of a book with “Genetic information” on the cover. Collins pulled up the slide, paused, and said, “This may be highly insulting to many members of the audience…”).
Collins then transitioned into a discussion of his religious background and the gradual progression from being an atheist, to questioning religion, to accepting the existence of a God. This was then extended to believing in a personal God, and then to Collins’s eventual acceptance of Jesus Christ as Savior.
In the talk, Collins made the distinction between believing in a God (deism) and believing in a “personal” God who takes special interest in human affairs. I can see the logic behind believing in a God. Collins talked about the existence of “finely tuned” universal constants (Planck’s constant, the gravitational constant, the speed of light, etc.) and how, if these constants were at even only slightly different values than they are now, our universe would not be able to support the eventual evolution of intelligent life.
There are two conclusions that can be made from this: either there are an infinite number of alternate universes and we just happen to be in the right one, or there was a God who came in the beginning and set all the physical constants to the values that they are. Collins says that he believes the latter is more likely because the first option is just as incredible as the second (which I did not fully understand; each of the two options is really amazing if true and so I don’t really see why one would be more believable or logically acceptable than the other), and so believing in a God isn’t incompatible with science because there isn’t a good way of explaining the universal physical constants from a scientific standpoint, and that’s where God comes in.
Okay. Perhaps. I may be able to accept that argument, though I’m neither a theoretical physicist nor a theologian so I am not sure I fully understand it. But okay, I can see how a scientist could become a deist, as Albert Einstein apparently was. So then a personal God comes into play when one considers the moral laws that govern humans, said Collins. He cited altruism without personal gain as an example of a seemingly inexplicable moral law from a scientific/evolutionary standpoint. There must be a God, Collins says, that put these moral laws into place.
Even that I can see as logical. But then how do you go from that to being a Christian? There are many religions in the world; why would you choose Christianity?
Dr. Collins happily signs a copy of his book, The Language of God, after the lecture.
All of this was clearly influenced by C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, which I read last summer, and indeed Collins referenced it several times in the lecture. (Free copies of Mere Christianity were actually handed out to anyone who presented a Rice ID.) Collins kind of lamely took on the question of why he was a Christian instead of subscribing to some other religion by citing Lewis’s famous argument that you can’t think of Jesus just as a great (but human) moral teacher — you have to either believe he’s evil, he’s crazy, or he really is the Son of God as he claimed. There is no in between, according to Lewis. I don’t really understand this argument. Why do you have to accept or reject Jesus wholesale? If you meet a person who you think is insane in some respects, that doesn’t mean that everything he says must not be true — there are times when you may agree with his opinions on some moral issues. Similarly, some of Jesus’s moral teachings are reasonable even from a secular standpoint, so why does not believing he is God mean that we have to reject his ideas as well? I don’t see why that has to be true.
Also, Collins professed his belief in the Resurrection, and said that different accounts of the event agreed on certain details which was sufficient evidence, he felt, to prove that it really did happen. I’ll have to look at these alleged eyewitness accounts, but I’m still not satisfied.
In any case, I like Collins’s take on Christianity and the interpretation of the Bible. He is the sort of thinking, reasoning Christian that I respect. For that matter, he also is a scientist that I respect. It was a good lecture that made me think.