Francis Collins on God

  • Video
  • 20 minutes
  • Level: all audiences

Physician and scientist Francis Collins, who completed the first map of the human genetic code in 2000, shares his new book, “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.” From the Charlie Rose show of Tuesday 07/25/2006. Collins discusses C. S. Lewis and his insights on God, among other things

Below is an excerpt from the transcript of the interview.

Charlie Rose: Why did you write this book?
Francis Collins: I’ve been trying to write this book for about 25 years, since I became a believer. And I was not raised in a faith tradition, so this is something that occurred to me in my 20s.
Charlie Rose: Your parents were not believers?
Francis Collins: They were not. They were respectful of religious perspectives, but they did not themselves share those perspectives, so I was raised in a household where faith was not really part of discussion around the dinner table.
Charlie Rose: You had a religious experience when you were in the woods somewhere?
Francis Collins: It was a little longer sort of getting to that point. Let me explain. So, again, I was not raised in a household where faith was practiced, so when I went to college and we had those discussions one has late at night in the dorm about, you know, what do you believe, I pretty much decided I didn’t believe any of it. And I slipped from being an agnostic to ultimately an atheist when I was in graduate school. Everything as far as I was concerned could be described by mathematics, physics and chemistry, and there wasn’t anything else.
Charlie Rose: If you couldn’t prove it, it didn’t exist.
Francis Collins: Exactly. I was very comfortable with that, because it meant that I wasn’t really responsible to anyone but me, and I kind of liked that part, too. I got to medical school. I continued that view, until I got to the point of being — taking care of patients, which one does in about the third year. And many of these good North Carolina people were afflicted with terrible diseases that they’d done nothing to bring down on themselves, and yet the rock that they stood upon was their faith. And that puzzled me.
Charlie Rose: They were serene in facing death?
Francis Collins: Absolutely.
Charlie Rose: Serene in dealing with pain and suffering?
Francis Collins: Absolutely.
Charlie Rose: Because they believed in a God.
Francis Collins: They believed in a God and they believed that there was more to what was going on than what you could see, and that they were preparing themselves for a better world.
Charlie Rose: And you said I want some of that or what?
Francis Collins: I was puzzled and a little threatened by that. And one afternoon, an elderly woman who had terrible heart disease, who had been talking about her faith, sharing it very openly with me, looked me straight in the eye and she said, “what do you believe?” And I was unprepared for that kind of question, and I stammered and stuttered and said, “well, I don’t really know.” And I felt extremely uncomfortable. My atheism suddenly seemed very thin, and I realized I’m a scientist at that point, I had a Ph.D., I was supposed to draw conclusions based on the facts, the evidence, and I’d never really considered the evidence, because I didn’t know if there would be any. So I began to read what the descriptions were of the various major faiths of the world, and, frankly, I didn’t understand a bit of it. It didn’t make sense to me. I went to visit with a minister who lived down the road in Carboro (ph), and I asked him a bunch of blasphemous questions, and he took down from his shelf a little book and he said, you know, this is written by an Oxford scholar who kind of traveled the same path you did. He was an atheist —
Charlie Rose: C.S. Lewis.
Francis Collins: It was C.S. Lewis. You got it. And the book was “Mere Christianity.” And as I opened that book —
Charlie Rose: It’s converted a lot of people.
Francis Collins: It has indeed. And with good reason. Because here is an intensely logical person, who knows atheism because it was his perspective for the first half of his life, and he goes through the arguments, how rational, logical thinking leads you not to the conclusion that there can be no God, but that the existence of God is much more plausible. Not that you can argue yourself all the way to the point of saying “I believe,” but you can certainly get to the point of saying, “it would be more rational for me to consider God as real than to say he could not exist.”
Charlie Rose: So what do you feel about, say, Darwinian evolution as applies to humans?
Francis Collins: Well, many people have asked me, you’re a geneticist and you’re a believer? Isn’t your head exploding on any given afternoon?
Charlie Rose: Do you make some giant exception for human beings?
Francis Collins: Not at all. So I believe that evolution is absolutely the way in which living things are connected to each other. That all living things are descended from a common ancestor, that Darwin was right, that the process of natural selection operating on mutation resulted in this gradual change and development of species, including ourselves. But that answers how it happened. It doesn’t answer why. So I believe that God, who had an intention of creating beings like you and me with whom he could have fellowship and who would seek to know him and he could know us, used the mechanism of evolution to carry out that eventual goal.
Charlie Rose: Meaning that as someone said, he wound up the clock and let it go?
Francis Collins: In a sense, yes. But not in a deistic sort of sense where he wound up the clock and then wandered off somewhere else without really being too concerned about the consequences. One of the things that I found most compelling in Lewis is the argument about the moral law. The sense that we all have within us about what is good and what is evil, which is true of all cultures down through history. Where does that come from? Evolution, I’m sorry, cannot completely explain that. Because it calls us sometimes to do things that are destructive for our possibility of passing on our DNA. And that’s really all that evolution cares about. If I’m walking down the bank of the river and I see a man drowning and it’s my worst enemy, there is still something within me that tells me I should try to save that person. Evolution would not tell me to do that. So where does this moral —
Charlie Rose: Does molecular biology tell you to do that?
Francis Collins: No, I don’t think it does.
Charlie Rose: What does?
Francis Collins: Well, this is where I think the spiritual world becomes more real. When you start thinking about concepts like the moral law, like our universal hunger to look for something outside of ourselves. As Lewis says, hunger is generally attached to something that could satisfy that hunger. Again, I cannot prove faith to you on these grounds. But for me, they’re sign posts. Sign posts pointing to something greater than ourselves. Something good and holy.