Wednesday, July 26, 2006

God is `the greatest scientist there is'

God is `the greatest scientist there is':
Francis S. Collins, the leader of the U.S. government's Human Genome Project, is a devout Christian. In his new book, "The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief" (Free Press, $26), he describes his own conversion and the logic behind his beliefs - all the while respecting evidence for Darwinian evolution, the Big Bang and an earth that is billions of years old. Dr. Collins' book encourages scientists to explore religion, and religious people to explore science.

He spoke with Dallas Morning News Science Writer Sue Goetinck Ambrose. Here are excerpts:


Q: You've spoken about your faith before. What prompted you to write this book?

A: I had been increasingly concerned about polarization between those who hold the scientific and spiritual worldviews. There are colleagues in my scientific circle who assert that evolution means that God is no longer necessary, and that the only intellectually satisfying choice for a scientist is to be an atheist. On the other side, we have voices coming from a conservative religious perspective who challenge whether science is trustworthy.

Q: You make the case that belief in God is rational. If that's true, why are so many scientists skeptics?

A: Scientists are trained to be skeptical of anything you can't demonstrate without data. It may be difficult for them, therefore, to accept the fact that this is not necessarily the right way to approach questions like, "Is there a God?"

If God exists, he must be outside of nature. And in that regard, science doesn't really provide you with the tools necessary to discover him.

Q: Do you think there's peer pressure not to be overtly religious?

A: There's an unstated taboo in the scientific community about discussing religion. Some young scientists get the sense that if they do talk about religion they might be considered intellectually soft.

Q: What about religious people who can't accept evolution?

A: Many who have been raised in conservative religious households and who have been taught to interpret Genesis as literal truth are very hung up on what science tells us about the age of the earth, the relatedness of species and the process of evolution. In many evangelical churches, you see a strong embrace of "intelligent design" as an opportunity, basically, to fight back against Darwin.

For me, there is really no conflict here - if God chose to use the mechanism of evolution to create creatures in his image, who are we to say that's not how we would have done it?

Q: You were once a skeptic. What was the biggest hurdle you had to clear to accept a religious viewpoint?

A: Like many scientists, I was afflicted with the mindset of reductionism: Anything worth understanding can be understood by using the tools of science and basic physical and mathematical principles. Also there was an aspect of plain arrogance; I had developed such a sense of being able to understand everything through my own intellect that it wasn't necessary to contemplate the fact that there might be mysteries beyond that. Those things together led me in my 20s to be a pretty obnoxious atheist.

Q: You're a Christian, but as a geneticist and biologist, how do you account for miracles like the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection?

A: I have no problem accepting that miracles can occur. Here's the logic: As soon as you accept the possibility that God exists and is outside of nature, then there is no reason why a supernatural being could not, on occasion, stage an invasion of the natural world.

Q: What do you make of the recent study from Duke University that found that intercessory prayer had no effect on health? That was an attempt to put prayer to a test.

A: I have to say, this whole area of research strikes me as odd.

Prayer is our opportunity to try to get into communication with God to better understand his will for our lives, not an occasion to manipulate his plans.

Q: So you don't see prayer as asking for favors? A lot of people do.

A: This is perhaps an unfortunate aspect of Christianity - that prayer is presented as your way of getting what you want, that by just figuring out the right words to say to God, you can somehow convince him to do something that he wasn't really planning to do.

I think prayer is a conversation ... I don't think it's a way of bargaining with God.

Q: What do you recommend for believers who want to learn more about science?

A: I think believers ought to be in the forefront of those trying to understand scientific advances and to participate in those advances. It would be dangerous for our future for believers to decide that science is untrustworthy and that they should avoid exposure to it.

You know, if God is the author of truth, we should not be afraid to seek that truth, wherever it leads us. You can find God in the cathedral, or you can find him in the laboratory. He's the greatest scientist there is. He's the author of it all.

Q: What do you recommend for scientists who want to explore religion more?

A: They can reach out and find that there are many others who are like-minded, if they can only tap into the right network. There is an organization, the American Scientific Affiliation, which is a group of scientists from multiple disciplines who are serious Christians. They meet annually and publish a journal.

The choice about belief in God is the most important decision anyone makes. If you're earnestly seeking him, obviously much of it has to begin by reading more about him.