April 17, 2008

The ’Evidence for Belief’: An Interview with Francis Collins

For some, there is an inherent conflict between science and religious belief. Indeed, some scientists, including famed evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, argue that an understanding of the natural world logically leads to atheism. But for Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project and an evangelical Christian, scientific knowledge complements rather than contradicts belief in God. In his 2006 bestselling book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, Collins argues that advances in science present “an opportunity for worship,” rather than a catalyst for doubt. Recently, the Pew Forum interviewed Dr. Collins about his views on science and religion.

Featuring:
Francis Collins, Director, National Human Genome Research Institute

Interviewer:
David Masci, Senior Research Fellow, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

In this Q&A:
Conflict between faith and science
The evolution controversy
Reaching out to believers
The “new atheists”
A “new theology”


Francis Collins

You write in your book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, that God can be worshipped in a cathedral or in a laboratory. Elaborate a little bit, if you will, on that statement.

If you see God as the creator of the universe – in all of its amazing complexity, diversity and awesome beauty – then science, which is, of course, a means of exploring nature, also becomes a means of exploring God’s creative abilities. And so, for me, as a scientist who is also a religious believer, research activities that look like science can also be thought of as opportunities to worship.

We have all of these famous stories in our history that pit science against faith – Galileo’s trial before the Inquisition, the Anglican Church’s strong public condemnation of Charles Darwin and the debates that followed the publication of his On the Origin of Species, the Scopes trial. And they have created this impression that there is an inherent conflict between religion and science. Do you believe there is such an inherent conflict? And if there isn’t, why is this impression false?

I don’t believe there is an inherent conflict, but I believe that humans, in our imperfect nature, sometimes imagine conflicts where there are none. We see something that threatens our own personal view, and we figure that there must be some reason why that alternative view has to be wrong, or even why it has to be evil.

First of all, let’s look carefully at the history of conflicts between science and the church and be sure that those are adequately represented. The story of Galileo is an interesting one. But I think it might be fair to say that Galileo’s greatest mistake was being a bit arrogant in the way he presented his own views and insulting the pope who, prior to that, had been fairly sympathetic with Galileo’s conclusions. Basically the pope couldn’t let Galileo get away with this kind of insult.

Similarly, I think when Onthe Origin of Species was published, while there were objections coming from the church, there was also a large segment of the church, including some conservative theologians like Presbyterian Minister Benjamin Warfield, who embraced this new view of how living things were related to each other as a wonderful insight into the method by which God must have carried out creation.

Perhaps today’s conflict, which seems particularly intense, is so difficult to understand because, after all, evolution has been very much on the scene for 150 years, and the science that supports Darwin’s theory has gotten stronger and stronger over those decades. That evidence is particularly strong today given the ability to study DNA and to see the way in which it undergirds Darwin’s theory in a marvelously digital fashion. And yet, we have seen an increasing polarization between the scientific and spiritual worldviews, much of it, I think, driven by those who are threatened by the alternatives and who are unwilling to consider the possibility that there might be harmony here.

Let’s talk a little more about the current controversy over evolution. Some Christians will say: “Look, you can’t pick and choose the parts of the Holy Scripture that you want to take literally. And so, if you’re going to call into question the literalness of some parts, you inherently call into question the literal truth of it all.” So how do you, as a scientist and a Christian, respond to that line of reasoning?

It’s a good question. And certainly, as a believer, I would be the last one to argue that we can basically dilute and water down the Bible any old way we want to, to make ourselves feel better. That’s certainly not a good approach to faith, lest one end up with something that doesn’t resemble the great truths of the faith at all. But let’s admit that down through the centuries, serious believers – long before there was any On the Origin of Species to threaten their perspective – had a great deal of difficulty understanding what some parts of the Old Testament, particularly Genesis, were really all about. The whole area of hermeneutics – the effort to try to read Scripture in a way that represents, as best one can, what the real meaning was intended to be – requires more sophistication than simply saying the most literal interpretation of every verse has to be correct.

One can look at Genesis 1-2, for instance, and see that there is not just one but two stories of the creation of humanity, and those stories do not quite agree with each other. That alone ought to be reason enough to argue that the literal interpretation of every verse, in isolation from the rest of the Bible, can’t really be correct. Otherwise, the Bible is contradicting itself.

I take great comfort looking back through time, particularly at the writings of Augustine, who was obsessed by trying to understand Genesis and wrote no less than five books about it. Augustine ultimately concluded that no human being really was going to be able to interpret the meaning of the creation story. Certainly Augustine would have argued that the current ultra-literal interpretations that lead to young earth creationism are not required by the text, and would have warned that such a rigid interpretation, regardless of what other evidence comes to the scene, could potentially be quite dangerous to the faith, in that it would make believers out to be narrow-minded and potentially subject to ridicule. And in a certain way, that warning has come true with the battles we’re having right now.

If Augustine, who was one of the most thoughtful, original thinkers about biblical interpretation that we’ve ever had, was unable to figure out what Genesis meant 1,600 years ago, why should we today insist that we know what it means, particularly when the interpretation chosen contradicts a wide variety of data that God has given us the chance to discover through science.

So what you’re saying is that when people use religion or religious texts to explain natural phenomena, especially gaps in our understanding of the natural world, they’re asking for trouble?

Absolutely. We have to recognize that our understanding of nature is something that grows decade by decade, century by century. But we’re still a long way from understanding the details of much of the universe around us. To focus on a particular area of nature where our understanding remains incomplete and say, well, God must have done something miraculous in that spot, is actually, I think, to make God much too small. If God had a plan for creating a universe that was capable of resulting in creatures with intelligence, free will, the knowledge of right and wrong and the hunger to find God Almighty, I think it would be unfortunate for us to imagine that we can precisely figure out, with our tiny amount of information right now, exactly how God did it.

Despite the evidence presented and accepted by the vast majority of the scientific community that evolution through natural selection is the mechanism by which life developed on earth, an August 2006 poll by the Pew Research Center found that only about a quarter of the American public actually accepts evolution through natural selection. Why have scientists not been able to convince the vast majority of the American people on this particular issue?

I think there are at least three problems that have led to the pickle we’re in. One is that, by its very nature, evolution is counterintuitive. The idea that a process over hundreds of millions of years could give rise to something as complicated as the vertebrate eye, for example, is not something that seems natural, normal or believable to one who has not worked through the details. That is because our minds are very poor at contemplating something that happened so slowly over such a long period of time. And so, the alternative arguments for supernatural design appeal to a lot of people. That’s one problem that has nothing to do with religion; it has to do with the nature of evolution as having occurred in a timeframe that is just not familiar to the human mind and therefore is difficult to accept.

Secondly, we have made, I’m afraid, fairly lousy efforts over the last 150 years in our educational system to convey these concepts in school settings effectively to a large number of people in this country. And so, many people have never really seen the evidence to support evolution. So when you put that together with the natural incredulity one has upon hearing this kind of explanation of the diversity of living things, it’s no wonder that those folks don’t immediately rush to embrace Darwin.

And the third problem, of course, is that in some faith traditions, evolution seems to be a threat to the idea that God did it. I don’t actually see it as a threat at all; I see this as answering the question of how God did it. But certainly, some conservative Christian churches have had trouble embracing that conclusion, as it does seem to contradict a number of their views about how humanity came to be. Thus, people who have natural skepticism about the overall process, who have not had a decent science education to teach them why evolution actually makes sense and who have heard in Sunday school or from the pulpit that this theory is actually a threat to their faith, have a very hard time accepting, even after 150 years, that evolution is true.

How can scientists – especially scientists who are religious believers, like yourself – do a better job of reaching out to these people and convincing them that these findings are not a threat to their faith?

That’s a very difficult challenge. And I don’t think we should underestimate just how threatening it is to someone who has been raised in a creationist environment to give that up. They have heard many times since they first came to church as a child that the creationist view is part and parcel of belief in God. And, they’ve been told, if you even for a moment begin to allow the possibility that evolution is true, you are on a certain path toward loss of your faith and probably worse, eternal damnation. So we have to recognize that in that circumstance, a simple logical argument and presentation of the data is not going to be sufficient in one sitting to change somebody’s mind. And in fact, there will be strong resistance to even looking closely at that information because of the fear of what it might lead to.

I also think that those of us who are interested in seeking harmony here have to make it clear that the current crowd of seemingly angry atheists, who are using science as part of their argument that faith is irrelevant, do not speak for us. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens do not necessarily represent the consensus of science; 40 percent of scientists are believers in a personal God. A lot more are rather uncomfortable about the topic but certainly would not align themselves with a strong atheistic perspective. To the extent that it can be made clear that the assault on faith, which has been pretty shrill in the last couple of years, is coming from a fringe – a minority – and is not representative of what most scientists believe, that would help defuse the incendiary rhetoric and perhaps allow a real conversation about creation.

What about people like Richard Dawkins, who is a scientist like yourself, and the arguments that they have made – not just that they can’t find any proof for the existence of God but, quite to the contrary, that they think they find proof for God’s non-existence. Have they come up with anything in your view that supports those arguments?

I think strong atheism, of the kind that says, “I know there is no God,” suffers from two major logical flaws. And the awareness of those flaws might be reassuring to believers who are somehow afraid that these guys may actually have a point.

The first of those is the idea that anyone could use science at all as a conversation-stopper, as an argument-ender in terms of the question of God. If God has any meaning at all, God is at least in part outside of nature (unless you’re a pantheist). Science is limited in that its tools are only appropriate for the exploration of nature. Science can therefore certainly never discount the possibility of something outside of nature. To do so is a category error, basically using the wrong tools to ask the question.

Secondly, I think the logical error that atheists of the strong variety commit is what English writer G.K. Chesterton calls the most daring dogma of the universal negative. I often use a visual analogy to explain this. Suppose you were asked to draw a circle that contains all the information, all the knowledge that exists or ever will exist, inside or outside the universe – all knowledge. Well, that would be a pretty enormous circle. Now, suppose on that same scale, you were asked to draw what you know at the present time. Even the most assertive person will draw a rather tiny circle. Now, suppose that the knowledge that demonstrates that God exists is outside your little circle today. That seems pretty plausible, doesn’t it, considering the relative scale? How then – given that argument – would it be reasonable for any person to say, “I know there is no God”? That is clearly going outside of the evidence.

Do you foresee this conflict fading any time soon, or do you think that it will continue at least for the foreseeable future to be a real conflict?

Well, it won’t fade quickly. But I’m an optimist. Just as very few people now insist that the sun has to go around the earth in order to fulfill their expectations of what the Bible says, I would like to believe that in a few more decades, this battle will be seen as just as unnecessary and just as readily resolved in favor of saying that evolution is true and God is true. That’s basically what I’ve tried to argue in my book – that this whole battle has been created by a good deal of misunderstanding and unfortunately has been whipped up by those who occupy extreme positions. Many people are puzzled about this tumult and wish to understand how we might find a happy harmony between these worldviews.

I have a dream – and this is something that some of us are actually trying to put together – to bring together leading scientists with open minds, leading theologians with open minds and leading pastors who have a significant influence on their flocks. The goal would be to step back from the current unproductive battle and develop a new theology, a celebration of what God has created and how God did it. I think that’s possible. But even such an outcome will not be easily received by those who have dug themselves into hardened positions that do not allow much in the way of dialogue.

We’ve spent a lot of time talking about evolution because that does seem to be a focal point – at least in terms of conflicts between some people of faith and science. Do you see any other areas where such a conflict may be coming?

I think evolution is probably the most significant potential area of conflict. But I do think some of the things that are happening in neuroscience may have a parallel. I think, actually, the parallel extends pretty nicely to a response though. Some have argued that spirituality is simply a function of neurotransmitters, and this can now be demonstrated by imaging experiments on the brain. But the fact that the brain has the functional capability to support a spiritual experience, which seems to be the case, does not seem to me in any way to negate the meaning of that spiritual experience.

Again, if spirituality was part of God’s plan for us, these remarkable creatures created in God’s image – and by that I mean creatures of mind, I don’t think God has a physical body – then wouldn’t God need to have made a plan to have those experiences of spirituality supported anatomically in some way, so that they could be a real possibility for those who were seeking God?

It seems to me that once again, science is doing what science does really well, which is telling us something about how and very little about why. How spiritual experiences are mediated by the various neurons and neurotransmitters is a scientific question. But why they happen in the first place? That’s a pretty tough one for science.