Bridging The Divide: A Scientist's Search For Faith And Truth : Up First Francis Collins was director of the National Institutes of Health for more than a decade. He's also an evangelical Christian. Host Rachel Martin talked to Collins about some of life's biggest questions and how he's found answers with science and faith.

Bridging The Divide: A Scientist's Search For Faith And Truth

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Hey, everybody. It's Rachel Martin. And this is UP FIRST Sunday.

You've probably seen Dr. Francis Collins around a lot during the pandemic.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STATE OF THE UNION")

DANA BASH: I want to go straight to the director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins.

FRANCIS COLLINS: Omicron has more than 50 variants.

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COLLINS: I think we underestimated the vaccine hesitancy issue.

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COLLINS: Is this virus actually not quite as capable of causing severe disease?

MARTIN: But Collins has other kinds of questions on his mind, too - questions maybe you've asked yourself at some point.

COLLINS: Why didn't anybody talk about how improbable it is that we exist at all? If good and evil really matter, if they're not just a fiction, where does that come from? Why am I here? Do I have much of a chance of making a difference? I don't know.

MARTIN: Today, we're thinking about all of that, the biggest kinds of questions, and how one doctor found answers with science and faith.

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COLLINS: Hi, Rachel. Nice to talk to you.

MARTIN: I've been trying to figure out a way to do this for a while, so I'm glad that we finally worked it out.

COLLINS: Well, I'm honored. And I gather this is sort of a big picture. It's not about the news of the day.

MARTIN: No. Isn't that exciting?

COLLINS: Yeah. I love it.

MARTIN: It's actually about the biggest questions in the world.

But before you hear how Dr. Collins arrived at his conclusions about the big existential questions of our time, you sort of need to understand where he started.

COLLINS: When I was a graduate student studying quantum mechanics, I had no use for anybody who wanted to talk about something you couldn't measure in the science lab.

MARTIN: And were there people in your life who wanted to talk about that?

COLLINS: You know, in an academic environment, that was probably - the majority view was being atheist. And anybody who had any sense of spiritual issues probably kept it to themselves.

MARTIN: Why?

COLLINS: I think it was the sort of thing that would clear the seminar room in a hurry if you raised a question about God. Like, oh, that doesn't belong here. Didn't you realize that's not the conversation we're supposed to have? So people got the message and didn't. And I was happy not to have that conversation 'cause I was uncomfortable by it and thought it was a waste of time.

MARTIN: So how in the world did that begin to change for you when you had such certainty about the nonexistence of God? At what point did you start to reevaluate?

COLLINS: It was medical school. It was that third year of medical school, where you're not in the classroom anymore. You're on the hospital wards. You're sitting at the bedside of good North Carolina people whose lives are coming to an end, sometimes with a great deal of pain and suffering. And you're realizing your medical tools are inadequate to actually help them very much. And you think of yourself in that situation, and you wonder, how would I handle this? And you watch some of these people who are so supported by their confidence in their faith that they are radiating this kind of peace and tranquility. And I thought, boy, that's interesting. That's a pretty impressive psychological crutch they've got there. But they were talking like this was real.

And I had a moment where a patient of mine who I'd gotten kind of attached to - an elderly woman kind of like my grandmother - who shared her faith with me and then turned to me one afternoon and said, you know, Doctor, I've told you about my beliefs, and you haven't said anything. What do you believe? Nobody ever quite asked me that question. And, Rachel, at that moment, I realized I have no idea. I had settled on atheism because it was the answer I was most comfortable with and it meant I didn't really have to look into this. But I'm a scientist. I'm not supposed to make big decisions without looking at evidence. I've never considered why believers believe. And some of the people around me I know were pretty impressive intellects also seemed to be believers in God. What is that about? And I can't really step away from that question honorably. I've got to look into it.

MARTIN: So how does an avowed atheist scientist go about interrogating the existence of God?

COLLINS: What helped me most was a pastor down the street from me, who listened to all of my blasphemous questions about how there could possibly be a loving God when the world was in such trouble and suggested that I might want to read a small book on his shelf by somebody who was also an academic who had struggled with his atheism. But be careful, he said. It might actually affect you.

The book was "Mere Christianity" by C.S. Lewis. And in the first three pages of that book, I realized that all of my arguments against faith were really very superficial. They were the arguments of a schoolboy, not a serious person. And Lewis, bit by bit, who seemed to be reading my mind, would address each one of those and then point out why atheism was actually the least rational of the choices and why belief ultimately made a lot more sense.

JONATHAN BURLEY: (Reading) Atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning.

COLLINS: The first chapter of "Mere Christianity" is focused on morality. And where does that come from? And I would challenge anybody who's a really strict atheist to answer that question. We all have this intrinsic sense that there's something called good and evil.

BURLEY: (Reading) Whenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real right and wrong, you'll find the same man going back on this a moment later.

COLLINS: Where does that come from? You can't quite get there by a strict evolutionary argument. You can get there to the point of certain behaviors. But to the idea that there is a concept of good and evil - I'm sorry, I don't think the strictest kind of a reductionist evolutionary argument gets you there.

MARTIN: At some point, it is a leap of faith, though - is it not? - because you describe an awakening to the possibility that God exists, that our morality stems from some kind of manifestation of the divine. But there's not certainty in that. It could also - our human goodness could also come from somewhere else. It could be innate.

COLLINS: Yeah, I found it hard to come up with answers about the source of our being pulled towards goodness, towards beauty - that's another argument, by the way - towards truth solely from materialistic basis. But you're right. This is not a proof. There will not be a proof made available of God's existence. One can build a case for that based on certain arguments, pros and cons. Actually, some of them come from nature. There is also this remarkable circumstance of the fine-tuning of the universe, which tells us how incredibly improbable it is that we exist. And it makes it look as if somehow the laws of nature, those beautiful mathematical laws that determine the behavior of matter and energy, were set very precisely with certain constants so that something interesting might happen.

I think that's a tough argument for a strict atheist to ignore, although their response to it is to quickly get on to multiverses, which we'll never be able to measure, which seems to me to require even more of a leap of faith. But that's in there, too. And for me as a scientist, that was pretty breathtaking. Like, why? I didn't know about that. Why didn't anybody talk about how improbable it is that we exist at all?

And I resisted that, Rachel. Oh, my gosh. It was not the answer I wanted. I went into this to try to prove atheism was the right answer, (laughter) and it wasn't turning out very well. But ultimately, it was not just my brain. It was my heart that was pulling me in a direction that I just couldn't resist.

MARTIN: How did you start to integrate that new identity as a person of faith into your work?

COLLINS: Well, remember, at this point, I'm already seriously interested in genetics and DNA, and obviously that has lots of implications for the origins of humanity. And there were people around me who said, OK, this is not going to last. (Laughter) There is no way you're going to be able to incorporate your scientific and your spiritual perspectives in one brain. You're going to have to put a firewall between them, and it isn't going to work. Your brain's going to explode after a while.

It never happened. And in fact, I found being a person of faith enriched my experience as a scientist because now I'm not just studying some material facts about nature. I'm also studying creation. I had not had the experience, as so many Christians in the United States have, of having science seen as a threat to faith. So instead, it always felt to me like, oh, these things really go beautifully well together. And in fact, science can be helpful in some of those dilemmas that are being faced about origins and understanding what really was intended in Genesis 1 and 2.

MARTIN: How did we get here?

COLLINS: We got here through a very long and elegant process of gradual change driven by different spellings and information molecules - maybe originally RNA, and then DNA became a big player - resulting over the course of billions of years in increasing complexity of living things and, ultimately, a big-brained creature that could be self-aware and could also have a hunger for the God that started all of this. So I am what you'd call an evolutionary creationist, who sees evolution as an elegant way that God put in place through natural laws the possibilities of having creatures like us in God's image with whom God could have communication through prayer and giving us the chance to discover all of that.

MARTIN: Do you worry that there are people out there who are your peers in the science world who won't take you seriously because of what you just said?

COLLINS: I worried at first when I was becoming more public about my belief that that might lead to some sort of eye roll or even some sort of professional damage being done. I don't think it's really happened. I will tell you, I was probably a little more cautious when I was a junior faculty member...

MARTIN: Yeah.

COLLINS: ...Worrying about such things as promotion and tenure. I became less concerned as I had more seniority and felt it was safer to be who I am.

But I'm not the only one. Polls will tell you that amongst working scientists, maybe a third of them actually believe in a God to whom one may pray in expectation of an answer. This presumption that science and atheism go hand in hand is not actually true in reality, and there's lots of data about that.

MARTIN: If more scientists identified as people of faith, would religious people - I'm thinking specifically of folks right now who are questioning science - you know, would they be more likely to get a COVID vaccine if a scientist who was telling them to do so self-identified as a person who shared their faith, their outlook on the world?

COLLINS: I think that might actually help. There was a paper just published in a significant journal where they did this kind of experiment with people who were vaccine hesitant and presented them with data about why the vaccines were safe and effective. And then in another group, they added to that a brief video clip of me saying, yes, I'm a Christian. I believe in the Bible, but I also believe these vaccines are safe and effective, and they're a gift from God and an answer to prayer. And it made a difference. More people after the experience said, yeah, OK, I'll get the vaccine now.

MARTIN: I wonder if you've seen this. I have just noticed in my own life in conversations with some evangelical Christians I know, the tendency has been to say, about a variety of things, this is God's will, right? Whether we're talking about climate change or whether we're talking about a global pandemic - that any attempt to disrupt those - that kind of predestined divine plan is against God's will. Have you heard that, and how do you go about countering it?

COLLINS: Those are my people. I am an evangelical Christian. And I must say it is heartbreaking to see the ways in which this divide between science and faith has particularly hit that community hard. This is the community that has amongst the highest rates of vaccine hesitancy and denial of climate change when all the data is clearly in front of us. I think part of the problem is those communities have really been hit hard by messages that really are not of their faith. They're political. And it's hard to sort them out.

Certainly, when it comes to climate change, a very clear case can be made based on the Bible that we have been given dominion over the Earth. That means we're supposed to take care of it. And to simply say, oh, well, not worry; it's God's problem, that's really not what comes across at all in the Scriptures.

And certainly, when it comes to medical interventions, it is hard, I think, to say, well, God will take care of me, so I don't need this vaccine unless you're also going to say, God will take care of me when I'm having crushing chest pain, so I'm not going to go to the emergency room. People are not being, I think, very consistent about that.

And to turn it around the other way, which I find to be incredibly sort of uplifting, is, yes, so many people have prayed for deliverance from COVID-19. I have. Millions of people have. And what do you know? It comes along. Here's a vaccine, with God's grace and a lot of human hard work, that is even more effective and safe than we dared to hope for. So that sounds to me like God is working through God's people to actually answer our prayers and produce this.

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MARTIN: This is UP FIRST Sunday, and we are back now with more of my conversation with the former director of the National Institutes of Health Francis Collins. We're talking about science and faith.

Did you lose anyone of COVID during the pandemic?

COLLINS: I did not have any close friends or family members who have died from COVID, but I've certainly known of many acquaintances. And the heartbreak is just so hard to look at - 800,000-plus people. More than 100,000 of those, by all estimates, have died unnecessarily - unvaccinated people who were convinced by some thread of information that this vaccine was not for them. I don't blame them. I don't blame the communities that have taken that view. I blame the people who are providing them with false information, some of whom may even know it's false and yet continue to do so for other reasons, many of them political. That is truly heartbreaking.

And it's deep in my heart, Rachel, about what this says about where we are here in 2022, where something as fundamental as truth, as objective evidence, as facts doesn't seem to be winning in circumstances where there are loud opinions and conspiracies also in the room. That doesn't bode well for our future in any arena if we can't sort out really what is true and what is not true. And right now, we're having trouble.

MARTIN: What do you think the pandemic has revealed about not just who we are as a society, but assumptions about our collective desire to look out for one another? You know, this is sort of what public health is built on, this kind of pact, this unspoken pact that we're all going to work together for a collective good. And that seemed, by my eye, to have frayed at - to put it mildly.

COLLINS: To put it mildly, yeah. And, of course, what you're talking about is fundamental to almost all religious faith. This is the golden rule. And the golden rule now - maybe it still applies to people that are in your own social grouping, your tribe, where you're bonded together with a particular perspective, oftentimes on political issues. But it sure doesn't apply to the people on the other side, where we are now so quick not just to say they're misguided, but to say they're evil, they're dangerous. And that has gradually found its way into our society's way of dealing with itself. But it's particularly florid right now.

And I guess COVID has made it clear that that's not just an unfortunate kind of a new chapter in the culture war. The culture wars are literally killing people because we've lost that sense of what our greatest calling is, which is the truth, goodness and beauty, those three transcendentals that are supposed to characterize us, and all three of which seem to be frayed.

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MARTIN: OK, I'm breaking out of this for a second to acknowledge that, yes, this is very heavy stuff. But when you've got a chance to talk to one of the most preeminent scientists in the country, you sort of just have to lean into it, right? So here goes.

Do you think we have a soul?

COLLINS: I do. I'm not very good at getting into the metaphysics of what exactly that means, and I don't think my scientific tools are going to capture it and measure it for you.

MARTIN: Yeah.

COLLINS: But I do think there's something about humans - an essence that you can't put together in just molecules and electrons. And it has something more substantial, but also more evanescent and potentially more eternal.

MARTIN: So that leads to my next question. As a geneticist, as an evangelical Christian, what happens when we die?

COLLINS: I don't know. I read the Scriptures on this, and they're not as clear, sometimes, as I wish they were. But when I read the words that are written down of Jesus on the cross with the thieves on either side, one of whom is angry and one of whom recognizes who it is that he's on the cross next to, and Jesus says, you will be with me - and that's after they're both dead.

OK, there's a voice - a voice from a historical figure. You know, when I was growing up, I thought Jesus was a myth. We have more historical evidence for Jesus Christ than we do for Julius Caesar and many others as well. And here is words spoken at the moment near death that sound as if they were intended to be listened to, that there's something more. And I'm counting on that and trying to live my life accordingly and hoping someday to see all those people that have gone before me that I miss.

MARTIN: Where do you find hope here now? You have described yourself as an optimist. Where does that derive? Is the answer just as simple as your faith, or no?

COLLINS: My faith is a deep source of that. I also have hope that human nature, despite all of its foibles, is basically put together in a way that over time we find a way to do the right thing, even after making a lot of mistakes along the way. I have a lot of hope in the next generation. I think maybe my generation hasn't handled itself very well. But I'm looking forward, if I get the chance to be around long enough, to see what happens with new eyes, new vision, new creativity, new willingness to be generous of spirit.

I'm also seriously thinking about whether there are ways that I might be able to use whatever credibility I have to try to make a case for bringing us out of this set of warring factions toward something with more concern for each other and more attention to what the truth teaches us about our future and a willingness to set aside the noisy opinions that are flying around on social media, which seems to have infected us in so many ways. Do I have much of a chance of making a difference? I don't know. But I'm hopeful that maybe I could in some small way.

MARTIN: OK, that's sort of a perfect ender for a conversation like this. But when you interview someone like Dr. Collins and you find out that in his copious amounts of free time he plays the guitar, well, you're sort of obliged to ask him to play a little something - but not just anything. I was really swinging for the fences with this one.

...Identify something that not just represents that hope that we just talked about, but also being OK with uncertainty, which is another thing I took away from our conversation, you know? Or you can just play what you want, and we'll just call it - we'll just say that it meant that (laughter).

COLLINS: Actually, I think I might have something that kind of works here. Now - and it's a song written during the Civil War. So talk about a dark time where people were trying to find hope. This is an effort of that sort. It's also sort of a hymn. It's in hymn books, although people sing it at other times as well. It's Robert Lowry's 1864 hymn called "How Can I Keep From Singing." I think especially the second verse kind of really fits what we're talking about.

(Playing guitar, singing) What though the tempest loudly roars, I hear the truth. It shields me. What though the darkness around me close, songs in the night will heal me. No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that rock I'm clinging. Since love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?

MARTIN: Dr. Francis Collins, former director of the National Institutes of Health and amateur musician. This episode of UP FIRST Sunday was edited by Jenny Schmidt and produced by Rhaina Cohen. Special thanks to Jonathan Burley (ph) for reading passages from C.S. Lewis. UP FIRST will be back tomorrow with the news you need to start your day. Have a good rest of your weekend.

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