'God Is Not Threatened by Our Scientific Adventures'

A genome researcher explains how he reconciles science with his deep Christian faith.

BY: Interview with Francis Collins


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If God is real, and I believe he is, then he is outside of nature. He is, therefore, not limited by the laws of nature in the way that we are. He's not limited by time. In the very moment of that flash in which the universe was created, an unimaginable burst of energy, God also had the plan of how that would coalesce into stars and galaxies, planets, and how life would arrive on a small planet near the outer rim of a spiral galaxy. And ultimately, over hundreds of millions of years, give rise to creatures with intelligence and in whom he could infuse this search for him and this knowledge of good and evil. And all of that happened in his mind in the blink of an eye. While it may seem to us that this whole process has the risk of randomness and, therefore, an unpredictable outcome, that was not the case for God.

What is something else you've learned from all your work with DNA that you think reveals something about God or spirituality?

Well, as a scientist who's also a believer, the chance to uncover the incredible intricacies of God's creation is an occasion of worship. To be able to look, for the first time in human history, at all three billion letters of the human DNA--which I think of as God's language--it gives us just a tiny glimpse into the amazing creative power of his mind. Every discovery that we now make in science [is], for me, a chance to worship him in a broader sense, to appreciate just in a small bit the amazing grandeur of his creation. It also helps me appreciate though that as a scientist, there are limits to the kinds of questions that science can answer. And that's where I have to turn to God and seek his answers.

The Limitations of Science
Science will tell me a lot about how things work. It will not tell me why we are all here, what the purpose is in life or what happens after we die. For that, I need my faith. And I'm grateful to be able to draw upon both of those ways of knowing in order to have a full appreciation of the wonderful gift of life that we've been given.

You also touch on some of your fears related to DNA. You talk about the "Gattaca" scenario and designer babies--parents being able to pick and choose what genes they want for their kids. What are your moral concerns?

I do believe that we have been given the gift of the ability to understand aspects of our own mechanical structures and that includes our instruction book. I also argue, of course, that that's not the whole story. The knowledge that we get about human biology and human genetics is neither good nor evil. It's just knowledge. The application that we choose for that knowledge can take on moral character.

In that regard, applications that we develop to prevent or cure terrible diseases are generally things that people embrace. Certainly the mandate of virtually all of the great faiths of the world is to try to alleviate suffering and to try to help those who are sick, give them a chance to get well. And it seems to me the study of DNA of the human genome is a wonderful, unprecedented opportunity in that regard.

But what are the boundaries? Are we comfortable with the idea of going beyond the treatment of disease to try to enhance certain human traits? Part of those discussions are predicated on the kind of science that we don't know how to do. I don't think we will get to the point of being able to dial in the characteristics of future generations because so much of that is determined not by genes, but by upbringing, by free will, by all of those wonderful things about being a human that are not hard-wired into our DNA.

But I do think there are some serious questions there about how far down that path we want to go. None of those opportunities are imminent, but it would be useful for us as a society, and particularly for people who are believers, to come to the table in a rational, thoughtful, non-emotional way and try to decide where are the limits that we want this technology to not go beyond.

It seems in some ways, it's already happening; for example, sometimes when parents learn that their child has Down Syndrome, they terminate the pregnancy. What is your opinion of that sort of scenario?

I'm troubled that the applications of genetics that are currently possible are oftentimes in the prenatal arena. That is not the reason I went into this field.

Continued on page 3: I've never heard God speak out loud, but... »

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