'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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The reason I went into this field was to figure out how to treat illnesses, rather than try to stop such individuals from even being born. But, of course, in our current society, people are in a circumstance of being able to take advantage of those technologies. And we have decided as a society that that choice needs to be defended.

But ultimately, that's not where genetics is going to take us. We are going to learn from the opportunities now in front of us how to treat people who have cancer, how to cure them in ways that we currently can't do, how to prevent diabetes in somebody who's predisposed so that they don't develop that terrible disease, how we do things to treat mental illnesses in ways that are much more effective than the options we have right now. Those are the real promises of this field, promises that are going to come true over the next decade.

What do you think of the recent prayer study about the efficacy of prayer for medical patients?

I find this to be an interesting but somewhat puzzling area of research--these studies in which people pray for other individuals that they do not know and where the individuals being prayed for are not aware that that is happening are potentially revealing. But, in other ways, they kind of fly in the face of what I think prayer is intended to be all about.

For me, in my Christian belief, prayer is not an opportunity to manipulate God into doing what you want him to. Prayer is an opportunity to have a conversation with God to try to get in tune with what his will is.

The words in the Lord's Prayer are not "my will be done", but "your will be done." And it seems to me that that kind of research is predicated on the assumption that if we just say the right words in a certain circumstance, we can get God to do what we want Him to.

That's not quite consistent, it seems to me, with what I read about in the Bible in terms of the role that prayer has played in the lives of strong believers.

So, the fact that those research studies seem to leave one with ambiguous answers doesn't really provide me much reassurance about whether or not prayer has value. The research studies are designed in a way that assumes a certain value of prayer that's a bit different than what I find to be true in my own life.

Do you have a favorite prayer?

His Favorite Scripture
I don't have a particular prayer that I'm attached to. I have various scriptures that I'm attached to, especially when I'm struggling, looking for answers. One of mine is James 1:5: "If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him."

I'm always feeling like I'm lacking wisdom. This reassurance that one can ask God for that and it will happen is certainly reassuring to me.

Again, I find that happens by getting into a prayerful attitude towards God. I've never heard God speak out loud. That has not been my own experience. But oftentimes, when I'm struggling looking for an answer, looking for a wise approach to a difficult problem, a prayer seems to get me there in a way that's hard to describe. It's not the sort of thing that a nonbeliever can quite grasp. But for those of us who are believers, I think that is what prayer is all about.

The cover of your book looks like a strand of DNA made into a stained-glass window. Is that what it's meant to be?

Absolutely. It was inspired by a pair of images that I often use when I'm talking to groups about science and faith. [The images] compare what you see when you look at the rose window in Westminster Cathedral and what you see when you look at DNA. Imagine that you're looking down the barrel of the double helix. It gives you this beautiful circular pattern which has a remarkable similarity to a circular stained glass window in a church.

What do you wish religious people knew about scientists, and what scientists knew about believers?

Scientists see sometimes a caricature of what belief is about. They draw the conclusion that belief is something that is arrived at purely by emotion. They don't perceive the notion that faith can be a completely rational choice, as it was for me.

Just as scientists sometimes are exposed to caricatures of religious people, I think religious people oftentimes have a view of scientists that is based upon certain extremists. Forty percent of scientists are believers in a personal God to whom one can pray and expect an answer. That's proven by various surveys.

We need all kinds of ways of knowing. We need all kinds of ways of speaking the truth. Science is one way. Faith is another. They are not really about opposite things. They're about different ways of answering the most important questions.

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