God, Under a Microscope
Saturday, July 22, 2006
He opened the session by improvising on hymns at the piano and concluded it by accompanying a singalong on the guitar. In between, he delivered a compelling account of his unlikely conversion from atheism to evangelical Christianity.
The lanky, amiable personality wasn't a traveling revivalist but one of the world's leading biologists.
Francis S. Collins led the international Human Genome Project that mapped the 3.1 billion chemical base pairs in humanity's DNA. He now directs the U.S. government program on applying that information to medical treatments.
He has also emerged as an advocate for faith and its compatibility with science.
The 56-year-old Collins discussed the clash of science and religion last weekend during a conference at Williams College sponsored by the C.S. Lewis Foundation. The writings of the English literature scholar were instrumental in Collins's conversion.
Collins pursues the theme again next week at a convention of the American Scientific Affiliation at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. The organization of scientists affirms "the divine inspiration, trustworthiness and authority of the Bible" on faith and morals. Collins is a member.
But his most complete argument for God appears in a new book, "The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief," which addresses two radically divergent audiences:
He asks scientific skeptics to investigate God with the same open-minded zeal they apply to the natural world, saying that there's no incompatibility between belief and scientific rigor.
He tells fellow evangelicals that opposition to evolution -- whether based in the biblical literalism of creationists or "intelligent design" arguments -- undermines the credibility of faith. He finds the first line of thought "fundamentally flawed" and says the second builds upon gaps in evidence that scientists are likely to fill in.
The audience of 200 at Williams gave Collins's views a respectful reception, in contrast to the frosty reaction he got when he said at a national meeting of Christian physicians that the evidence for evolution is "overwhelming."
But scientists are probably the tougher audience. According to Nature, the weekly science journal, "many scientists disagree strongly" with Collins-style arguments, and critics think "more talk of religion is the last thing that science needs."