By Richard N. Ostling
Saturday, July 22, 2006; B09
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."
Surveys have indicated that 40 percent of scientists are religious, Collins said, but "if 40 percent of my own scientific colleagues are believers in a personal God, they're keeping pretty quiet about it."
"For a scientist, it's uncomfortable to admit there are questions that your scientific method isn't going to be able to address," he said. Besides, scientists are busy and focused -- they often don't take the time to explore "these more profound eternal questions."
In his talk, Collins said he was raised by nonreligious parents and became "an obnoxious atheist." But as a medical student, he wondered why patients who were suffering and dying retained faith in God.
He realized that as a scientist, "you're not supposed to decide something is true until you've looked at the data. And yet I had become an atheist without ever looking at the evidence whether God exists or not."
He began looking and early in the process read Lewis's "Mere Christianity."
"In the very first chapter," he said, "all my arguments about the irrationality of faith lay in ruins."
Yet he was besieged by doubts during two years of struggle and study. Finally, he went hiking in Oregon's Cascade Mountains. One morning, he said, "I fell on my knees and asked Christ to be my lord and savior. And he has been there ever since, the past 28 years, as the rock on which I stand."
Unimpressed by denominational differences, Collins has worshipped in a variety of Protestant churches while living the itinerant life of an academic. He became a Methodist at the University of North Carolina, an American Baptist at Yale and a Southern Baptist at the University of Michigan. He currently belongs to Fourth Presbyterian Church in Bethesda.
Collins writes that "it is time to call a truce in the escalating war between science and spirit," in which the dominant voices have belonged to narrow, anti-God materialists and believers who spurn orthodox science.
He says both approaches are "profoundly dangerous. Both deny truth. Both will diminish the nobility of humankind. Both will be devastating to our future. And both are unnecessary."