Presentation at the National Prayer Breakfast

Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D.
February 1, 2007
Washington, D.C.

President Bush, First Lady, heads of state, Members of Congress, distinguished guests…

I am deeply honored to be speaking with you on this significant and moving occasion. As you have heard, I am not a man of the cloth nor a political leader. I am a physician and a scientist, here this morning as a private citizen, but who had the incredible privilege of leading the Human Genome Project. I am also a believer in God.

The astrophysicist Robert Jastrow started his book on science and faith with the following words: “When a scientist writes about God, his colleagues assume he is either over the hill or going bonkers.” I hope and pray that I am neither of those! And yet in the scientific community there is often an unwritten taboo about discussing one’s spiritual leanings, so many assume that scientists are generally godless materialists. That’s not actually true – a recent survey found that 40% of working scientists believe in a God to whom one may pray in expectation of an answer. And that number has changed very little over the past century.

Yet there are increasingly shrill voices around us who argue that the scientific and spiritual worldviews are incompatible. I am here this morning to tell you that these different ways of finding the truth are not only compatible, but they are wondrously complementary.

As the leader of the Human Genome Project, I had the great privilege of serving as the project manager for a dedicated team of more than 2000 scientists from six countries. Together, we determined all three billion letters of the human genome, our own DNA instruction book, and made all those data freely available on the internet every 24 hours. It is hard to get your mind around how much information this is – three billion is a big number, even here in Washington! Suppose we decided to take a little time this morning to read the letters of the human genome together, just to express our awe at God’s creation. If we took turns reading, and agreed to stick with it until we were all the way through, we would be here for 31 years! And you have all that information inside each of the 100 trillion cells of your body.

We have learned many interesting things already about this amazing human DNA instruction book. One profound observation is just how much we are all alike. Your DNA and mine are 99.9% the same -- and that would be true regardless of which one of you I chose for the comparison. At the DNA level, we are clearly all part of one big worldwide family.

Faced with this rapidly growing body of information, one cannot help but feel a sense of awe at the amazing complexity and elegance of the human body – from the intricate digital DNA code, to the marvelous nanotechnology machines that operate inside each cell of our bodies, to that most amazing organ of all, the human brain.

But this exploration of human biology is not just a sterile academic pursuit. Whether you are a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Jew, a Christian, or still searching, you would probably agree that the mandate to alleviate suffering is one of our highest callings. The new tools of biomedical research, many stemming from this new science of genomics, now provide an unprecedented opportunity for breakthroughs in cancer, diabetes, mental illness, infectious diseases, and many other conditions, and a true revolution is underway. Though there are legitimate concerns about setting appropriate boundaries for this research, we also have a strong ethical mandate to proceed as quickly as possible, so long as a sick child lives somewhere in the world who could be helped.

So these are exciting times for a scientist. But my hopes and dreams for us all do not rest solely in science. I am also a man of faith. Many of you probably assume that this stance stems from childhood training in a particular religious tradition – as that is certainly the way in which many come to believe. But that is not my story.

I was raised on a small farm in Virginia by wonderfully unconventional freethinking parents who greatly valued learning, literature, music, and the arts – but for whom religion was just not very important. Falling in love with science as a teenager, slipping into a worldview that assumed that the only true meaning in the universe was to be found in mathematics and physical laws, I became first an agnostic and then an atheist.

But my scientific curiosity eventually led me from chemistry and physics into medicine. And there at the bedside of people with terrible illnesses, matters of life, death, and the spirit were no longer academic. Just as it has been said “there are no atheists in foxholes”, I found that there were few atheists amongst those lying in hospital beds in North Carolina. One afternoon, a kindly grandmother with only a few weeks to live shared her own faith in Jesus quite openly with me, and then asked, “Doctor, what do you believe?” Stammering something about not being quite sure, I fled the room, having the disturbing sense that the atheist ice under my feet was cracking, though I wasn’t quite sure why. And then suddenly the reason for my disquiet hit me: I was a scientist. I was supposed to make decisions based on evidence. And yet I had never really considered the evidence for and against faith.

Determined to shore up my position, I began to explore the path of others before me who had asked the same questions about faith. In that search, I was particularly affected by the writings of the Oxford scholar C.S. Lewis, who had similarly sought as a young man to defend his atheism and instead became a believer in God.

As I explored the evidence more deeply, all around me I began to see signposts to something outside of nature that could only be called God. I realized that the scientific method can really only answer questions about HOW things work. It can’t answer questions about WHY – and those are in fact the most important ones. Why is there something instead of nothing? Why does mathematics work so beautifully to describe nature? Why is the universe so precisely tuned to make life possible? Why do we humans have a universal sense of right and wrong, and an urge to do right – even though we disagree on how to interpret that calling?

Confronted with these revelations, I realized that my own assumption -- that faith was the opposite of reason -- was incorrect. I should have known better: Scripture defines faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Evidence! Simultaneously, I realized that atheism was in fact the least rational of all choices. As Chesterton wrote, “Atheism is indeed the most daring of all dogmas … for it is the assertion of a universal negative.” How could I have had the arrogance to make such an assertion?

So I had to accept the plausibility of a powerful force, a creative Mind, that existed outside of Nature. But was God only to be found in the abstract, or did he also care about me? I felt an increasing hunger to answer that question.

After searching for two years more, I ultimately found my own answer -- in the loving person of Jesus Christ. Here was a man unlike any other. He was humble and kindhearted. He reached out to those considered lowest in society. He made astounding statements about loving your enemies. And he promised something that no ordinary man should be able to promise – to forgive sins. On top of all that, having assumed all my life that Jesus was just a myth, I was astounded to learn that the evidence for his historical existence was actually overwhelming.

Eventually, I concluded the evidence demanded a verdict. In my 28th year, while hiking in the majestic Cascade mountains in the Pacific Northwest, I could no longer deny my need for forgiveness and new life –- and I gave in and became a follower of Jesus. He is now the rock upon which I stand, the source for me of ultimate love, peace, joy, and hope.

But, some of you might say, you’re a geneticist. Doesn’t that make your head explode? Aren’t there irreconcilable contradictions between your spiritual and scientific worldviews? No. Not at all. As long as one uses a thoughtful approach to interpretation of the meaning of Scripture in light of what science has allowed us to learn about the universe – as St. Augustine compellingly articulated 1600 years ago -- I can’t identify a single conflict between what I know as a rigorous scientist and what I know as a believer. Yes, science is the only reliable way to understand the natural world. But being a believer allows me to see scientific discoveries in a wholly new light. In that context, science becomes a means not only of discovery, but of worship. When as a scientist I have the great privilege of learning something that no human knew before, as a believer I also have the indescribable experience of having caught a glimpse of God’s mind. Bernard Lonergan captured this aspect of scientific discovery as “the eternal rapture glimpsed in every Archimedean cry of Eureka.”

If this is all true, why does there seem to be such a battle going on between science and faith, at least in some quarters? As is often the case in such battles, a bit of effort on each side to understand each other would go a long way. Concrete-thinkers amongst my own colleagues who deny the value of a spiritual worldview would be well advised to admit the ultimate impoverishment of a perspective that offers no answers to questions like “Why am I here?” Perhaps Jesus was thinking of such folks when he said in Matthew 11:25, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.”

On the other hand, some well-meaning believers have adopted the view that science is a threat to faith, and that God has to be defended against certain scientific conclusions. Is this really compatible with complete trust in the Almighty, who could hardly be threatened by the efforts of our puny minds to understand his creation? God’s creation is majestic, awesome, intricate, and beautiful – and it cannot contradict itself. He is the same God, whether you find him in the cathedral or in the laboratory. He is in the laws of physics, but he is also the ultimate source of love and forgiveness.

On June 26, 2000, I had the privilege to stand in the East Room of the White House, next to the President of the United States, announcing the completion of the first draft of the human genome. I was overcome with awe and a sense of history that morning. As a believer, this remarkable book of life did indeed seem to be written in the language in which God spoke life into being.

But that day was also one of personal mourning, for I had just spoken at a memorial service for my sister-in-law, a marionette artist whose wonderful light had been snuffed out much too soon by breast cancer. The promise of these new discoveries about the human genome had come too late for her.

Recalling the mixed emotions of that day, they bring into sharp focus the complex nature of our human condition. We have great hopes for health and long life for ourselves and our families, but all too often we stand at the gravesides of loved ones who have been taken from us much too soon. We find in the great truths of faith the kind of clear spiritual water that we long for, but all too often we see that pure water has been poured into rusty human vessels, distorted, and discolored. We want to believe in ultimate human goodness, but all too often our hopes are dashed by selfish and violent acts of our own human family against each other. We cling to the promise of new scientific breakthroughs to help our hurting world, but we fear that some of these discoveries may be used in ways that cause more harm than good. In sum, we dream of an earthly garden of delight, but all too often it seems more like a vale of tears.

Yet if we put our trust in God, and resolve to put love above all else, we are promised ultimate victory over all these trials. “Come unto me, all you are burdened and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” So, my brothers and sisters from every creed and nation, let us here today resolve to love one another, and to celebrate the beautiful and intricate world that God has given us. Let us agree to protect it, even as we seek to join the power of science with the warm embrace of human compassion to reach out to all those who need healing – whether of body or spirit.

To conclude this homily, I propose to do something risky – to ask you all to join me in singing a song. Some may find it ironic that last year’s speaker, the rock star Bono, spoke about justice and world economics, but passed up the chance to sing. Now this year’s speaker, a scientist who might be considered a bit of a nerd, proposes to sing and play guitar. But the Prayer Breakfast is where we are all supposed to break out of our comfort zones.

So please help me -- break out of your own comfort zone, and sing along with me. The words are in your program. The tune will be familiar to some of you, and will be quickly learned by the rest. Harmony is welcome!

My brothers and sisters, lift your hearts and voices with me, as we praise the God who is the source of all faith and learning.

Praise the Source of Faith and Learning

Words by Rev. Thomas H. Troeger
From Borrowed Light: Hymn Texts, Prayers and Poems
Copyright 1994 Oxford University Press, used by permission
(To the tune of Hyfrydol)

Praise the source of faith and learning who has sparked and stoked the mind
With a passion for discerning how the world has been designed.
Let the sense of wonder flowing from the wonders we survey
Keep our faith forever growing and renew our need to pray.

God of wisdom, we acknowledge that our science and our art
And the breadth of human knowledge only partial truth impart.
Far beyond our calculation lies a depth we cannot sound
Where Your purpose for creation and the pulse of life are found.

As two currents in a river fight each other's undertow
Till converging they deliver one coherent steady flow,
Blend O God our faith and learning till they carve a single course
Till they join as one, returning praise and thanks to You, their Source.