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Geneticist hopes to bridge science, religion with bookcomment (0)

August 3, 2006

After reading from his book on science and religion to an audience of 150 people at an independent bookstore in Washington, Dr. Francis Collins saw the interactions he hoped would occur.

He watched as audience members struck up earnest conversations, debating about one of the knottiest philosophical issues of the day. “It was just what I hoped for.”

Collins’ new book, “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief,” is partly an effort to synthesize his beliefs as an evangelical Christian with his work as one of the world’s foremost scientists studying the human genome. But it is also Collins’ effort to bridge the vast differences between what he sees as the wrongheaded mentalities of both scientists and evangelicals.

“Certainly in this science-and-faith discussion, we’ve had an awful lot of people talking past each other,” Collins said. “It’s a tragic situation.”

Collins accepted an invitation in 1993 to become director of the National Center for Human Genome Research, which became the National Human Genome Research Institute in 1997. As director, he headed the institute’s effort to decode all 3.1 billion chemical “letters” that comprise human DNA — a goal met in 2000.

He continues his work as a geneticist, now studying the markers of hereditary diseases like Down syndrome or sickle-cell anemia in chromosomes, the packages of DNA in every one of our cells.

On July 24, Collins’ research institute announced it would study the gibbon genome to help scientists understand how the human genome developed.

Like many scientists, Collins kept his religious beliefs to himself until last year, when he answered a question at an evangelical conference and shared how he balanced scientific rigor and his faith in Jesus.

His book — released July 17 — expands on his worldview, attempting to discredit atheism, agnosticism, creationism and intelligent design. At the same time, he promotes evolution and the notion of a God who exists outside a linear space-time universe and is able to simultaneously survey the past, present and future.

While claiming the evangelical label, Collins, 56, also identifies himself as a follower of “theistic evolution,” a relatively small branch of Christianity that some other scientists also subscribe to. It holds that a personal God set everything in motion with the big bang and continues to keep watch as the universe evolves.

In his book, Collins spends the last chapters explaining his religious beliefs and attempts to give them a new name, BioLogos, to reflect how the natural world and the Word of God converge and mesh for him.

The book is about more than just science and faith, however. The arguments Collins presents aren’t new, but he made an effort to keep them at a logical level. He didn’t want to echo the emotionally based and diametrically opposed arguments that he says too often fill the public discourse.

Collins admits he is a scientist and not a theologian. He was raised by parents who downplayed the importance of religion and considered himself a strident atheist until he entered medical school, when he began questioning those beliefs. He was surprised to find the process led him to discover Jesus.

Though his education at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill kept him rooted in biochemistry and medicine, he also appears comfortable citing the philosophical works of C.S. Lewis and St. Augustine.

Despite the many supportive e-mails Collins has gotten since the release of his book, he seemed disappointed that the same extreme voices his book tries to soothe are already raising the decibel level. “I hoped it would start a lot of conversations,” he said. “I hoped it would be something a Sunday School class would decide to consider.”

The book has raised the ire of some scientists who claim he has sold out to religion and other Christians asserting he is trampling on their faith.

Collins may not be convincing many people to convert, but that was never his goal. He would rather see scientists and evangelicals alike take the time to consider their spirituality in a way that recognizes both the objective truths science has established and the “timeless truths” rooted in faith.  (RNS)

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