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Genomics luminary weighs in on US faith debate

Top geneticist asks the God question.

Is it really possible to combine dedication to science with belief in God? In a new book, prominent US scientist Francis Collins sets out his case for combining a strong religious faith with a zeal for the scientific method. But his views have already sparked debate, with critics suggesting that more talk of religion is the last thing that science needs.

Collins, who directs the National Human Genome Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, and headed the Human Genome Project, has never hidden the fact that he is a devout Christian. But he has never spoken quite so publicly about his faith. He says he felt compelled to write his book because the popular debate on faith and science has become dominated by extreme voices, leaving many feeling that there is no way to reconcile religious and scientific views of the world. “Our society is not well served by portraying a future which is either entirely secular or entirely religious in a fundamentalist way,” he says.

Collins also hopes the book, The Language of God (Free Press, 2006), will provoke thought in academia, where, he says, the subject of faith isn't exactly popular. “In most academic circles, a discussion of spiritual matters tends to clear the room fairly quickly.”

Discussion, Collins suggests, might rectify the misconception that most scientists are atheists. Surveys find that about 40% of US scientists believe in God, but Collins says that is not reflected in science's public face. That hurts science, he argues, because it drives away curious people who might also be religious believers.

Collins takes a strong stand against some religious beliefs, such as creationism and 'intelligent design'. He considers both to be views that restrict faith to covering gaps in scientific knowledge, leaving it in a tenuous position.

Instead, Collins embraces a theology sometimes called theistic evolution, or BioLogos. This embraces the idea that human evolution occurred through natural selection according to God's plan, and that God instilled humanity with certain characteristics, including a 'moral law', that can't be explained by science.

Francis Collins is a devout Christian. Credit: AP/D. C. PIZAC

“The moral law is a signpost to a God who cares about us as individuals,” Collins says. “God used a mechanism of evolution to create human beings with whom he could have that kind of fellowship.”

Many scientists disagree strongly with such arguments. Some suggest that science is on the defensive today — not just in the United States — and that society needs exactly the opposite of what Collins suggests: less talk about faith and more about reason. Religious concerns are largely behind the US law restricting federal funding of stem-cell research, for example. And many feel threatened by the influence of intelligent design in science education.

A few voices will be shouting out, saying 'wait a minute, this is nonsense'.

In the United States, “the default position right now is to assume that religion is perfectly OK”, says Paul Myers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota in Morris and author of the popular science blog Pharyngula. “Collins is taking that default position, and while a large majority of scientists will shrug their shoulders, a few voices will be shouting out, saying 'wait a minute, this is nonsense'.”

“I cannot see how this could be good for science — supernaturalism is fundamentally anti-scientific,” says Richard Dawkins, a biologist from the University of Oxford, UK. “Scientists work hard at trying to understand. Supernaturalism is an evasion of this responsibility. It's a shrug of the shoulders.”

Dawkins acknowledges that, particularly in the United States, there might be tactical reasons for trying to get on with religious people. “That is a perfectly reasonable political stance, but it has nothing to do with truth.”

Others welcome Collins's book, however. “I think it's helpful when scientists of Francis's prominence speak out on the compatibility of faith and science,” says Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, a group based in Oakland, California, that lobbies against creationism.

Scott agrees with Collins that so far the harshest voices have achieved most prominence, and that this situation doesn't help either side. “Creationists love quoting Dawkins and Daniel Dennett,” she says. “But those individuals don't represent the fairly sizeable proportion of non-theists who are not out to destroy religion.”

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Check, E. Genomics luminary weighs in on US faith debate. Nature 442, 115 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1038/442114b

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