Francis Collins on Faith and Science

By Sean Cavanagh — July 15, 2009 2 min read
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Last week, President Obama nominated Francis Collins, a scientist renowned for his work in mapping the human genome, as the new director for the National Institutes of Health. The NIH, headquartered in Bethesda, conducts and supports a vast amount of medical research, much of it groundbreaking. In the coverage of Collins’ nomination, many stories have made note of his past declarations of his Christian religious beliefs, and his conviction that faith is compatible with science, a view shared by many. In the Washington Post today, columnist Michael Gerson discusses the relevance of Collins’ potential move to NIH, and what it means for science, and for evangelical Christianity.

Gerson, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, describes Collins’ view that religious faith and science are separate “ways of knowing,” which can co-exist. Scientific knowledge is developed through hypotheses, tests, the collection of evidence and so on. Religious knowledge is “a realm of morality and metaphysics that involves not physical proof but probability based on evidence,” Gerson writes. “For Collins, modern science and Christianity are not competing answers to the same question; they are ways of thinking about two very different sets of questions, both of which should be taken seriously.” Collins in the author of a book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.

Gerson argues that Collins has the potential to bridge some of the religious and ideological divides that pit scientists against people of faith, unnecessarily.

These questions arise continually in the K-12 sphere, of course, most directly in relation to the teaching of evolution. Some religious conservatives see evolutionary theory as incompatible with their faith, and want to see more discussion of its alleged “weaknesses” in public school science classes. The vast majority of scientists say supposed shortcomings in Darwin’s theory are exaggerated, particularly given the enormous weight of evidence supporting evolution. Collins has called evidence for evolution “absolutely incontrovertible.” His background as a geneticist gives him some credibility in that department, to say the least.

Assuming that he’s confirmed to lead the NIH, how might Collins, in this new public role, shape the public’s thinking—and that of teachers, parents, and students—on the relationship between faith and science?

Top photo by Douglas C. Pizac/AP. The bottom photo appeared this spring in the magazine GQ, which named Collins one of the magazine’s “Rock Stars of Science,” as part of a campaign to bring celebrity to science.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.