Faust Files: A Talk With Francis Collins, MD — Part 2July 3, 2022
In the second part of this interview, Jeremy Faust, MD, editor-in-chief of MedPage Today, and Francis Collins, MD, former director of the NIH, discuss Collins’s book, The Language of God, and why the current conflict between science and faith is “heartbreaking” for him as an evangelical Christian.
The following is a transcript of their conversation:
Faust: Well, let’s talk about something completely different, which is you’ve written two books, but the one that I just read is The Language of God. As I was reading it, I started with the impression that I was the intended audience — that is, a person who loves science and medicine and rational inquiry. And I’m an atheist and I’m a Jewish person. And you’re going to tell me why all this makes sense, why religion and science can co-exist.
And as I got through it, I began to suspect that there was something in here for me, but mainly this is a book for a different audience, which is to say to very, very evangelical Christians in particular, that they should embrace science and not be afraid of it. Is that a fair assessment?
Collins: I hoped it was going to be useful for both of those audiences, but I think in reality the response I’ve gotten is more from the evangelical, fairly Fundamentalist Christians who were threatened by science and felt that the advances that are happening in genomics and even the acceptance of evolution was something that they felt they couldn’t really buy into without compromising their biblical faith.
I wanted to reassure them that these two things can actually fit together wonderfully well, and that God gave us two books, the Book of Nature and the Book of the Bible, and they’re not going to be in conflict with each other.
But I have had some people like you who read it from a totally different perspective and found it useful. I don’t know if any of them converted, but I think they found it useful, at least in understanding why atheism doesn’t demand you to use science as a club over the believers’ heads. You may have other clubs you want to use, but science really doesn’t deserve that.
Faust: Yeah, I mean, I think you make the point that, for me, that really compelling point that people can do their jobs and still have faith. And I think that that landed quite well.
I did, as I think I mentioned ahead of time, I did want to discuss your friendship with Christopher Hitchens, who, of course, was a sort of intellectual powerhouse, polemic and a great mind, who called you “one of the greatest living Americans.” And I was wondering, did he read your book? Do you know?
Collins: Oh, yeah.
Faust: What did he say?
Collins: He hated it!
Faust: He hated it?
Collins: Well, no, that’s too strong. He disagreed with most of the premises. I had many points that he would have liked to have made about arguments that he thought were not completely as compelling as I thought they were. And that was great fun.
I mean, we all benefit from having interesting, civil disagreements with people who have very different views, kind of what I’m doing with Braver Angels right now. But doing it with Hitchens, you knew you were going to be up against one of the most amazing intellects you’ve ever managed to sit at the same table with. But also somebody with a sense of humor and somebody who underneath it all was a gentle person who wanted to be your friend, even though he was tearing down all your beliefs at the same time.
And we could talk about faith or we could talk about Thomas Jefferson, or we could talk about almost anything that he was an expert on. And I would have to listen. And we talked about music. He had such diverse expertise and interests and it was a joy to be his friend.
Faust: Did you try to convince him that he was wrong?
Collins: I did. I got nowhere.
Faust: Did he try to convince you that you were wrong?
Collins: Oh, yes, absolutely. And he didn’t get anywhere either.
I mean, I think he did help me with some of the arguments that maybe needed some refinement and were not as crystalline as I thought they were. His insight helped me. So, for instance, if I put out a new edition of The Language of God, which is way overdue, I would revise some of the things based on Christopher Hitchens.
Faust: He’s a good editor to have. And he’s stuck up for people in the past. I mean, he went against Mother Teresa, of all people.
Collins: He did.
Faust: So you never know, with that guy.
But I did want to kind of go back to the book and its intent and because it made me think a lot about — we were talking before about divisiveness — and how I’ve really come to believe that the only way to convince someone is not from across the aisle, but through trusted insiders. So someone who is very evangelical or very religious is not going to hear it from Chris Hitchens, they’re going to hear it from Francis Collins.
Since you’ve written the book and since you sort of announced yourself as, quite frankly, you’re top of the medical field, and then also you publish a book about faith, this puts you in a very unique situation where you are sort of representing something.
Since the book has come out, have you found yourself in that trusted insider role, where you talk to people who are religious about these issues? Do you find that you’ve made progress?
Collins: I think there has been progress. One of the other things I did right before I became NIH director was start a foundation called BioLogos, which has now become, I think, the most significant meeting place for people who are trying to sort out whether there are conflicts between science and faith, particularly Christian faith.
They have millions of visitors on their website. They run meetings. They have curricula for home-schoolers who might otherwise never hear about evolution. And it’s a whole, wonderful critical mass now of scientists who are really serious Christians and who are having a great time building this community and figuring out how we could be more effective in making that case.
And they mostly did that without me because I had to step away from this in order to become a presidential appointee. And I’m still sort of stepped away from it. That’s been wonderful.
But yeah, I am easy to find. I will tell you, I get probably one or two emails every week from a young person who’s in crisis, who was raised in a very strict Christian home — maybe home-schooled, maybe went to Christian high school — led to believe that science was not something that you could really trust, and certainly evolution was of the devil.
And then they get to university and they see the data, and imagine what that’s like. I mean, their whole foundation is suddenly cracking and they begin to wonder if they even know who they are, who their family is. What was that pastor who told me all this stuff? They desperately are needing somebody to try to reassure them that this can all still work. And maybe I’m in a place to be able to help with that.
Faust: Yeah, and I think it’s an extremely important thing and I think that’s a great service that you perform for both communities. Then you look at, you know, the political question and we see that more and more there’s an anti-science bent that is sort of wrapped up in religion. And is there a way out of that?
Collins: This is particularly heartbreaking for me as a person of faith to see.
Well, take, for instance, vaccine hesitancy for COVID. What is the group that had the highest level of resistance? It was white evangelicals. I’m a white evangelical. Those are my people. And I did everything I could think of to try to reach out to them, doing podcasts with people like Franklin Graham and Rick Warren. Yet I don’t know how much of a dent it made because the incoming information from the internet, from politicians who should have known better, and from basically being gathered into these tribal zones that made science no longer something that they could trust, got us into a terrible place.
I do feel a real calling now to try to do something, to try to reach out in that way. If I hadn’t been called upon to come to the White House and serve the president, I was well along with the outline of a book about this, specifically written to evangelical Christians, as one of them, to try to walk through and understand why this has become so difficult, so fearful, and how we could get past it for the benefit of our people. To go back to what the principles of faith are supposed to be about, which is a far cry from most of the messages they’re getting from politicians.