Collins discusses interplay of spirituality, science

Before Thursday night’s highly anticipated vice-presidential debate, an equally intense discussion was taking place in Battell Chapel — on the reconciliation of science and spirituality.

Francis Collins, who won the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007 for his work as director of the Human Genome Project, spoke to more than 100 members of the Yale community on the conflict that arises when combining spirituality with a trust and faith in science.

“I don’t think that science has to win and God has to lose or that God has to win and science has to lose,” he told the audience.

Collins first gave an overview of his work as director of the Human Genome Project and the future uses of what he called the “DNA instruction book.” He then described his early years as a child of “two hippies” who wanted to live off the land. While his family placed an emphasis on education, however, it did not place a similar emphasis on religion.

“Faith was just not part of the conversation,” Collins said.

Collins then discussed his views on faith during his college days at the University of Virginia.

“When I got to college, in those discussions in the dorm, I was easy prey for the aggressive atheist on the hall,” Collins said.

It was not until medical school at the University of North Carolina that Collins said he began to question seriously what he believed.

“In medical school I found my atheism ran into trouble as those hypotheticals of life and death became not so hypothetical,” Collins said.

Collins told the audience that the tipping point for him came after an elderly patient dying from heart disease asked him, “‘Doctor, what do you believe?’ ”

Collins said that was the question that forced him to reexamine his spirituality.

“The problem was that I had made a decision about a question that is probably the most important one we’ll ever ask — is there a God? — without really considering the answer, without considering whether there were pros and cons [to being an atheist],” Collins said.

Over the remainder of the talk, Collins posed philosophical questions and examined the logic behind atheism, agnosticism, creationism and the theory of intelligent design.

“God’s plan included the mechanism of evolution to create the marvelous diversity of living things on our planet,” he said. “Most especially, that creative plan included human beings.”

But Collins’ primary argument was that the unique and complex nature of human beings is not enough to argue for the existence of God. The missing piece, he said, is morality.

“After evolution had prepared a sufficiently advanced ‘house’ — the human brain — God gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil — the moral law — with free will,” Collins said.

Many audience members said they found Collins’ argument both compelling and encouraging.

“It was actually an encouragement to do more research on my own and to reconcile my own beliefs,” Devin Smith ’12 said.

Smith added that he found the personal nature of Collins’ journey inspiring.

Collins concluded that it is more than possible to be both scientific and spiritual. But despite his personal success, he expressed regret at the combative tone of the current discussion surrounding science and religion.

“I find it deeply disturbing that so many shrill voices in our world are arguing that science has rendered God unnecessary,” he said.

Overall though, members of the community who attended said they found his reasoning intriguing.

“I thought that [this discussion] is something that is very important for people to understand right now, very relevant to the current conflict many people have in their mind regarding religion and science,” Alice Wang ’12 said. “I think that he presents a very compelling solution to this conflict.”

The Veritas Forum, a Cambridge-based group that promotes discussion of faith and science on an academic level, and Yale’s Rivendell Institute, which promotes Christian dialogue on campus, co-sponsored the event.

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