By David Reynolds, Daily News-Record
Dr. Francis Collins, a renowned geneticist and a Christian, surprised the audience with a touching hymn near the end of his lecture on the intersection of science and faith.
Like many young doctors, Francis Collins sometimes found himself at the bedsides of patients he could no longer help.
But always curious, Collins sat by their side listening and marveling at how many patients didn’t despair but found comfort in religion.
Then in his mid-20’s, a dying woman asked Collins what he believed on the subject. And the young man who was embarking on a career that would tackle some of the natural world’s toughest puzzles was stumped.
For all his training, Collins says, he had no answers for life’s basic questions: Why am I here? What will happen after I die? Is there a God?
On Saturday, Collins, 57, now a renowned geneticist and a Christian, spoke to a packed crowd at EMU’s Martin Chapel.
His message: that science and religion, two ways of explaining the world we live in, are not incompatible.
“Truth can be found in scientific exploration and religious exploration; It’s all God’s truth,” Collins said. “Some people are saying you have to pick one or the other. I would say that would be an impoverished outcome.”
‘The Language Of God’
Raised near Staunton, Collins, is the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.
And he coordinated the Human Genome Project. Genomes, he says, are like books contained inside every living organism, which hold the secrets of life.
In 2003, Collins and other scientists finished “mapping” the human genome, a landmark achievement that, he says, was like figuring out each letter in a book. His leadership on the genome project and work overall work on genetic research has catapulted him to the top tier of scientific researchers and earlier this month earned him the Medal of Freedom.
President Bush awarded him the medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in a ceremony on Nov. 7 in Washington.
Faith Bolstered By Science
Although scientists have yet to grasp the full meaning of the human genome, doing so could lead to advances in the fights against diseases such as cancer, diabetes and asthma.
But on Saturday, Collins focused on how decades in science has encouraged, not dampened, his religious faith.
It’s an experience described in his 2006 book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence For Belief.
Known And Unknown
By studying fossils and DNA, scientists have achieved a greater understanding of life and found support for the theory of evolution, Collins said.
And most scientists now agree that the universe began about 13.7 billion years ago, he says, and that people share more than 98 percent of their DNA with chimpanzees.
Still science, Collins said, can’t answer how life began or the mystery of why 15 mathematical constants show up over and over in nature like a well-designed pattern.
Those questions, Collins says, are part of what has led him and about 40 percent of scientists to a belief in some God.
But Collins’ said his Christian faith led him a step further, to belief in a God who cares about people and has instilled in them a sense of right and wrong.
“We all have written in our hearts what is good and holy and the desire to reach out and find it,” he said.
Christian Early, a philosophy and theology professor at EMU says Collins’ message is important in a society where science and religion often seem at odds.
Still, aspects of Collins speech, especially evolution, can be difficult for Mennonites and other Christian denominations to accept, Early said.
Victoria Clymer, 15, and Malinda Bender, 14, both freshman at Eastern Mennonite High School said that Collins’ world-view is different from theirs.
“Coming from a Mennonite background, you take what the Bible says,” Bender said. “It was a little bit different, but interesting,” she said. “I’m glad I came.”
Becky Horst, a 22-year-old EMU student from Somerset, Pa., said that in his book and his speech Collins succinctly expresses an idea that will be important to her when she graduates and begins teaching high school science.
“My vocation can’t be disconnected from the faith part of my life,” said Horst, a Mennonite. She also said that while she wants science and religion in her life, she expects to be allowed to take only one of them into her science classes.
Dan McSweeney, 71, of Augusta County, says he’s an atheist who has no trouble with religious people, unless they tell him to be religious.
After the speech, he said he admired Collins as a scientist, but that the logic of his religious arguments doesn’t add up.
“What we have is the world around us, that’s what exists,” McSweeney said. But “a personal God? That’s a leap of faith,” he said. “Not science.”