Drew Dyck’s book Generation Ex-Christian includes the following anecdote about the author’s visit to the Wheaton Atheist Club (Who knew such an organization existed?).
Somewhere in the midst of our conversations, a jovial young man named Dan came clean as a former Christian. He’d left the faith only months earlier.
“I was in the Assemblies of God all my life,” he said. “I even played in a Christian band.”
What had caused his crisis of faith?
“I always believed the earth was 6,000 years old,” Dan said bitterly. “But now I know it’s not.”
For years Dan tried desperately to maintain his belief in the young earth theory. He read material from Answers in Genesis, a Christian apologetics organization, consulted his pastor and people in his church. But ultimately he said he just couldn’t deny what he saw as the evidence that the world was much older than 6,000 years.
“That’s when I realized that Christianity just wasn’t true.” he said.
Inwardly I cringed at the false-alternatives scenario that Dan had set up in his mind. For him, one geological question (which the Bible doesn’t even address explicitly) was the deciding factor for faith. Even Answers in Genesis, which holds unswervingly to a literal reading of the Bible’s first book, seems to place less importance on the earth’s age. The first bullet point of their statement of belief reads: “The scientific aspects of creation are important, but are secondary in importance to the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as Sovereign, Creator, Redeemer and Judge.” However, for Dan, the question of the earth’s age was paramount, and in his view Christianity had failed.
In part because of his concern over young people like Dan, Dr. Francis Collins founded an organization called BioLogos, which addresses issues of science and faith (www.biologos.org). No one can dispute Collins’ credentials as a scientist: he holds both a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Yale and an M.D. from North Carolina, gained renown for finding the gene that causes cystic fibrosis, and directed the Human Genome Project toward its triumphant goal of mapping all three billion letters of the human genetic code. Yet Collins identifies himself as an evangelical Christian and has engaged in public debates with some of the “New Atheists” such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins (the latter in a Time cover story).
I have attended two meetings sponsored by BioLogos and the Templeton Foundation, including one that took place last week in Manhattan. Each brought together an assortment of scientists, theologians, and pastors in order to discuss how the findings of science shed light on our understanding of the Bible’s account of creation. BioLogos accepts the findings of science that the earth is 4.7 billion years old and that the diversity of species has come about through the process of evolution. At the same time, it affirms the classic Christian creeds and sees no necessary conflict between science and the Bible.
Francis Collins had to step back from direct management of BioLogos in 2009 when he accepted the position of director of the National Institutes of Health, the nation’s largest scientific organization. In such a prominent role, he attracts strident criticism from both sides of the science/faith debate. When he was nominated for NIH, one scientist accused him of suffering from dementia and another complained, “I don’t want American science to be represented by a clown.” They were reacting to his outspoken beliefs in a personal God who created the universe, answers prayer, and performs miracles. Meanwhile, Collins and BioLogos absorb flames and arrows from some in the Christian community who question their salvation or theological purity because they reject a young earth and affirm the common descent of species. Truly, BioLogos walks a tightrope.
Gently yet persistently, Collins meets with both groups and explains why he sees science and faith as compatible expressions of God’s “two books”: God’s Works and God’s Word. As he told Richard Dawkins, “I see no conflict in what the Bible tells me about God and what science tells me about nature. Like St. Augustine in A.D. 400, I do not find the wording of Genesis 1 and 2 to suggest a scientific textbook but a powerful and poetic description of God’s intentions in creating the universe. The mechanism of creation is left unspecified. If God, who is all powerful and who is not limited by space and time, chose to use the mechanism of evolution to create you and me, who are we to say that wasn’t an absolutely elegant plan? And if God has now given us the intelligence and the opportunity to discover his methods, that is something to celebrate.”
Collins’s best-selling book The Language of God articulates his beliefs, as well as giving a kind of personal testimony. Collins has sympathy for atheists, for as a student at Yale he was a “fundamentalist atheist” who took delight in arguing with believers. His shift into medicine introduced challenges to his non-belief, especially as he encountered people who endured great suffering yet clung to their faith. “If they believed in a God and he let them get cancer, why weren’t they shaking their fist at him? Instead, they seemed to derive this remarkable sense of comfort from their faith, even at a time of great adversity.”
One day, an elderly woman suffering from an untreatable illness asked Collins what he believed. He had no response, no answer to such questions as “Why am I here?”, “What happens after we die?”, and “Is there a God?” He realized that as a scientist he had always insisted on collecting rigorous data, yet in matters of faith he had never even sought data. After consulting with a minister he read the Gospel of John, then turned to the writings of C. S. Lewis, beginning with Mere Christianity. As Lewis himself once said, an atheist can’t be too careful what he reads; the surprised and reluctant young doctor fell into the arms of faith.
Three decades later, having just turned 60, Collins heads one of the world’s most important scientific organizations, overseeing twenty thousand employees and grants to 325,000 outside researchers. In personal style he breaks the mold. Though his skin has the paleness of someone who spends all day at a desk job, he commutes to work on a red Harley-Davidson motorcycle. A scientist with impeccable credentials, at Christian groups he will pull out a custom guitar inlaid with mother-of-pearl in the shape of the DNA double-helix and lead the gathering in praise choruses. (Even at scientific gatherings he may perform a folk song composed on the spot; his parents ran a back-to-nature farm in Virginia that hosted actors and musicians, including Bob Dylan who spent his 18th birthday there.)
I have observed Francis Collins at two different workshops sponsored by BioLogos. He never missed a meeting, always sitting on the front row, and unlike some participants he kept his Blackberry phone in his pocket. Between meetings he worked on statements that scientists, theologians, and pastors could all agree on—periodically reminding us of our responsibility to students who faced a crisis of faith because of careless assumptions by both science and the church. In contrast to many scientists, he spoke in complete sentences, free of jargon, as he distilled the various arguments that had been presented.
Two things, however, impressed me about Collins more than his many achievements. First, I learned of how he treats his adversaries, some of whom speak of Collins with contempt. Whenever he visits Oxford he tries to have tea with Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, who has called religious faith a “virus of the mind.” Similarly, he has met often with the militant atheist Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great. He told one reporter, “As you might have heard, Christopher has esophageal cancer, and I have actually been spending a fair amount of time with him and his wife, Carol, trying to help him sort through the options for therapy—including some rather cutting-edge approaches based on cancer genomics.”
The second thing that impressed me occurred in the early morning hours, before 5 am. I had flown to New York from Europe the night before and my biological clock had not adjusted to the time change, so I got up and made my way down to a floor where the hotel provided a coffee machine. I heard not a sound in the hallways, as all reasonable people were sleeping. But when I got to the coffee room, to my surprise I found a familiar figure, Francis Collins, standing before the coffee machine in his pajamas. “You know, e-mail, keeping up with the bureaucracy, all that stuff,” he explained. Oh, yes—even though he would spend all day giving full attention to a group of Christians who were thrashing out matters of theology, he did have those 20,000 employees to worry about.