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Faith, Science, and Francis Collins

As an Evangelical Christian, the Retiring N.I.H. Director Has Built Bridges Across America’s Cultural Divide. Have They Burned?

by USA Citizens Network
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By Dhruv Khullar
April 7, 2022

In June 26, 2000, the physician Francis Collins, then the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, stepped up to the podium in the East Room of the White House in front of President Bill Clinton, high-ranking U.S. officials, and foreign dignitaries. A team of more than a thousand scientists, led by Collins, had just assembled a first draft of the three billion letters in the human genome. Clinton called this a “stunning and humbling achievement,” rivalling Galileo’s. Collins told the audience, “We have caught the first glimpse of our own instruction book, previously known only to God.” By 2003, he would bring the Human Genome Project, one of the largest scientific collaborations in history, to a successful completion, nearly half a billion dollars under budget and two years ahead of schedule.

Collins, an evangelical Christian, would later describe sequencing the human genome as “both a stunning scientific achievement and an occasion of worship.” But, as a young man, he considered himself an atheist. ​​Collins grew up on a farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. As Peter Boyer wrote in this magazine, in 2010, he and his three brothers milked cows and shucked corn; Collins was homeschooled until the sixth grade. His parents, who often hosted musicians on their property, were “sort of hippies before there were hippies,” according to the singer Linda Williams. They weren’t particularly religious; when Collins was sent to church to learn choir music, he recalls being told, “You should be respectful of what they’re doing, even if the stuff they’re talking about doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

While a medical student at the University of North Carolina, Collins saw religion comfort patients in physical and existential pain. When an elderly woman with an incurable heart condition asked him what he believed, he found himself at a loss. With time, the question began to feel overwhelming, urgent, and unavoidable. Even as Collins held on to the idea that science could untangle the mechanics of life, he read C. S. Lewis and consulted his first wife’s pastor. Eventually, he came to the conclusion that faith, more than science, could help illuminate morality and existence. One day, while hiking in the Cascades, he saw a waterfall frozen in three parts and took it as a sign of the Holy Trinity. In the decades that followed, he argued that science and religion could exist alongside each other. In 2006, he published “The Language of God,” a best-selling book that presents evidence that, in his view, justifies faith. In it, Collins argues that faith is rational, that it can help answer life’s deepest questions, and that the challenges of the twenty-first century require a harmony between science and religion, not just a ceasefire. He then founded BioLogos, an organization that supports the view that God created all things through the instrument of evolution.

In July, 2009, President Barack Obama nominated Collins to lead the National Institutes of Health, the largest supporter of biomedical-research in the world. Collins was by then a renowned geneticist who had helped to discover key genes behind cystic fibrosis, Type 2 diabetes, Huntington’s disease, neurofibromatosis, and other conditions. Still, he faced high-profile opposition from within the scientific community. The prominent Harvard cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, who has been an outspoken proponent of atheism, called Collins “an advocate of profoundly anti-scientific beliefs.” In an Op-Ed in the Times, the public intellectual Sam Harris, another prominent atheist, argued that “few things make thinking like a scientist more difficult than religion,” and expressed concern that Collins’s views would undermine efforts to understand the human mind. “One can only hope that these convictions will not affect his judgment at the institutes of health,” Harris wrote. The U.S. Senate appeared not to share these concerns: it confirmed him with a unanimous vote.

In his twelve years as the director of the N.I.H.—the longest that anyone has held the position in half a century—Collins oversaw twenty-seven institutes, forty-six thousand employees and contractors, and a budget that grew to forty-two billion dollars. He became the only Presidentially appointed N.I.H. director to serve in more than one Administration, let alone three; he helped to secure budget increases of more than forty per cent, using them to fund a slew of new programs and initiatives related to, among other things, brain health, addiction research, and the development of covid-19 therapies and vaccines.

In an era of historic polarization, Collins is the rare influential scientist who has managed to win and keep the trust of elected officials across the political spectrum. After Donald Trump’s election, in 2016, Collins was certain that he’d be replaced. But a group of Republican lawmakers sent Trump a letter calling Collins “the right person, at the right time, to continue to lead the world’s premier biomedical research agency.” Each of the signatories was deeply conservative: they all supported gun rights, abortion restrictions, and the repeal of Obamacare. When Joe Biden was elected, in 2020, Collins again prepared to step down. But the nation was in the throes of a deadly and divisive pandemic, and, when Biden asked him to stay, he agreed.

Collins, who is seventy-one, finally handed in his resignation late last year. He returned to his own laboratory research, and, in February, accepted an interim position as the acting science adviser to President Biden. In my conversations with him, I sensed that his personal mission is broader than either of these two roles. “If we are going to build a future for ourselves, it has to be based upon a shared agreement that there are standards for knowledge,” he told me. “You can be wrong about things, in which case knowledge needs to evolve. But there is such a thing as knowledge.”

During the pandemic, Collins has struggled with a painful paradox: science is more effective and necessary than ever, and also less trusted. Researchers revealed how a novel pathogen spreads, evolves, and kills; they used its genome to create lifesaving vaccines in less than a year. At the same time, politicians and media figures, especially on the right, have undermined pandemic recommendations, maligned public-health leaders, and sown doubt about vaccines. Tucker Carlson, the host of one of the most-watched cable-news shows in America, recently told his viewers that there had been a “complete failure of public-health leadership.” He went on, “These people don’t take it upon themselves to know the data and to say it truthfully, so instead they have inculcated this culture of severe fear.” Tens of millions of people, disproportionately in rural and conservative communities, have chosen not to get immunized against a virus that has killed almost a million Americans. In surveys, only around a third of respondents say that they have high levels of trust in the N.I.H. and the Food and Drug Administration; eight in ten say that Republicans and Democrats disagree on basic facts. “When the history is written of the worst pandemic in a century, the scientific response will be seen as a shining light in the midst of a dark time,” Collins told me. “But science is caught up in a much larger disillusionment with the traditional foundations of how we decide what’s true.”

Collins rose to prominence as a scientist in a different era, when Christian conservatives were denouncing scientists for research using embryonic stem cells. He worked on both sides of the cultural divide, and, during his tenure, he helped to enable many of our recent scientific successes. But the divide—and the task of bridging it that he considers his duty now—is only getting bigger.

In May, 2021, after helping to lead the federal pandemic response for more than a year, during which he woke up most mornings at four-thirty, Collins escaped for a weekend to a rented barn in Loudoun County, Virginia. He brought his guitar and a Bible that he has had for decades; horses and goats kept him company. Collins gazed out at the blue sky and rolling hills. He wrote, prayed, and ultimately decided to leave his post as the director of the N.I.H. Collins told me that he prays not to ask God to change his circumstances, but to ask God what he himself should do.

His choice turned on three considerations. The first was political: if he couldn’t commit to staying on through Biden’s term, it was only fair to give the President a chance to nominate and confirm a new director before the midterm elections. The second was institutional—Collins believes that organizations benefit from new leadership and fresh ideas. And the third was a social obligation: he wanted to help repair the public’s fraying confidence in science. “I looked in the mirror and thought, If I have any credibility as a scientist, a Christian, a nonpolitical person, I want to spend it trying to get us to a better place,” he said.

After Collins stepped down, I travelled to the sprawling N.I.H. campus in Bethesda, Maryland, to meet with him. It was a frigid day in January, and Collins arrived a few minutes late, having walked across campus after meeting with Anthony Fauci, another leading pandemic figure who, like Collins, has faced vicious attacks on the Internet and in the media. Collins, who stands well over six feet, wore scientist chic: dark blazer, gray jeans, black mask, and Chelsea boots. We met not in Building 1, the home of the N.I.H. director, but in Building 50, where Collins’s genetics lab is situated. He welcomed me to his small, spartan, and mostly empty new office: bookshelves without books, walls without diplomas, a solitary mahogany desk.

As Collins showed me around the lab, he seemed to leave behind the burdens of pandemic politics, instead taking pleasure in the elegant mechanics of scientific progress. Countertops and shelves were strewn with pipettes, test tubes, and scientific tomes; several futuristic-looking machines stood alongside the scientists who worked there. A poster showed Collins, an accomplished musician, holding a guitar and wearing aviators alongside Joe Perry, the lead guitarist of Aerosmith. “These days a rock star can be anyone whose genius moves the crowd—whether they’re onstage or in the lab,” the poster read. Printed in 2009, it was a relic from a period when scientific outreach could be fun.

In the half century during which Collins has been a scientist, trust in science has fallen on the political right. In the nineteen-seventies, when Collins studied chemistry at Yale and then attended medical school, conservative Americans had more confidence in science than liberals or moderates did, according to the sociologist Gordon Gauchat; during the Cold War, conservatives celebrated what another sociologist, Allan Schnaiberg, called “production science,” in which researchers focussed on projects that contributed to American economic growth, technological advancement, and military might. Over time, however, scientists expanded their focus to include “impact science”—elucidating the negative consequences of technology and industrialization, such as pesticides, carcinogens, and environmental degradation. Impact science prompted regulations that conflicted with the conservative ideals of limited government and laissez-faire economics. At the same time, religious conservatives drifted steadily toward the Republican Party. Long concerned that secular technocracy would replace traditional moral authority, they confronted a science that had much to say about who we are and how we came to be.

Today, evangelical Christians have among the lowest levels of trust in science in America, and the highest rates of vaccine hesitancy. As a scientist whose faith is important to him, Collins called the disconnect “heartbreaking.” “I feel responsible somehow that myself and the rest of the scientific community has failed to get the message across,” he told me. “I have to get inside their heads and understand the kind of experiences they’re having.” He pointed out that many people develop their beliefs not just by asking what’s true but by noticing what leads to success in a social group. “The Constitution of Knowledge,” a book by Jonathan Rauch that Collins often cites, puts it this way: “Once a belief becomes important to the way we think about ourselves or important to the group we identify with, changing it becomes very costly.”

But Collins also sees an opportunity: it may be possible to change minds by working with the right people. During the pandemic, he partnered with celebrity pastors such as Rick Warren and Franklin Graham to encourage evangelicals to get vaccinated, and he has nudged pastors of smaller congregations to advocate for vaccines, too. “They are afraid, most of them, to bring up the topic, because they know it will cause a lot of disruption in their church,” Collins told me. Currently, he is working with Braver Angels, an organization that runs workshops and focus groups aimed at bridging the partisan divide and restoring civil discourse. “If I’m going to do this kind of outreach, it can’t be in the form of just another élitist lecturer,” Collins said. “I’m just enough of an optimist to think there’s a potential to reach a lot of people sitting there on Sunday mornings—surrounded by a few loud voices who are speaking with great confidence about things that aren’t true.”

The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould described science and religion as “non-overlapping magisteria”: distinct fields with separate values, authorities, and methods of inquiry. “If religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions,” Gould wrote, “then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth.” In other words, scientists and believers should stay in their own lanes. Collins has taken a different approach. Once, in a debate with Christopher Hitchens, the writer and ardent atheist, he argued that science and religion could coexist. After the event, they kept talking. “We could be completely at opposite ends when it came to the harmony of science and faith, but we could also have a meaningful conversation about other life matters without bringing too much baggage into it,” Collins told The Atlantic, in 2020. After Hitchens was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Collins offered to help, visited Hitchens in his home, and got to know his family. They spoke about genomics, faith, and history. Sometimes, Collins played the piano. Before he died, Hitchens called Collins “one of the greatest living Americans.”

This past December, on his final day as the N.I.H. director, Collins chose to appear on Fox News Sunday to talk about Omicron, pandemic restrictions, and the merits of vaccination. The conversation began well enough. Bret Baier, the program’s host, brought up recent coronavirus infections among immunized players in the N.B.A., N.F.L., and other sports leagues. “What do you say to people who look at that and say, ‘What happened to vaccination being the solution to getting back to normal life?’ ” Baier asked. Collins replied that, although vaccines can’t prevent every breakthrough case, they greatly reduce the odds of infection, and especially of serious illness. “They’re not perfect,” Collins said, in an even-keeled tone. “This is where I get upset. People point to anecdotes of somebody who got sick even though they had been vaccinated and say, ‘There, you see! It doesn’t work.’ That’s way too simplistic.”

Baier went on to refer to the lab-leak hypothesis and accuse Collins of stifling a controversial pandemic proposal—that the government protect the most vulnerable while allowing the virus to spread more or less unchecked through the rest of society. “It seems that a lot of health-policy makers have been trying to silence opposing views,” Baier said. Collins responded, “There are times when people make crazy proposals on the basis of pseudoscience, and that needs to be called out.”

By the end of the interview, Collins appeared exasperated. His voice rose an octave, and his head slunk slightly forward. In his right hand, he held up a light-blue sphere with small red spikes—a baseball-sized replica of the coronavirus. “This is the enemy,” he said. “It’s not the people in the other political party. It’s not the people on Facebook who are posting all sorts of crazy conspiracies. This is the enemy.”

“I don’t know how much good it does,” Collins told me later. “I’m seen by that particular part of society as a sort of élitist scientist who is probably in cahoots with companies, or God knows what.” After each appearance on Fox News, he receives a barrage of e-mails from viewers. “Sometimes I think these are written by bots,” he said. “I can’t imagine a human being actually sitting at a keyboard and putting these words together—not just about me but about my family. Everything you could imagine, in the vilest kind of language.” At times, the vitriol happens on air: recently, Greg Gutfeld, who hosts a comedy news show on Fox News, took aim at Collins for singing about his hopes for post-pandemic life at a town hall hosted by the Department of Health and Human Services. “Nero fiddled while Rome burned,” Gutfeld told his audience. “And, while a pandemic raged, Francis played his guitar like a fucking camp counsellor ruining your s’mores.” Still, Collins said, he is far more likely to accept an interview request from Fox News than CNN.

Collins’s attitude is practical—there’s no need to persuade people who already agree with you. But it also seems rooted in a Christian sensibility. “My heart goes out to them,” he said, in reference to pandemic skeptics. “They have been misled in a systematic way by voices who claim authority but basically distribute lies. That just says to me I should have more sympathy for people who are on the right. If there’s a group that needs help—and not more accusations and insults—it’s them.”

As a physician and a scientist, I often feel frustrated when people attack my profession, and I’m not sure that I would subject myself to an interrogation on Fox News. But Collins’s persistence, even in the face of distrust and disrespect, felt like a lesson—not about medicine or science, but about listening to and engaging with people who, for one reason or another, remain unconvinced. Persuading the skeptical shouldn’t be treated as a burden or an afterthought—it is, in fact, central to the work of science in the modern era. I couldn’t help feeling that, if more of us approached life and work as Collins does, science might be more trusted and our country might be less divided.

Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist who fiercely criticized Collins’s nomination on account of his “primitive, shamanistic, superstitious” religious views, told me in an e-mail that he had changed his mind about Collins, for two reasons. “One is the sheer competence and skill with which he’s directed the Institutes, blending scientific judgment with political acumen,” Pinker wrote. “The other is a newly appreciated imperative, in an age of increasing political polarization, toward making institutions of science trustworthy to a broad swath of the public, of diverse political orientations.” In a way, I thought, Pinker was saying that representation matters: science has an audience, and the right speaker can persuade all of that audience to listen. “A spokesperson for science who is not branded as a left-wing partisan is an asset for the wider acceptance of science across the political spectrum,” Pinker said. But Collins is more than a spokesperson for science. He is also a kind of representative, within the scientific community, of American communities that his peers sometimes fail to reach.

Collins was able to work for three Presidential Administrations in part because he could inhabit multiple identities—scientist, physician, Christian, musician, communicator, advocate—and speak to the concerns of the people in front of him. He might have talked genomic discoveries with one lawmaker and the overlap between science and religion with another. “I probably met a thousand times one-on-one with congressional members,” he told me. “I always tried to come across as someone who doesn’t just want to talk but who wants to listen. I tried to understand what’s important to them—what are they interested in?”

Speaking to Collins, I felt that his openness was more than a strategy. It seemed sincere. I wondered whether his sincerity flowed from the fact that he is genuinely part of the two tribes that he hopes to connect. He speaks both languages, understands both cultures, and feels acutely the rift between them. He must know that his insistence on bringing them together could make him less welcome in either. But, for Collins, this pursuit is not an abstract ideal or a political goal. It is, in some sense, a higher calling. For our nation and our species, the future depends on its success.

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