Part One: How genome mapper Collins became a Christian
James Watson, co-discoverer of the spiral ladder of the double helix of our DNA plus the founding head of the Human Genome Project, had little time for religion. Indeed, he and his fellow helix discoverer Francis Crick seized the opportunity of the 50th anniversary celebration of their historic discovery to dump on religion. Watson told the media that he stopped attending Mass at the onset of World War II, because "I came to the conclusion that the church was just a bunch of fascists that supported Franco." Besides, he opined, "Every time you understand something, religion becomes less likely." (Telegraph, March 22, 2003)
In 1992, Watson left that post because of concerns over commercialization of the human genome. He was succeeded by American medic Francis Collins. Collins reversed Watson's religious trajectory. He started as an agnostic, but became a Christian. And he has now written The Language of God (Free Press, 2006), explaining how that happened.
Collins' parents were well-educated, but somehow, after World War II, they ended up living frugally on a farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Life was creative and fun there, but he remembers, "faith was not an important part of my childhood."
He found much to support his agnosticism in university, especially because he probably wasn't much interested in what must have seemed purely philosophical questions at the time. But then he entered medicine. Of course, in medicine, life, death, and suffering were shoved in his face daily. Like any intelligent person, he had to ask, "What do I really believe?"
Asa medical student, he tended patients who were strong Christians, and he recalls, "I witnessed numerous cases of individuals whose faith provided them with a strong reassurance of ultimate peace, be it in this world or the next, despite terrible suffering that in most instances they had done nothing to bring on themselves."
Then, a dying old woman asked him the deplorable question: What did he, the doctor, believe—but he really did not know.
He thought he should try to find out what he believed, so he tried reading Cliff's Notes on world religions. But that wasn't really much use. It told him what a lot of people, living and dead, have believed. But he had already seen living examples. A local Methodist minister suggested he read C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.
Collins was not the first person to grasp the significance of Lewis' account of the Moral Law: that sense we all have of right and wrong, despite the fact that we often do the wrong rather than the right. Collins determined that the Moral Law is a sign of God. Eventually, he became a Christian, and one can hope that his faith stood him in good stead amid the ferocious politics of a science awaiting commercialization.
That Collins is in many ways an exemplary Christian cannot be doubted. The January/February 2007 edition of the American Scientific Affiliation' s newsletter is expected to provide an account of his medical relief work in Nigeria, "Life and God in West Africa."
And yet, his well-written account of his conversion is troubling. Collins owes his conversion to C.S. Lewis, but he typifies the petering out of Lewis' legacy. Too many people have relied on Lewis and too few have followed in his path of rigorous argument.
Next: Part Two Does it matter that genome mapper Francis Collins became a Christian?