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'I realised my atheism was dangerously thin': Famed geneticist Francis Collins recounts stunning conversion

The Director of the National Institutes for Health (NIH) and the man largely responsible for developing a Covid-19 vaccine in the United States, Dr Francis Collins, has spoken candidly about his journey of faith. Accepting the prestigious Templeton Prize at a ceremony last Thursday, the world-renowned geneticist commended the Christian faith as being fully compatible with a belief in science and encouraged believers to embrace the virtue of harmony as they contend with opposing viewpoints. 

A scientist and doctor by training, Collins started out in his career deeply sceptical about religious faith. He went on to embrace an atheistic worldview before an encounter with one of his patients set him on a new course of spiritual discovery. 

"Challenged by one of my patients to describe what I believed about God...I realised my atheism was dangerously thin," Collins recalled. "I began a journey to try to understand why intellectually sophisticated people could actually believe in God. To my dismay, I found that atheism turned out to be the least rational of all the choices. To quote [G.K.] Chesterton, 'Atheism is the most daring of all dogmas, for it is the assertion of a universal negative.'"

"Scientists aren't supposed to do that," he quipped. 

Collins said that over a two-year period, "with much help from wise mentors and the writings of C.S. Lewis" he "slowly and rather reluctantly came to the conclusion that belief in God, while not possible to prove, was the most rational choice available".

"I saw in the very science that I so loved something that I had missed," Collins went on. "The evidence that seemed to cry out for a creator...there is something instead of nothing. The universe had a beginning; it follows elegant mathematical laws. Those laws include a half dozen constants that have to have the exact value they do or there would be no possibility of anything interesting or complex in nature."

"God must be an amazing physicist and mathematician," Collins thought. "But does he or she actually care about me?" 

As he continued to search for answers, Collins said he met a person who "not only claimed to know those answers and to know God, but to be God".

"That was Jesus Christ," he said. 

"I thought he was a myth. But the historical evidence for his real existence was utterly compelling - including his life, his death, and yes, his resurrection.

"As the truth of the New Testament sank in, I realised I was called to make a decision. In my 27th year, I simply could not resist any longer. With some trepidation, I knelt in the dewy grass on an October morning somewhere in the cascades, and I became a Christian." 

Collins said his close friends predicted his faith would be "short-lived."

"After all, I was by then a physician who was interested in studying genetics. Genetics means DNA. DNA means evolution. And by then I was convinced that evolution was not just a theory, it was supported by evidence that made it about as compelling as gravity. Surely, they said, my head would explode when the conflicts emerged." 

"But that never happened," Collins explained. "It is one of the great tragedies of the last 150 years, in the United States, that an ultra-literal reading of the first chapters of the Book of Genesis has been taken as a litmus test for serious Christian faith." 

Collins argued that the "powerful, mystical" words in Genesis "tell us about who we are, and who God is, but were never intended to be a scientific textbook". 

The geneticist went on to urge a new level of understanding between "voice at the two extremes" from atheist Richard Dawkins who he said "uses evolution as a club over the head of anyone stupid enough to accept the possibility of belief in God" to organisations of fundamentalist perspectives like "Answers in Genesis" who argue that "any scientific conclusions that disagree with their interpretation of the Bible must be considered at least wrong and, probably evil". 

In a bid to bring the two sides together, Collins went on to argue that "the God of the Bible is also the God of the genome". 

"God's creation is majestic, awesome, intricate and beautiful.. and it cannot be at war with itself. Only we as imperfect humans can start such battles, and only we can end them.

"So the science/faith debate is a cardinal example of the opportunity for harmony, contrasted with the tendencies of us humans to focus instead on conflict, and to choose sides and to become polarised."

Watch Collins' full speech below:

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