- The Washington Times - Friday, July 21, 2006

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — He opened the session by improvising on hymns at the piano and concluded it by accompanying a singalong on the guitar. In between, he delivered a compelling account of his unlikely conversion from atheism to evangelical Christianity.

The lanky, amiable platform personality wasn’t some traveling revivalist but one of the world’s leading biologists.

Francis S. Collins led the international Human Genome Project that mapped the 3.1 billion chemical base pairs in humanity’s DNA. He now directs the U.S. government program on applying that information to medical treatments.

He’s also emerged as a surprise advocate for faith and for its compatibility with science.

The 56-year-old Dr. Collins addressed the clash of science and religion last weekend during a conference at Williams College sponsored by the C.S. Lewis Foundation — appropriately so, since the writings of the English literature scholar were instrumental in Dr. Collins’ conversion.

He pursues the theme again next week at a Calvin College convention of the American Scientific Affiliation. The organization of scientists affirms “the divine inspiration, trustworthiness and authority of the Bible” on faith and morals. Dr. Collins is a member.

But his most complete argument for God appears in a new book, “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief” (Free Press), which addresses two radically divergent audiences:

• He asks scientific skeptics to investigate God with the same open-minded zeal they apply to the natural world, assuring them there’s no incompatibility between belief and scientific rigor.

• He tells fellow evangelicals that opposition to evolution undermines the credibility of faith. He finds the first “fundamentally flawed” and warns that the second builds upon gaps in evidence that scientists are very likely to fill in the future, among other objections.

The audience of 200 at Williams gave Dr. Collins’ views a respectful reception, quite in contrast to a previous frosty reaction he got when he told a national meeting of Christian physicians the evidence for evolution is “overwhelming.”

But scientists are probably the tougher audience. According to Nature, the science weekly, “many scientists disagree strongly” with Collins-style arguments and critics feel “more talk of religion is the last thing that science needs.”

Surveys have indicated 40 percent of scientists are religious, Dr. Collins remarked in an interview before the conference, but “if 40 percent of my own scientific colleagues are believers in a personal God, they’re keeping pretty quiet about it.”

“For a scientist, it’s uncomfortable to admit there are questions that your scientific method isn’t going to be able to address,” he said. Besides, scientists are busy and focused — they often don’t take the time to explore “these more profound eternal questions.”

In his talk, Dr. Collins said he was raised by nonreligious parents and turned into “an obnoxious atheist.” But as a medical student he wondered why patients who were suffering and dying retained faith in God.

He realized that as a scientist “you’re not supposed to decide something is true until you’ve looked at the data. And yet I had become an atheist without ever looking at the evidence whether God exists or not.”

He began looking, and early in the process read Lewis’ concise classic “Mere Christianity.”

“In the very first chapter,” he said, “all my arguments about the irrationality of faith lay in ruins.”

Yet he was besieged by doubts during two years of struggle and study. Finally, he went hiking in Oregon’s Cascades Mountains and one morning, “I fell on my knees and asked Christ to be my Lord and Savior. And he has been there ever since, the past 28 years, as the rock on which I stand.”

Unimpressed by denominational differences, Dr. Collins has worshipped in a variety of Protestant churches while living the itinerant life of an academic. He became a Methodist at the University of North Carolina, an American Baptist at Yale, a Southern Baptist at the University of Michigan and currently belongs to Fourth Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, Md.

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