Skip to content
Who's in the Video
Dr. Francis Collins has served as the director of the National Institutes of Health since August, 2009. He is the former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, where[…]

“Whether or not scientists are believers should not have a whole lot to do with how they conduct science,” says Collins. He wishes more scientists were willing “to stand up and say that faith and science need not to be in conflict.”

Question: How would it affect scientific research if more scientists believed in God?

Francis Collins: Oh actually in surveys I have seen, indicate about 40% of scientists believe in a God to whom one may pray in expectation of an answer.  That’s not a God who went off after creating a universe and did something else.  That’s a God who is interested in human beings.  Forty percent would adhere to that statement.  The numbers are smaller when you ask members of the National Academy of Sciences and there’s various reasons people have proposed why so-called, "elite" scientists have an even lower proportion of believers.  But it’s not as devastatingly absent from the scientific community as people might assume based on the fact that the pronouncements that the hear coming from scientists are usually more in the skeptical or even the atheistic perspective.  

I think whether or not scientists are believers should not have a whole lot to do with how the conduct science.  The fact that I am a believer, as far as I am aware of, has had very little influence on my scientific work.  And I think that’s important to keep that distinction.  If I am asking a scientific question, it’s the tools of the science I should be using and not assuming something supernatural happened in the test tube at that moment and that would explain my data point.  So I do think people of faith and people who don’t have faith are capable of thoughtful, ethical decision-making.  So any notion that we are becoming less ethical as scientists because of a diminution I think has to be actually countered by arguments to say that a sense of ethical behavior is not distributed to just the people who are in fact interested in spiritual matters.  

So I’m not sure.  I think it would diminish the hostilities, which are bad for our culture, if more scientists were, in fact, willing to stand up and say that faith and science need not be in conflict—because right now that’s a minority view that doesn’t get heard very much and it’s apparent to some people that we are having more of a cultural war; a war that seems to imply that some world view needs to win and some world view needs to lose.  I would not want to look forward to a culture where science lost and religious faith became the dominating force for truth.  I would not want to live in a culture where faith lost and science, with all of its reductionism and its materialism became the sole source of truth.  I think we need both kinds of truth.  I think we need both kinds of worldviews. To the extent that scientists can help with that realization of the dual ways of finding answers to the appropriate kinds of questions that each worldview can ask, then I think that would be a good thing.

What do you think of the suggestion that there is a biological component to religion and that belief is an evolutionary trait?

Francis Collins: Certainly the social biologists have put forward arguments that religion could have an evolutionary basis that we humans are designed in a certain way to look for agency behind actions that we don’t understand and that may then relate to why various cultures over time have identified something mysterious and supernatural outside of their own experience to try to explain things that didn’t otherwise have an explanation.  

I think it’s too simple to basically say, well that does it.  Either god is true or god is not true.  Either God is real or god is not real.  It’s not a matter of whether you can explain it away by hypothesis.  The question is what’s the real answer?  And I think far too few people have kind of looked at the question from that perspective.  What’s the evidence for the idea that god exists or doesn’t exist.  I think anyone who’s looked at that would conclude that the strong atheist position of saying, "I know there is not God," is not an easy one to sustain.  It basically implies a certain degree of hubris and arrogance to say that I know so much that I could exclude any possibility of there being a God.  

On the other hand, the evidence will never draw people to the conclusion of saying; I know confidently there is a God.  Maybe God didn’t intend it to be that easy.

Recorded September 13, 2010

Interviewed by David Hirschman