Geneticist Winner of Templeton Prize Unites Faith and Science 

When the 2020 Templeton Prize was announced last month, its winner, Director of the National Institutes of Health Francis Collins, was consumed with efforts to find treatments and a vaccine for COVID-19.

Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health (official photo)
Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health (official photo)
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“The elegant complexity of human biology constantly creates in me a sense of awe,” wrote Collins, who led the team that completed the acclaimed Human Genome Project in 2003. “Yet I grieve at the suffering and death I see all around, and at times I confess I am assailed by doubts about how a loving God could permit such tragedies. But then I remember that the God who hung on the cross is intimately familiar with suffering. I learn and re-learn that God never promised freedom from suffering—but rather to be ‘our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble’ (Psalm 46).”

The Templeton Prize honors “people who harness the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and human existence.” Rarely has the award’s timing been so meaningful: Collins, 70, was selected for the prize in late 2019, but the announcement was delayed until May 20 because of the unprecedented devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The honor, whose past recipients have included Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, comes with one of the largest monetary awards given to any individual—1.1 million British pounds ($1.345 million). Collins will formally receive the prize in a virtual ceremony later this year.

Throughout his career as a world-class scientist, Collins has “advocated for the integration of faith and reason,” the Templeton Prize website stated, adding that in his 2006 book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, Collins “demonstrated how religious faith can motivate and inspire rigorous scientific research. He endeavors to encourage religious communities to embrace the latest discoveries of genetics and the biomedical sciences as insights to enrich and enlarge their faith.”

In a memorable 2009 lecture at Caltech, Collins presented his audience with two colorful images. The first showed a beautiful stained glass window in Westminster Cathedral, and the second an axial view of the human DNA, replete with a striking radial pattern.

“The question that many people pose, which I pose to you tonight, is that OK, those are two worldviews—the scientific and the spiritual,” Collins said to the gathering, referring to the two images. “Do you have to choose? Do you have to basically throw in your lot with one or the other … or is there a possibility here of being someone who could merge these two, not necessarily building a firewall between them but actually having both of those perspectives within your own experience?”

The geneticist’s question cuts to the heart of an approach many scientists take toward religion—that nature is the marvelous creation of a wise and loving God and that the universe not only makes sense but has an ultimate purpose.

Collins’s religious beliefs weren’t always unshakeable. He wrestled with religious issues in his youth, “veering from comfortable agnosticism to unapologetic atheism,” according to the news statement announcing this year’s Templeton Prize. The turning point for Collins came during the third year of his residency as a medical student at the University of Michigan, where “he was struck by the power of faith professed by his patients, many of whom faced imminent death.”

His faith evolved and strengthened over the next three decades after a neighbor of Collins, a Methodist minister, introduced him to the writings of C.S. Lewis, the renowned Oxford scholar and author “who himself had tested the tenets of faith through the lens of logic before embracing Christianity,” the news statement added.

Collins hasn’t looked back ever since. “As a Christian for 43 years,” he is quoted as saying on the Templeton Prize website. “I have found joyful harmony between the scientific and spiritual worldviews, and have never encountered an irreconcilable difference.”


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