NIH Director Francis Collins details his path to Christ after living as an atheist

by Samuel Smith, Christian Post Contributor |
National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins speaks at the 2019 BioLogos Conference in Baltimore, Maryland, on March 27, 2019. | PHOTO: THE CHRISTIAN POST

National Institutes of Health Director and world-renowned biologist, Francis Collins, shared the long process of how he was led to faith in Christ after an encounter with a terminally-ill patient left him pondering one of life's great existential questions.

Collins, a 68-year-old evangelical geneticist who is credited with discovering genes associated with a number of diseases and is the founder of the Human Genome Project, took off his federal government hat this week to take part in a conference hosted by an organization he founded over a decade ago.

Collins spoke to over 300 pastors, scientists and scholars gathered at the Hyatt Regency in Baltimore's Inner Harbor for BioLogos 2019, a two-and-a-half day conference hosted by the BioLogos Foundation, which exists to show that faith and science are not in conflict through the advocacy of Evolutionary Creationism viewpoints on origins.

The conference celebrated the 10-year anniversary of the first BioLogos conference and the launch of the organization's website, which has served as an online resource for many pondering questions around the intersection of faith and science.

Shortly after launching BioLogos, Collins stepped away when he was asked by former President Barack Obama to serve as the head of the U.S. agency primarily responsible for biomedical and public health research.

On Wednesday evening, Collins gave a 20-minute speech detailing how he was led from a life of atheism to a walk with Christ by confirming God's truths in the physical and scientific realities presented throughout the world.

While many Christian scientists wrestle with how they can bridge what they have learned in their fields with their faiths, Collins says that his faith has never come into conflict.

"More than ever, the world needs to hear the synthesis of science and faith is possible, not just forcing it and saying, 'This will have to do,'" Collins explained. "It is joyful. It is an opportunity for worship. I didn't always know that."

Collins then told the crowd that he couldn't believe that he was standing before them speaking at the BioLogos conference when reflecting back on who he was at the age of 21 or 22, as a graduate student in physical chemistry at Yale University.

At that point in Collins' life, he had adopted a sense of "metaphysical naturalism," what he called a "reductionist attitude" or the belief that "nothing really matters except what can be measured through science."

Collins believed at the time that faith was basically a superstition left over from an earlier age that should be shrugged off to "move forward."

He explained that this belief partly came from the fact that he was raised in a home where faith was not considered overly important.

"[I]t was convenient to assume there was not a God," he said. "By the time I was a graduate student, I was an atheist. It was not a particularly well-thought through position. But it was my position and it is not so different, I suspect, than many others around me at that time or ones that we would find today in a university undergraduate dormitory or graduate classroom."

Although he loved second-order differential equations, Collins eventually felt compelled to switch studies and apply to medical school in order to learn about the science of the human body. He was accepted at the University of North Carolina.

While at UNC, Collins said he maintained his atheism. However, he recalled that there were Christian medical students who would invite him to come sit with them at lunch. He explained that he tried to avoid them as much as he could because he thought they were "weird."

But over the course of his time in medical school, the experiences he was having began to change. It was no longer just an intellectual exercise to think about life and death.

"Because as a third-year medical student, one is then put into the clinical experiences of sitting at the bedside of people that have terrible diseases, most of which at that point we really didn't have answers or our answers were pretty incomplete," Collins said. "That began to trouble me because I saw in their eyes what someday might be my circumstance."

Collins said he would wonder how he would handle the situation if it were him in the hospital bed with an incurable, fatal disease.

"I watched how they handled it, these good North Carolina people," he said. "Many of them seemed quite at peace. They talked about their faith. I thought, 'Why aren't you angry at God? Why don't you shake your fist at what God has done to you?' But that is not what happened. They were at peace. They felt like God had been good to them and they had been blessed and they look forward to what came after."

At the age of 26, Collins said there was one elderly female patient he looked after who suffered awful chest pains because of severe cardiac disease. During her episodes of chest pain, he said she would pray and seem at peace. Collins said she would share her faith with him regularly and that made him uncomfortable.

"But one day, she made me really uncomfortable because she told me, 'Doctor, I have shared my faith with you and you seem to be somebody who cares for me. What do you believe doctor?'" Collins shared. "I don't think anybody in an honest, open way had really ever asked me that question. I realized I was utterly lacking a response."

Collins said he felt like he had neglected the most important question that any of us ever really asked: "Is there a God and does that God care about me?"

"At that point, 26 years, I had managed to set that aside in the pursuit of other issues. And I was supposed to be a scientist," he said. "It was interesting finding answers and collecting evidence to see what those answers should be. I had never spent more than five minutes thinking about this particular question or what the answer might be. That really bothered me."

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