Inspiration or Artifice? Faith and Reason

From a presentation by Francis Collins at the Veritas Forum at the California Institute of Technology

Take a close look at the two images. What do they represent? We might say that one image represents science and the other represents religion (or faith). But which is which?

The images are similar, but one of them is manmade, and the other is something we find in nature. Do you know which is which? Is the manmade image the scientific one or the spiritual one?

I will answer these questions; at least I will answer them as they were described in a presentation given by Francis Collins, the manager of the Human Genome Project, at a Veritas Forum at Caltech University in 2009. In the process, we will explore the chief question examined by this eminent scientist: whether science and faith are compatible.

The image on the left is manmade: it is the stained glass, Rose Window at Westminister Cathedral. The image on the right appears in nature: it is a view of DNA looking down its long axis. Remarkable it is that these two images appear to be so similar in color and design.

The manmade image is the “spiritual” one as it is incorporated into the design of a Christian cathedral, an homage to a Creator God. But, we could just as well view it as something artificial and, therefore, nothing but a manmade artifice of glass and other materials.

The natural image reveals a design that is maybe even more sublime in appearance than the manmade object, but it is the “natural” image. We could just as well view it as spiritual, the handiwork of a Creator God.

Art imitates life, and life imitates art (as the saying goes).

People have created some incredible things, from enormous, awe-inspiring cathedrals to the Great Sphynx and Mount Rushmore, the Library of Congress full of millions of pages of books and cities that house millions of people and their enterprises. We wouldn’t call those natural. They might be spiritual in purpose, or not. Some might see spiritual significance and others might not.

For all the great and awe-inspiring things people have made, nature is not in jeopardy of being overshadowed in the awe-inspiring department. The human genome, for instance, contains 3.1 billion “letters” of DNA code, and that genome exists in every cell in the human body. Every time a cell divides, it copies the entire genome over again. Every time!

If a person decided to “read” the information in the human genome working at an average pace, she would need all of 31 years reading seven days a week and twenty four hours a day to complete the task!

Francis Collins was raised in a secular family. He became decidedly atheist in college where atheism was the entrenched posture of the science department where he concentrated his studies. He really didn’t question the atheism he consciously began to embrace because it was so much of the fabric of his studies. It was simply part of the program. It went with the scientific study that was to become his life’s work, or so he assumed.

He didn’t question atheism until a gentle, dying woman asking him what he believed one day after sharing her belief in God with him. He didn’t have an answer, and the realization arose that he had merely assumed his belief without research or analysis. He had adopted his position without really examining the evidence. He could not even say why he believed (or didn’t believe) what he believed (or didn’t believe).

Being a scientist, he was keenly aware that his position was untenable. He vowed never to be at a loss for words if he was ever asked a similar question again. He knew what he wanted the answer to be – he was comfortable with the idea there was no God –  but he realized that he had no real support for that conclusion. So, he began to examine the evidence.

As he dug into the various world religions, he saw that there was much more to be examined than he had time to digest and assimilate on his own. To quicken his pace to an ultimate destination, he sought out a minister to ask for a resource that could digest and summarize the basis for belief in God. The minister gave him a book by an Oxford scholar who described his own examination of the evidence. The scholar was CS Lewis.

Francis Collins didn’t get more than a few pages into reading before he was impressed by the “great depth of thinking and reason to be applied to the question of God”. This was not what he expected.

He had always assumed that reason and faith were on “opposite poles”, but those assumptions began to crumble. In fact, he began to realize that reason and faith go “hand in hand”, but that realization didn’t come easy for him.

Looking back, he described himself as “kicking and screaming most of the way because I did not want this to turn out the way that it seemed to be turning out.” The deeper he went, the more it seemed to him that the evidence, though it fell short of proof, was pretty compelling. “It certainly made me realize that atheism would no longer be for me an acceptable choice, that it was the least rational of the options.”

He points to several lines of evidence that were most compelling to him:

  • There is something rather than nothing;
  • The “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics”;
  • The Big Bang: and
  • The precise tuning of the constants in the universe.

I won’t try in this short piece to expound on each of these points, and Collins only does so briefly in his presentation. I will end on a few points that are keys to his conclusion that science and religion, reason and faith, are not only compatible; they are intimately compatible.

(The rest of the presentation focuses on DNA as the “language of God”. He observes that these points only led him to “Einstein’s God” – a deist God.[i] You can hear him describe his transition to belief in the God of the Bible, if you are interested, by following the link in the text at the third paragraph of this article. You could also go on to listen to his analysis of DNA as the language of God  if you are interested.)

Collins quotes G.K. Chesterton for the proposition: “Atheism is the most daring of all dogmas, for it is the assertion of a universal negative.” We may think of religion as being dogmatic, but atheism is no less dogmatic. Atheism is an a priori position. It is a presupposition asserted as if it were a self-evident, empirical truth. Collins emphasizes that a person does not, and cannot, arrive at the position of atheism from observation, experience or science.

Collins explains that God must (necessarily) be outside of nature because God, if He exists, created nature. God must also, therefore, be unaffected by nature and is not limited to nature. A God that is capable of speaking into existence something out of nothing must, necessarily, be immaterial and timeless to have created space/time. In this sense, God is super natural. Anything that does not have these qualities is not God.

Science, on the other hand, is limited, by definition, to nature. Science is the study of nature. All that science can know or reveal is nature. Collins says, therefore, “Science can’t speak anything about God.”

He illustrates this point from a debate he had with Richard Dawkins, an avowed and very vocal atheist of some intellectual muscle. Collins challenged Dawkins, “How is it possible from a scientific perspective to rule out categorically the presence of God?” By the end of the debate, Dawkins had to admit that he couldn’t exclude the possibility of a supernatural being, though he added with his characteristic wit, “But it would be so much grander and more complicated and awesome than anything humans could contemplate that it surely must not be the God we were all talking about.”

Collins jokingly remarks, as he recounted the story, that he wanted to shout, “Hallelujah! You believe!” (which remark drew laughter from the audience).

But all levity aside, science can’t tell us anything about God, including whether God even exists, because science, by definition, is limited to the natural world. God, by definition, is not limited to the natural world. God is “Other” than the natural world.

Collins observes that scientists who have adopted a position that God doesn’t exist have arrived at this conclusion with no scientific proof. They have simply chosen to assume faith in no God, rather than to assume faith in God. They assume other things in place of God.

One of those things is the multiverse idea – that we live in one of an infinite number of universes that all have different values for those constants that, for our universe, are perfectly balanced on a razor edge to support life. We just happen to be in that one, unique universe, they say, that supports life. Collins admits that this theory is defensible “as long as you’re willing to accept the fact that you will probably never be able to observe those infinite series of parallel universes”.

Of course, this is a position that requires a “leap of faith”, notes Collins. The multiverse idea is as much a leap of faith as belief in God because it relies on an assumption that science can’t prove. Science can’t prove or disprove the multiverse theory, because the proof lies beyond the realm of this universe to which our science is limited.

We can look at the stained glass window next to a bird’s eye view of DNA and see the inspiration and wonder of God; or we can see nothing but artifice and nature. Our choices don’t rest on science; they rest on “faith”. Neither are they incompatible with science for that same reason.


[i] Belief in the existence of a God on the evidence of reason and nature only, with rejection of supernatural revelation (distinguished from theism); belief in a God who created the world but has since remained indifferent to it. (From

4 thoughts on “Inspiration or Artifice? Faith and Reason

Comments are welcomed

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.