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September 25, 2020

Acceptance Address by Dr. Francis S. Collins: “In Praise of Harmony”

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September 24, 2020
National Academy of Sciences Building, Washington, D.C.

In Praise of Harmony

The possibility of my appearing on a roster of legendary figures that includes Mother Teresa, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Billy Graham, the Dalai Lama, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu is so far outside of my imaginings that I have to wonder if the Templeton Prize Selection Committee made a mistake this year.  But I am deeply and profoundly grateful to have been chosen for this great honor, and I wish to express sincere thanks to Heather Templeton Dill and the John Templeton Foundation.  My only regret about this spectacular evening is that we could not all be together in person.  On the other hand, however, the virtual nature of this event has made it possible to invite many friends who might otherwise not have fit into this historic hall at the National Academy of Sciences – and so I am grateful for that, and send a shout out to all of you who are watching this evening.

I have been blessed throughout my 70 years by the gift of an amazing circle of friends, colleagues, mentors, and scientific and spiritual guides. I have also been fortunate to be part of a family that includes my now departed but truly remarkable parents, my three brothers, my amazing daughters Margaret and Elizabeth, my five awesome grandchildren – and most of all, the greatest gift I have on this earth, my wife and soulmate Diane Baker.

For my theme this evening, I have chosen to speak about a phenomenon that I believe ought to attract our interest and devotion, but which seems to have suffered some significant downgrading.  The phenomenon I speak of is Harmony.  I first learned about that term as it applies to music, and you heard this evening the profound way in which the combination of musical tones chosen by a composer and rendered by a gifted professional like Renee Fleming can touch your very soul.  But harmony applies in other realms as well.  It is to be contrasted with dissonance.  In many areas of current experience, harmony seems to have lost out to dissonance and polarization.

Dissonance can of course be a powerful motivator – but one that should inspire an effort to resolve it.  The third to the last great “Amen” at the end of Handel’s Messiah, ending in a crashing, wrenching, unresolved, and prolonged A7 chord, with the 7th ominously prominent in the bass line, never fails to bring to me a tightening of body and spirit that is almost unbearable – but then after a terribly long pause, moves to the most powerful resolution of D major imaginable, accompanied invariably, at least for me, with a flood of tears.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a lot of dissonance in our current experience.  We need to resolve that.  We need more harmony.

Beginning with the reason that I am here tonight, let me say something about the perceived disharmony between science and faith.  Nearly six in ten adults in the US say science and religion frequently conflict. That was certainly my view as I was growing up in Virginia, without much of a spiritual perspective, but falling in love with the scientific method.  Faith seemed to me to be the antithesis of the rational scientific approach that I wanted to pursue, and so I migrated, without much thought about it, into agnosticism and ultimately atheism.

But then I moved from quantum mechanics to medical school, and the questions of the meaning of life, and the reality of mortality, were impossible to ignore.  Science didn’t help me much here.  But I was surrounded by patients, and some of my professors, for whom faith provided a way to wrestle with those profound questions.  That was puzzling. Challenged by one of my patients to describe what I believed about God, I realized my atheism was dangerously thin.  Seeking to prop this up, I began a journey to try to understand why intellectually sophisticated people could actually believe in God – and to my dismay, found that atheism turned out to be the least rational of all the choices.  To quote Chesterton, “Atheism is the most daring of all dogmas, for it is the assertion of a universal negative”.  Over a two year period, with much help from wise mentors and the writings of C.S. Lewis, I slowly and rather reluctantly came to the conclusion that belief in God, while not possible to prove, was the most rational choice available.  Furthermore, I saw in the very science that I so loved something that I had missed — the evidence that seemed to cry out for a Creator: there is something instead of nothing, the universe had a beginning, it follows elegant mathematical laws, and those laws include a half dozen constants that have to have the exact value they do or there would be no possibility of anything interesting or complex in nature.  God must be an amazing physicist and mathematician.

But would he or she actually care about me?  The major world religions seemed to say yes – but why should I trust that?  And then I met the person who not only claimed to know those answers, and to know God, but to be God.  That was Jesus Christ.  I had thought he was a myth, but the historical evidence for his real existence was utterly compelling – including his life, death, and – yes, even this – his resurrection.  And as the truth of the New Testament sank in, I realized I was called to make a decision.  In my 27th year, I could simply not resist any longer.  With some trepidation, I knelt in the dewy grass on an October morning somewhere in the Cascades, and I became a Christian.

Friends in whom I confided my newfound faith predicted this would be short-lived.  After all, I was by then a physician who was interested in studying genetics.  Genetics means DNA.  DNA means evolution.  And by then I was convinced that evolution was not only just a theory, it was supported by evidence that made it about as compelling as gravity.  Surely, they said, my head would explode when the conflicts emerged.  But that never happened.  It is one the great tragedies of the last 150 years that an ultraliteral reading of the first chapters of the book of Genesis have been taken as a litmus test for serious Christian faith.  Augustine (the current subject of my book club) warned1600 years ago about such a literal interpretation.  Those powerful and mystical Genesis words about creation tell us about who we are, and who God is, but were never intended to be a scientific textbook.

Seeing the great distress that this perceived conflict between science and faith was causing, I decided to write about it in The Language of God.  To my surprise, the book seemed to have appeal to many who were searching.  Perceiving the need for an ongoing meeting place for serious dialogue about these issues, my wife and I founded BioLogos.  While painfully I had to step away from that foundation to take on the role of NIH Director, it flourishes under the able guidance of Dr. Deborah Haarsma, whom you heard from earlier this evening.

So it’s all better now, right?  Sadly no, not so much.  While thanks to BioLogos, I believe there has been some broader recognition that these conflicts can be resolved, voices at the extremes still seem to get a lot of attention.  At one end you read pronouncements from New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, who use evolution as a club over the head of anyone stupid enough to accept the possibility of belief in God.  At the other end, fundamentalist perspectives from groups like Answers in Genesis argue that any scientific conclusions that disagree with their interpretation of the Bible must be considered at least wrong, and probably evil.  But to quote from The Language of God, written 14 years ago: “The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome.”  “God’s creation is majestic, awesome, intricate, and beautiful – and it cannot be at war with itself.  Only we imperfect humans can start such battles.  And only we can end them.”

So the science/faith debate is an example of the opportunity for harmony, contrasted with the tendency of us humans to focus instead on conflict, and to choose sides and become polarized.

But there are many other areas of human experience, especially in this country, where conflict is the order of the day.  I want to take a few minutes to reflect on how this same trend seems to be progressively infecting our society and our culture.

Let’s look at the current global pandemic of COVID-19.  That is how I now spend almost every waking hour, seeking to accelerate the development of better diagnostic tests, therapeutics that will save the lives of those infected, and vaccines that will prevent future infections.  When this serious threat to our world emerged at the beginning of the year, I had hopes that it would draw us together, as has happened before in this country when facing a dangerous enemy.  And for a while that seemed to be happening.  But look at us now.  The simple act of putting on a cloth mask is sufficient to inspire harsh disagreements amongst Americans, even though the public health value of that action to slow the spread of the disease is unquestionable.  As another example, the research community is moving with unprecedented speed to develop vaccines, and subjecting them to rigorous tests of safety and efficacy.  But we are now seeing deep divisions in our country, with as much as half the public saying they wouldn’t take such a vaccine.  What should have been harmony in the name of saving lives has become a conflict.

Let’s also consider the greatest long term threat to our planet – climate change.  While there is no serious disagreement among scientists that the data demonstrates a growing threat of planetary warming, and that human activity is largely responsible, our nation still seems to be polarized about whether climate change is real, and what we should do about it.  As time passes with no coordinated plan of action, we grow closer and closer to a potentially devastating outcome.  Surely all of us who care about our planet should be invested in creation care?  Yet again, we are polarized.

Another profoundly serious issue for our country has come to major and overdue attention this summer, with the killing of George Floyd and other similarly wrenching events.  To many of us, this leads to the inescapable and heartbreaking conclusion that our society still harbors a deep foundation of systemic racism.  Despite the hopes of many whites, including me, that we were enlightened and past all that, any serious look at our current circumstances reveals that the consequences of 400 years of slavery and discrimination are still with us, and demand significant change.  But once again, not all agree, and the polarization of Americans is glaringly apparent.

These areas of polarization create a vicious circle that infects our politics – polarized views drive politicians to adopt polarized positions, and those further polarize the people.  We devolve into tribes.  We stop trusting each other.  We infer all sorts of bad motivations to those not of our own tribe, even as we forgive our own glaring inconsistencies.

How might we recover from this?  How might we heal our land? 

Let me suggest three commitments that might help with this healing.

First, we need a renewed commitment to truth and reason.  Of all the developments that cause me concern over the past few years, none is greater than the growing disregard of maintaining a high standard of objective truth.  We have no future as a society if we abandon that framework.  Yet somehow, with a lot of assistance from social media, the adherence to fact over fiction, to accurate narrative over conspiracy theory, has taken a major hit.  All thinking persons should raise the alarm about this.

Second, we need to address the growing spiritual void that leaves many of us adrift, unmoored, feeling precarious.  Angus Deaton and Anne Case write about how this has contributed to the terrible increase in deaths from drug overdose and other things – the “deaths of despair”.  But there are many other consequences of our spiritual impoverishment short of death.  We need to be re-anchored in those ancient spiritual truths that provide a rock upon which we can build our future.  Go back to the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount to see what blessings apply to the kind of life that God had planned for us: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.   Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.  Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.  Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  As David Brooks has said, once you have read these, you can’t unread them.  But it’s still possible to put them in the inactive file.  Bring them back out!

And then third, and most importantly, we need to return to our calling to love one another.  Not just those who agree with us, but also our enemies.  Love is stronger than hate.  You cannot pray regularly for someone and continue to despise them.  One of my favorite verses about love comes from Colossians 3:12: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”  Can you imagine what would happen to our fractured society if we all tried to live out this exhortation?

Well, you will probably say, this is all pretty naïve.  Words are cheap.  Years of fraying of our societal fabric are going to take more than a nice speech.  True.  For starters, however, it would help if we chose leaders who embodied these principles.  Leaders who were healers, promoters of truth, the rule of law, advocates of spiritual anchoring, and proponents of love, respect, justice, and compassion.  Our democracy means we have the chance to do that.

But it’s too easy to put the burden on the leaders alone.  It’s really up to all of us, through our individual actions, to define what kind of world we want to live in, and then seek to live that way.  That means refusing to accept polarization – in fact, working actively to reach across the gaps.

This is really hard.  I have regularly failed at this challenge.  But once in a while, something happens that reminds me of the power of making friends with those whom I disagree with – even profoundly.  Let me return to the science/faith conflict, and in the last couple of minutes tell you a story about my unlikely friendship with a guy who once wrote that “religion poisons everything.”  That would be Christopher Hitchens.   We met at a small dinner party after he had demolished an unfailingly polite opponent in a debate about the rationality of faith.  I asked him whether a strict atheist like him could claim any real status for good and evil, or whether these had to be considered as artifacts of natural selection, of no real significance.  He called this an utterly childish question, and did not deign to answer.  Future debates with him, however, were more productive, and provided an excellent stimulus to sharpen my own thinking.  Then Hitch developed Stage 4 cancer, and I reached out to see if there were new medical advances that might help him.  In a series of evening meetings over wine and cheese in his apartment, we became friends, talking not only about cancer genomics but about Orwell, Chesterton, Jefferson, and Jesus. He knew I was praying for him, and welcomed that – though he was quite sure no one was listening.  He never showed any sign of retreating from his atheist position, though his views softened towards those of us who he assumed were caught in a religious delusion.

The cancer ultimately won.  I miss Hitch.  I miss the brilliant turn of phrase, the good-natured banter, the wry sideways smile when he was about to make a remark that would make me laugh.  No doubt he now knows the answer to the question of whether there is more to the spirit than just atoms and molecules. I hope he was surprised by the answer. I hope to hear him tell about it someday.  He will tell it really well.

Remembering that odd friendship, I wish that I had tried more often to befriend others who have very different views than my own.  But it’s not too late for that.  Not for me.  Not for any of us.  Here in the august surroundings of the National Academy of Sciences, let me exhort all of you, and myself also, to make a renewed effort to reach out beyond our own tribes.  Let’s apply that to the science/faith debates, to the disagreements over the right response to COVID-19, to climate change, to the need to address the lingering racism in our nation, and especially to our political tensions.  Reach out to listen, not to insult or denigrate.  Seek the common ground of fairness and compassion.  As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”

Blessed are the depolarizers, for harmony can show us a better way. 

Thank you.