Science & Religion Can Get Along, Says Former NIH Director

Science & Religion Can Get Along, Says Former NIH Director

Francis Collins, a man of science and faith, explains what is lost when divisions are drawn between the two, as part of Northeastern psychology professor David DeSteno’s podcast, “How God Works.”

Francis Collins (left), former director of the National Institutes of Health, says scientific and religious communities can learn from each other. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Science and religion are typically thought to be at odds with one another, but Francis Collins doesn’t see it that way.

The former director of both the National Institutes of Health and National Human Genome Research Institute, Collins is also a man of devout faith. Looking at the distrust and increasingly fractious divide between scientific and religious communities in the U.S., Collins believes there’s actually more both groups could learn from each other.

“I have not in my 40 some years as a Christian and somebody who, I hope, has practiced pretty rigorous science ever really seen a circumstance where what one is teaching is in conflict with the other,” Collins recently said at a live recording of the “How God Works” podcast at Northeastern University’s EXP research complex. “So then why should we not be overlapping?”

With “How God Works,” host David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University and director of the university’s Social Emotions Lab, aims to understand the science behind religious practices and the measurable health benefits they can have, by talking with scientists and religious leaders. 

As NIH director from 2009 to 2021, Collin served under three U.S. presidents and was instrumental in the country’s response during the COVID-19 pandemic. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Science. As director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, he was a global leader in genomics and humanity’s efforts to understand the building blocks of life.

The stereotype of the scientist who believes in only what can be explained with science doesn’t fit Collins. He identifies as an evangelical Christian by the traditional definition –– “somebody who really believes they have acquired a wonderful gift … and wants to share it with other people” ––  not as it has become known today, he said. Notably, he came to religion late in life, after he already had a career in science.

It’s why he argues that religion and science don’t need to be at odds and it’s possible for the two to have a complementary relationship. In fact, that’s been the case throughout history, he said, pointing to Anglicans embracing Charles Darwin’s concept of natural selection as part of God’s design. As a scientist, his faith gives him even more of an appreciation for the groundbreaking discoveries he makes in the lab.

“Especially the things we get to learn about in science, whether it’s figuring out how an eclipse works or how the Golgi apparatus works, you can see this amazing beauty that science uncovers,” Collins said. “Seeing the beauty also makes you even more wanting to worship the creator of the beauty. I don’t see why those things should be kept off in separate parts of your existence. They aren’t for me.”

Finding a balance between the two can have measurably positive impacts on people’s lives, as religion and spirituality has been proven to have positive long-term health impacts, both Collins and DeSteno said. 

“When I look at the data, the wisdom of these practices over time helps people meet the challenges life throws at them,” DeSteno said. “Religion can be used for good or for bad –– it depends upon the motives of the people wielding the power, just like science –– but I think if we have more respectful, open discussions, we can learn a lot from each other.”

“We are impoverishing our approach to life if we don’t incorporate those kinds of considerations,” Collins added.

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