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Ethics & Religion
Column #2023
May 20, 2020
Francis Collins Wins Templeton Award
By Mike McManus

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, was awarded the 2020 John Templeton Prize of $1.34 million - one the largest annual awards given to individuals.

Before directing NIH, Collins, who has earned both a Ph.D. and M.D., was a professor at the University of Michigan, where he was known as a "gene hunter" for his pioneering technique of "positional cloning" to pinpoint disease-related genes.

His research groups were responsible for the discovery of the genes responsible for cystic fibrosis, neurofibromatosis, Huntington's disease and Hutchinson-Guilford progena syndrome, a rare form of premature aging.

He led the National Human Genome Research Institute from 1993 to 2008, guiding the Human Genome Project in its mapping and sequencing of three billion DNA letters that make up the human genetic instruction book.

In a statement after winning the prize, Collins said, "As I write this, almost my every waking moment is consumed by the effort to find treatments and a vaccine for COVID-19. The elegant complexity of human biology constantly creates in me a sense of awe. 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 would 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)

Interestingly, Collins was an unbeliever as a young man. He veered from "comfortable agnosticism to unapologetic atheism." But while a third-year medical student serving his residency, he was struck by the power of faith professed by his patients, many of whom faced imminent death. Unable to articulate his own belief, a neighbor, a Methodist minister, introduced him to the writings of C.S. Lewis, the legendary Oxford scholar who himself had tested the tenets of atheism through the lens of logic before embracing Christianity.

Collins remembers asking himself as a young man, "Is there a God? Does she or he care about me? What is the basis of morality? What is love? Why is there so much suffering in this world? What happens after we die?"

Collins confesses that while these were profound questions, he "paid little attention to them during my first quarter century on the planet." He says he was a "committed materialist who found little use for anything that could not be addressed by scientific experimentation."

But when he transitioned from quantum mechanics to medical school, he "found these questions hard to ignore when sitting next to the beds of the sick and dying, and science wasn't much use in tackling them. People of faith seemed to claim wisdom in that domain, but I assumed those insights were based on superstition and fundamental misunderstanding of nature."

Then to his "amazement" he wrote "pointers to a Creator began to appear in all sorts of places, even including scientific observations about the universe. Most importantly, the person of Jesus emerged as the most profound truth-teller I had ever encountered, and called on me to make a decision about my own belief."

Collins confesses, "I held off the Hound of Heaven as long as I could, but ultimately resistance was impossible. But could I be both a scientist and a believer? Wouldn't my head explode?" he asked himself.

Now, 43 years later, Collins writes, "I have found joyful harmony between the scientific and spiritual worldviews, and have never encountered an irreconcilable difference. I have had the privilege to lead scientific projects that discovered the cause of cystic fibrosis, the complete sequence of the human genome, and the development of precision medicine that is saving lives every day from cancer."

Heather Templeton Dill, president of the John Templeton Foundation, said "In his role as a scientist, government official, and public intellectual, Francis Collins has used his platform to engage groups of diverse perspectives, and encouraged greater curiosity, open-mindedness, and humility among scientists and religious believers with the aim of illuminating a pathway toward, as he has written, "a sober and intellectually honest integration of the scientific and spiritual perspectives."

"Dr. Collins embodies the ideals and core convictions that inspired my grandfather, Sir John Templeton, to establish the Templeton Prize in 1972 that rigorous research, especially in the sciences, can help humanity confront the deepest and most challenging questions of existence."

The first winner of the Templeton Prize was Mother Teresa in 1973. Other winners have been the Dalai Lama (2012) and Archbishop Desmond Tutu (2013).

May Francis Collins inspire us to serve others better.


Copyright (c) 2020 Michael J. McManus, a syndicated columnist and past president of Marriage Savers. To read past columns, go to www.ethicsandreligion.comm. Hit Search for any topic.


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