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Next chapter: Ex-NIH head Francis Collins works to bridge the country's divides

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

After two years helping lead America's fight against COVID-19, Dr. Francis Collins is diagnosing a different kind of public health crisis.

FRANCIS COLLINS: The culture wars are literally killing people - because we've lost that sense of what our greatest calling is, which is the truth, goodness and beauty - those three transcendentals that are supposed to characterize us - all three of which seem to be frayed.

MARTIN: Collins recently stepped down as the director of the National Institutes of Health. Now he runs a research lab focused on the scientific mysteries of diabetes and aging. Francis Collins is also a Christian who's had to make peace with what he can prove and what he can't. And he wants to use science, religion and, above all, empathy to try and bring people together in this moment. To know how he got here, let's go back to when Collins was a graduate student and an avowed atheist.

COLLINS: I had no use for anybody who wanted to talk about something you couldn't measure in the science lab.

MARTIN: Why?

COLLINS: I think it was the sort of thing that would clear the seminar room in a hurry, (laughter) if you raised a question about God. Like, oh, that doesn't belong here. Didn't you realize that's not the conversation we're supposed to have? So people got the message and didn't. And I was happy not to have that conversation 'cause I was uncomfortable by it and thought it was a waste of time.

MARTIN: So how in the world did that begin to change for you?

COLLINS: It was medical school. It was that third year of medical school, where you're not in the classroom anymore. You're on the hospital wards. You're sitting at the bedside of good North Carolina people whose lives are coming to an end, sometimes with a great deal of pain and suffering. And you're realizing your medical tools are inadequate to actually help them very much. And I had a moment where a patient of mine, who I'd gotten kind of attached to - an elderly woman kind of like my grandmother - who shared her faith with me and then turned to me one afternoon and said, you know, Doctor, I've told you about my beliefs, and you haven't said anything. What do you believe? What do you believe? Nobody ever quite asked me that question. And, Rachel, at that moment, I realized, I have no idea. I have settled on atheism because it was the answer I was most comfortable with, and it meant I didn't really have to look into this. But I'm a scientist. I'm not supposed to make big decisions without looking at evidence. I've got to look into it.

MARTIN: So how does an avowed atheist scientist go about interrogating the existence of God?

COLLINS: What helped me most was a pastor down the street from me who listened to all of my blasphemous questions about how there could possibly be a loving God when the world was in such trouble and suggested that I might want to read a small book on his shelf. The book was "Mere Christianity" by C.S. Lewis. And Lewis, bit by bit, who seemed to be reading my mind, would address each one of those and then point out why atheism was actually the least rational of the choices and why belief ultimately made a lot more sense. And I never have encountered a conflict between what I know as a Christian and what I know as a scientist. I have to be careful about which kind of question is being asked. If it's about, you know, how does the Golgi apparatus of the cell work? - that's a scientific question. If it's a question about, why am I here? - well, science isn't helping me very much with that. But I can ask both those questions on any given day, and I'm not having a wall around them.

MARTIN: I wonder if you've seen this. I have just noticed in my own life in conversations with some evangelical Christians I know. The tendency has been to say about a variety of things, this is God's will - right? - whether we're talking about climate change or whether we're talking about a global pandemic, that any attempt to disrupt that kind of predestined divine plan is against God's will. Have you heard that?

COLLINS: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: And how do you go about countering it?

COLLINS: And those are my people. I am an evangelical Christian. And I must say it is heartbreaking to see the ways in which this divide between science and faith has particularly hit that community hard. This is the community that has amongst the highest rates of vaccine hesitancy and denial of climate change when all the data is clearly in front of us. I don't blame them. I don't blame the communities that have taken that view. I blame the people who are providing them with false information, some of whom may even know it's false and yet continue to do so for other reasons, many of them political. That is truly heartbreaking.

MARTIN: What do you think the pandemic has revealed about not just who we are as a society, but assumptions about our collective desire to look out for one another?

COLLINS: To put it mildly, this is the golden rule. And the golden rule now - maybe it still applies to people that are in your own social grouping, your tribe. But it sure doesn't apply to the people on the other side where we are now so quick not just to say they're misguided, but to say they're evil; they're dangerous. It's particularly florid right now. And I guess COVID has made it clear that that's not just an unfortunate kind of a new chapter in the culture wars.

MARTIN: Where do you find hope here now?

COLLINS: My faith is a deep source of that. I also have hope that human nature, despite all of its foibles, is basically put together in a way that over time we find a way to do the right thing, even after making a lot of mistakes along the way. In addition to what I'm doing now with my research lab, which is a hope for finding answers to diabetes and aging, I'm also seriously thinking about whether there're ways that I might be able to use whatever credibility I have to try to make a case for bringing us out of this set of warring factions towards something with more concern for each other. Do I have much of a chance in making a difference? I don't know. But I'm hopeful that maybe I could in some small way.

MARTIN: Dr. Collins loves to play guitar. So before we say goodbye, I asked him to play us something hopeful. He picked a hymn that came out of the Civil War.

COLLINS: (Singing, playing guitar) My life goes on an endless song of others' lamentations. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.