From Atheism To Christ: NIH Director Shares Journey Of Faith

Joshua Gill | Religion Reporter

The director of the National Institutes of Health revealed Wednesday that confronting death sparked his journey from atheism to Christianity.

Dr. Francis Collins, NIH director and leader of the Human Genome Project, recounted to Bloomberg’s David Rubenstein how facing the reality of death and the questions it posed during his third year at medical school led him to become a Christian. The conversation, published Wednesday, revealed that Collins initially settled on agnosticism and then shifted toward atheism before ultimately placing his faith in Jesus Christ.


Collins said that his spiritual journey began in college where he first confronted differing ideas about the possibilities of a spiritual reality.

“Got to college, you know, those conversations in the dorm about ‘what do people believe,’ and I didn’t think I believed in any of it,” he told Rubenstein. “So I was an agnostic, but by the time I got to graduate school, I was shifting even more to being an atheist. And I would not be too comfortable keeping quiet if somebody was talking about the supernatural, ’cause it was all about nature and how you study it and how you describe it,” Collins said.

Collins’ experience in medical school, however, challenged his ideas about life and death and the possibility of the existence of the supernatural.

“And then I went to medical school. And that third year of medical school where you’re thrust out onto the wards and you’re sitting at the bedside of wonderful people whose lives are under threat and many of whom are not going to survive, and you really start to realize that your own thinking about life and death has been pretty unsophisticated compared to the reality of what these people are facing,” Collins said.

Collins decided at the time that, as a scientist, he was meant to make decisions about important issues based on the evidence at hand, but he had never considered the possibility of evidence as it pertained to the existence of God. Instead, he made the assumption that no such evidence could exist.

Collins’ conversations with believers, and his exploration of C.S. Lewis’ writings at their suggestion, changed that perception.

“I’d never really heard much about C.S. Lewis, but picking up some of the things he wrote, particularly ‘Mere Christianity,’ made it clear to me – oh my gosh, there’s an incredibly compelling intellectual, rational basis for faith, which I had totally missed and assumed didn’t exist. It took me a couple of years of fighting against that, of trying to prove that this was all wrong and that I could stick with my agnosticism. But ultimately, I realized I couldn’t, that it was so compelling,” Collins told Rubenstein. 

As for placing his faith in Jesus Christ, Collins said that Jesus’ answers to important life questions, and the historical documentation of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection ultimately led him to become a Christian.

“And after many considerations of various faith traditions, ultimately the person of Jesus appealed to me in a remarkable way, as a historical figure, not a myth, who had answers to questions that I really needed answers for, and whose life and death and resurrection seemed to be remarkably well documented,” Collins said.

Collins was first appointed as director of NIH by former President Barack Obama. President Donald Trump asked Collins to stay on as director. Trump’s move was unusual, given the high rate of turnover for NIH directors between presidential administrations. That Trump asked Collins to remain was not exactly surprising, however, in light of Collins’ career and many awards.

President George W. Bush awarded Collins with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in November of 2007 for his distinguished career in medicine. Collins led the completion of the sequence of the human DNA instruction book in the Human Genome Project, was a University of Michigan Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, and is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine. He also received the National Medal of Science in 2009.

Editor’s Note: The original version of this piece said President Barack Obama awarded Collins with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The post has been updated to reflect that it was President George W. Bush who bestowed the honor.

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