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US health research boss wins Templeton prize for science and faith

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Washington (AFP)

US geneticist Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health, on Wednesday was awarded the Templeton Prize, which honors individuals whose work combines science and religious faith.

The prize, now in its 50th year, is worth 1.1 million pounds ($1.35 million).

In an interview given to AFP before the announcement of the prize, Collins -- who led the pioneering Human Genome Project in the 1990s and 2000s -- says he discovered his faith in the 1970s when he was in medical school.

"I realized as a medical student encountering life and death on a daily basis that there were some pretty profound issues that my atheism wasn't helping me with," Collins told AFP.

The 70-year-old Collins, who is now at the forefront of the US response to the coronavirus pandemic, says he is spending "probably 100 hours a week" on the search for a vaccine and other treatments.

But in an interview via videoconference, he took time out to reflect on the intersection of science and religion, and how that combination has affected his work.

Altruism, beauty, love, death -- science is ill-equipped to address such concepts, Collins says.

"It is perhaps the most radical of the dogmas to say that I know so much, that I can exclude the possibility of God, that there is no chance," he said.

"The most indefensible of all possible worldviews is a strict atheism, which comes across as actually pretty arrogant."

- 'The Language of God' -

Among past winners of the Templeton prize are astrophysicists and cosmologists who reflect on the biggest questions we face, about the origins of the universe.

But Collins' work has focused on the tiniest bits of that universe -- starting with the three billion DNA letters that make up our genes.

It is there that he found "The Language of God," the title of his best-selling 2006 book.

"Let me be clear, I'm not one of those who think God miraculously stepped in and figured out the exact letters in some supernatural moment, a few thousand years ago, and created the human genome in that way," Collins said.

"I see this as the long and elegant result of an evolutionary process beginning with that first self-replicating organism, which we really don't quite know how it got started."

From that microbe came life, which evolved into "creatures like you and me with big brains who can think big thoughts."

"I guess when I look at life science, I see this beauty, I see this elegance," Collins said.

"I see the way in which God's plan -- which I perceive to be having sort of wired the whole creation from the beginning -- results in the possibility of complex organisms and the evolutionary process to get there," he explained.

"That's even more amazing to me than galaxies, even though I love them too."

- Research as 'worship' -

The Templeton Prize, originally called the Prize for Progress in Religion, was created in 1972 by John Templeton, an investor who made his fortune on Wall Street before becoming a British national and moving to the Bahamas. He died in 2008.

The award first went to religious leaders -- Mother Teresa won the inaugural prize -- but eventually the field of laureates was widened to include scientists, theologians and philosophers.

Other past winners include the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Jordan's King Abdullah II.

Only three women have been given the prize so far. The last was British nurse Cicely Saunders, who was honored in 1981 for helping to found the movement for palliative care.

Descendants of Templeton, whose eponymous foundation funds research on projects covering everything from immortality to love and neuroscience, like to note that he set the value of his prize slightly above that of the Nobel, to show that religion was not worth less than science.

For Collins, the two are harmonious.

Science gives researchers "this privilege of exploring God's creation," he said, adding that such a pursuit transforms from a purely intellectual exercise into something approaching "worship."

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