Christian scientist Dr Francis Collins laments divisions over face masks and vaccines

Dr Francis Collins

Christian scientist and this year's Templeton Prize winner, Dr Francis Collins has lamented sharp divisions in society over some of the measures to fight coronavirus.

In his acceptance speech for the prize, which he received at an online ceremony on Thursday night, the Human Genome Project leader called for "harmony" as he said that "conflict seems to be the order of the day" not only in the context of Covid-19 but other areas like race relations, climate change and even interpretations of the Bible.

Dr Collins, who is one of the many physicians worldwide working on a Covid-19 vaccine, said: "When this serious threat to our world emerged at the beginning of the year, I had hopes that it would draw us together, as has happened before in this country when facing a dangerous enemy.

"And for a while that seemed to be happening, but look at us now. The simple act of putting on a cloth mask is sufficient to inspire harsh disagreements among Americans, even though the public health value of that action to slow the spread of the disease is unquestionable."

Another example of this, he said, could be seen in the debate around vaccines. Dr Collins said he was spending "almost every waking hour" working on Covid-19 tests, treatment and vaccines, and promised that the latter would be subject to "rigorous" testing.

"But we are now seeing deep divisions in this country, with as much as half the public saying they wouldn't take such a vaccine," he said.

"What should have been harmony in the name of saving lives has also become a conflict."

Turning his attention to the death of George Floyd, the BioLogos founder said he had reached the "inescapable and heartbreaking conclusion" that American society "still harbours a deep foundation of systemic racism despite the hopes of many whites, including me, that we were enlightened and past all that".

"Any serious look at our current circumstances reveals that the consequences of 400 years of slavery and discrimination are still with us and demand significant change, but once again, not all agree and the polarisation of Americans is glaringly apparent," he said.

Dr Collins suggested that the answer to the divisions lies in a "renewed commitment to truth and reason", and the biblical principle of loving one another instead of tribalism and hate.

He said that out of all the developments in society troubling him, "none is greater than the growing disregard of maintaining a high standard of objective truth."

"We have no future as a society if we abandon that framework, yet somehow with a lot of assistance from social media, the adherence to fact over fiction, to accurate narrative over conspiracy theory has taken a major hit," he said.

"All thinking persons should raise the alarm about this."

In his wide-ranging speech, Dr Francis said there was no conflict between faith and science, despite "voices at the extremes" still getting "a lot of attention". 

"At one end, you read pronouncements from new atheists like Richard Dawkins who use evolution as a club over the head of anyone stupid enough to accept the possibility of belief in God," he said.

"At the other end, fundamentalist perspectives from groups like Answers in Genesis argue that any scientific conclusions that disagree with their interpretation of the Bible must be considered at least wrong and probably evil." 

He suggested there should be room for differing interpretations of Genesis. 

"It was one of the great tragedies of the last 150 years in the United States that an ultra literal reading of the first chapters of the book of Genesis have been taken as a litmus test for serious Christian faith. Augustine warned 1,600 years ago about such a literal interpretation," he said. 

"Those powerful and mystical Genesis words about creation tell us about who we are and who God is but were never intended to be a scientific textbook."