Q: As the McGarry Distinguished Chair in Diabetes and Metabolic Research at UT Southwestern, what’s your most important discovery?
A: We discovered how fat is oxidized for energy in the body. A major product of this fat oxidation in the liver is molecules called ketone bodies. They protect from low blood sugar during the overnight fast and particularly in prolonged starvation. If overproduced, as in Type 1 diabetes, absent insulin, you die in ketoacidosis. We found the molecule that controls fat oxidation and also cloned and characterized the enzymes involved.
Q: You’re concerned about the scientific community’s hostility to religion. Why?
A: For a long time, scientists didn’t attack people of faith and vice versa, except on the question of evolution. But there’s a new level of antagonism from what are called “the new atheists.” Dr. Francis Collins, nominated by President Obama as director of the National Institutes of Health, was attacked in an op-ed piece in the New York Times by one of them. The writer argued Francis should not be appointed because he was a Christian. Francis Collins is a great scientist. He talks about DNA as the language of God, but he was head of the Human Genome Project, and his science should be unquestioned.
Q: But you don’t agree with him that science and faith can come together?
A: I think it unlikely. The tools are too different. But faith, which requires study and discipline just like science, is very important. Faith stands next to science but asks different questions and doesn’t do experiments. In regard to evolution, Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh of Notre Dame once said, “Give me the beginning and you can have all the rest.” The evidence for the Big Bang is overwhelming, but from where did that energy come? Science will keep expanding and may one day find out. But it doesn’t solve the scientific question to say, “God created the universe.”
Q: You think atheists need to watch their own fundamentalists just like the believers.
A: Yes. Sir Isaiah Berlin, the great British philosopher, said that few things have done more harm than the belief by some that they are in the sole possession of the truth and those who differ from them are wicked and need suppression. Now science is the leading cause of atheism. With Lyell’s Principles of Geology in 1830 and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, it was clear that Genesis and all creation stories are myths. But scientific atheists should not attempt to suppress faith.
Q: Evolution generates the most yelling, it seems.
A: The universe is 17.3 billion years old, and evolution is established as scientific fact. Scientists dislike doubt about scientific truth. Studying natural science doesn’t take anything away from God. Christians believe faith was induced by revelation from God, and I also believe the Bible is fundamentally the answer to a full life.
Q: What should scientists and doctors be reading about faith?
A: I don’t look at it in those terms. In 2008, there were more than 670,000 papers published on science and medicine. It is a huge job to try to read the importantly new. Everyone who wants to think about the important questions would benefit from actually reading scripture. Some sources I quote frequently, because I find them inspirational, are William James, C.S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Søren Kierkegaard. William James once wrote that people think about God in crisis or in satiety. I talk a good bit about satiety—that is, the sense many Americans have of being satiated, and not in a good way. They have all sorts of material things, but they ask, “Is that all there is?” And the answer is: no, there’s much, much more.