“I WAS RAISED AN ATHEIST”
PROFESSOR František Vyskočil of Charles University, Prague, is internationally known for his research in neurophysiology. Once an atheist, he now firmly believes in God. In an interview with Awake! Professor Vyskočil explains why he changed his viewpoint.
What was your view of religion before you started your career in science?
I was raised an atheist, and my father often made fun of the clergy. I graduated from college in 1963 with degrees in biology and chemistry. In my school years, I believed that the theory of evolution explained life’s diversity.
Tell us a little about your career in science.
In my postdoctoral work, I studied the chemical and electrical properties of nerve synapses. I also studied neurons, membrane pumps, transplantation, and drug desensitization. Many of the results have been published, and some articles have been selected as classical. In time, I became a member of the Learned Society of the Czech Republic, a community of scientists chosen by their peers. After the December 1989 “Velvet Revolution,” I became a professor at Charles University and was allowed to travel to the West to meet with colleagues, some of whom were Nobel laureates.
Did you ever think about God?
In a sense, yes. At times, I wondered why many highly educated people, including some of my professors, believed in God—albeit quietly because of the Communist regime. To me, however, God was a human invention. I had also been outraged by atrocities committed in the name of religion.
How did you come to change your view of evolution?
My doubts about evolution began when I was studying synapses. I was deeply impressed by the amazing complexity of these supposedly simple connections between nerve cells. ‘How,’ I wondered, ‘could synapses and the genetic programs underlying them be products of mere blind chance?’ It really made no sense.
Then, in the early 1970’s, I attended a lecture by a famous Russian scientist and professor. He stated that living organisms cannot be a result of random mutations and natural selection. Someone in the audience then asked where the answer lay. The professor took a small Russian Bible from his jacket, held it up, and said, “Read the Bible—the creation story in Genesis in particular.”
Later, in the lobby, I asked the professor if he was serious about the Bible. In essence, he replied: “Simple bacteria can divide about every 20 minutes and have many hundreds of different proteins, each containing 20 types of amino acids arranged in chains that might be several hundred long. For bacteria to evolve by beneficial mutations one at a time would take much, much longer than three or four billion years, the time that many scientists believe life has existed on earth.” The Bible book of Genesis, he felt, made much more sense.
How did the professor’s comments affect you?
His observations, along with my own nagging doubts, moved me to discuss the subject with several religious colleagues and friends, but I found their views unconvincing. Then I spoke to a pharmacologist who was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. For three years he explained the Bible to me and my wife, Ema. Two things amazed us. First, traditional “Christianity” actually has little in common with the Bible. Second, the Bible, though not a science book, actually harmonizes with true science.
Has your change of view hindered your scientific research?
Not at all. Every good scientist, regardless of his beliefs, must be as objective as possible. But my faith has changed me. For one thing, instead of being overly self-confident, highly competitive, and unduly proud of my scientific skills, I am now grateful to God for any abilities I may have. Also, instead of unfairly attributing the amazing designs manifest in creation to blind chance, I and not a few other scientists ask ourselves, ‘How did God design this?’