Invited to the White House to announce the triumph, Collins tried to signal that those concerned with the soul and the spirit should not take the new science as a threat. "It is humbling for me, and awe-inspiring," he said, standing at Clinton's side, "to realize that we have caught the first glimpse of our own instruction book, previously known only to God."
That moment moved Collins -- who is married and has two grown daughters -- to talk more publicly about his faith and write the book. "It's been a bit like taking a public bath," he said.
Creationists have e-mailed denunciations, labeling him a false prophet. Advocates of intelligent design call him illogical for holding that God designed the universe and perhaps even the first molecules of DNA, but not complex structures like the human eye (which Collins says must have come about through evolution, though biologists haven't yet figured out exactly how that's possible).
The harsh words have stung -- and eaten up his time; he wakes up at 4:30 a.m. to try to answer every e-mail after his morning ritual of reading the Bible and the Washington Post. Still, Collins said he's encouraged to be part of a broader movement to explore harmonies between science and faith.
The Harvard Divinity School has established an endowed chair for a professor of science and religion. Two more books on the subject are due out within weeks: "God's Universe" by Harvard astronomer Owen Gingerich and "Evolution and Christian Faith" by Stanford biologist Joan Roughgarden.
Theologians, ethicists and scientists meet regularly to exchange views under the auspices of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science. And an organization for Christian scientists is sending its members to churches and religious schools with the message that science is not out to undermine faith.
"I'm probably a hopeless optimist here," Collins said. "But I hope we might just get through this."
Collins is still not sure how to answer the question his dying patient posed three decades ago: What do you believe?
Death is not the end, he's certain of that now, but he cannot conceive what might come after. He doesn't trouble himself about the details. There are too many other mysteries with answers more readily within his grasp. Collins oversees a national effort to identify the genetic roots of cancer. In his own lab, he's close to finding the mutations that may lead to diabetes.
Outsiders sometimes ask, with alarm, whether this knowledge will allow scientists to "play God" -- to manipulate and enhance man's genetic code in ways nature never intended. Collins urges public debate to set boundaries, or as he puts it: "How far down the line do we go [before] we start to affect what it means to be human?"
But he never feels as though he's on the verge of usurping God with his discoveries in the lab. The more he learns, the more he's humbled.
As he explores each intricate rung of DNA, Collins said, "it's like I'm glimpsing a little of God's mind."