Just returned last night from the always fascinating conference for religion writers that Pew's Ethics and Public Policy Center has hosted every 6 months for the past decade or so. It's been years since I last went, and the presentations were even better than I recalled.

This time around, the broad focus was on the existing tension between faith and science (with a session on Reinhold Niebuhr tossed in for good measure).The first speaker was Francis Collins--you know, the former head of the human genome project. I won't try to lay out Collins' research in detail here, because, well, he's a genius and I'm not and so I fear my recap of how primates' inability to produce Vitamin C reveals man's ties to weasels, warthogs and what have you simply wouldn't be as pithy or as illuminating. Suffice it to say that Collins' DNA mappings point to common ancestry between different species in a manner compelling enough that it will likely shift the evolution debate away from the fossil records and into the genetics labs.

This may not mean much to those of us who already embrace the tenets of evolution. But keep in mind that this is a country where 45% of people don't buy evolution and at least vaguely believe that the earth is in the neighborhood of 10,000 years old and that all living things sprang forth in more or less their current forms from specific acts of creation by God the Father. This obviously has grave implications for America's ability to compete in a global scientific community--but it also poses problems for the spritiual health of today's youth. And so any new evidence that can help prod young-earth believers to reassess the superliteral interpretation of Genesis (which, as Collins pointed out, even St. Augustine warned against) is a good thing.  

As a committed Christian and cutting-edge scientist, Collins is looking to replace some of the heat in the evolution-vs-creationism (or, more recently "Intelligent Design") debate with greater light. (Or would that be Light?) Most notably, he and a few others have launched a new foundation--Biologos--aimed at "finding harmony in faith and science." Militant atheists will roll their eyes; everyone else should at least check it out (along with the fantabulous Amy Sullivan's interview with Collins in Time.)

I understand the temptation to write off evolution skeptics as a bunch of superstitious, irredeemable fanatics. But considering the number of people we're talking about, that's hardly a productive approach. Refreshingly, Collins approaches the issue more sympathetically and more shrewdly by reaching out to believers with arguments geared to tickle their spiritual concerns. His maiden BioLogos blog post (which appears on beliefnet) opens with an anecdote about a devout home-schooled Christian girl who, once she got to college and embarked on a biology major, promptly suffered a four-alarm crisis of faith. If the creation had not gone exactly as she had been taught, were all of her beliefs a lie? While Hitchens would surely like her to conclude "yes," presumably her family and faith community would prefer a different outcome.

In my younger years, I underwent a vastly lower-key recalibration along these lines that pretty much ruined religion for me. More seriously, I had a devoutly Christian friend whose little brother became damn near suicidal trying to reconcile his fundamentalism with the basic realities of the world beyond his church. If the stats and stories are to be believed, scads of kids have similar experiences.

So even as I fear that Collins is setting himself for an impossibly quixotic task, I wish him the best of luck. Not just for the future of science in this country, but for the future of faith as well. 

--Michelle Cottle