Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- According to one survey, just 7 percent of elite American scientists believe in a personal god -- the kind to whom you pray. About 8 percent, however, affirm their belief in personal immortality -- indicating that some egos are so large that they fill eternity.

Should it matter that President Obama's nominee to be director of the National Institutes of Health -- the Supreme Court nomination of the scientific world -- is part of the believing few?

Francis Collins presents a perfect test case. His qualifications are beyond dispute. As a pioneering "gene hunter," he helped identify the genetic markers for cystic fibrosis, neurofibromatosis, Huntington's disease and adult onset diabetes. He was in charge of the program at NIH that mapped the human genome, the biological equivalent of the Apollo space program. He is a leading advocate of personalized medicine (the use of genetic knowledge to tailor individual disease prevention and treatment) and of legislation to protect genetic privacy, so that sensitive information can't be used by employers and insurers to discriminate.

Collins is also a theist. And more than that, an evangelical Christian. And more than that, he sings hymns while playing the guitar.

For some scientists, this combination of scientific excellence and religious faith is contradictory -- like being a geneticist and believing in unicorns or astrology. "You clearly can be a scientist and have religious beliefs," says Peter Atkins of Oxford University. "But I don't think you can be a real scientist in the deepest sense of the word because (religion and science) are such alien categories of knowledge." Behind this assertion lies the assumption that the scientific category of knowledge has superseded the religious one.

To which Collins, who has written and spoken extensively on this topic, replies that there are two categories of knowledge, two ways of knowing. And though they are different from one another, they are not "alien" to one another, or contradictory.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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