This morning Martin Rees was awarded the million-pound Templeton Prize. It was a canny choice by Templeton, which hopes to achieve scientific respectability through this most visible of their awards. Rees is a distinguished cosmologist with a string of honors: he is a Baron (“Lord Rees”), ex-president of the prestigious Royal Society, the official Astronomer Royal, and master of Trinity College Cambridge. And while he professes to be a nonbeliever (perhaps a first for Templeton), he does go to church, says nice things about religion, and, like last year’s winner Francisco Ayala, espouses a Gouldian NOMA, supporting “peaceful co-existence between religion and science because they concern different domains.” He’s also criticized Stephen Hawking for claiming that we don’t need God to explain the origin of the Universe.
And, as in last year’s name-the-Templeton contest, the readers failed to guess the winner. Rees is not well known to Americans, but we also have many readers from the UK and other lands.
The Guardian asked me to write a piece on Templeton and to add few words about Rees (I knew yesterday he had won, but could not divulge it). My piece was originally called “The Templeton travesty,” but the Guardian, perhaps wanting controversy, renamed it “Prize mug Marin Rees and the Templeton travesty.“ That’s way too pejorative for me, since my aim was not to denigrate Rees, whose scientific work I admire, but to criticize Templeton. I’ve objected to the title. (UPDATE: They listened to me and renamed the piece “Martin Rees and the Templeton travesty“. That’s far better!)
It’s no surprise that I’m still quite critical of Templeton. Although there are repeated claims that “Templeton is changing,” I think that any changes are purely cosmetic, like replacing the word “religion” with the weasel-word “spirituality.” They’re still funding woo and diluting science with liberal infusions of faith.
The Guardian also has an official announcement of the award, which, referring to the Prize and not Rees, they call “controversial.” Surprisingly (well, maybe not for The Guardian), it quotes several critics, including Richard Dawkins, Harry Kroto, and me. Rees appears to be somewhat of an accommodationist, which of course isn’t a surprise, and engages in a bit of atheist bashing:
Here’s some code words for “I like religion”; the word “deep,” beloved by Templeton, is a tipoff:
“Doing science made me realise that even the simplest things are hard to understand and that makes me suspicious of people who believe they’ve got anything more than an incomplete and metaphorical understanding of any deep aspect of reality,” he told the Guardian. “I participate in occasional religious services which are the customs of the society I grew up in. I’m not allergic to religion.” . .
. . .Speaking ahead of the announcement, Rees criticised the confrontational stance that Dawkins and other “professional atheists” take in debates over science and religion. “I think all of us are concerned about fanaticism and fundamentalism and we need all the allies we can muster against it,” he said.
Richard, of course, is not a “professional atheist”; he’s a biologist who talks and writes about atheism. He has one atheist book and nine biology books. And the implicit accusation that atheists are rife with “fanaticism and fundamentalism” is simply slander. Rees adds the common accommodationist plaint:
“If you are teaching Muslim sixth formers in a school and you tell them they can’t have their God and Darwin, there is a risk they will choose their God and be lost to science,” Rees said. In a previous spat over Rees’s open attitude to religious matters, Dawkins labelled the Cambridge cosmologist a “compliant quisling”.
What’s more, Rees goes after Stephen Hawking for “theological ignorance”. LOL!
Rees launched another attack on his Cambridge colleague Stephen Hawking, who in the week his latest book hit the shelves last year declared there was no need for a creator God. “I know Stephen Hawking well enough to know that he has read little philosophy and less theology, so I don’t think his views should be taken with any special weight,” Rees said. “I’m not prepared to pronounce on these things. I think it’s rather foolish when scientists do.”
But of course Hawking’s statement comes not from theology or philosophy but from physics: he feels that the theories of physics are capable of accounting for the origin (or eternal persistence) of a universe without invoking the supernatural.
Let us not forget that although Rees is an eminent and accomplished scientist, he’s not winning the Prize for his science alone. As Templeton explains, it’s awarded for this:
The Templeton Prize honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works. Established in 1972 by the late Sir John Templeton, the Prize aims, in his words, to identify “entrepreneurs of the spirit”—outstanding individuals who have devoted their talents to expanding our vision of human purpose and ultimate reality. The Prize celebrates no particular faith tradition or notion of God, but rather the quest for progress in humanity’s efforts to comprehend the many and diverse manifestations of the Divine.
The Guardian‘s Ian Sample also has an interview with Rees, which is most striking for Rees’s reluctance to answer questions.
IS: What do you think the Templeton prize achieves? What is the value of it?
MR: That’s not for me to say to be honest.
IS: You must have a view?
IS: But you think it achieves something?
MR: Well, I mean as much as other prizes, certainly, but I wouldn’t want to be more specific than that.
And although Rees says that “I’ve got no religious beliefs at all,” he won’t be pinned down on that. That’s precisely how Francisco Ayala handled the issue last year.
IS: Why don’t you believe in God?
MR: Um. Which God?
IS: A God.
MR: I don’t think I can answer that.
IS: You must have thought about it.
MR: Yes. But there’s nothing very much I want to say about that. I suppose one thing I would say, from my BBC lectures, I think doing science makes me realise that even the simplest things are pretty hard to understand and that makes me suspicious of people who believe they’ve got anything more than an incomplete and metaphorical understanding of any deep aspect of reality. . . .
S: The suggestion is that science deals with the “material world” and religion deals with something “extra-material”. Where does one end and the other start? There are aspects of religion that comment on the creation of Earth, the creation of the universe, the creation of humanity and the spread of HIV around Africa. Religion appears in those contexts, but are those not material issues?
MR: Yes. Obviously. But I think just as religion is separate from science, so is ethics separate from science. So is aesthetics separate from science. And so are many other things. There are lots of important things that are separate from science.
IS: If there is a clear and obvious boundary between science and religion, how does religion come to be used in these contexts?
MR: I try to avoid getting into these science and religion debates.
This is political astuteness, which of course helps explain why Rees rose so high in the British scientific establishment. Perhaps the most accomplished scientist among Templeton winners, Rees was a smart choice for the Foundation. But I’m still not convinced that Templeton is doing anything more than trying to buy credibility. When it gives the prize to someone like Dawkins, who doesn’t go to church and is not prepared to say nice things about religion, then I’ll reconsider. I think one could make a good case that if you consider cosmological work as “affirming life’s spiritual dimension,” then Richard’s work on evolution (viz., Unweaving the Rainbow, Climbing Mount Improbable) does exactly the same thing, addressing “deep questions” and increasing our wonder at the universe.
Finally, The Guardian also published a transcript of Rees’s acceptance speech. It’s okay but not terribly exciting. He finishes this way:
Finally, it remains for me only to express my deepest appreciation to the Templeton Foundation for this award. It was, needless to say, entirely unexpected. I am diffident about my credentials, but it is a great privilege to join the distinguished and diverse roll-call of previous awardees.
Those, of course, include Mother Teresa, the Reverend Billy Graham, Watergate defendant Chuck Colson (imprisoned for obstructing justice), and many theologians.