William flew past religion
April 6, 2011 § Leave a comment
One of Britain’s most eminent scientists has sparked controversy by accepting a £1 million prize for contributions to life’s spiritual dimension.
Lord Rees of Ludlow, the Astronomer Royal and former President of the Royal Society, was named as the recipient of the annualTempleton Prize in London today as two British Nobel laureates denounced his decision to accept it.
Lord Rees was a surprise choice for the accolade because, while he has made major contributions to understanding the nature of the Universe, he is an atheist and does not believe that God played a role in its creation.
He told The Times that he believes in a peaceful coexistence between science and religion. “It is perfectly possible to have religious beliefs and be a scientist,” he said. “I’m just not someone who does.”
But a roll call of prominent scientists reacted with dismay, claiming that the Templeton Foundation seeks to blur the boundary between science and religion and to promote faith in the absence of evidence.
Professor Sir Harry Kroto, a Fellow of the Royal Society who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1996, said: “This news is really quite shocking. [It is] bad for science in general, bad for the Royal Society, bad for the UK — a basically secular country — and very bad for Martin [Lord Rees].”
He said that Lord Rees should donate the £1 million award to theBritish Humanist Association.
Professor Richard Dawkins, the Oxford evolutionary biologist and atheist, said: “This will look great on Templeton’s CV. Not so good on Martin’s.”
Lord Rees, who wil be given the prize by the Duke of Edinburgh at a private ceremony at Buckingham Palace in June, said he had not decided what to do with the prize money.
Set up in 1973 by the late John Templeton, a Wall Street billionaire and Presbyterian, the prize honours a living person who has made “exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension”.
Templeton stipulated that the cash value of the award must always be higher than the Nobel prizes and predicted that “scientific revelations may be a gold mine for revitalising religion in the 21st century”.
Previous winners have included Mother Teresa, the US evangelist Billy Graham, and last year, an evolutionary biologist and former Dominican priest, Francisco Ayala.
Lord Rees played down concerns about the Templeton Foundation’s agenda today, saying that grants from the foundation had underpinned scientific meetings and valuable projects such as the Darwin Correspondence Project at Cambridge, which is putting online more than 6,000 of Darwin’s letters.
He added that the confrontational stance towards religion adopted by scientists such as Professor Dawkins was counterproductive. “If you were teaching Muslim sixth formers in a London school and you told them they can’t have their God and have Darwin, they’d stick to their God and be lost to science,” he said.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, congratulated Lord Rees on the award. “It is very important that the Templeton Prize recognises the contribution of someone who is not an advocate or a controversialist, but an honest and creative thinker at the very heart of British scientific achievement,” he said.
Lord Rees said that while he has “no religious beliefs at all” he believes that the Church of England is a “force for good”, adding that he would do everything he could to help to preserve its choral traditions and architectural legacy.
“I want to preserve the traditions in which I grew up — the customs of my tribe, as it were — and for me that is the Church of England,” he said.
Lord Rees regularly attends chapel at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he is Master.
Others speculated about the timing of the award, saying that Lord Rees could not possibly have accepted the prize while still President of the Royal Society, a position he held until November.
“There would have been uproar. Even to take it now, when he has only just stepped down as President, I think it’s terrible,” said Sir Richard Roberts, FRS, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1993.
“It’s adding yet more validity to an organisation pushing the wrong sort of agenda, and not the sort of agenda that science should support. The Templeton Foundation is only interested in spreading religion and trying to make Christianity more acceptable,” he said.
Lewis Wolpert, Emeritus Professor of Biology at University College London and Vice-President of the British Humanist Association, said however that Lord Rees was justified in accepting the prize.
“I think religion helps a lot of people, and as long as it doesn’t interfere with science I don’t mind. My son became religious and it did him some deal of good. Martin works so hard and does so much for science that any prize is well deserved.”
Sir Tim Hunt, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2001, said: “I don’t feel quite as strongly as some of my colleagues about this, but I must say I’m surprised. He’s been a fantastic President of the Royal Society, but it’s close to the edge.”