Surprisingly, Francis Collins didn’t get this year’s Templeton Prize. In retrospect, one might have added evolutionary geneticist Francisco Ayala as a contender, but that’s the wisdom of hindsight. Ayala, at least, is not nearly as woo-laden as Collins. And although he used to be Dominican priest, I’m not at all sure if he still believes in God, a deistic God, or a theistic God (I haven’t followed his talks or read his book Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion, which Russell Blackford reviews here). And, in contrast to Collins, he doesn’t go around mixing faith with science.
On the positive side, he’s done a lot to promote straight, unsullied evolutionary biology and to battle creationism and its country cousin intelligent design.
But he got the prize not for science but for accommodationism. Despite my respect for Ayala’s scientific accomplishments and his public defense of evolution, I nevertheless oppose his assertion that religion is “a way of knowing” that is complementary to science. (Ayala helped write the NAS’s statement to that effect). Here’s part of his statement for the Templeton Prize:
In a statement prepared for the news conference, Ayala forcefully denied that science contradicts religion. “If they are properly understood,” he said, “they cannot be in contradiction because science and religion concern different matters, and each is essential to human understanding.” Referring to Picasso’s Guernica, he noted that while science can assess the painting’s massive dimensions and pigments, only a spiritual view imparts the horror of the subject matter. Together, he explained, these two separate analyses reveal the totality of the masterpiece.
I respectfully disagree, for this statement assumes that there is a “proper” way to understand religion. As I have written incessantly on this website, a huge number of believers—probably at least half of the Christians in America—don’t understand their religion in this way. Is Ayala then going to tell these folks that their faith is “improper,” and they simply have to modify it so that it comports with science? That advice would offend them far more than any amount of shrill and militant diatribes from new atheists!
And, of course, what Ayala means by a “proper” religion is one that cannot contradict science, presumably because it makes no empirical claims about the world. That makes his NOMA-like harmony a semantic rather than an empirical or philosophical issue. How many Christians, for instance, have a “proper” Christianity that denies the virgin birth, the Resurrection, the efficacy of prayer, or any other way that a theistic deity could affect the world? Certainly not Kenneth Miller or Francis Collins! They are theists, and that’s a form of religion that does contradict science.
As for Guernica, a painting that I love, well, you don’t need religion to be moved by it. You don’t even need “spirituality,” whatever that means. All you need is the purely human emotion of being sickened by the horrors of war and their effects on innocent people. Both atheists and the faithful can fully appreciate the “totality” of this painting, and I don’t see that being religious helps you appreciate it more.
If religion is “essential to human understanding,” then what, exactly, does it help us understand? And would Ayala diagnose his fellow Europeans, who are largely atheistic, as lacking some important component of human understanding?
UPDATE: As Paul points out in the comments below (gleaned from CalGeorge at Pharyngula), Ayala was formerly on the Board of Advisors of the John Templeton Foundation. This means that he joins the large-ish group of members of that Board who won the Templeton Prize after their service as advisors. I believe that these include at least six of the last thirteen winners, but I may be wrong.
UPDATE DEUX: According to the online (UK) Times, Ayala hasn’t lost any time attacking Dawkins for espousing “scientific fundamentalism.” Ayala says this:
“The scientific fundamentalism proposed by Dawkins implies a materialistic view of the world. But once science has had its say, there remains much about reality that is of interest. Common sense tells us that science can’t tell us everything.”
Perhaps, but what can religion tell us about reality? Please, somebody, just give me one thing!