Martin Rees nabs Templeton; I respond in The Guardian

April 6, 2011 • 6:22 am

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?

MR: No.

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: Really?

MR: Mm.

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.

102 thoughts on “Martin Rees nabs Templeton; I respond in The Guardian

  1. I’d like to send you some information about anti-scientific information being propagated in UK universities – could you email me? I cannot find any contact info.

    1. Jerry is a professor at the University of Chicago. You can find his contact information on the University’s Web site, or with a bit of Googling.

      He prefers to not post his contact information here. I think that’s in an effort to cut down on the spam, but I’d suggest that that battle was lost ages ago….



  2. It is a great pity. I like Rees & read his gloomy prognostications in Our Final Century with some perverse delight (sorry!). In today’s speech he was very careful to point out that life might have originated more than once in the universe, & also that we humans were not the peak of creation. But you are right – he is masterful at side-stepping any question about his personal beliefs. The view that Science & religion are NOMA really will not do.

  3. “they concern different domains” Yeah, reality and imaginary.

    That’s a great argument against Hawking. Kind of like when someone told me unicorns aren’t real. But they don’t understand their philosophy and theology, so they’re wrong.

  4. That exchange that Rees initially responds with “Which god” started almost exactly the same way it would have had I been in his shoes.

    Where we would have gone in different questions is the point that he starts hemming and hawing about how he’s too unworthy to approach the altar. I, of course, would have pointed out that, not only are there countless thousands of gods that litter the wastebasket of history, but there’re too many gods with a proper name of, “God,” to count.

    For example, there’s the Catholic god named, “God,” who’ll roast you eternally if you perform an abortion under any circumstances; the Jewish god named, “God,” who’ll be mightily upset with you if you fail to perform a medically-necessary abortion and the woman dies; and the liberal Protestant god named, “God,” who would really rather you didn’t get an abortion, but leaves the decision in your hands and will support you whatever your choice may be.

    And that’s long before we even get to the question of angels, saints, demons, patriarchs, ancestor spirits, and all the rest!

    Or, for that matter, the Sun. It’s real. It’s the object of worship and has deservedly been for as long as there’ve been humans. It’s superhuman, though certainly not supernatural. It’s the ultimate force in and power behind human affairs, though it doesn’t take a personal interest in them. Am I supposed to deny that the Sun is a god or that the Sun doesn’t exist?

    Anyway, congratulations to Rees on the profits he has reaped from his endeavors at osculating faithful rumps. I hope he puts the 1£ million to better use than the Templetons would have, such as by using it to establish a scholarship fund for cosmology students. Of course, if he wants to spend it all on hookers and blow, that’s his choice, too (though I would be most surprised if his tastes run to such).



      1. Thanks. It always gets me riled up when believers claim everybody believes in the same god because they’ve all given it the same name when it’s so painfully obvious that they can’t possibly be the same god.

        If nothing else, it should be self-evident by definition that the different gods are irreconcilable. If they weren’t, there’d only be one religion.

        Allah will have you roasted if you think Jesus is a part of him. The Holy Spirit will tell Jesus to tell Satan to roast you if don’t think that Jesus is a part of him. That’s not just a matter of something lost in translation; those are fundamentally different entities altogether.



    1. Or, for that matter, the Sun. It’s real. It’s the object of worship and has deservedly been for as long as there’ve been humans. It’s superhuman, though certainly not supernatural. It’s the ultimate force in and power behind human affairs, though it doesn’t take a personal interest in them.

      I have always thought it ironic that humans hit so much closer to the mark so early in their search for a deity. I also think it is ironic that christianity has so disparaged, and in many cases persecuted, sun worshipers throughout its history, and yet the christian god is a complete fabrication with no basis in reality while the sun actually exists and affects everything in human experience. And that while the sun did not create us, without it we could not have come into existence.

      1. In fact, xianity is a sun-worshipping cult; or at least a close, close relative of sun-worshipping cults. There are some good documentaries on YouTube about this. At least there were a few years ago.

    2. One think I like to point out is there is no anti-abortion sentiment in the bible. In fact, in the Bible, if you struck a pregnant woman and she mis-carried, you had to pay the father a small fine.

      Which is, as we know, not the punishment for murder which is, of course, rather terminal in a brutal sort of fashion… In fact, if an animal killed a person, they were to be put to death as well.

      OTOH, if the woman was hurt… That’s when we get to ‘an eye for an eye…’

      Interestingly though, modern translations of the bible, lets say the last 40 years ago, have sudden reworded the work-up to include the pre-born infant in the harsh punishment. Which, of course, makes me laugh when someone talks ‘biblical inerrancy.’ The bible itself is changed (or outright ignored) to meet fads in morality.

  5. And although science and religion are said to be “different ways of knowing”, religion isn’t really a way of knowing anything – it’s a way of believing what you’d like to be true. Faith has never vouchsafed us a single truth about the universe.

    Extraordinarily well said in your Guardian article, Dr. Coyne. That’s going up on my Facebook status.

  6. I should also observe for the benefit of newcomers: Rees’s imprecations hurled at Hawking’s ignorance of theology are, of course, the Courtier’s Reply as so wonderfully illustrated by the Squidly Overlord. I’d link to it, but I’d rather this note didn’t disappear into a black hole — and, besides. It’s the top hit in Google.



  7. …but it is a great privilege to join the distinguished and diverse roll-call of previous awardees.

    So Rees enjoys the company of liars and pretenders. This is not surprising since he claims to be a non-believer but regularly attends church.

  8. I know that they’re trying to buy some scientific respectability for religion and that’s bad; but the fact that, with a million quid to spend, they’ve had to settle for a scientist who clearly couldn’t give a tuppenny fuck, either for or against religion, is quite cheering.

    At this rate PZ and Richard Dawkins will both be in with a shout before too long.

    1. Anyone can nominate – look on the website. Of course they would not choose RD or PZ even if they were nominated – turkeys voting for Christmas etc.

      1. Rees’s extreme care to be noncommittal had me wondering about the possibility of planting a mole in the Templeton organization via the prize…Hmmmmm…

  9. The Guardian also has an official announcement of the award,…

    That was a fairly good article, giving about as much ink to the critics as the supporters. The only thing missing is a decent justification of how Rees’ science “made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension” or adds to progress in “comprehending the many and diverse manifestations of the Divine.” (The stated purpose of the prize). The Templeton Foundation seems to be moving along quite nicely from their “progress in religion” mode to their “big questions” mode.

    Congrats to Rees, he now shares an honour with Young Earth Creationist Charles (Watergate) Colson (1993).

    1. For million UK bucks I would share stage with Lady Gaga, Deepak Chopra and Tom Cruise (not necessarily endorsing them).
      But this guy is A Baron – is he supposed to be better than and above the others? This title is all about that, right?

      1. ‘Quid’ (singular=plural) is to ‘bucks’ as pound is to dollar, FYI.

        Shouldn’t bother me, but to use another UK colloquialism, I am ratted.

  10. Very nice article, Prof Coyne. Your writing is as clear and fresh as ever, which is exactly what is needed in these modern times. Some would say it is even “strident,” but then again some people will say anything. And get a million pounds for it too. It seems you are becoming the “go to” person for religious doubt articles, which is a good thing so long as you have the time for it 😉

  11. Templeton, one of the biggest and most successful mutual fund brands in the world, is actually selling “happy-talk” belief systems in all their guises. Mainly because non-scientific and “happy-talk” belief systems are at the basis of the most wildly profitable business in the world — global financial services and mainstream econ.

    “Follow the money”

  12. “Professional atheists”. Make a strawman just so you have something to attack.
    Kind of like the Nazis’ “International Jewery”.

    1. Well Jerry is an atheist. He is also professional. So professional atheists exist.
      Just not in the sense Rees meant.

      1. Of course, “professional theist” is a popular and (to many) respectable way to make a living: we usually call them ministers, priests, rabbis, imams, preachers, theologians, evangelists, etc.

  13. Great article. Loved this, “Templeton’s mission is a serious corruption of science. Like a homeopathic remedy, it dilutes the core of the scientific enterprise, which has achieved its successes by holding doubt as a virtue and faith as a vice.”

  14. Excellent article, with gentle reproof of Rees and a firm thumbs down for the award itself and the organisation that stands behind it.

    I wonder if criticism of the Foundation and the incestuous way it has awarded prizes in the past did not influence their decision to pick someone who was outside the expected range of the prize altogether. This might signal a move to a much more circumspect, even insidious approach to science, making it even more difficult to spot and oppose.

  15. …”made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’sspiritual demension…”

    What has that have to with advancing science and scientific understanding?
    More woo.

  16. 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.

    I fully understand this. To express their understanding of the divine as an intellectual product of human history would no doubt get them ostracized from communities with which they identify and, really, why the hell should they care about supporting such a simple truth?

    It is telling, though, that they both seem embarrassed to be associated with belief. I suspect the next generation of scientists will not be so deferential.

  17. P.S. That really was an outstanding op-ed piece. Clear, concise, and no punches pulled — all while being far less strident than I’m afraid I would have been in your shoes. b&

  18. I find religion simple yet unintelligible, so I imagine that Rees would not disagree with me on that. I also find that religious leaders make fantastic (yet simplistic) claims about the world – so I guess Rees is extremely suspicious of all religious leaders. Religious leaders more so than any scientist claim to know a hell of a lot about things they obviously know nothing of. If Rees is not suspicious of all religious leaders then his words ring hollow and he believes the opposite of what he says.

  19. I’m with the other commenters here: where exactly did Rees display evidence of “efforts to comprehend the many and diverse manifestations of the Divine”?

    If this was a grant award (e.g. public money) he would need to have shown evidence. But’s it’s a “prize” so they can give it to who they like, for whatever reason they like (even if it differs from the one advertised), with no obligation to defend their decision. As far as I can tell Rees adopt’s Laplace’s position (I have no need of that hypothesis) in his popular writings. And his scientific work could be from a through-and-through atheist.

    I’ve met Martin a few times (he’s a really nice man for such a senior academic!). It becomes obvious really quickly that he’s quite the diplomat. He seems to be really good at not offending or intimidating anyone (jobs that some of his peers take great pride in!)

    A clever move indeed by the Simpleton Foundation.

    Anyone else noticed there seems to be a leaning towards Cambridge cosmologists? 4/10 ain’t bad: Barrow, Rees and Polkinghorne are there, Ellis was there for several years. Still, I think Hawking is unlikely to add to that list any time soon.

    1. It becomes obvious really quickly that he’s quite the diplomat.

      I think this is key…In all walks of life–science is not as immune as we’d like to think–connections can be very important to achieving career success (not to mention funding). Which may also contribute to Rees’s keeping up his church ties…Life as an old boys’ club…

      OTOH, with the prominence of some of the gnus, we’re getting better & better at connections ourselves…

    2. where exactly did Rees display evidence of “efforts to comprehend the many and diverse manifestations of the Divine”?

      Well, he did get the Templeton prize.

  20. God that’s annoying about the title! Foisting a rude belligerent title on you like that. It’s editorial privilege, and it’s outrageous to abuse it. Good that they listened to you, but outrageous that they tried in the first place. It borders on entrapment. (We know gnus are always getting bashed for things like titles, that we didn’t write. That notorious title of Dawkins’s tv thing, for example.)

  21. I love the writing in the article. There are many great turns of phrase that I found myself constantly wanting to read them out to someone. My favourites aren’t anything really new to WEIT readers but their concision and, more importantly, their presence in a major paper make them notable.

    Equally specious is Rees’s notion that science and religion are complementary because they “concern different domains”. (If that were true, there would of course be no need for a conversation between them.)

    And although science and religion are said to be “different ways of knowing”, religion isn’t really a way of knowing anything – it’s a way of believing what you’d like to be true.

    Templeton’s huge financial power steers research away from the solid ground of science toward the marshy hinterlands of theology

    Science has never needed religion to progress, while science’s only benefit for religion is to disprove its dogmas, compelling theology to regroup and confect new rationalisations for God.

  22. Needless to say the male half of the Colgate Twins is quite delighted Rees has won the Templeton. Rosenau seems not have noticed, but is again parroting Pieret in claiming Jerry has not been honest.

    1. “Rosenau seems not have noticed, but is again parroting Pieret in claiming Jerry has not been honest.”
      He’s just a poor boy…

      1. Sigmund is far too modest in alluding, without giving a link, to his awesome parody of accommodationism, “Bohemian Rosenau,” which you can find on his equally awesome website, Sneer Review.

        He’s produced some of the wittiest commentary ever, in words, pictures, and song, about the false consilience between science and faith. Check out his post on today’s Templeton Prize winner, and browse back for “Don’t be a dick” and “Rockstars of Accommodationism.”

        1. You’ve got to be firmly in the atheistic blogoverse to get even half of his jokes but for loyal WEIT readers, you’re right it’s a hoot. Added to my RSS Reader.

  23. Rees said. “I’m not prepared to pronounce on these things. I think it’s rather foolish when scientists do.”

    Why is it they always say science is foolish to pronounce on these things, but they never say theology is foolish to pronounce on these things. Lol.

  24. Subscribing. This ought to be fun. Bets on how long it takes Nick Matzke to show up and start bleating?

  25. Darn. Snubbed again…why why why?

    I mean, I say nice things about religion.

    For example, if you want to get everlasting forgiveness for being a baby-raping cannibal serial killer, then you MUST have religion. No other philosophy will do.

  26. Outstanding, Jerry, and the Guardian article is terrific. Love the dead-on nailing of the doubt/faith dichotomy.

  27. MR: I try to avoid getting into these science and religion debates.

    Then why did you accept the Templeton Prize Mr. Rees ?

    1. Oh snap! He shoots, he scores 🙂 Clear thinking – clearly not a big priority in Templeton-town…

  28. I can see how Templeton would like prominent scientists that refuse to criticize religion. Along the lines of “Why can’t you be nice like him?” or “We’ll give you money to shut up about religion”. These questions are too important to promote ambiguity. All scientists opinion on God should be no evidence or need so far.

    Instead of an accomodationist this year they are rewarding an avoider.

  29. Lovely article for the Guardian, Dr. Coyne. Short, direct, completely on-point.

    I have at least two of Rees’ books on my bookshelves. They’re very good; my assumption, based on them, has been that Rees’ must be an excellent astronomer and scientist.

    This news is so disappointing. Can Rees’ really think that he can accept well-over $1M from Templeton, and no one is going to question his integrity for doing so? Does it just not matter because it’s so much money?

    Will I be the only person that thinks that Rees’ got the money because he jabbed Hawking a good one in the nose?

  30. Rees said “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”
    – oh, you mean like religious people?? I’ve never heard one “professional” scientist say “We’ve got everything figured out, so this field of study can be retired.” It’s like Neil deGrasse Tyson’s thing about being irritated by newspapers that say “scientists go back to the drawing board,” Niel says “WE’RE ALWAYS AT THE DRAWING BOARD!! If you’re not, you’re NOT DOING SCIENCE RIGHT!” (not a direct quote, but paraphrasing for him)

    Or the oh-so-convenient double-talk “religion and science deal with different things” but then Hawking can’t have an opinion on science because “he hasn’t read theology”.
    – Yeah, chemistry and fashion are 2 different things, but how can you make a statement about the nature of Carbon without knowing the acceptable timeframes to wear white.

    The lack of cohesive thought displayed here is painful to observe.

    1. Reminds me of what Dara O’Briain said (paraphrasing): ‘Of course science doesn’t know everything; it knows it doesn’t know everything because if it did, it’d stop.’

  31. Jerry, you suggest that Templeton give the award to Dawkins – but, really? I thought you’d argued before that scientists shouldn’t engage with Templeton that way.

    Otherwise I entirely agree that books like “Climbing Mount Improbable” address deep questions and increase our wonder at the universe. For a different author, that might be a starting point for talking with religious audiences about their sources of wonder about the universe (and why religion isn’t the best way to explore that wonder).

    But isn’t the point that Dawkins & co don’t really want a science-religion dialogue? Such a “dialogue” would require an armistice of sorts, wouldn’t it? By these lights, it would be like a biologist conducting a dialogue with a creationist – pretty futile.

    And it follows that accepting money from an enterprise that’s all about supporting the science-religion dialogue would be hypocritical, unless they changed their mission. Or maybe the commendation could read, “Richard is right, we’re full of it and our reason for being is hollow and ultimately destructive. Our bad.”

    1. Giving the award to Dawkins, and cleaning up their act so that they didn’t put woo on a plane with science, would suggest to me that Templeton really was changing, and that the “dialogue” could be a confrontational one. I keep hearing that Templeton is going in that direction, but I don’t see the evidence.

      1. so that they didn’t put woo on a plane with science

        Science on a plane! I’d go to see that movie.

  32. Vomit comets with water balloons. Really. Tax dollars at work, but even so, great fun to watch. Besides, they were not my tax dollars!

    Link mangled trying to evade moderation jail

  33. Well, if Rees is really the best they can do, an atheist scientist who goes to church only out of tribal loyalty and has absolutely nothing good to say about religion or spirituality, then the whole untertaking is doomed to spiral up its own fundament. Ayala at least refused to confess to being an atheist, which left the religious the option of assuming he believed but didn’t like to say so out of fear of being persecuted, but although Rees condemns Hawking for saying the universe doesn’t need god, he obviously doesn’t think it does either or presumably he would believe in one.

    If The Foundation is can do no better than a man says ‘I like the singing’ and ‘we don’t know everything’ then really it has failed utterly to achieve its goals. I would have thought that a scientist who actually believes in god would be the bare minimum, this is a travesty. We have them on the run, “All your base are belong to us!”

    1. Oh dear, sorry about that first sentence of the second para, it should read,

      ‘If The Foundation can really do no better than a man’ etc

      I find writing in these little windows rather disorienting.

  34. Um, we all realise that the proper TLA for non-overlapping magisteria is actually NOM, don’t we? Nom, nom, nom.

  35. The reaction in the blogosphere is mixed, even among atheists. While you and P.Z. might have a somewhat different perspective since you live in the intellectual backwater which is the USA, on this point I think your principled stance is correct. Taking Templeton money is almost as bad as having your medical research financed by a tobacco concern (which actually happens). Some people, even some I otherwise admire such as Stephen Jay Gould, have gone to great lengths to point out that religion and science are orthogonal, downplay contradictions etc. The fact is that the idea that the Bible is not meant to be taken literally practically didn’t exist until science disputed some of the claims. Religion often makes claims which are directly contradictory to science. It is intellectually dishonest to say that when there is a conflict, the Bible is a metaphor, not meant to be taken literally etc.

    I have to agree with Hitchens when he says that religion poisons everything.

    Yes, the modern-day church in some countries might not be as dangerous as it was a few centuries ago, but ask yourself why that is the case. The immoral power the church held, expressed by literally torturing and killing people who didn’t conform to their ideals, has been reduced thanks to science, the Enlightenment etc. Where that hasn’t happened, the torture continues.

    Yes, I know nice people who are genuinely religious. But to a large extent, these are people, although they wouldn’t admit it, who don’t take their religion seriously in an intellectual sense, though they might in an emotional sense. In other words, they sincerely believe something, but this is a) a subset of what actually constitutes their religion and b) is mostly harmless. Martin Rees, John D. Barrow etc are good scientists and nice people and are sympathetic to the goals of Templeton. Without criticising their science nor their character I think it is fair to say that not being more critical of Templeton does a disservice to science on the whole.

    If science can’t stand up to the woo which is religion, it can’t stand up to the woo which is homeopathy, the idea that vaccinations cause autism, astrology, creationism etc. Reason (which doesn’t exclude morals, emotions or anything which makes life worth living) is the only way forward, otherwise there is the danger that irrationality will decide over our lives and deaths, as it still does in a large part of the world.

    In summary, it is intellectually dishonest to reject only the harmful ideas of religion and keep the harmless bits.

    I also fail to follow the argument that since harmless religious people are better than harmful religious people, we should support the accommodationists. First, there is no reason not to honestly state that it is possible to live a good life without religion. Second, the jump from the religious fundamentalist to the “cultural Christian” type is larger than that between the “cultural Christian” and the honest atheist, so a) they might as well be encouraged to go all the way and b) realistically, very few religious fundamentalists lessen their belief due to whatever reasons. If anything, people who are unsure might be attracted first to “harmless” religion and then drift into fundamentalism.

  36. This litany of “You can’t make people choose between their God and science, as they might reject science” is getting screamingly frustrating.

    If somebody has God-beliefs which explicitly contradict scientific knowledge – for example that a miracle-working god created the world a few thousand years ago – then they do have to choose between their God and science, they can’t have both, and pretending otherwise is dishonest.

  37. “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.”

    Well-stated, Jerry. I’m delighted that you acknowledge this as a legitimate area of inquiry. When it comes to addressing those “deep questions” (I’m pleased that you seem to acknowledge that there are such things) would you be willing to grant this inquiry as also falling within the ambit of the humanities as well as the sciences?

    1. You entirely missed the point that this addressing of ‘deep questions’ was entirely by science.

      Whether other areas increase our wonder at the universe depends. Humanities should increase our wonder at humans specifically. (Like religions do, but in an absurd way – as in, “how do people _come up_ with this stuff in the first place” and “why do they still believe in this junk”.)

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