The Templeton Prize, now worth $1.3 million, was initiated by the hedge-fund magnate Sir John Templeton (1912-2008) to award accomplished people of faith. As its Wikipedia entry notes, the prize originally went solely to religionists like Mother Teresa (now a saint) and Billy Graham, but has recently morphed more and more into a prize given to those who unite spirituality and religion with science (Sir John’s view was that the more we learn about science, the closer we get to God—not to some apophatic and abstruse deity like “love” or “nature”, but to a real personal-type god.) Here’s a bit about the annual prize from Wikipedia:
The Templeton Prize is an annual award granted to a living person, in the estimation of the judges, “whose exemplary achievements advance Sir John Templeton’s philanthropic vision: harnessing the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it.” It was established, funded and administered by John Templeton starting in 1972. It is now co-funded by the John Templeton Foundation, Templeton Religion Trust, and Templeton World Charity Foundation, and administered by the John Templeton Foundation.
The prize was originally awarded to people working in the field of religion (Mother Teresa was the first winner), but in the 1980s the scope broadened to include people working at the intersection of science and religion. Until 2001, the name of the prize was “Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion”, and from 2002 to 2008 it was called the “Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities”. Hindus, Christians, Jews, Buddhists and Muslims have been on the panel of judges and have been recipients of the prize.
The monetary value of the prize is adjusted so that it exceeds that of the Nobel Prizes; Templeton felt, according to The Economist, that “spirituality was ignored” in the Nobel Prizes. As of 2019, it is £1.1 million. It has typically been presented by Prince Philip in a ceremony at Buckingham Palace.
The list of prizes at the Wikipedia site shows this morphing, and the latest recipient: theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek, continues the trend (last year’s recipient was Jane Goodall). As far as I can see, Wilczek is basically an agnostic who pays lip service to “God” as meaning “everything in the world.” Wikipedia notes, “Wilczek was raised Catholic but later ‘lost faith in conventional religion’. He claims no religious tradition, and has been described as an agnostic but tweeted in 2013 that ‘pantheist’ is ‘closer to the mark’.” In other words, he’s a “none.”
Well, that’s good enough for me so long as he isn’t engaged in promulgating any kind of faith (belief without evidence), which he isn’t (see below for more).
Wilczek was born in 1951 and is listed as “The Herman Feshbach Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Founding Director of T. D. Lee Institute and Chief Scientist at the Wilczek Quantum Center, Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU), distinguished professor at Arizona State University (ASU) and full professor at Stockholm University.. That’s a lot of positions! But the big deal is that he won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2004 for work on the strong nuclear force, but he also has distinguished accomplishments in other areas of physics. He’s somewhat of a physics polymath.
You can see a collection of videos about Wilczek and the Templeton Prize on the JTF site. They don’t show any visible strain of religiosity, conventional or otherwise, and a Scientific American interview with him, though playing up the “God” angle in its title, has nothing to say about a deity (click to read).
I’ll give just two Q&A’s from the interview here:
Congratulations on receiving the Templeton Prize. What does this award represent for you?
My exploratory, science-based efforts to address questions that are often thought to be philosophical or religious are resonating. I’m very grateful for that, and I’ve started to think about what it all means.
One kind of “spiritual” awakening for me has been experiencing how a dialogue with nature is possible—in which nature “talks back” and sometimes surprises you and sometimes confirms what you imagined. Vague hopes and concepts that were originally scribbles on paper become experimental proposals and sometimes successful descriptions of the world.
Well, when you read on, those “questions that are often thought to be philosophical or religious” turn out to be questions about science. The rest of his answer says nothing about a god, but defines Wilczek’s spirituality as the feeling he gets when his squiggles on paper that turn out to be correct representations of reality. But in that sense many theoretical physicists, like Dirac, Schrödinger, and Einstein, were “spiritual” too. The word is emptied here of any of its numinous significance.
You don’t now identify with any particular religious tradition, but in your 2021 book Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality, you wrote, “In studying how the world works, we are studying how God works, and thereby learning what God is.” What did you mean by that?
The use of the word “God” in common culture is very loose. People can mean entirely different things by it. For me, the unifying thread is thinking big: thinking about how the world works, what it is, how it came to be and what all that means for what we should do.
I chose to study this partly to fill the void that was left when I realized I could no longer accept the dogmas of the Catholic Church that had meant a lot to me as a teenager. Those dogmas include claims about how things happen that are particularly difficult to reconcile with science. But more importantly, the world is a bigger, older and more alien place than the tribalistic account in the Bible. There are some claims about ethics and attitudes about community that I do find valuable, but they cannot be taken as pronouncements from “on high.” I think I have now gathered enough wisdom and life experience that I can revisit all this with real insight.
If “God” means “thinking about how the world works and how that conditions our actions”, then we’re pretty much all religious.! I can live with that definition. His second paragraph not only disses the Bible, but touts a form of humanism as well as downgrading Earth, much less humans, as a special locus of God’s concern and action.
The rest of the interview is about Wilczek’s science, and is by far the most interesting bit.