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Templeton Prize Rekindles the Science/Religion Debate

6 April 2011. A distinguished scientist who Richard Dawkins once called a "compliant quisling" (a term usually reserved for fascist and Nazi collaborators) has won the 2011 Templeton Prize worth £1 million (about 1.6 million US dollars). Martin Rees is an astronomer and cosmologist and former head of the Royal Society. He's also a Martin Reesperson with no religious beliefs, an atheist if you will. (For more background on the Templeton Foundation and the Templeton prize see here and here and here and here.) PZ Myers, noted blogger and outspoken critic of "accommodationism" (the notion that science and religion can co-exist in harmony), describes Rees as someone who sucks up to the Church of England and who detests vocal atheists. Rees attends chapel services, loves listening to the choir, and considers his attraction a matter of cultural heritage. Rees has called Dawkins et al. "professional atheists" and has criticized them for their confrontational stance against religion. The gnu atheists, according to Rees, want to force people to choose: science or religion. Rees chooses science and although he doesn't choose religion, he doesn't think all religions or religious beliefs are inimical to science.

The Templeton Foundation claims to be a friend and supporter of science. It is also a friend and supporter of religion (though it now seems to prefer the term 'spirituality,' whatever that means). According to atheists such as Dawkins, Myers, and Jerry Coyne, if you are a friend of science, then you are—or at least should be—an enemy of religion; and, if you are a friend of religion, then you are an enemy of science. Last month in the journal Nature, Coyne described the Templeton Foundation as "sneakier than the Creationists" and claimed that it was trying to instill religious values in science. "It claims to be on the side of science, but wants to make faith a virtue," said Coyne.

I understand having a philosophical difference of opinion about the relationship of science to religion. And I understand why purely scientific organizations like the Physical Society or the Chemical Society should limit their goals to science and leave philosophy to others. But I don't understand why other societies shouldn't form and promote both science and religion if that is their choice. True, such societies must take the philosophical position, contrary to the gnu atheists, that science and religion aren't necessarily enemies. Coyne disagrees:

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. The situation in religion is precisely the opposite, which is why theology remains mired in the Middle Ages.

I can understand why someone who thinks that religion is equivalent to fideism would conclude that science and religion are incompatible. I'll limit myself to just one historical example where fideism was defended in just the way Coyne characterizes religion, but where it was attacked and rejected not just by philosohers and scientists but by theologians as well.

In the 16th century, the works of the ancient skeptics became available in Latin and were used by several theologians to defend the position that Reason was the way to error, nothing could be known with certainty using our human faculties, and thus, per non sequitur, we should give it all up to faith in the Scriptures. These folks were opposed by a number of Anglican theologians, among others. The Anglican response to skepticism culminated in the late 17th century with a number of defenses of the reasonableness of Christianity. Even John Locke, whose epistemological writings were seen as the doorway to skepticism, was attacked by the leading theologian of his day, Bishop Edward Stillingfleet, for reducing religious beliefs to fideism. Locke tried to defend himself in lengthy letters to Stillingfleet, the bulk of which comprise an entire volume of the Works of John Locke, and in several books with titles like The Reasonableness of Christianity and A Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity. Jewish and Catholic theologians and philosophers have also condemned fideism. The Catholic Church even considers it a heresy. The point is not that the attempts to defend religious beliefs by argument and appeals to evidence are convincing. I don't think they are. The point is that reducing all religion to fideism is wrong. (For more details on the fideism of the "counter-Renaissance," see Richard H. Popkin, History of Skepticism from Savonarola to Bayle, Oxford University Press, 2003. For more on Stillingfleet's controversy with Locke see my The Common-Sense Philosophy of Religion of Bishop Edward Stillingfleet, 1635-1699.)

Fideism and the rejection of doubt as important elements in understanding nature do undermine and corrupt science. But that implies that no science is compatible with fideism. It does not imply that science is incompatible with religion.

Now, I and many others may find the reasoning of people like Ken Miller and Francis Collins convoluted and unconvincing when they attempt to explain how their scientific beliefs are compatible with their religious beliefs. But it is a long way from rejecting their reasoning to claiming that they reject reason altogether by arguing poorly. Just because their arguments are bad arguments doesn't mean they are not arguments at all. Their reasoning may be faulty, but that doesn't mean they're not reasoning at all.

The Templeton Foundation has expanded its "mission" since its founding, but even if it hadn't moved from a purely religious goal to a broader one, it is not a science society and does not represent science. So, while I think the Templeton Foundation does not corrupt science, I disagree with Mark Vernson's assessment that the award to Rees means that "Science could be said, in effect, to have rejected their [Dawkins, Harris, Coyne, Myers and others who believe religion and science are incompatible] advocacy." Clearly, the Templeton Foundation rejects the idea that science and religion are incompatible, but it takes one mighty leap of the imagination to claim that the Templeton Foundation speaks for Science. By awarding the big prize to an atheist they aren't making a scientific statement at all. It is odd, though, that they are giving the award to someone who has no religious beliefs and whose main claim for supporting the harmony of religion and science seems to consist of his ignoring religion for the most part. "I'm not allergic to religion," Rees said, indicating that's about as strong a statement about the subject that you're going to get from him, although he did add that he was skeptical of anything constructive or productive coming out of a dialogue between science and religion.

Rees says of religion and science: "They're very different activities. You could say the same about science and music." Clearly, he doesn't share the gnu atheists view that religion is antithetical to science. On the issue of public schools teaching creationism and intelligent design he says that he has "no unconventional views on this at all....Science teachers have to address them if they are brought up, but I am rather opposed to faith schools in general."

Rees doesn't say how science teachers should address creationism if it comes up, but it seems that his stated views imply that beliefs about creation aren't a matter for science to decide. In fact, there are only a few options in that situation. 1. You could tell the student that you're a fake and a fideist, don't believe anything you've been telling them about science and evolution or the Big Bang, don't trust Reason at all, and that in fact the Bible's got it right but you go along with the science stories so you can pay the bills. 2. You could tell the student that science has nothing to say about why there's something rather than nothing or why the universe has evolved the way it has. 3. You could tell the student that the scientific evidence indicates very strongly that there is no creator and thus all creation stories are myths, wrong, not scientific. You might even go further and claim that some scientists claim that the existence of god and why there's something rather than nothing are scientific issues, as are all ethical matters. 4. You could tell the student that one philosophical position is that belief in a creator is compatible with belief in evolution; while another position is that they are incompatible, that science makes it highly probable that there is no god or creator. You could add that there is another position known as fideism that rejects reason and rational analysis of evidence, thus rejecting science altogether while claiming that faith reveals a creator and a creation story, e.g., the Biblical story in Genesis.

I don't know how Rees would respond to the question, but I think 4 is the best response. I might add in my response that many people are concerned that science without religion would make life meaningless. Any student who has such a concern might read Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins or Varieties of Scientific Experience by Carl Sagan.

I might add that I've only read one book by Rees:Our Final Hour: A Scientist's Warning. He wrote about death from the skies before Phil Plait did and he thinks technology may be our ruin. I don't recall him saying that religion or "spirituality" will do us any good on the road to perdition, however.

further reading

Templeton Prize 2011: Full transcript of Martin Rees's acceptance speech Rees has an aesthetic appreciation for religious architecture and choral music, but no interest in religious dogma. Science still has many mysteries to solve but it will never solve all of them. Cosmologists have much to offer philosophers, but he doesn't seem to think religion has much to offer cosmologists.



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