ONE of Britain’s most eminent scientists sparked controversy overnight by accepting a $1.63 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 annual Templeton Prize in London 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. (t is)bad for science in general, bad for the Royal Society, bad for the UK – basically secular country – and very bad for Martin (Lord Rees).”
He said that Lord Rees should donate the £1 million award to the British 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 will 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”.
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 said 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 recognizes 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, who regularly attends chapel at Trinity College, Cambridge, 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.