Martin Rees: “a prize catch for Templeton”

With wearying predictability, when astrophysicist Martin Rees accepted the 2011 Templeton Prize for “an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works,” the response from the public atheist cadre was loud and negative.

This reaction by Jerry Coyne is typical: “Martin Rees, an outstanding scientist who is unfortunately afflicted with what philosopher Daniel Dennett calls ‘belief in belief’, is a prize catch for Templeton.”

I’m of two minds on the question. First, as a very modestly public atheist, I have no illusions about the nature and purpose of the Templeton Prize, and all of the other, less well known funding projects of the Templeton Foundation. Like the push for a separate Catholic school system in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Templeton Foundation exists to counter the influence of godless materialism. That the Templeton group is more media savvy and sophisticated than were the good fathers and holy sisters of the turn of the century church shouldn’t hide the simple fact that their purposes are the same.

At the same time, I find it difficult to rouse much anger over a distinguished scientist’s being awarded a prize based on his scientific work. It’s quite an improvement over some of the previous winners, like Billy Graham (template for all the religion shills who use the media to strip nice little old Christian ladies of their inadequate pension money) and Mother Teresa (who saw physical suffering as a gift, one she shared with many of the under-treated sick and poor in her care).

So what is it about Martin Rees that makes him an appropriate candidate for the Templeton Prize — and a target of atheist scientists?

Rees is best known for his warning that this might be “the last century,” the crucial choice point at which humanity reins in its rapacious consumption of resources, a depletion of the planet much aided by the applied science we call technology, or blows itself up, poisons itself, exhausts its food supply — you can pick your own favourite final disaster.

Part of Rees’s concern comes directly from his astrophysical work. He considers how different we are from the beings which first populated the Earth and speculates about how different from us the final inhabitants of the dying planet of six billion years in the future will certainly be. One clear target of Rees’s warning is the hubris that we are the crown of creation, the ultimate end of evolution, and that we will continue to grow and progress, overcoming each obstacle that comes our way, forever.

No wonder the Templeton group was attracted to Rees. He warns that we are but small and fragile beings in a grand universe beyond our control. He sees our growing scientific understanding and technological control of our world as two-edged swords, as able to cast us down as to raise us up. His universe is vast and unimaginably complex, yet he believes the human mind and, yes, spirit to be even more complicated:

It may seem incongruous that scientists can make confident statements about galaxies billions of light years away, while being baffled about issues close at hand that we all care about – diet and common diseases, for instance. But this is because living things with intricate levels of structure (even the smallest insects) are far more complex than atoms and stars.

Therefore, Rees argues, “decisions on how science is applied shouldn’t be made just by scientists.”

The Templeton Foundation loves this kind of thinking: small humans living in a universe far grander than they can hope to comprehend. It’s almost enough to make one think of, oh, I don’t know, let’s see, maybe — God?

To top off all of this humility and wonder, Rees constantly professes both his enjoyment of the trappings of religion and a scolding dislike of the more militant atheists around him. He calls himself an “unbelieving Anglican” and says that he is “not allergic to religion.” He is a cultural churchgoer, one who enjoys the pageantry and the music and the architecture without believing the mythology they express. He chides “professional atheists” for their narrow point of view, criticizing them for being unable to see others’ viewpoints, judging all attempts at human understanding by whether or not they fit into the specific scientific principles these atheists promote. Rees is, in a word, a self-admitted “accommodationist,” believing that science and religion have little overlap and need not be in constant conflict. Like Michael Ruse, he worries that too much atheistic stridency will drive religious people away from the study of the physical sciences, further widening the gap that exists between them.

Rees’s accommodationism is a red flag to many prominent atheists, who see religion and science as completely separate domains, and not in the “soft” way that Stephen Jay Gould meant when he coined the expression “non-overlapping magisteria.” The most militant among the atheist scientists fear that any accommodation or mutual respect between religion and science can serve only to muddy the necessary distinction between superstition and empiricism. Jerry Coyne put it like this in The Guardian:

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. … trying to find accord between science and faith is like trying to harmonise astrology and astronomy, or medicine and homeopathy. It’s a mug’s game, one kept going largely by Templeton’s constant infusions of cash. … 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.

Rees is not shy about punching back against attacks like this, and like Richard Dawkins’s famous characterization of Rees as a “compliant quisling.” When Stephen Hawking published The Grand Design, which claimed that God was not needed to explain the origin and nature of the universe, Rees said that “I know Stephen Hawking well enough to know that he has read very little philosophy and even less theology, so I don’t think we should attach any weight to his views on this topic.”

Rees has also said that “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 anything.”

Frankly, I don’t see what all the fuss is about. Rees has not written or said anything as a scientist that directly supports a religious explanation either for the existence of the universe or for the creation of life on Earth. He says that the universe is big, that time is long beyond our ability to comprehend; that some applications of science may be harmful; that some non-empirical questions might not be able to be answered empirically. For this, he’s been singled out by a group of pro-religionists not for his faith but for his lack of rigid conviction. It seems pretty tame stuff to me.

If Rees were being honoured because he had claimed that the universe needs an Uncaused Cause or that evolution doesn’t explain the emergence of human life on Earth, then there’d be a problem. But he doesn’t say that. From what I’ve read, he doesn’t say anything “against” empirical science at all, unless acknowledging that there are present, and maybe permanent, limits to our knowledge and to the ability of our technology to solve all of the problems we’ve created. Nowhere does he say, “Therefore, God.”

And until a scientist looks at the evidence and says “Therefore, God,” as far as I’m concerned he can go to as many Christmas services as he likes without being scolded by me. I’m a fan of gospel music and Bach oratoria myself.

Great human achievements in art and music and literature exist both inside and outside our religious history. That the mythologies of religion are just that, mythologies, doesn’t degrade the beauty of a great artist’s expression of human emotions, emotions which we all share as members of the same material, evolved species.

So let’s all just calm down, and enjoy the pretty music.

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2 thoughts on “Martin Rees: “a prize catch for Templeton”

  1. How should we proceed then to deal with the claim that faith is the root cause of the large problems that bedevil us? The militant atheists are claiming that religion is responsible for much of the bad things that have happened and things would be better without it. The religious see faith in a god as a beneficial force doing good in the world.
    We do appear to be in need of some unifying force capable of developing the political will to deal with global problems.

  2. If there is to be a unifying force, it won’t come from any imaginable synthesis of religious mythology and empirical science. However, those religionists whose faith provides them with motivation to respect human needs, rather than sacrifice or subordinate these needs to the demands of autocratic spiritual doctrines, can join with non-religious activists to achieve earthly goals. Someone like Jimmy Carter is a good example.

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