"Templeton prize is bad news for religion, not science"
March 25th, 2010
March 25th, 2010
In his acceptance today of the £1 million Templeton prize for "an exceptional contribution to affirming life's spiritual dimension", evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala forcefully denied that science contradicts religion.
"If they are properly understood," he said, "they cannot be in contradiction because science and religion concern different matters."
I don't believe this, and Ayala, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, should know better. Science is about finding out how the physical world works. The only way in which science and religion can "concern different matters" is if religion has absolutely nothing to do with the physical world occupied by its believers.
But - and here's the rub - that is exactly what Templeton "religion" is all about. Its efforts to find common ground between science and religion have systematically destroyed pretty much every religious claim. Little in the creed of the Presbyterian church, for example - of which the late John Templeton was a lifelong member - survives its axe.
When I attended a journalism fellowship funded by the Templeton Foundation in 2005, I learned from Templeton-endorsed scientists and theologians that the way to establish a peaceful co-existence of science and religion was to make no religious claims at all.
They said that creationism is out, as is intelligent design. There can be no afterlife. Nor does anyone have an eternal soul. There was no virgin birth - that was most probably a story made up after Mary was raped by a Roman soldier. There was no physical resurrection of Jesus. None of the miracles actually happened. And prayers are not answered.
This is Templeton version of religion. A stripped-down, vague and woolly notion that there is something "other" out there. It makes no claims beyond that.
Being so very vague and undefined puts the new Templeton religion comfortably beyond assault from questioners. But is it really religion? Not by any terms I am familiar with. I can't help thinking that Jack Templeton, the evangelical Christian head of the foundation, would agree.
Religion is surely defined as a belief system involving a specific set of ideas about what the universe is all about. By its efforts to validate religious belief in scientific terms, Templeton has actually stripped religion of all ideas, rendering it entirely pointless.
My advice? If you have a faith that is important to you, don't try to rationalise it. It's OK to be religious, believing that there's a purpose to the universe and that you have an insight into a hidden realm of knowledge. As neuroscientists and psychologists are discovering, that's actually the default human state.
But attempting to prove your religion is based on anything rational or scientific is a fool's errand. As the Templeton Foundation has rather self-defeatingly shown over the last few years, it just doesn't work because they actually do have overlapping concerns, whatever Ayala says.
What's more, you might just strip away your own faith in the process. Believe me.
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