Templeton looks for value for money. For every dollar spent, it expects to get some benefit for its message that god and science belong together, that belief in god is not only harmonious with science, but that science actually provides support for belief in god. In prosecuting this mission it has grown more and more cautious when awarding the £1,000,000 Templeton Prize. This year it was awarded to Lord Rees, the Astronomer Royal, a position in the Royal Household which was first awarded to John Flamsteed in 1676 by King Charles II.
Martin Rees, or Baron Rees of Ludlow, the current Astronomer Royal, was a clever choice for the Templeton Foundation. First, it could not have been said, as was increasingly, and with considerable justice, being said, that the Templeton Foundation indulges in naked and unashamed nepotism. Second, it is only by association with the religion of his tribe — namely, the tribe of Anglican Christians comprising but a small part of the Church of England — that Lord Rees could be considered religious at all. In his “apology” for accepting the Templeton Prize — and no one begrudges him a £1,000,000 pounds just for saying “Yes!” — published in The New Statesman, which could scarcely be considered a ringing endorsement of the claim that “Science and religion don’t have to be enemies,” Lord Rees, after expressing surprise that he was awarded the prize, because he only ticked one of the relevant boxes associated with reasons for being granted the prize, because, as he says, he focuses ”on “big questions” (in my case, cosmology) and have made efforts to communicate the essence of my work to a wide public,” goes on, in a fairly saccharine way, to suggest that there is no reason that religion and science should not be on friendly terms. His reasons for holding this are unclear, but certainly do not seem to have anything to do with consistency between scientific claims and religious beliefs. In his own case this has to do only with a fairly narrow spectrum of the life of the Church of England, with which he is most familiar in his experience as Master of a Cambridge college. It is by no means clear that someone who finds that the contributions of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York raise the tone of public life in Great Britain — and I wonder what he means when he suggests that this is so — has really said anything germane to the question of the relationship between science and religion.
He does, however, raise two further points. He points out, rather inconsequently, that Darwin at one point, in writing to the Swiss-American biologist Louis Agassiz, expressed the view that religion is “too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton. Let each man hope and believe as he can,” which is to say exactly nothing, as I am sure that Darwin himself was aware when he wrote it. It is one of those nonsense anodyne statements that one is tempted to make when one does not want to say anything substantial or compromisingly definite.
The other point that Martin Rees raises in his New Statesman piece is, arguably, a complete misunderstanding of the term used. In a section headed “Pale Blue Dot”, using the language that Carl Sagan often used to refer to man’s supersized ego in thinking that we are of any considerable significance to the universe, as the religious mind routinely claims, Rees refers to the great cathedrals and to the findings of science, as though the two can be somehow compared. But surely the clear point that this comparison should make is that whereas cathedrals are great monuments, however beautiful, to man’s self-centredness and to the foolish anthropomorphism of his religious beliefs, as well as to the religious lust for power and control, science actually makes a contribution to both our understanding of the world, and to the possibility of our care for it, both of which are endangered by our religious beliefs. If this is worth a million pounds, Templeton’s expectations are very low indeed — but at least they have someone at the heart of the British establishment saying kind things about religion.