Published online 6 April 2011 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2011.208
Updated online: 6 April 2011

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Martin Rees takes Templeton Prize

Controversial 'spirituality' award goes to a scientist for fourth year in a row.

Martin ReesMartin Rees' research into galaxy formation and black holes addresses the 'big questions' with which the Templeton Prize is concerned.Andy Fallon / Templeton Prize

The annual Templeton Prize has again been won by a high-profile scientist, resurrecting a debate over the prize foundation's role at the interface between science and religion.

Martin Rees, an astrophysicist at the University of Cambridge, UK, and former head of the Royal Society in London, today received the 2011 prize, worth £1 million (US$1.62 million), which rewards "a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life's spiritual dimension". The award is administered by the Templeton Foundation in West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, which also funds research into science, philosophy and theology.

The prize and the foundation have both attracted attacks from high-profile atheist scientists, who accuse them of attempting to insert religion needlessly into science. Rees says that he has no problem with accepting the prize, and he refuses to be drawn on the controversy, saying, "I have no comment on the views other people have."

He told Nature that much of his knowledge of the prize is based on a Nature article analysing the foundation and its role in these debates (see Faith in science). "On the basis of that I would have thought such concerns were exaggerated," adds Rees, who says that he has no religious beliefs, but sometimes attends Church of England services.

However, Rees was surprised to be offered the award "since it wasn't clear to me that I did have the entry ticket", he says.

The Foundation cites Rees's work in galaxy formation, black holes and γ-ray bursts as addressing the types of problem that the prize is concerned with.

"The 'big questions' Lord Rees raises — such as 'How large is physical reality?' — are reshaping the philosophical and theological considerations that strike at the core of life, fostering the spiritual progress that the Templeton Prize seeks to recognise," says a statement from the foundation.

John Templeton, who set up the Templeton Foundation, specified that the award should always be worth more money than the Nobel prizes, which currently stand at 10 million Swedish kronor (US$1.57 million) each. Rees says that he has not yet decided what to do with the prize money.

From preachers to physicists

The Templeton Prize was first awarded in 1973, and in its early years went almost exclusively to devoutly religious figures such as poverty campaigner Mother Teresa of Calcutta and US evangelical preacher Billy Graham. For the past decade, however, scientists have dominated the winner's list.

Awardees have included Paul Davies, a physicist and astrobiologist, in 1995, and Freeman Dyson, a physicist who unified three versions of quantum electrodynamics, in 2000. Rees cites Dyson as the winner "for whom I feel the greatest admiration and affinity".

The increasing number of scientists among the Templeton laureates has led to allegations that the foundation is attempting to buy respectability and insert religion or spirituality into the scientific arena. Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and one of the most high-profile scientists in the aggressively pro-science, anti-religion 'new atheist' movement, once called Rees a "compliant Quisling" for accepting Templeton sponsorship of a lecture series when he was head of the Royal Society.

Others take a more nuanced approach. Lawrence Krauss, a physicist at Arizona State University in Tempe and another critic of the prize, says, "Martin is a wonderful man and a great scientist."

But he adds, "The Templeton Foundation has tried to raise its profile by giving the prize to well known scientists. The bottom line is it probably does much more honour to the prize than it does to Martin."

Sean Carroll, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, is concerned that the prize "gives people on the outside the idea that science and religion are coming together and reaching towards a combined spiritual reality".

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Others reject such criticism. Denis Alexander, director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at the University of Cambridge, UK, welcomed Rees's award and said that although "people who want to keep a very sharp demarcation" between science and religion are highly vocal, they are few in number.

"The media tend to thrive on conflict so these loud voices in favour of a polarized debate tend to get heard quite often," he says.

Carroll agrees that Templeton Prize controversy has now become something of an annual event. "It's a publicity machine and it works very well. Every year I get a phone call like this," he says. 

Updated:

Clarification: The Templeton lecture series at the Royal Society began under Rees' predecessor as president, Robert May. Rees was involved in selecting the final two of six speakers.

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  • #62255

    Religious claims should be treated exactly the same as any other claim. Thus, the onus is on them to support their claim, otherwise, it is insane to believe the claim. I for one, am not anti-religion, I'm anti-insanity. It just so happens that all religions are insane.

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