Wednesday, 6 April 2011

A Compliant Quisling?

So the Astronomer Royal has won this year's Templeton Prize, worth a cool £1,000,000.

Sir Martin Rees has given this interview to The Guardian, and it contains some interesting quotes. He says he doesn't have a view on what the Templeton Prize achieves. When pushed, he says:
They are very nice people who are doing things which are within their agenda, but their agenda is really very broad. I should say that I was reassured by the rather good piece in Nature a few weeks ago, which talked about the Foundation and I found that reassuring. Certainly Cambridge University, I know, has received grants from Templeton for editing Darwin's correspondence, which is a big Cambridge project, and also for some mathematical conferences. They support a range of purely scientific issues.
This is a rather disappointing comment. It suggests that because people are nice, their agenda doesn't matter. Certainly Templeton's agenda is broad, in the sense that it tries to affect a wide range of disciplines, but it's not broad in its world view. It looks to encourage theism and spirituality, and, more worryingly, it looks to insert faith into scientific work. That should worry Rees. For example, he also says:
...I think doing science makes me realise that even the simplest things are pretty hard to understand and that makes me suspicious of people who believe they've got anything more than an incomplete and metaphorical understanding of any deep aspect of reality. And also I see human beings as not the culmination, but only a stage in the marvellous unfolding of evolution, because the timeline ahead is as long as the time that has lapsed up to now. Those are respects in which my professional interests affect my response to dogmatic religion.
That's well said, and works against faith and the idea that we can have a divine access to the truth, a heavenly broadband connection. Indeed, dogmatic religion is something of a tautology, certainly in the Western tradition. He goes on:
I won't comment on him [Dawkins!], but I'm not allergic to religion. I would say two things. One is that I think all of us are concerned about fanaticism and fundamentalism and we need all the allies we can muster against it. And I would see Rowan Williams et al as being on our side. I admire them more than want to rubbish them. 
Rowan Williams on our side? What about the Pope? These people preach misogynistic and homophobic lies for dogmatic reasons, so it's difficult to see how they could be on the side of any right-thinking person. But, of course, they may be nice people for a cup of tea and a sit down, so that's all right then. I'm happy to say that I'm allergic to misogyny and homophobia.
Another point is if you are teaching Muslim sixth formers in a school and you tell them they can't have their God and Darwin, there is a risk they will choose their God and be lost to science. So those are two respects where I would disagree with the emphasis of the professional atheists, as it were.
'Professional' atheists don't say that people cannot believe in God and Darwin; plainly they can. They say that the science is incompatible with most of the claims of the major religions. which is a fact unless one is prepared to indulge in the sort of epistemological relativism that leaves us impotent to move forward. I wonder if Rees can think of a downside to saying that they can have God and Darwin?

Rees does betray some militant tendencies:
Science teachers have to address them [Creationism and ID]  if they are brought up, but I am rather opposed to faith schools in general.
That strikes me as quite strident. But he says further:
Interviewer: If there is a clear and obvious boundary between science and religion, how does religion come to be used in these contexts?

MR: I try to avoid getting into these science and religion debates.
He's avoided these debates to the tune of £1,000,000!

But, of course, he hasn't avoided them; he's accommodated, as you can see from the replies immediately before this one. Now, I don't see that there is anything he's done other than a little light accommodation to warrant the prize, so there's no corruption of science here. He's just a good scientist who believes a little in belief, and I dare say always has, regardless of Templeton. Before talking about the science he says:
I am sorry you focused on science and religion rather than what I think are the interesting things I do. 
A rather naive thing to say when you've just banked a large sum of money for accommodating religion. It would be a shame indeed if this overshadowed his science.


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