The Templeton Prize has to be the most efficient publicity campaign ever. The Templeton Foundation gives a million British pounds to a scientist who is willing to say that science and religion are compatible, and in return they get many times that value in publicity. (The formal citation is “for making an exceptional contribution to investigating life’s spiritual dimension”) Atheists should really just refuse to talk about it, but — can’t resist!
This year’s winner is Sir Martin Rees, one of the world’s leading theoretical astrophysicists. Like everyone else, I have nothing but enormous respect for Sir Martin’s work. He focuses mostly on “physical” cosmology — that part that involves actual known laws of physics, like galaxy formation — but is more willing than most folks in that game to think about speculative ideas concerning the multiverse and the Big Bang. He describes himself as non-religious but church-going, and would rather science and religion just get along than be constantly at each other’s throats. You can read an extremely awkward interview with him by Ian Sample in the Guardian — it’s clear Rees has no interest at all in talking about science/religion issues, but that’s going to come up when you win the Templeton prize.
But the really telling thing is this companion piece at the Guardian‘s website by Mark Vernon. (Another piece by Jerry Coyne provides some balance.) The real problem with the Templeton Foundation, in my view, is that it works very hard to give people a false impression that science and religion are actually reconciling, not just that they should be. If you want to see the publicity machine at work, this piece is a perfect example. Here’s the money paragraph:
But with Rees’s acceptance, the substantial resources of the Templeton Foundation have, in effect, been welcomed at the heart of the British scientific establishment. That such a highly regarded figure has received its premier prize will make it that little bit harder for Dawkins to sustain respect amongst his peers for his crusade against religion.
There you go — now that such a distinguished and respectable scientist has accepted the Templeton Prize, we may conclude that “the British scientific establishment” is rejecting Dawkins and his fellow noisome atheists in favor of warm and fuzzy Templetonianism. That’s exactly the publicity effect they are hoping for.
In unrelated news, Mark Vernon spent time at Cambridge in a journalism fellowship paid for by the Templeton Foundation. Have to hand it to them, these guys know how to get a message out.