Religiously scientific, or not?

The Templeton Foundation gave its annual million-Euro prize this week, and The Guardian's science correspondent Ian Sample focused on the religion and science combo more than anything else, even though its recipient says "I've got no religious beliefs at all."

I would recommend reading the interview first and then read the reporter's interpretation of what took place, as one will inform the other. The interview starts off on a strange note focusing on the financial side of the award.

Ian Sample: Congratulations on the award. Martin Rees: Thank you. IS: Were you already a millionaire? MR: Sorry? IS: Were you already a millionaire? MR: No comment.

Once he got that out of the way, he launched into a series of questions about religion and science, and you can tell he had a tough time getting much out of his interviewee. It's interesting to read the interview and see how the reporter translated it in his news story. For instance, he asked a question about Stephen Hawking that eventually fit in the story.

IS: There was an extraordinary fuss last year over Stephen Hawking's pronouncement that the creation of the universe did not require a God. What did you make of that? MR: What I said at the time is that I know Stephen Hawking well enough to know that he has read little philosophy and less theology, so I don't think his views should be taken with any special weight. IS: You have read on those subjects. What's your view? MR: What's my view? Well, I'm not prepared to pronounce on these things. I think it's rather foolish when scientists do so.

And here's what the reporter took away:

Rees launched another attack on his Cambridge colleague Stephen Hawking, who in the week his latest book hit the shelves last year declared there was no need for a creator God. "I know Stephen Hawking well enough to know that he has read little philosophy and less theology, so I don't think his views should be taken with any special weight," Rees said. "I'm not prepared to pronounce on these things. I think it's rather foolish when scientists do."

Looking back at the interview, it doesn't seem like Rees was launching "an attack"--he answered the reporter's question. Towards the end of the interview, Rees actually criticized the interviewer for focusing so much on religion.

IS: Do you want to share any thoughts on your work? MR: I am sorry you focused on science and religion rather than what I think are the interesting things I do. Which is trying to understand how structures form in the universe and the extent to which the laws of physics are universal. I'm trying to understand extreme phenomena in the cosmos and pushing back to the highest redshifts and things like that.

Ha. Unfortunately for Rees, journalists will go where journalists please: I was personally thrilled to see so much on religion. Seeing the interview in the Q & A format was really informative and helped us understand the context.

It's interesting to see the final news story after reading the interview, because you can tell where the reporter was headed with his questions. The headline prepares you for an article full of tension: "Martin Rees wins controversial £1m Templeton prize." Except that the tension actually just offers one-sided remarks about how lots of scientists don't like the foundation.

The award has drawn criticism from some scientists, including the Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who claim that the Templeton Foundation--which funds the prize--blurs the boundary between science and religion and makes a virtue of belief without evidence.

For instance, the reporter gathers quite passionate quotes from scientists who don't think science and religion should mix.

Sir Harry Kroto, a British scientist who won the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1996 and works at Florida State University, told the Guardian that the "congenital wishful thinking" embodied by religion made it incompatible with science. "There is no problem, with a million-quid lure to hook a few eminent scientists, to say that they personally see no conflict between science and religion, but they are suffering from a form of intellectual schizophrenia," he said.

The quotes are very interesting and revealing, but it was interesting to see zero quotes from anyone who might think science and religion could be compatible, even from the award-winning scientist. Perhaps there are none, or something?

Finally, I wondered whether the story should have devoted a little more space to the award's intentions and how Rees fit the qualifications.

John Templeton Jnr, president of the Templeton Foundation, said: "The questions Lord Rees raises have an impact far beyond the simple assertion of facts, opening wider vistas than any telescope ever could.

"By peering into the farthest reaches of the galaxies, Martin Rees has opened a window on our very humanity, inviting everyone to wrestle with the most fundamental questions of our nature and existence."

The photo cutline says it honors 'exceptional contributions to affirming life's spiritual dimension.' But the quotes from the foundation's president don't offer much about why Rees' contributions affirm life's spiritual dimension.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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