Archive for the ‘Atheism’ Category

Why did Martin Rees win the Templeton Prize?

Thursday, April 7th, 2011

Martin Rees (AKA Baron Rees of Ludlow), the present “Astronomer Royal” and former President of the Royal Society,  has been awarded the 2011 Templeton Prize. This makes him £1 million better off, so he is very pleased.

Also very pleased is Mark Vernon, who admits to Templeton connections of his own in his piece for the Guardian’s Comment is Free site.  Vernon sees Rees’ humble acceptance of the enormous pot of Templeton loot as a sure sign that

the substantial resources of the Templeton Foundation have, in effect, been welcomed at the heart of the British scientific establishment.

According to Vernon, this means it is now

that little bit harder for Dawkins to sustain respect amongst his peers for his crusade against religion.

Last year, Vernon reminds us,  Richard Dawkins attacked Rees as a “compliant Quisling”. This is what Dawkins said, in context:

The US National Academy of Sciences has brought ignominy on itself by agreeing to host the announcement of the 2010 Templeton Prize (see below). This is exactly the kind of thing Templeton is ceaselessly angling for – recognition among real scientists – and they use their money shamelessly to satisfy their doomed craving for scientific respectability. They tried it on with the Royal Society of London, and they seem to have found a compliant Quisling in the current President, Martin Rees, who, though not religious himself, is a fervent ‘believer in belief’. Fortunately, enough Fellows made a stink about it to ensure that the Royal will not flirt with Templeton in future.

I haven’t seen a response from Dawkins to Rees’ award yet, but presumably he would see it as confirming Rees as a “Quisling”.

Jerry Coyne, on the other hand, regards the Templeton Foundation’s mission as “a serious corruption of science“.  As for Rees, he

may consider himself unsullied by belief in God, but by accepting Templeton’s largesse he lends support to John Templeton’s own vision that “scientific revelations may be a goldmine for revitalising religion in the 21st century.”

Meanwhile, over at Butterflies and Wheels, Ophelia Benson’s angle is that Vernon is playing the old “good atheist” vs “bad atheist” game.

Also at the Guardian, political commentator Michael White professes puzzlement at why “the atheists” are “so cross” at Rees’ acceptance of the award.

But the question I want to ask is: what has Rees done, exactly, to deserve a £1 million windfall? It’s a lot of money.  Notoriously, it’s more than Nobel prize winners get. Rees is unquestionably an excellent scientist, but you’d imagine there would be something pretty amazing on Rees’ CV for Templeton to throw a million quid at him.  Wouldn’t you?

Here’s how the Templeton Foundation explains the purpose of their prize:

The Templeton Prize honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works. Established in 1972 by the late Sir John Templeton, the Prize aims, in his words, to identify “entrepreneurs of the spirit”—outstanding individuals who have devoted their talents to expanding our vision of human purpose and ultimate reality. The Prize celebrates no particular faith tradition or notion of God, but rather the quest for progress in humanity’s efforts to comprehend the many and diverse manifestations of the Divine.

So why did Rees get the prize?

Templeton’s citation says:

[his] profound insights on the cosmos have provoked vital questions that speak to humanity’s highest hopes and worst fears

Golly.

They continue:

the “big questions” he raises – such as “How large is physical reality?” – are reshaping crucial philosophical and theological considerations that strike at the core of life, fostering the spiritual progress that the Templeton Prize has long sought to recognize.

Gosh.

John M. Templeton Jr is quoted:

“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.”

Wow.

And how interesting: Nobel science prizes reward discoveries, the finding of answers; Templeton rewards questions.  Rather vague questions, to which perhaps there are no answers. And this is apparently worth £1 million.

Surely there must be more to it than that?  Surely you don’t just make someone a millionaire for “inviting everyone to wrestle with the most fundamental questions of our nature and existence”?  Do you?

Perhaps Martin Rees’ acceptance speech contains some further clues as to his achievements in Templeton’s field?

Well, not really.   He writes well, does Martin, I suppose, but what it boils down to is this (I paraphrase):

Woah. Space is, like, big. Really big.  I wonder how big? And what about life? What’s that about?

Oh, and he’s worried about a whole bunch of political and economic issues. The same issues that worry quite a lot of people.  And he doesn’t have the answers to them either. Or any new angles or insights or ideas or proposals, let alone “profound insights”. He says,

we give too little thought to what kind of world we’ll leave for our grandchildren.

How true, Martin, how true. Well done.  Have a million pounds. Enjoy the cruise.

So far so banal.

And what about religion – sorry, “spirituality” – then?   Any “profound insights” on that topic?

I continue to be inspired by the music, liturgy and architectural tradition of the Anglican Church in which I was brought up. No one can fail to be uplifted by great cathedrals – such as that at Ely, near my home in Cambridge

Rees’ final point is that the people who built Ely Cathedral were scientifically ignorant and materially impoverished. Yet they built Ely Cathedral.  We are, says, Rees, now much more knowledgeable, and better off than we have ever been.   But -

In today’s runaway world, we can’t aspire to leave a monument lasting a thousand years, but it would surely be shameful if we persisted in policies that denied future generations a fair inheritance. Wise choices will require the effective efforts of natural scientists, environmentalists, social scientists and humanists. All must be guided by the knowledge that 21st century science can offer, but inspired by an idealism, vision and commitment that science alone can’t provide.

Who could disagree with that?  But is it a “profound insight” worth a million pounds?   No, it’s not.

And that’s all Rees has to say.  So if you were looking for some indication of what Rees has done to deserve being made a millionaire, you won’t find it in his acceptance speech.

Perhaps more insight can be found in Rees’ interview with Ian Sample?

IS: Why do you think you won?

MR: I was obviously rather surprised that I fitted the credentials, but as I see it, it is primarily because my work is on cosmology and astrophysics and they support work of that kind, because of its general interest. If you look at who has won it, I’m the 7th member of the Royal Society for instance. People like Freeman Dyson have won it, so I’m not out of line with the kind of people they have given it to in the past.

This is remarkable.

Not only is Rees unable to explain why he won, he affects surprise that he even fits Templeton’s criteria!

Did Templeton not explain to Rees why they were offering him a million pounds?   Didn’t he think to ask?  Well, he does say he was surprised: perhaps he fell into a dead swoon when he received the phone call offering him the jackpot and the question never subsequently came up. “Who, me, are you sure? Don’t you mean some other Establishment-science figure who has previously defended Templeton’s interests?”

So, if you can believe it, although Rees is not entirely sure why they’ve picked him, he thinks Templeton have a “general interest” in supporting astrophysics, which is his line of work, and since they’ve given the money to Freeman Dyson naturally he’s next in line. Buggin’s turn, I guess.

In fact, Rees affects a bemused modesty about the whole affair:

some of the winners have been more closely involved with philosophical issues in a more explicit way than I have.

Alright, so what about the spiritual angle?  Anything “profound” to offer us on that score?

IS: And what about theological issues?

MR: Well, I’ve got no religious beliefs at all. Of course some of the winners have, but I think not all of them.

That’s a no, then.

Well, alright, perhaps he has an interesting stance on the work of the Templeton Foundation, who have just stuffed a massive cheque in his pocket?

IS: What do you think the Templeton prize achieves? What is the value of it?

MR: That’s not for me to say to be honest.

IS: You must have a view?

MR: No.

IS: But you think it achieves something?

MR: Well, I mean as much as other prizes, certainly, but I wouldn’t want to be more specific than that.

Martin, they’ve just given you a million pounds.  A million pounds.  It’s not every day that happens, even when you’re a Baron.

The interviewer presses him on this, no doubt rather surprised at how unforthcoming the winner of a million pounds is on the value of his benefactor.  And Rees just says,

MR: They are very nice people who are doing things which are within their agenda, but their agenda is really very broad.

He recently read an article about Templeton in Nature, he says, which made him think it was all alright.

Turning to religion, the interviewer asks Rees about his unbelieving churchgoer stance:

IS: You have been described as a churchgoer who doesn’t believe in God. Is that an accurate description?

MR: I suppose so. What I’ve said is I’m happy to attend my college chapel and things like that, because I see this as part of my culture, just like many Jews light candles on Friday night even though they don’t believe anything, and my culture is the Church of England, as it were.

IS: Are you a regular churchgoer?

MR: Not very regular, no. In my college, I go once a week during term as the Master of the College. And in Trinity College, we’re lucky enough to have a wonderful choir rated number five in the world by Gramophone magazine, so it’s worth hearing.

So nothing of the nature of profundity here, either. He goes to church because the choir is quite good.  Well, fine.

What else?

IS: Why don’t you believe in God?

MR: Um. Which God?

IS: A God.

MR: I don’t think I can answer that.

IS: Really?

MR: Mm.

That’s extraordinary.

Wouldn’t you expect the recipient of a million pound award from an organisation committed to spiritual progress to have something rather more substantial to say?

The interviewer, obviously a bit nonplussed by this, persists:

IS: You must have thought about it.

MR: Yes. But there’s nothing very much I want to say about that.

This man has just accepted one whole million pounds for “an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.”   And there’s nothing at all he “wants” to say about belief in God.

Notice the language. There’s nothing he “wants” to say. He doesn’t think he can answer the questions.  Is there not the implication that, as a self-confessed atheist, he certainly does have something to say about it, but he’s decided not to, for some reason.   Naturally that unwillingness has nothing to do with Templeton’s largesse, but it’s certainly puzzling.  It obviously puzzled the interviewer.

Rees does go on to deliver a very carefully and diplomatically phrased attack on “dogmatic” religion:

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 one of the most unnecessarily cautious coded criticisms of fundamentalism I have ever read.

Alright, so what about the churchgoing?  Perhaps Rees has some interesting insights on what that is like for an unbeliever?

IS: What do you gain from churchgoing, considering you don’t subscribe to religious dogma or believe in God?

MR: Well, I think it’s a common traditional ritual which one participates in as part of one’s culture.

IS: Is it to do with aesthetic and belonging issues, of belonging to a group that has enjoyable rituals?

MR: I suppose so, yes.

This really isn’t million-pounds material, is it?

What about Richard Dawkins, asks the interviewer, obviously hoping for some headlines?

MR: I won’t comment on him…

Oh.

MR …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.

Has Rowan Williams been particularly prominent in the struggle against religious fanaticism and fundamentalism?

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.

This, at least, is a genuine dilemma. It is perfectly possible to hold to a theology of evolution which is compatible with certain concepts of God. Dawkins knows this, of course.  However, if a sixth former thinks their God originally created all creatures in the form we see them today, then they are lost to science already.

But we’re still waiting for the promised profundities.   The next question Ian Sample asked Rees was about science/religious conflict/reconciliation:

IS: Do you see an importance in trying to diffuse some of the conflict that sometimes gets stoked up between science and religion?

MR: I think they can co-exist. They are very different activities. Obviously one opposes Creationism and such-like, but it’s fairly clear that there are some scientists for whom religion is important and most of us for whom it isn’t, but again I think they can be co-existent.

Depends on the religion, doesn’t it, as to whether they are “very different” activities?  But otherwise, Rees is right: religion is not important to most scientists, and religion and science can co-exist.  Right, but not profoundly right.

One of the things Templeton is keen on is science/religion “dialogue”.  What does Rees think about that?

IS: Do you think science and religion can have a constructive dialogue?

MR: I’m sceptical about that. I tend to avoid getting into these sorts of debates, because I’m not sure how much productive interaction there can be between them.

He thinks this, of course, because they are “very different activities”. Like science and music, which he gives as an example. Although science and music probably have a very productive dialogue indeed.

A couple of questions later, Rees observes:

I don’t think they [science and religion] have much scope for constructive interaction, but they have in common perhaps an awareness of mystery.

Is that it then? Is it the promotion of “an awareness of mystery” that nets a man a million pounds?

There’s an interlude in which the interviewer asks about creationism and intelligent design, among other things.

Rees has “no unconventional views on this at all”, he says, which is  disappointing in an award-winning profound thinker. As to whether they should be taught, he says teachers have to address them “if they are brought up”.  But how, given religion and science are “very different activities”, without forcing the pupils to choose between their religion and science?  Do you just say, “science and religion are different activities, shut up”?  What if they don’t agree?.

Oh, and it turns out Rees is against faith schools “in general”.

And then we return to the religion/science question.

And again, Rees stonewalls.

IS: 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.

IS: Will you be able to stay out of them now you have the Templeton prize?

MR: It’s my choice.

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.

So you shouldn’t talk about philosophy and theology unless you’ve read up on those subjects.   But you shouldn’t talk about them if you have read up on them, either.

So does that really mean scientists should never talk about philosophy and theology, in any circumstances?

Can philosophers and theologians ever talk about science?

The next question gets the funniest answer yet:

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.

I guess that proves that the Templeton Prize really doesn’t act as any kind of bribe.    They can’t even bribe Martin Rees to say he’s interested in the science/religion relationship, which after all is the whole raison d’etre of Templeton!  He doesn’t even think there is any point to the science/religion dialogue!

But isn’t it a bit bizarre to accept a huge monetary award from an organisation with the stated aims of the Templeton Foundation, and then be surprised when people want to talk about science and religion?

The interview discussion then moves on to multiverses and whatnot, where Rees is quite obviously on more comfortable ground.

So there we have it.

To summarise, then:

It seems Rees is quite happy to receive a million pounds just for being an astrophysicist and next in line after Freeman Dyson. He doesn’t really know what he’s done to deserve it and hasn’t asked.

He’s not got much to say about philosophy, and nothing to say about religion, not even specifically about the relationship between science and religion. And he’s definitely got nothing to say about the very generous Templeton Foundation, other than that they’re very friendly.

Most scientists don’t even think religion is important, and he doesn’t think science/religion dialogue is productive. Scientists shouldn’t ever talk about philosophy or theology anyway, even if they know something about it. He doesn’t even think the relationship between science and religion is interesting.

He doesn’t know what he’s going to do with the money.

Oh, but he is worried about the future on behalf of his grandchildren, and he’s quite keen to talk about that.

A million pounds.

Think about that.  It’s a lot of money.

A million pounds, for what?

Posted by Dan @ Incredulity Services

Raj Patel is not a messiah

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

Raj Patel is the best-selling author of Stuffed and starved: markets, power and the hidden battle for the world food system (originally published in 2007), and The value of nothing: how to reshape market society and redefine democracy (2009).   Some people think he is some kind of messiah: he denies it.

In an article in the Guardian on Monday, Patel took the opportunity to write about his situation:

In part, I suspect the reason the story isn’t going away – the New York Times just ran a followup – is because it fits a narrative in which we’re steeped from birth. From the Bible to Knight Rider to The Matrix, the story’s the same: in crappy times, a single person will emerge to make all the difference and turn everything around. Although it makes for great viewing, it makes for a bad society. Ultimately, tales about messiahs are bedtime stories steeped in power. They’re debilitating soporifics, inducements to be passive as we wait for social change because, some day, our prince will come.

Why wait, though? If the world is to transform, faith in politicians offering hope and change is a recipe for disappointment. Ask almost anyone who voted for Obama. Change happens through millions of acts of rebellion and mutual aid, not through faith in one great leader. What’s depressing about this whole Maitreya thing is that it is a sign that we’ve given up on ourselves, that we need to depend on The One rather than finding the means to fix our own problems directly.

There’s a lot there with which Incredulity agrees.  But I want to be picky.  The idea that religious beliefs act to discourage activism is a familiar bit of rhetoric – I’ve used the “get up off your knees” line myself – but is it true?  There are plenty of religious people whose beliefs have inspired their progressive radicalism or reformism, and of course reactionary activism too. 

How many people abstain from political engagement because they think a messiah is on the way?  Probably not that many: the problem is the opposite one of conservative messiah-believers using their collective political muscle to get their own way.  If we think that because they spend a lot of time praying they therefore don’t have time for doing stuff, we run the risk of complacency.

I’ll end with a line or two from the end of Patel’s article, with which I can wholeheartedly agree:

This… is the world I’m keen to live in: one without princes but with billions of world teachers, in which we live under neither God nor Master. It’s a recipe for change that makes for poor storytelling but great politics.

Posted by: Dan @ Incredulity Services