A turning point in the god wars

Mark Vernon is excited that Martin Rees won the Templeton Prize. He sees it as deliberate revenge for something Richard Dawkins said.

Last year, Dawkins published an ugly outburst against the softly spoken astronomer, calling him a “compliant Quisling” because of his views on religion. And now, Rees has seemingly hit back. He has accepted the 2011 Templeton prize, awarded for making an exceptional contribution to investigating life’s spiritual dimension. It is worth an incongruous $1m.

Funny kind of hitting back – it’s not as if Rees awarded himself the prize. It’s also not as if accepting the prize is a way to rebut what Dawkins said. As a matter of fact, it’s more like agreement than rebuttal. Here’s what Dawkins said:

The US National Academy of Sciences has brought ignominy on itself by agreeing to host the announcement of the 2010 Templeton Prize. 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’.

The claim is that Rees is a Quisling for helping Templeton by implicitly endorsing it. Accepting its prize is more of that, so it’s not much of a “hitting back.” You could say it’s a “yes I am and what about it?” but that’s different.

Anyway, Vernon’s real point, of course, is the usual – Dawkins bad, boring, gnu, harsh; Rees good, exciting, un-gnu, mild; atheism bad, religion good, muddled chat about the two meeting in the middle best of all.

The Royal Society lent its prestige to the Templeton Foundation by hosting events sponsored by the fund, which supports a variety of projects investigating the science of wellbeing and faith.

The wut? Wut science? But right: that’s the point: the RS gave the TF prestige by hosting events sponsored by the fund which pretends that science and “faith” can “enrich” each other.

Dawkins and Rees differ markedly on the tone with which the debate between science and religion should be conducted. Dawkins devotes his talents and resources to challenging, questioning and mocking faith. Rees, on the other hand, though an atheist, values the legacy sustained by the church and other faith traditions.

So, Dawkins is evil and Rees is good.

But if [Rees] is modest about what can be achieved for religious belief by science, he insists that scientists should not stray into theological territory that they don’t understand.

Does he insist that theologians should not stray into scientific territory that they don’t understand? Does Vernon? Does Templeton? No, of course not. From that direction it’s all about “enrichment”; it’s only scientists who are kicked off the grass.

…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.

Or it will make it that little bit harder for his peers to ignore what the Templeton Foundation is doing. That’s at least as likely as Vernon’s dreamy prediction.

When the cultural history of our times comes to be written, Templeton 2011 could be mentioned, at least in a footnote, as marking a turning point in the “God wars”. The power of voices like that of Dawkins and Sam Harris – who will be on the British stage next week – may actually have peaked, and now be on the wane.

Could be. Yup. Maybe. It’s possible. You never know.

Then again, maybe not.

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