Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Faith, Reason and the Templeton Prize

The 2007 Templeton Prize “For Progress toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities” was recently awarded to the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor for his insights into the nature of the secular and the sacred and how one without the other can be perilous for mankind. “The divorce of natural science and religion has been damaging to both,” he said, “but it is equally true that the culture of the humanities and social sciences has often been surprisingly blind and deaf to the spiritual.” The 75-year old McGill University emeritus professor has called for new insights into the human propensity for violence, one that also takes “full account of the human striving for meaning and spiritual direction, of which the appeals to violence are a perversion.”

The American philanthropist John Templeton created the annual prize in 1973 to recognize research in spirituality and its possible confluence with science. He made it the most lucrative prize in the world – at more than $1.5 million, it is larger than the Nobel Prize – to emphasize that we are shaped more by our spiritual longings than by any other factor, and therefore advances in the understanding of spirituality should also begat more attention and recognition. (Given the 72 years headstart the Nobel had over the Templeton, this may take a while!)

Of late, religion, spirituality and God have been under assault by militant secularists whose ranks include prominent scientists. Leading the charge is Richard Dawkins, professor of public understanding of science at Oxford University. His book, The God Delusion, has been on the best-seller list for several months now. Dawkins suffers from no shades of gray. God is unnecessary, he says, because science - evolution, randomness, physical laws and such - can explain everything. If anything does lie beyond the scope of science, it has no meaning and is therefore irrelevant. His fellow-travelers include the neuroscientist Sam Harris (The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason) and Tufts University philosopher Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon) among others.

For every atheist or agnostic scientist or philosopher, however, there are at least a hundred who are passionate about their faith or at least open to the possibility of a Supreme Being. One such is the geneticist Francis Collins who led the successful effort to complete the Human Genome Project, a multidisciplinary enterprise to map and sequence the human DNA. Collins refutes Dawkins by asserting that God lies beyond the reach of science, beyond space and time, and so cannot be explained by science. God used His creative power to bring all creation into being. If we keep an open mind, we can detect God’s handiwork in the signs He has strewn about us, from the large-scale drama of the universe to the intricate world of sub-atomic particles. Author of The Language of God, he bemoans the fact that many of the current battles between atheists and fundamentalists have really been started by the scientific community, which he feels is an enormous tragedy.

Collins summarizes the beliefs of many scientists such as that of the astronomer Owen Gingerich who makes the point in God’s Universe of the existence of a Creator. The Muslim astrophysicist Bruno Guiderdoni draws inspiration from his faith in his research on galaxy formation. The fundamental mystery that animates physics and cosmology, he believes, is that the world is intelligible. The Nobel physicist Abdus Salam (1979) found in his faith the inspiration to delve into the mysteries and symmetries of fundamental particles. A list of recent Templeton Prize winners also illustrates the point: physicist Freeman Dyson (2000), chemist Arthur Peacocke (2001), mathematical physicist John Polkinghorne (2002), applied mathematician George Ellis (2004), Nobel physicist Charles Townes (2005) and mathematician John Barrow (2006). They were cited not for their scientific or mathematical discoveries but for their efforts to show in their distinctive ways that science and religion are two windows looking out on the same universe.

If scientists can be inspired by their faiths, can theologians and religious leaders be inspired by science? Certainly, and one example will suffice. In his book The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality, the Dalai Lama writes eloquently about his fascination with science from an early age “It was not very long before the colossal significance of science for humanity dawned on me - especially after I came into exile in 1959. There is almost no area of human life today that is not touched by the effects of science and technology.” Yet he warns of the danger of trying to find within a purely scientific context answers to questions such as the meaning of life or good and evil. “The problem is not with the empirical data of science but with the contention that these data alone constitute the legitimate ground for developing a comprehensive worldview or an adequate means for responding to the world’s problems … By the same token, spirituality must be tempered by the insights and discoveries of science. If as spiritual practitioners we ignore the discoveries of science, our practice is also impoverished, as this mindset can lead to fundamentalism.”

The Templeton prize celebrates those who seek to reconcile the ancient adversaries of science and religion by confronting difficult questions head-on, such as those raised by Darwinian atheists and religious fundamentalists. It celebrates the middle ground between the dispassionate observer and the devout believer, suggesting that the two can be fused into one for a full and creative life.

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