Don’t let a bit of God get in the way of good science

It seems that when you have just stepped down as president of the Royal Society, life can get a little dull - even if you are still Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, a knight of the realm, then a life peer, Astronomer Royal, holder of the Order of Merit and a world-renowned cosmologist.

Martin Rees has just made his life more interesting again by accepting a million-pound prize that comes with accusations of bringing science into disrepute. The Templeton Foundation award is for "a living person who has made exceptional contributions to affirming life's spiritual dimension". Put more colloquially, it usually goes to a prominent scientist who is willing to say "something nice about religion", as Richard Dawkins has put it.
Dawkins is not a fan of the John Templeton Foundation: he sees it as an outfit that attempts to corrupt science for the purpose
of making religion look good. Last year he labelled Rees a "compliant quisling" for being willing to have any dealings with it.

Now that Rees has taken the Templeton Prize, the biggest slice of cash on offer to any individual outside a Lottery win, the knives are out again. Dawkins, along with Peter Atkins, Harry Kroto and Lewis Wolpert - a set that Rees has described as the "professional atheists" - has accused him of betraying science. Kroto, for example, claimed in the Times on 7 April that the Foundation aims "to undermine the most precious tenet of science: that it is the only philosophical construct we have to determine truth with any reliability".

That - ironically - is a statement of faith. And, if anything, the evidence is against it. It seems, from the way it uses its £1.3bn fortune, that the Templeton Foundation sees science as the gold standard for determining truth. It is eye-wateringly desperate to use science to validate "spirituality", a tacit acknowledgement that science has already won top place as truth-finder.

Pill poppers

Religion has become increasingly subservient to science over the past four centuries. In the educated west, given the chance of scientifically sourced reproductive control, Catholic women ignore everything the Pope has to say and pop their contraceptive pills. Faced with scientific evidence on the use of condoms in fighting HIV, even the Pope has backed away (a little) from forbidding their use. IVF is forbidden by the Vatican, but polls suggest that the Catholic laity are quite happy that it is in use.

Indeed, it is hard to understand what Rees's critics could possibly be worrying about. If the Templeton Foundation is seeking to undermine science, it's doing a very poor job of it.

A previous Templeton prizewinner, Francisco Ayala, campaigned to have any teaching of creationism banned in Arkansas. Not one scientific study funded by the foundation has done anything to validate religion - the study it funded on the efficacy of prayer backfired spectacularly. If anything could be claimed from the extremely flawed study, it was that being prayed for is bad for you.

And now it has gone and handed a million quid to a self-declared atheist who says that the only thing he likes about church is the choral singing. Martin Rees is no compliant quisling - he's probably the smartest operator in the business.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, GOD Special