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Science and religion don't have to be enemies

Richard Dawkins called him a "compliant quisling" for accepting the Templeton Prize. Here, Martin Re

It was a surprise to me to be awarded the Templeton Prize, joining an eclectic roll-call of scientists, philosophers, theologians and public figures among the previous winners. I feel I tick only one of the relevant boxes: like other scientists who have won it in recent years, I focus on "big questions" (in my case, cosmology) and have made efforts to communicate the essence of my work to a wide public.

I don't do this well, but that skilled expositors such as the physicists Brian Cox and Jim al-Khalili attract such large television audiences indicates the broad fascination with questions about our origins, life in space, our long-range destiny and the laws of nature.

Most practising scientists focus on "bite-sized" problems that are timely and tractable. The occupational risk is then to lose sight of the big picture. The words of A N Whitehead are as true today as ever: "Philosophy begins in wonder. And, at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains."

Darwinist discontents

It is astonishing that human brains, which evolved to cope with the everyday world, have been able to grasp the counterintuitive mysteries of the cosmos and the quantum. But there seems no reason why they should be matched to every intellectual quest - we could easily be as unaware of crucial aspects of reality as a monkey is of the theory of relativity.

This seems to have been Charles Darwin's attitude to religion, at least at some stage in his life. In a letter to the Swiss-American biologist Louis Agassiz, he said: "The whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton. Let each man hope and believe as he can."

This is a glaringly different stance from that adopted by some of Darwinism's high-profile proponents today. We should all oppose - as Darwin did - views manifestly in conflict with the evidence, such as creationism. (Last year's Templeton winner, Francisco Ayala, has been in the forefront of that campaign in the US.) But we shouldn't set up this debate as "religion v science"; instead, we should strive for peaceful coexistence with at least the less dogmatic strands of mainstream religions, which number many excellent scientists among their adherents.

This, at least, is my view - a pallid and boring one, both for those who wish to promote constructive engagement between science and religion, and for those who prefer antagonistic debate. I am, I suppose, an "accommodationist" - a disparaging epithet used by anti-religion campaigners to describe those who don't share their fervour. Richard Dawkins described me as a "compliant quisling".

But I am a sceptic. If we learn anything from the pursuit of science, it is that even something as basic as an atom is quite hard to understand. We should be unsurprised that many phenomena remain unexplained, and dubious of any claim to have achieved more than a very incomplete and metaphorical insight into any profound aspect of our existence - and, especially, we should be sceptical of dogma. This is certainly why I have no religious belief.

Despite this, I continue to be nourished by the music and liturgy of the Church in which I was brought up. Just as there are many Jews who keep the Friday ritual in their home despite describing themselves as atheists, I am a "tribal Christian", happy to attend church services.

Campaigning against religion can be socially counterproductive. If teachers take the uncompromising line that God and Darwinism are irreconcilable, many young people raised in a faith-based culture will stick with their religion and be lost to science. Moreover, we need all the allies we can muster against fundamentalism - a palpable, perhaps growing concern.

Mainstream religions - such as the Anglican Church - should be welcomed as being on our side in any such confrontation. (Indeed, one reason I would like to see them stronger is that the archbishops who lead the Church of England, Rowan Williams and John Sentamu, two remarkable but utterly different personalities, both elevate the tone of our public life.)

Pale blue dot

And not even the most secular among us can fail to be uplifted by Christianity's architectural legacy - the great cathedrals. These immense and glorious buildings were erected in an era of constricted horizons, both in time and in space. Even the most educated knew of essentially nothing beyond Europe; they thought the world was a few thousand years old, and that it might not last another thousand.

Unlike the cathedral-builders, we know a great deal about our world - and, indeed, about what lies beyond. Technologies that our ancestors couldn't have conceived of enrich our lives and our understanding. Many phenomena still make us fearful, but the advance of science spares us from irrational dread.

Some might think that intellectual immersion in vast expanses of space and time would render cosmologists serene and uncaring about what happens next year, next week, or tomorrow. For me, however, the opposite is the case. We know we are stewards of a precious "pale blue dot", a planet with a future measured in billions of years, whose fate depends on humanity's collective actions this century.

In today's fast-changing world, we can't aspire to leave a monument lasting 1,000 years, but it would be shameful if our focus remained short term and parochial, and we thereby 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.

Martin Rees is Astronomer Royal and Master of Trinity College, Cambridge

This article first appeared in the 25 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.