Templeton Prize

by John J. Miller on August 10, 2010

in Articles,Philanthropy

  • Sumo

May 2, 2003



The most lucrative prize on the planet — the only one that pays winners more than Nobel laureates — used to be called the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. Then, two years ago and with little fanfare, Sir John Templeton changed its name. He dropped the word “religion.”

“In the minds of many people, religion means bureaucracy, ceremony and dogma,” he says. “We needed to clarify the purpose of the prize.” It’s now called the Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries About Spiritual Realities.

Is that clear enough?

Mr. Templeton, a “dedicated Presbyterian,” is a 90-year-old Tennessee native who became a celebrated stock picker and now lives in the Bahamas as a naturalized British citizen. He doesn’t choose the winners of the prize that bears his name; a rotating committee of nine judges representing five major faiths has that job.

This year it has selected philosopher Holmes Rolston III, a self-described “radical environmentalist” who is credited with founding the field of ecological ethics. Since 1973, Templeton Prize winners have been honored at Buckingham Palace. On Wednesday, Prince Philip will hand Mr. Rolston a check worth more than $1.1 million.

Mr. Rolston’s selection confirms that the prize really is heading in a new direction. In its early years, the award went to well-known religious figures, such as Mother Teresa and Billy Graham. Others recipients have included Catholic intellectual Michael Novak and Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn. But in 2000, Mr. Templeton wrote of a desire to “facilitate the discovery of over 100 fold more spiritual information than humankind has ever possessed before.”

Exactly what this means can’t be known, Mr. Templeton says: “Isaac Newton could not have foreseen electronics.” He’s absolutely certain, however, that “spiritual information” must be increased. “If you have a spiritual problem, a priest will give you advice out of the Bible, which is 2,000 years old,” he observes. “If you have a medical problem, you don’t go to a doctor and expect him to find a cure in Hippocrates.”

This sentiment rankles many religious people who believe that their faiths already provide an adequate amount of “spiritual information.” Yet Mr. Templeton thinks he’s onto something. “We’ve learned that there are billions and billions of galaxies in the universe,” he says. “This fact teaches us that God is vastly greater than human beings can comprehend.”

Mr. Rolston isn’t the only quirky Templeton pick of recent vintage. Three years ago, the prize went to Princeton physicist Freeman J. Dyson, a declared agnostic who expressed surprise that he’d even been nominated for it.

There have been smart choices, too. Last year’s winner, John C. Polkinghorne, is a former Cambridge physicist who quit the academy to become an Anglican priest. Since then he has used science to defend Christian faith by noting, for instance, that nobody has ever seen elementary particles such as quarks or gluons. “It is the intelligibility that belief in quarks confers that persuades us of their reality,” he has written. “It is much the same for my belief in the unseen reality of God.”

By rewarding thinkers like Mr. Polkinghorne, Mr. Templeton underwrites the valuable practice of trying to reconcile religion and science. The challenge for the prize in the years ahead will be to avoid sliding into a theistic mire of sloppy thinking that isn’t grounded in any religious tradition. At the same time, it has a remarkable opportunity to help unite believers who are willing to accept scientific rationalism as a tool of faith and scientists who are finding that cosmology and other matters are most useful to us when they address religious questions.

If the prize manages to close the gap between religion and science — even by the width of a few quarks — then it will have achieved a noble purpose. And perhaps that odd name change won’t have been necessary after all.

Mr. Miller is a writer for National Review.

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