Science and religion are not enemies


From the Vancouver Sun. Known among scientists as the Renaissance man of evolutionary biology, Francisco J. Ayala has won this year's prestigious and lucrative Templeton Prize for his life's work arguing that science and religion are compatible.

After being named the winner of the world's largest academic award at a news conference in Washington, D.C., Thursday, the California-based biologist and philosopher described the ever polarizing approaches to life as merely two windows into the same world.

"I contend that science and religious beliefs need not be in contradiction ... if they are properly understood," he said.

While science looks at how the planets move, the composition of matter and the origin of species, religion focuses on the relationship between people and their creator, moral values and the meaning of life.

"It is only when assertions are made beyond their legitimate boundaries that religion and science, and evolutionary theory in particular, appear to be antithetical," he said.

Ayala goes a step further, asserting that the theory of evolution is more in concert with a religious belief in an omnipotent and benevolent God than the tenets of Creationism and intelligent design.

"The natural world abounds in catastrophes, disasters, imperfections, dysfunctions, suffering and cruelty," he said.

"People of faith should not attribute all this misery, cruelty and destruction to the specific design of the creator. I rather see it as a consequence of the clumsy ways of nature and the evolutionary process."

The annual award, worth one million pounds sterling -- about $1.5 million Cdn -- honours the person who best "affirms life's spiritual dimension."

But in a recent interview from Washington, the 76-year-old refused to discuss his own personal religious and spiritual beliefs for fear of criticism.

"Whatever my answer is going to be will give reason to one side or the other to argue that the reason I take the position that I take is because I'm a believer or ... I'm not a believer," he said.

"The position that I take with respect to the dialogue and the compatibility is independent of what my faith would be, therefore, it should be acceptable to people of faith and to people who are not religious."

Ayala said he plans to donate the entire prize to charity.

Part of it will most likely go to the University of California, Irvine where the evolutionary geneticist and molecular biologist has spent the last 23 years teaching and doing research.

Noting both the National Academy of Sciences and the Center for Theology and Natural Science were behind his nomination, Ayala said he would likely give part of his windfall to those institutions as well.

"It's a way of expressing my thanks," he said, adding the prize is indeed an honour and a testament to the many years he's spent writing and speaking to various audiences about the relationship between science and religion.

"I have enough money from various funding agencies and my university to continue with my research.

"Fortunately I don't need it personally either," he added.

The first Templeton Prize was awarded to Mother Teresa in 1973, six years before the Indian missionary received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Created by the late Sir John Templeton, a global investor and philanthropist, the prize value is set so that it will always exceed that of the Nobel Prize.

That decision is based on the belief that benefits from discoveries that "illuminate spiritual questions," count more than those from "other worthy human endeavours."

The prize is the cornerstone of the Templeton Foundation, which is a philanthropic organization that funds research into "life's biggest questions" such as the "laws of nature and the universe and questions of love, gratitude, forgiveness and creativity."

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