Science and religion different but complementary, says prize-winning biologist

By Ecumenical News International
March 26, 2010

A geneticist and molecular biologist, who has argued that science and religion are distinct from one another, has won the Templeton Prize – an award associated with honouring those who advocate dialogue between the two disciplines.

Chris Herlinger writes: The winner of the prize, Francisco J. Ayala, aged 76 and a former Dominican priest, is a native of Spain and a naturalised US citizen. He now teaches biological science at the University of California in Irvine.

Ayala is known as an opponent of negative religious intrusion into science, and argues for the need to protect the teaching of evolutionary theory in US public schools.

Still, he has also called for discussions between religion and science, and claims that they "are like two different windows through which we look at the world".

"I contend that science and religious beliefs need not be in contradiction," Ayala said in prepared remarks for the 25 March 2010 announcement of the prize at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC.

"If they are properly understood, they cannot be in contradiction because science and religion concern different matters."

When asked if, as a former priest, he considers himself to be a Catholic scientist, Ayala told Ecumenical News International, "No, I am a scientist." He asserted that the Roman Catholic intellectual tradition has been able to develop a relatively friendly relationship with science because it has always upheld the view that there are differing strands within the Bible and Christian tradition.

In other remarks in his prepared statement, Ayala noted, "Science concerns the processes that account for the natural world: how the planets move; the composition of matter and space; the origin and function of organisms."

He added, "Religion concerns the meaning and purpose of the world and of human life, the proper relation of people to their creator and to each other, and the moral values that inspire and govern people's 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," said Ayala in his remarks. "Science and religion are like two different windows through which we look at the world. We see different aspects of reality through them, but the world at which we look is only one and the same."

In awarding Ayala the prize, valued at one million British pounds (US$1.5 million), John M. Templeton, Jr, who heads the John Templeton Foundation, praised Ayala's research, which centres on parasitic protozoa. His research is used in efforts to find cures for diseases such as malaria.

Templeton said Ayala's, "clear voice in matters of science and faith echoes the foundation's belief that evolution of the mind and truly open-minded inquiry can lead to real spiritual progress in the world."

Ayala has championed efforts to stop the equating of religion and science, and has stressed the importance of, "the survival of rationality in this country [the US]". In 1981, he was a witness in a US federal court case that overturned an Arkansas state law that had mandated the teaching of both creationism and evolution.

The Templeton Prize was created by the late global investor and philanthropist, Sir John Templeton, the father of the foundation's current president and chairperson. The foundation sees itself as a, "philanthropic catalyst for discovery in areas engaging life's biggest questions," whether they be scientific or spiritual.

The prize's monetary value always exceeds the amount given to Nobel Prize winners. Early Templeton prize winners included such well-known religious figures as Mother Teresa and the US evangelist Billy Graham. More recently, the prize has gone to scientists and theologians whose work focuses on the intersection of science and religion.

Prince Philip, who is the Duke of Edinburgh and husband of the British monarch, will award Ayala his prize at a private ceremony at London's Buckingham Palace on 5 May 2010.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]

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