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Templeton Prize winner Martin Rees: I’ve got no religious beliefs at all – interview

Astronomer royal Martin Rees

Astronomer Royal Martin Rees at The Garden of Cosmic Speculation at Portrack House designed by Charles Jencks near Dumfries in Scotland, July 2004. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

Ian Sample: Congratulations on the award.

Martin Rees: Thank you.

IS: Were you already a millionaire?

MR: Sorry?

IS: Were you already a millionaire?

MR: No comment.

IS: Why do you think you won?

MR: I was obviously rather surprised that I fitted the credentials, but as I see it, it is primarily because my work is on cosmology and astrophysics and they support work of that kind, because of its general interest. If you look at who has won it, I’m the 7th member of the Royal Society for instance. People like Freeman Dyson have won it, so I’m not out of line with the kind of people they have given it to in the past.

IS: So why the surprise? You’re not the first from the Royal Society, you’re not the first from Cambridge.

MR: Modesty I suppose. But also some of the winners have been more closely involved with philosophical issues in a more explicit way than I have.

IS: And what about theological issues?

MR: Well, I’ve got no religious beliefs at all. Of course some of the winners have, but I think not all of them.

IS: What do you think the Templeton prize achieves? What is the value of it?

MR: That’s not for me to say to be honest.

IS: You must have a view?

MR: No.

IS: But you think it achieves something?

MR: Well, I mean as much as other prizes, certainly, but I wouldn’t want to be more specific than that.

IS: That’s a shame. Might you at some time in the future?

MR: They are very nice people who are doing things which are within their agenda, but their agenda is really very broad. I should say that I was reassured by the rather good piece in Nature a few weeks ago, which talked about the Foundation and I found that reassuring. Certainly Cambridge University, I know, has received grants from Templeton for editing Darwin’s correspondence, which is a big Cambridge project, and also for some mathematical conferences. They support a range of purely scientific issues.

IS: Have you considered what to do with the money?

MR: I haven’t, no.

IS: You have been described as a churchgoer who doesn’t believe in God. Is that an accurate description?

MR: I suppose so. What I’ve said is I’m happy to attend my college chapel and things like that, because I see this as part of my culture, just like many Jews light candles on Friday night even though they don’t believe anything, and my culture is the Church of England, as it were.

IS: Are you a regular churchgoer?

MR: Not very regular, no. In my college, I go once a week during term as the Master of the College. And in Trinity College, we’re lucky enough to have a wonderful choir rated number five in the world by Gramophone magazine, so it’s worth hearing.

IS: Why don’t you believe in God?

MR: Um. Which God?

IS: A God.

MR: I don’t think I can answer that.

IS: Really?

MR: Mm.

IS: You must have thought about it.

MR: Yes. But there’s nothing very much I want to say about that. I suppose one thing I would say, from my BBC lectures, I think doing science makes me realise that even the simplest things are pretty hard to understand and that makes me suspicious of people who believe they’ve got anything more than an incomplete and metaphorical understanding of any deep aspect of reality. And also I see human beings as not the culmination, but only a stage in the marvellous unfolding of evolution, because the timeline ahead is as long as the time that has lapsed up to now. Those are respects in which my professional interests affect my response to dogmatic religion. But as I say, I participate in occasional religious services which are the customs of the society I grew up in. I’m not allergic to religion.

IS: What do you gain from churchgoing, considering you don’t subscribe to religious dogma or believe in God?

MR: Well, I think it’s a common traditional ritual which one participates in as part of one’s culture.

IS: Is it to do with aesthetic and belonging issues, of belonging to a group that has enjoyable rituals?

MR: I suppose so, yes.

IS: What do you make of the approach to science and religion issues taken by Richard Dawkins and those of his ilk?

MR: I won’t comment on him, but I’m not allergic to religion. I would say two things. One is that I think all of us are concerned about fanaticism and fundamentalism and we need all the allies we can muster against it. And I would see Rowan Williams et al as being on our side. I admire them more than want to rubbish them. Another point is if you are teaching Muslim sixth formers in a school and you tell them they can’t have their God and Darwin, there is a risk they will choose their God and be lost to science. So those are two respects where I would disagree with the emphasis of the professional atheists, as it were.

IS: Do you see an importance in trying to diffuse some of the conflict that sometimes gets stoked up between science and religion?

MR: I think they can co-exist. They are very different activities. Obviously one opposes Creationism and such-like, but it’s fairly clear that there are some scientists for whom religion is important and most of us for whom it isn’t, but again I think they can be co-existent.

IS: Do you think science and religion can have a constructive dialogue?

MR: I’m sceptical about that. I tend to avoid getting into these sorts of debates, because I’m not sure how much productive interaction there can be between them.

IS: Why do you think that is?

MR: They’re very different activities. You could say the same about science and music.

IS: What is your take on how schools should deal with Creationism and Intelligent Design?

MR: I have no unconventional views on this at all.

IS: Should they be taught within the religious aspects of a curriculum, or do they have a place in the science curriculum?

MR: Science teachers have to address them if they are brought up, but I am rather opposed to faith schools in general.

IS: What is your response to scientists who are dead-set against the Templeton Foundation, who see it as something insidious?

MR: I just don’t share their concerns. The Nature article indicated that their concerns are excessive.

IS: One criticism is that the Foundation funds research that is not likely to come up with useful answers, if any answers at all.

MR: I don’t know about that, but you could say that about research projects funded by anybody.

IS: You said in a BBC radio interview that one of the reasons you think science and religion can sit side-by-side and peacefully co-exist is that they deal with different realms.

MR: As I said earlier, I don’t think they have much scope for constructive interaction, but they have in common perhaps an awareness of mystery.

IS: The suggestion is that science deals with the “material world” and religion deals with something “extra-material”. Where does one end and the other start? There are aspects of religion that comment on the creation of Earth, the creation of the universe, the creation of humanity and the spread of HIV around Africa. Religion appears in those contexts, but are those not material issues?

MR: Yes. Obviously. But I think just as religion is separate from science, so is ethics separate from science. So is aesthetics separate from science. And so are many other things. There are lots of important things that are separate from science.

IS: If there is a clear and obvious boundary between science and religion, how does religion come to be used in these contexts?

MR: I try to avoid getting into these science and religion debates.

IS: Will you be able to stay out of them now you have the Templeton prize?

MR: It’s my choice.

IS: There was an extraordinary fuss last year over Stephen Hawking’s pronouncement that the creation of the universe did not require a God. What did you make of that?

MR: What I said at the time is that I know Stephen Hawking well enough to know that he has read little philosophy and less theology, so I don’t think his views should be taken with any special weight.

IS: You have read on those subjects. What’s your view?

MR: What’s my view? Well, I’m not prepared to pronounce on these things. I think it’s rather foolish when scientists do so.

IS: Did you talk to Richard Dawkins about his calling you a “compliant quisling”?

MR: No, I didn’t. But it’s not unexpected. I’m not quite sure what motivated it.

IS: Do you want to share any thoughts on your work?

MR: I am sorry you focused on science and religion rather than what I think are the interesting things I do. Which is trying to understand how structures form in the universe and the extent to which the laws of physics are universal. I’m trying to understand extreme phenomena in the cosmos and pushing back to the highest redshifts and things like that.

IS: Do you have any thoughts on whether we might find life elsewhere?

MR: One of the most exciting developments is the advance in studying planets around other stars and this is a fascinating subject in its own right, which I am starting to work on. But of course as to whether there is life out there, biology is a harder subject than astronomy, because it deals with more complex things and we don’t understand how life began on Earth. If we understood that, we’d have a better understanding of how likely it is that it got started in these other environments. I’m certainly hopeful that in 20 years we will probably understand better how life began on Earth and perhaps have some evidence of whether there is any beyond Earth.

IS: What motivates you as a scientist?

MR: Trying to understand these phenomena. When the history of science is written, what’s happened in understanding the cosmos in the past 20 years will be one of the exciting chapters. And I have felt lucky to be a part of that. For me, the satisfaction is not only what one does oneself, but being part of an on-going debate and discussion which clarifies some controversies but of course then addresses questions we couldn’t even have thought of 20 years before. The questions we are thinking about now couldn’t even have been posed back then. To be part of an exciting development is something I’ve been privileged to be and also I think another respect in which I have been fortunate is that this subject is one that does attract interest beyond the narrow professional community and I genuinely believe the key ideas can be put over in a non-technical way. And that’s why I have tried to devote some effort to doing this.

IS: You have spoken on the need for a scientifically-literate society. What value do you see in that?

MR: The kind of science I do is part of our culture and I think it’s intellectual impoverishment not to have some feel for Darwinism and what modern cosmology tells us. But since we’re in a world ever more moulded by science, and where decisions on how science is applied shouldn’t be made just by scientists, then that’s a reason why one hopes the public will at least have enough feel for science for debates to get beyond just slogans.

IS: Do you think we might soon have evidence for a multiverse?

MR: There are strong reasons for believing that space goes on beyond the limits of our observational horizon. There are strong reasons because if you look in opposite directions, conditions are the same to within one part in 100,000. So if we are part of some finite structure then, if the gradient is so shallow, it is likely to go on much further. There are lots of theoretical reasons which suggest there is a lot more far beyond what we can see. That is just the aftermath of our Big Bang, as it were, but then there are these ideas that there may be other big bangs in various contexts and in those other domains, different laws of physics. String theory suggests this. There are lots of ideas which extend the Copernican principle one step further. We went from the solar system to the galaxy to zillions of galaxies and now to realising even that isn’t all there is. I think this is very speculative science, but it may be firmed up, in particular if we have a theory which applies to the very early stages of the Big Bang. The problem is, of course, that all these processes like quantum gravity and inflation happen under conditions far more extreme than we can simulate in the lab and therefore the physics is speculative, but if we have a physical theory which gained credibility because we could test it in other ways, and which we felt described the very early stages of the big bang, then it would be interesting to know if that theory predicted one Big Bang or many and what it predicted about the universality of nature. These are important questions. I’m not a specialist in this. I follow it and I was one of the first people to talk about such things, but most of the time I work on issues which are more directly linked to observations, like the high redshift galaxies and how we can probe how they formed. But I think this idea that goes by the name of the multiverse, it’s speculative science but it is science, not metaphysics.

IS: How do you feel about the prospect of there being other Martin Reeses out there?

MR: They are surely a very long way away, which is reassuring. Far beyond the horizon.

IS: Do you think science is endless?

MR: Yes. I think it is a job that’s never done. It’s the classic thing of Hobbes’s quotation in Medawar’s famous lecture: there can be no contentment but in proceeding.

Ian Sample spoke to the astronomer royal Martin Rees on Tuesday before the announcement that he had won the Templeton Prize. This is a full transcript of the interview


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