Physicist scoops religion prize
Mar 14, 2002
A former particle physicist who became an Anglican priest has been awarded this year's Templeton Prize for progress in religion. John Polkinghorne, 71, wins the £700 000 prize for his treatment of theology as a natural science. "Contemporary science is all about trying to answer the 'how'," Polkinghorne told PhysicsWeb. "Religion examines the meaning and purpose of life." Polkinghorne is the fourth physicist to have won the prize since 1995, following Paul Davies (1995), Ian Barbour (1999) and Freeman Dyson (2000).
Polkinghorne made his name as a particle physicist in the 1960s and 1970s. But in 1979 – following a life as a practising Christian – he quit his post as professor of mathematical physicist at Cambridge University to train as an Anglican priest. After two years as a parish priest in Bristol and a stint as a vicar in Kent, Polkinghorne returned to academia in 1986 to become dean of Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He was then president of Queens' College Cambridge from 1989 until he retired in 1996.
Polkinghorne believes that science and theology are not opposed to one another and that they provide a different perspective on the world. "Both believe that there is a truth to be sought and found through the pursuit of well-motivated belief," he says. "I need the binocular approach of science and religion if I am to do any sort of justice to the deep and rich reality of the world in which we live."
Polkinghorne, who has written 14 books on science and religion over the last 20 years, thinks that theology must be flexible enough to take on board contemporary scientific views. He believes, for example, that God and the Big Bang are perfectly compatible with each other. But one of the main differences between science and religion, according to Polkinghorne, is the fact that scientific knowledge builds on past understanding, whereas there is an unchanging core at the heart of religious beliefs. "What changes is our interpretation of religion. Each generation has to take the understandings of faith and make them its own."
The Templeton Prize is awarded by the Templeton Foundation, which was set up by Wall Street financier John Templeton in 1972. Recognized as the world's best known religion prize, it is awarded each year to a living person "to encourage and honour those who advance spiritual matters". Polkinghorne says he will use the money to fund post-doctoral research into science and religion at Cambridge. "Theology, like any other subject, needs financial support," he says.
About the author
Matin Durrani is Deputy Editor of Physics World