Statement Upon Receipt of Templeton "Science and Religion Prize"

Freeman Dyson

At the Templeton Prize News Conference, March 22, 2000

First, a big thank you to Sir John Templeton and the administrators of the Templeton Foundation for giving me this undeserved and unexpected honor. Second, a big thankyou to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton for supporting me as a Professor of Physics while I strayed into other areas remote from physics. Third, a big thankyou to the editors and publishers of my books for giving me the chance to communicate with a wider public. Fourth, a big thankyou to my wife and family for keeping me from getting a swelled head.

Now I have five minutes to give you my message. The message is simple. "God forbid that we should give out a dream of our own imagination for a pattern of the world." This was said by Francis Bacon, one of the founding fathers of modern science, almost four hundred years ago. Bacon was the smartest man of his time, with the possible exception of William Shakespeare. Bacon saw clearly what science could do and what science could not do. He is saying to the philosophers and theologians of his time: look for God in the facts of nature, not in the theories of Plato and Aristotle. I am saying to modern scientists and theologians: don't imagine that our latest ideas about the Big Bang or the human genome have solved the mysteries of the universe or the mysteries of life.

Here are Bacon's words again: "The subtlety of nature is greater many times over than the subtlety of the senses and understanding." In the last four hundred years, science has fulfilled many of Bacon's dreams, but it still does not come close to capturing the full subtlety of nature. After sketching his program for the scientific revolution that he foresaw, Bacon ends his account with a prayer: "Humbly we pray that this mind may be steadfast in us, and that through these our hands, and the hands of others to whom thou shalt give the same spirit, thou wilt vouchsafe to endow the human family with new mercies." That is still a good prayer for all of us as we begin the twenty-first century.

Science and religion are two windows that people look through, trying to understand the big universe outside, trying to understand why we are here. The two windows give different views, but they look out at the same universe. Both views are one-sided, neither is complete. Both leave out essential features of the real world. And both are worthy of respect. As the old Swiss nurse who helped to take care of our babies used to say, "Some people like to go to church, and some people like cherries."

Trouble arises when either science or religion claims universal jurisdiction, when either religious dogma or scientific dogma claims to be infallible. Religious creationists and scientific materialists are equally dogmatic and insensitive. By their arrogance they bring both science and religion into disrepute. The media exaggerate their numbers and importance. You media people should tell the public that the great majority of religious people belong to moderate denominations that treat science with respect, and the great majority of scientists treat religion with respect so long as religion does not claim jurisdiction over scientific questions. In the little town of Princeton where I live, we have more than twenty churches and at least one synagogue, providing different forms of worship and belief for different kinds of people. They do more than any other organizations in the town to hold the community together. Within this community of people, held together by religious traditions of human brotherhood and sharing of burdens, a smaller community of professional scientists also flourishes.

The great question for our time is, how to make sure that the continuing scientific revolution brings benefits to everybody rather than widening the gap between rich and poor. To lift up poor countries, and poor people in rich countries, from poverty, to give them a chance of a decent life, technology is not enough. Technology must be guided and driven by ethics if it is to do more than provide new toys for the rich. Scientists and business leaders who care about social justice should join forces with environmentalists and religious organizations to give political clout to ethics. Science and religion should work together to abolish the gross inequalities that prevail in the modern world. That is my vision, and it is the same vision that inspired Francis Bacon four hundred years ago, when he prayed that through science God would "endow the human family with new mercies."

Freeman Dyson

Institute for Advanced Study

Princeton, NJ 08540


George L. Murphy

Last year's Kansas school board decision reminded us that there are ongoing attempts to limit the teaching of evolution and other aspects of science which disturb some Christians, and has evoked a good deal of concern in the scientific community. Adrian Melott discussed the matter in these pages and noted both "the relative passivity of the mainstream churches" on the issue as well as the potential value of clergy support for good science education.

Melott's criticisms of clergy and religious communities are generally on target. There is a lack of willingness on the part of clergy to get involved in public debates about evolution and a fear of membership loss if they do speak out among many religious leaders who are not hostile to evolution itself. There are, however, positive suggestions which can be made with regard to these clergy and religious communities in answer to Melott's question "What to Do?" To put it briefly, more serious attention needs to be given to dialogue and cooperation between scientists and theologians.

Interest in relationships between religion, science, technology, and ethics (often abbreviated "religion and science") has grown tremendously over the past twenty-five years, and there are now many organizations, journals, books, conferences, and centers devoted to this work. College, university, and seminary courses, many of which have received support from the John Templeton Foundation, explore different parts of the science-religion interface, and related programs of the AAAS have encouraged these discussions. Much of this work, while valuable, is academic and hasn't yet percolated down to clergy and congregations.

There has, however, been some activity at a more practical level. There is, of course, a great deal of attention given to ethical issues associated with biomedical technologies and environmental issues. Many seminaries offer courses dealing with science and theology and a number of denominations have work groups on issues related to science and technology, groups which cooperate in the Ecumenical Roundtable on Science and Technology. Many of the clergy and laity involved in these activities are sympathetic to work in physical cosmology and biological evolution and think it possible to understand these scientific developments in a theologically responsible fashion.

Thus there are teaching theologians, clergy, and laity who are concerned about good science education and who don't want to maintain the tired old "warfare of science with theology" model. They recognize that bad science is often a mainstay of toxic religion, and that proper education in science and technology is an appropriate social concern of religious communities. These people are interested in cooperation with the scientific community to promote good science education and to resist movements to excise certain areas of science from public education or attempts to get pseudoscience into school curriculums. (And it ought to be emphasized that there is significant overlap between the scientific community and communities of faith. There are many scientists who are religious believers.) But cooperation will be effective only in the larger context of a dialogue between science and religion.

That seems fairly obvious but it runs counter to the views of some scientists. We may put aside those like Richard Dawkins, whose contempt for religion is clear. There are, however, also scientists such as Stephen Gould and Lawrence Krauss who grant some legitimacy to religion but think that it and science should have nothing to do with one another. Gould's proposal of a NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria) principle requires that he condemn attempts to explore common ground between the two, while Krauss thinks that dialogue would keep scientists from criticizing fundamentalists as strongly as they should.

There is a variety of views about the appropriate relationship between science and theology, of which positions like those of Gould or Krauss form only one group.. My own belief is that because Christianity speaks about God as the creator of the physical world (though it does not give a modern scientific description of creative events), and because science encounters boundary issues of meaning, purpose, and value which cannot be answered within science itself, genuine science-theology dialogue is both possible and desirable.

All of these views can be debated. What seems to me quite certain, however, is that a rigorous application of something like a NOMA principle would seriously hinder any cooperation between the scientific community and churches in attempts to resist obscurantism and promote good science. Many clergy, as I've noted, are in favor of such efforts, but this work is understandably not their highest priority. Those who are, as Melott observes, concerned about backlash from some parishioners and loss of members will have their anxieties increased by a perceived hostility from scientists. Clergy who get the sense from scientists that their ideas are of no interest, that their cooperation is not wanted, or that they will only be tolerated as token witnesses before school boards or legislative committees, will decide to spend their time on issues more closely related to their primary ministries.

This would be unfortunate because there is a need for informed clergy to speak out in such forums. If legislators get testimony on educational issues only from religious leaders who are opposed to evolution, their natural political tendency will be to hear that as the voice of the religious constituency. Clergy with a more balanced approach may not be able to change the theological views of politicians but they can have a significant practical impact if they make it clear that there are committed church members who view attempts to limit or distort science education with disfavor.

If clergy and laity are to be effective in support of the work of scientists and science education, there must be at a minimum some discussion between the two groups about areas in which action is needed and appropriate strategies and tactics for dealing with problems. But conversation really has to go beyond that. If they are to be supportive in intelligent ways, clergy will need to have some understanding of the current state of science. In gaining that understanding they may raise questions and challenge claims made by some scientists, such as ideas that evolution can explain the meaning of life or demonstrate its meaninglessness. Scientists, on the other hand, must have some grasp of theological concepts if they are to be able to defend competent science in public forums without unnecessarily offending religious believers who have no quarrel with the big bang or evolution. They may need, for example, to ask theologians, "What do you mean by a 'doctrine of creation' if not a naive reading of Genesis as scientific or historical narrative?" But they may also have to disabuse theologians of some misconceptions about science, such as beliefs that evolutionary theory has to do with optimistic ideas of "progress."

A scientist need not accept the views of creation of modern theologians but it is important that those views be known and that their commonalities with and differences from more traditional ideas be recognized. Serious dialogue does, however, require openness to being convinced by what the dialogue partner says: No real understanding or appreciation will be gained if we think, "I'll listen to what these people say but I sure won't believe it!" The very reason that there is consonance between much of modern theology and science is that some theologians have been willing to hear what scientists have had to say and to modify or expand some traditional religious concepts.

In the nature of things, specific problems related to science in public schools are likely to be perceived sooner by scientists than by clergy of mainline churches, and scientists should take the initiative in contacting sympathetic clergy. It will not be immediately obvious what clergy are "sympathetic": Views on issues like evolution do not always follow denominational lines, although general tendencies exist. Prior familiarity with stances of different churches and acquaintance with local clergy will be helpful. Work groups on science and technology within churches which have them may be able to suggest resources for clergy and congregations who want to be involved with issues of public policy in this area.

Scientists don't necessarily have to "get religion" and religious believers may question some scientific and technological developments. But the respect and understanding which can result from serious dialogue between science and religion, including disagreement which is conducted in a civil manner, can be conducive to cooperation directed toward improved understanding of the world and the human place in it.

George L. Murphy

St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Akron, Ohio,

and Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio


So You Want To Become A Critic

Dean E. Abrahamson



A number of students and former students have asked how established interests react to a critic or what they should do if they aspire to effective criticship. The following response is based on thirty years of personal experience doing public education work regarding atomic energy.

A critic is defined as one who publicly expresses disagreement with established policy or dogma.

The Response to a Critic

A critic must be prepared for attempts to be discredited, intimidated, co-opted, and, or, fired. Attempting to discredit is a routine part of the agenda for dealing with a critic be it relating to atomic energy, drug or tobacco testing, or most other issues. The usual steps in the process are:

The critic appears. The first response is to ignore the critic. The critic either goes away or does not go away.

The critic persists. The second response is for representatives of the established interest to allege that the critic is not an expert. These allegations can, by themselves, compromise the critic’s employment and reputation. It is much more difficult to sustain a claim of incompetence when the critic comes from within the establishment that is subjected to the critic’s attention — in this case the critic becomes a whistle blower.

The critic must demonstrate expertise. He or she must convince someone that they know their subject of criticism. Many critics cannot demonstrate competence and they either fade away or associate with like-minded folks and are largely ignored. Others demonstrate expertise by convincing experienced members of the written press, by withstanding cross-examination at a hearing or in a court, by publishing and meeting the tests of referred journals, or in other ways.

The critic is allowed a fair hearing. The forum in which the discussions are taking place may respond favorably, the critic will be given what he or she considers to be a fair hearing, and that will more or less be the end of it.

An attempt to co-opt the critic is made. This is often the next step in cases when a fair hearing is granted. The critic will be thanked for bringing the issue to attention and the critic may be asked to serve on this or that high-level advisory committee or some such and the critic is admonished to defer any more public activities until the committee’s work is done. (One must be particularly wary of high-level advisory committees. Such committees are seldom taken seriously or they have a lifetime exceeding the schedule for the events of interest.) Novice critics often take this bait.

The critic persists, has demonstrated expertise, has not been given what he or she considers to be a fair hearing, and has not succumbed to co-option. The fourth response is usually to threaten the critic’s well being — threaten to get the critic fired or to get his or her funding cut, assert pressure on officials at his or her university, muck around with the critic’s credit rating — or engage in more personal efforts to discredit the critic. The latter can take one of several forms, e.g., investigations into the critic’s personal life looking for scandal; setting the critic up with a honey trap or some such; alleging that the critic is not really interested in anything other than personal fame or financial gain; the list goes on. Note that the fourth response, unlike the second response, is easier when the critic is a whistle-blower.

The critic persists, has demonstrated expertise, has not been given what she or he considers to be a fair hearing, does not fall for co-option devices, and it has not been able to otherwise discredit the critic on personal grounds. It seldom gets to this point, but things can get rough.

Hints for the Aspiring Critic

Effective criticship requires discipline and, in some ways, is an art form.

Some suggestions are:

Make no errors, particularly technical errors. Spokespersons for and employees of established interests will be protected by their institutions unless they demonstrate a truly extraordinary degree of incompetence or mendacity. But the critic stands alone, protected only by his or her creditability. The demonstration of error quickly results in the erosion of a critic’s credibility.

Understand your own motives, purposes, and goals — understand what you want and why you want it.

Try to understand your opponents’ assumptions, arguments, evidence, and goals as well as you understand your own.

Cultivate the press. Understand the press. Never mislead the press. Remember that every Interaction with members of the working press is an exchange transaction: they want something from you and you want something from them. The critic’s objectives should include being the first person called by the press for comment or explanations. It is also best for the novice critic to avoid TV reporters unless he or she knows that they and their editors know the difference between a scientific or policy disagreement and a train wreck. (Experienced critics understand how to craft ten-second sound bites that are irresistible to TV reporters and editors.) An exception to the TV rule is when there is live broadcasting with no possibility of incompetent or malicious editing.

Acquire some friends but avoid the zealots and crackpots who, unfortunately, are usually found in all camps in serious policy debates.

Never assume that a conspiracy is under way. This is not to say that there are no conspiracies, but making such an assumption without there being overwhelming evidence will not only detract from your credibility but also will lead you down hopeless rabbit trails.

Beware of strangers bearing gifts. Be particularly wary of copies of supposedly sensitive documents that are delivered anonymously.

Be scrupulous about your taxes and other financial affairs. A critic’s tax returns and credit record will be examined carefully.

Assume that all telephone, email, and such communications are being monitored. They often will be.

Remember that so-called scientific or technical experts have no qualifications beyond those of any other citizen to express opinions on policy or political outcomes. A delicate balance between the rôles of credible expert and advocate is difficult to strike.

It is helpful to have competent legal council available from time to time.

Finally, remember that if bitten when swimming with sharks, the cardinal rule is: do not bleed!


Dean Abrahamson

Visiting Professor, Department of Physical Resource Theory, Institute of Physics & Technical Physics, Chalmers Technical University, Göteborg, Sweden & Professor Emeritus, Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota.

Mailing Address

82 Orlin Ave. S.E.

Minneapolis, MN, USA