Biochemist-theologian unites Darwin and divinity

For third year in a row, Templeton Prize for progress in religion goes to a scientist.

There's an old legend that irks the Rev. Arthur Peacocke.

The story goes that the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley debated the principles of evolution with Bishop Samuel Wilberforce at the 1860 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Mr. Huxley claimed a victory, and the exchange would be forever remembered as the day religion was slain by the sword of science.

Even today, at the annual meetings of the association, journalists will still remark that this was where science defeated religion - an idea Mr. Peacocke is dedicated to debunking.

"People want confrontation," says Peacocke, a physical biochemist and an ordained Anglican priest. "Religion versus science is good copy."

Religion and science working together hardly makes headlines, he adds. But as scientists continue to push the frontiers of genetics, posing new ethical challenges and raising questions about the nature of man, the confluence of these two fields is gaining fresh attention. One of the most high-profile examples: the announcement yesterday that Peacocke had become the third scientist in a row to win the Templeton Prize for progress in religion.

Peacocke, the only Oxford University theology faculty member who is both a doctor of science and of divinity, was honored for his contribution to the dialogue of science and religion.

The prize, created in 1973 by the mutual-fund wizard and philanthropist John Templeton, carries with it a stipend of just over $1 million. Past winners have included Mother Theresa and the Rev. Billy Graham as well as physicists Freeman Dyson (1999) and Ian Barbour (2000).

"It does make me feel good about what I've spent half of my life doing," Peacocke says.

Peacocke and others in his field believe that the scientific discoveries - such as cloning and theories about the origin of the universe - create ethical conundrums and new imperatives for scientists to look to religion and vice versa.

"The whole world is seeing genetics as a religious issue and as a scientific issue," says Ted Peters of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley, Calif. Dr. Peters is a theologian who is working on the human genome mapping project.

Peacocke argues that there are ways to unite both Darwin and divinity. The building blocks of genetics, found in the relationship between proteins and DNA, are common to all living things, he says. "All life is historically interconnected."

Unlike Creationists, Peacocke believes that God is not separate from the process of evolution. "It isn't as though God is outside, coming in every now and again to kick things and tweak things, pushing them in the right direction," he says. "God makes things to make themselves."

Peacocke began his career investigating the world of science, but eventually found limitations there. When science could not provide answers for his constant question "why," he sought out others working in both religion and science. In 1985, he founded the Society of Ordained Scientists, which now has 79 members. The society is an ecumenical, international order that seeks to foster the spirituality of those working as scientists and as ordained persons, and to act as a bridge between the Anglican Church and science.

Many also credit Peacocke's written works - eight books and numerous papers - as an integral part of the growing interest in the connections between religion and science.

"All of us are noticing that the books we write and the things we talk about seem to be of more interest than 10 years ago," says Ursula Goodenough, an author and professor of biology.

Exploring the nexus of science and religion "is an idea whose time is right," says Philip Hefner, the editor of Zygon, at present the only academic journal for religion and science.

A second journal is expected in early 2002, and more courses are being offered each year at universities and colleges. Peacocke says he plans to use his prize winnings to encourage the next generation to join the discussions of science and religion.

Peacocke says he had a realization a few days ago: He took his two young grandchildren to a planetarium, where a long spiral staircase symbolizes life on this planet. At the end of all the steps, each marking a million years, is a hair's width representing the presence of homo sapiens.

"That picture couldn't have been given 50 years ago," he says. It particularly struck him that his grandchildren would take that knowledge for granted.

"We're the first generation that has really had any reliable knowledge of the development of the cosmos and of human life and its emergence on this planet," he says. "This is a very crucial time."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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