EDGE: PROGRESS IN RELIGION
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PROGRESS IN RELIGION
A Talk By Freeman Dyson

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 thank you to the editors and publishers of my books for giving me the chance to communicate with a wider public. Fourth, a big thank you to my wife and family for keeping me from getting a swelled head. And fifth, a big thank you to the Washington National Cathedral for allowing us to use this magnificent building for our ceremonies.

Sir John Templeton has told us clearly the purpose of his awards. They are prizes for Progress in Religion. But it is up to us to figure out what Progress in Religion means. Roughly speaking, there have been two main themes in the lives of the previous prize-winners. The first theme is practical good works, caring for the poor and sick, helping the dying to die with dignity. Outstanding among the doers of good works were Mother Teresa and Dame Cicely Saunders. The second theme is scholarly study and teaching, helping people who are committed to one religion or another to approach God through intellectual understanding, explaining to the uncommitted the logical foundations of belief. Outstanding among the scholarly prize-winners are James McCord and Ian Barbour. I am amazed to find myself in the company of these great spirits, half of them saints and the other half theologians. I am neither a saint nor a theologian.

To me, good works are more important than theology. We all know that religion has been historically, and still is today, a cause of great evil as well as great good in human affairs. We have seen terrible wars and terrible persecutions conducted in the name of religion. We have also seen large numbers of people inspired by religion to lives of heroic virtue, bringing education and medical care to the poor, helping to abolish slavery and spread peace among nations. Religion amplifies the good and evil tendencies of individual souls. Religion will always remain a powerful force in the history of our species. To me, the meaning of progress in religion is simply this, that as we move from the past to the future the good works inspired by religion should more and more prevail over the evil.

Even in the gruesome history of the twentieth century, I see some evidence of progress in religion. The two individuals who epitomized the evils of our century, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, were both avowed atheists. Religion cannot be held responsible for their atrocities. And the three individuals who epitomized the good, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa, were all in their different ways religious. One of the great but less famous heroes of World War Two was Andre Trocme, the Protestant pastor of the village of Le Chambon sur Lignon in France, which sheltered and saved the lives of five thousand Jews under the noses of the Gestapo. Forty years later Pierre Sauvage, one of the Jews who was saved, recorded the story of the village in a magnificent documentary film with the title, "Weapons of the Spirit". The villagers proved that civil disobedience and passive resistance could be effective weapons, even against Hitler. Their religion gave them the courage and the discipline to stand firm. Progress in religion means that, as time goes on, religion more and more takes the side of the victims against the oppressors.


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