One of Alastair Campbell's most celebrated – and sensible – pieces of advice to Tony Blair was that "we don't do God". The perils of "doing God" were on full display yesterday, after the announcement that Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, former President of the Royal Society and Master of Trinity College Cambridge, was this year's winner of the Templeton Prize. This award – which was once for "progress in religion", but has since broadened its remit – routinely raises passions, a phenomenon probably not unrelated to its £1m value. Even so, this year's outpouring of vitriol was unusual.
In the past, it has tended to be the Templeton Foundation that has caught the flak, for – some have said – courting amenable scientists with a view to validating its own work on religion. This year, however, the recipient was in the firing line. Essentially, Lord Rees was accused of letting the scientific side down. Atheists on either side of the Atlantic rushed to condemn the perilous blurring of borders between science and religion, with Professor Richard Dawkins leading the charge. "That will look great on Templeton's CV," he said of the award; "not so good on Martin's." Which only goes to show that impassioned atheists yield little in sectarian bile to ardent believers when it comes to picking a fight.