Image: Francisco Ayala
Mark Finkenstaedt / Templeton Prize
Geneticist and former Dominican priest Francisco Ayala speaks Thursday at a news conference on his selection for the 2010 Templeton Prize.
updated 3/26/2010 12:38:53 PM ET 2010-03-26T16:38:53

A former priest who became an evolutionary geneticist and molecular biologist and helped scientifically refute creationism with his research is being honored with one of the world's top religion prizes.

Francisco J. Ayala, 76, a U.S. citizen originally from Spain, will receive the 2010 Templeton Prize, valued at $1.53 million, the John Templeton Foundation announced on Thursday at the National Academy of Sciences.

The prize is the largest monetary award given each year to an individual, and honors a living person who made exceptional contributions to affirming life's spiritual dimension. Officials increase the value each year to exceed the Nobel Prize.

"I see religion and science as two of the pillars on which American society rests," Ayala told The Associated Press, saying that the United States is one of the world's most religious countries. "We have these two pillars not talking, not seeing they can reinforce each other."

Ayala is a notable choice because he opposes the entanglement of science and religion. The former Dominican priest is adamant that science and religion do not contradict each other.

"If they are properly understood, they cannot be in contradiction because science and religion concern different matters, and each is essential to human understanding," he said in remarks prepared for the acceptance ceremony.

Research could lead to cures
Ayala is a top professor of biological sciences at the University of California at Irvine. His pioneering genetic research led to revelations that could help develop cures for malaria and other diseases.

In January, he co-authored a paper that established gorillas and chimps may serve as reservoirs for parasites that cause human malaria, showing that even if a vaccine is developed, humans will be vulnerable to re-infection.

Seven signs of evolution in actionAyala has long worked to foster dialogue between religion and science and said tension between the fields has subsided over time.

In 1981, Ayala was an expert witness in a U.S. federal court challenge that helped overturn an Arkansas law mandating the teaching of creationism alongside evolution. Three years later, the National Academy of Sciences asked Ayala to serve as principal author of "Science, Evolution and Creationism," which categorically refuted creationism and intelligent design.

He has said efforts to block religious intrusion into science equate with "the survival of rationality in this country."

"The Bible is not a textbook about science," he said. "It's not introductory astronomy."

Personal beliefs kept private
Ayala said religion brings hope and meaning to people, and they know God exists as a matter of faith. Such questions are beyond the realm of science, he said.

As for his personal religious beliefs, Ayala said they have evolved, but he prefers to keep them private.

The foundation has honored more traditional religious figures in the past, including Billy Graham, as well as scientists and philosophers.

Ayala is scheduled to receive the prize May 5 in a private ceremony at London's Buckingham Palace. He plans to give the prize money to charity, likely for education.

Associated Press writer Steve Coleman contributed to this report.

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