Peacocke, who is 77 years old, began his academic career in the 1950s, studying the newly discovered double helix of DNA; he was part of a group of researchers at the University of California at Berkeley who detailed some of the technical properties of the double helix shortly after its discovery. Later, Peacocke returned to Oxford University in England, where he has taught since, and developed an interest in religion, eventually becoming the only person on the school's divinity faculty to hold dual doctorates in science and theology.
In 1971, he was ordained as a member of the Anglican clergy, and in 1986 he founded the Society of Ordained Scientists, a mainly Anglican organization for working scientists. He has published numerous books on the boundary between science and religion, notably the 1986 "God and the New Biology," which argues against the view that advances in science show human beings to be just biological machines. He often lectures on the "deist" idea that the laws of nature indicate there must be a Creator or Lawgiver.
Peacocke's work is considered significant because he is an accomplished scientist who also believes in the existence of God. His ordination 30 years ago was a celebrated event in England; while in the 19th century many Oxford scientists were Anglican clergy, by the postwar era this had become somewhat rare. (Peacocke is often confused with John Polkinghorne, an English physicist who was ordained as a priest at about the same time; their similar science backgrounds and similar last names lead to regular misunderstandings.)
Speaking in New York, Peacocke said, "I have often been asked something like this: `How is it that you, a research scientist involved in the early work on the exciting structure of DNA, could have become so interested in what many think of as the opposite of science, religion, that you should not only be a member of the Church but even become a priest in it?' My response is that the search for intelligibility that characterizes science and the search for meaning that characterizes religion are two necessary intertwined strands of the human enterprise and are not opposed. I came only gradually to this understanding by persistently asking the question `Why?' as my scientific training had rightly impressed upon me." In 1994 he wrote, "Although faith goes beyond what is logically demonstrable, it is capable of rational motivation. Christians do not have to close their minds, nor are they faced with the dilemma of having to choose between ancient faith and modern knowledge. They can hold both together."
A strong proponent of the theory of evolution and opponent of creationism, Peacocke believes that science and religion are much less opposed than widely assumed. "The reason so many people think science and religion are at each other's throats is that the media likes to create this perception," he has said. "Within science there are some vehement atheists who are evangelists for their position," Peacocke has said, naming Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard University and Richard Dawkins of Oxford, "but most scientists have open minds about ultimate questions." Peacocke believes questions of science and religion will become increasingly important in years to come, mainly because science will turn to theology to help it address the quandaries created by technology and genetic engineering. He also thinks that ever-evolving science will force the world's faiths to evolve. "Theology must function in the light of whatever science can prove," Peacocke has said. "It's not a matter of closing up the church fortress but opening the windows and letting in the light. Future faith is certain to change based on scientific discovery."
The Templeton Prize was endowed by John Templeton, the wealthy English financier who invented the public mutual fund and who has, in retirement, taken as his cause "progress in religion." This, Templeton has said, means mutual tolerance among the faiths, public debate about faith, and the quest for reconciliation of science and religion. Past winners of the award include Mother Teresa, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Billy Graham. In recent years, many Templeton Prizes have gone to academics, including the 1999 winner Ian Barbour, an American professor who developed curricula for the interdisciplinary teaching of science and religion.