In an announcement today of the award, Polkinghorne, 71, was honored for integrating scientific approaches and religious thinking into "a modern and compelling, new exploration of the faith."
Polkinghorne, whose previous honors include being knighted in 1997 by Queen Elizabeth II, left a prestigious teaching position at the University of Cambridge in 1979 to become an Anglican priest, a move that startled his students and colleagues in the field of mathematical physics.
But Polkinghorne had long been gravitating toward religion and felt he had made his mark on the world of physics. "I had done my little bit for science," he said later, "and it was time to try to do something different."
In the years since, Polkinghorne has become a prominent leader in the growing interdisciplinary field of science and religion, and has won great acclaim for what Thomas Torrance, former moderator of the Church of Scotland and a professor of Christian dogmatics at the University of Edinburgh, called a "new stage in (the) conceptual integration" of the two realms.
In an interview prior to the announcement, which was made at the Church Center for the United Nations in New York, Polkinghorne called himself passionate about the unity of knowledge, and faulted the contemporary world for its tendency "to press for specialization, which means knowing more and more about less and less."
He acknowledged the difficulty the worlds of science and religion have in meeting each other, but suggested that interest in science and the need to affirm its importance was actually a point at which different religious faiths and traditions could meet.
Prior to Polkinghorne's and Peacocke's winning the Templeton, two other scientists had won the honor: the physicist Freeman J. Dyson in 2000, and physicist and theologian Ian Barbour in 1999.
Of the recent winners, Polkinghorne said he was perhaps the most traditionally Christian -- saying his work has to be seen in the context of a peculiarly Anglican tradition that emphasizes reason as well as Scripture and tradition.
In that spirit, Polkinghorne utilizes what he calls scientific "bottom-up thinking" for his theological work; it is a way, he said, to "move from experience to understanding," and enables him to discern what evidence is needed to be persuasive.
"It is asking: `What makes you think that might be the case?'" Polkinghorne said, citing the method of his 1993 Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh in which he examined, phrase by phrase, the rationality of the Nicene Creed.
Polkinghorne said he finds religion to be the thornier and more difficult of the two fields because of its deeper implications, and said the consequences of distorting religion can be grave -- something he is acutely aware of, being in New York City six months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "Religion is the source of much good in the world but it is also the source of much evil," he said. "When religion goes wrong, it goes terribly wrong."
The Templeton Prize -- formerly the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion and renamed this year the Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries About Spiritual Realities -- was established in the early 1970s by John Marks Templeton, a U.S.-born investor who is now a British subject and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1987.
The prize is valued at 700,000 pounds sterling -- about $1 million -- and is the largest monetary prize given to an individual. It surpasses the amount given Nobel laureates because Templeton believes the advances in religion are often of greater importance to humanity than the work in fields acknowledged by the Nobel prizes.
Polkinghorne said he planned to donate most of the prize money to fund science and religion postdoctoral programs at Cambridge, where he returned in the mid-1980s to pursue his interdisciplinary work.
Polkinghorne will be awarded the Templeton Prize April 29 at a private ceremony at Buckingham Palace.
Though in recent years the award has been presented to the growing number of scientist-theologians, the Templeton Prize was initially given to such prominent religious figures as the late Mother Teresa and the evangelist Billy Graham.