Charles Townes, who received the 1964 Nobel Prize for inventing the “maser” and paving scientists’ path to its now-ubiquitous descendant, the laser, will receive the $1.5 million award — the world’s best-known religion prize — from the Duke of Edinburgh in a ceremony to be conducted at Buckingham Palace in England on May 4th.

The prize money will benefit religion scholars and religious groups and charities in the Bay Area and elsewhere. Townes, 89, plans to give substantial shares of the prize to the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, the Berkeley-based Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, the Berkeley Ecumenical Chaplaincy to the Homeless, and the First Congregational Church of Berkeley, university officials said.

In addition, he plans to give a major share of the money to his alma mater, Furman University, a Baptist college in his hometown of Greenville, S.C.

The prize was announced Wednesday at the Church Center for the United Nations in New York City. Formally known as the Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities, the award was founded in 1972 by investor-philanthropist Sir John Templeton and is “given each year to a living person to encourage and honor those who advance knowledge in spiritual matters,” says a statement issued by the John Templeton Foundation, in West Conshohocken, Pa.

Scientists can have epiphanies — flashes of insight — reminiscent of the epiphanies described in religious literature, Townes says. He has written about how in 1951, while sitting on a park bench in Washington, D.C., he experienced the revelation that gave him the ideas for the basic principles of the maser.

He first began publicly discussing the convergence of science and religion in a 1966 article for the IBM magazine Think — the same year that Time magazine ran a famous cover story that asked: “Is God Dead?” In Townes’ article, he proposed that, contrary to widespread perception, science and religion have a great deal in common: “Their differences are largely superficial, and … the two become almost indistinguishable if we look at the real nature of each.”

Some famous scientists, like Albert Einstein, have publicly used the term “God” as a metaphor for nature and the universe. But in a phone interview, Townes described himself as a Protestant Christian who believes God is a personal external being with whom believers can have a personal relationship. He also believes in the effectiveness of prayer, noting, “I pray regularly.” But he’s on the fence regarding the question of immortality: “I can’t prove (it happens) but I see no reason to disbelieve it.”

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