The Templeton Foundation: A Skeptic's Take


Chronicle of Higher Education
April 7, 2006

A year ago, I faced an ethical dilemma. The John Templeton Foundation was inviting me to be one of the first batch of Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellows in Science and Religion. The 10 fellows were to spend several weeks at the University of Cambridge, listening to scientists and philosophers pontificate on topics related to science and religion. The fellowship not only sounded like fun, it also paid all expenses and threw in an extra $15,000~ a tempting sum for a freelancer, which I was at the time. On the other hand, as an agnostic increasingly disturbed by religion's influence on human affairs, I had misgivings about the foundation's agenda of reconciling religion and science.

So what did I do? I went to Cambridge, of course. I rationalized that taking the foundation's money did not mean that it had bought me, as long as I remained true to my views. Yes, I used the same justification as a congressman accepting a golf junket from the lobbyist Jack Abramoff. But I'd already written freelance pieces for two Templeton publications, so declining this more-lucrative gig seemed silly. In for a dime, in for a dollar.

Then in January, a journalist considering applying for a Templeton journalism fellowship called and asked me about my experience. I found myself trying a bit too hard to justify my acceptance of the fellowship, even as I told the journalist how much I'd enjoyed it. I decided to write this essay to exorcise my lingering guilt, and perhaps to help others wondering whether to join the large and fast-growing list of Templeton donees, which includes many of the world's leading scientists and institutions.

A devout Presbyterian born and raised in Tennessee, John M. Templeton launched the extremely successful Templeton mutual funds in the 1950s and became a billionaire. He started spending serious money to promote his religious values in 1972, when he established the Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries About Spiritual Realities. The prize, which Templeton stipulated should exceed the Nobel Prize in monetary value, now totals almost $1.5-million and is awarded in Buckingham Palace. Previous winners include Mother Teresa, Billy Graham, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Charles W. Colson, the born-again Watergate convict. Over the past 20 years, most of the winners have been scientists who see inklings of the divine in nature, including Paul Davies, Freeman J. Dyson, John C. Polkinghorne, and Charles Hard Townes. This year's winner, John D. Barrow, a cosmologist at the University of Cambridge, continues in that vein.

Knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1987, Templeton established the Templeton Foundation that same year to support a broad range of activities aimed at finding common ground between science and religion. So far the foundation has spent more than $250-million on prizes, academic programs, publications, broadcasts, lectures, conferences, and research on topics such as the neurobiology and genetics of religious belief; the evolutionary origins of altruism; and the medical benefits of prayer, church attendance, and forgiveness.

Sir John recently added $550-million to the foundation, boosting its endowment to $1.1-billion. Foundation officials plan to double their annual outlays, which now total $60-million for more than 300 projects.

By all accounts, Sir John is a charming, open-minded man, who emphasizes the importance of humility in all spheres of life. But at 93, he has yielded the day-to-day leadership of the foundation to his son John Jr., a pediatric surgeon who quit his practice in 1995 to become the organization's president. An evangelical Christian, "Jack" is the chairman of Let Freedom Ring Inc., which raises funds for conservative causes. He has reportedly contributed to both presidential campaigns of George Bush, whose relations with the scientific community are arguably the worst of any president in history.Nevertheless the nation's leading scientific organization~ the American Association for the Advancement of Science~ and scores of research universities are Templeton Foundation beneficiaries. Largely as a result of Templeton grants, some 90 American medical schools now offer courses on links between health and spirituality. Templeton funds have even trickled down to atheists like the physicist Steven Weinberg, who once proclaimed during a AAAS conference sponsored by the foundation in 1999, "I am all in favor of a dialogue between science and religion, but not a constructive dialogue."

Weinberg has not held his tongue as a result of pocketing Templeton cash, but other recipients have. In March 2003, I attended a Templeton-sponsored conference at Stanford University titled "Becoming Human: Brain, Mind, and Emergence" (my expenses were paid not by the foundation but by a magazine). The meeting was supposed to be a dialogue between neuroscientists, such as V.S. Ramachandran, Robert M. Sapolsky, and Antonio R. Damasio, and religious figures, including the theologian Nancey Murphy and the Australian archbishop George Pell. But the dialogue was nominal; each side listened politely to the other's presentations without really commenting on them. Several areligious scientists told me privately that they did not want to challenge the beliefs of religious speakers for fear of offending them and the Templeton hosts.

At least one scientist has publicly refused to accept money from the foundation. Sean M. Carroll, a physicist at the University of Chicago, declined an invitation to speak at a Templeton-sponsored conference held last fall, which featured 16 Nobel laureates and was endorsed by the American Physical Society. Carroll explained in his blog that "the entire purpose of the Templeton Foundation is to blur the line between straightforward science and explicitly religious activity, making it seem like the two enterprises are part of one big undertaking." An atheist, Carroll did not want his name to be "implicitly associated with an effort I find to be woefully misguided." Yet Carroll admitted that he had been tempted by the foundation's offer of a $2,000 honorarium.

Two years ago I faced a similar temptation, when an editor for a Templeton journal asked me to write an essay. Before accepting the assignment~ which seemed reasonably interesting and, more important, paid well~ I revealed my reservations about the foundation's religious agenda. The editor turned out to be an agnostic who shared my reservations, particularly about the leadership of Jack Templeton; money persuaded me and the editor to swallow our misgivings. I have now written three articles for Templeton publications, for a total of $8,800.

My ambivalence about the foundation came to a head during my fellowship in Cambridge last summer. The British biologist Richard Dawkins, whose participation in the meeting helped convince me and other fellows of its legitimacy, was the only speaker who denounced religious beliefs as incompatible with science, irrational, and harmful. The other speakers~ three agnostics, one Jew, a deist, and 12 Christians (a Muslim philosopher canceled at the last minute)~ offered a perspective clearly skewed in favor of religion and Christianity.

Some of the Christian speakers' views struck me as inconsistent, to say the least. None of them supported intelligent design, the notion that life is in certain respects irreducibly complex and hence must have a divine origin, and several of them denounced it. Simon Conway Morris, a biologist at Cambridge and an adviser to the Templeton Foundation, ridiculed intelligent design as nonsense that no respectable biologist could accept. That stance echoes the view of the foundation, which over the last year has taken pains to distance itself from the American intelligent-design movement.And yet Morris, a Catholic, revealed in response to questions that he believes Christ was a supernatural figure who performed miracles and was resurrected after his death. Other Templeton speakers also rejected intelligent design while espousing beliefs at least as lacking in scientific substance.

The Templeton prize-winners John Polkinghorne and John Barrow argued that the laws of physics seem fine-tuned to allow for the existence of human beings, which is the physics version of intelligent design. The physicist F. Russell Stannard, a member of the Templeton Foundation Board of Trustees, contended that prayers can heal the sick~ not through the placebo effect, which is an established fact, but through the intercession of God. In fact the foundation has supported studies of the effectiveness of so-called intercessory prayer, which have been inconclusive.

One Templeton official made what I felt were inappropriate remarks about the foundation's expectations of us fellows. She told us that the meeting cost more than $1-million, and in return the foundation wanted us to publish articles touching on science and religion. But when I told her one evening at dinner that~ given all the problems caused by religion throughout human history~ I didn't want science and religion to be reconciled, and that I hoped humanity would eventually outgrow religion, she replied that she didn't think someone with those opinions should have accepted a fellowship. So much for an open exchange of views.

Still I can't regret spending three weeks in Cambridge classrooms, pubs, and punts, jawing with brainy folks about the meaning of life. The highlight for me was getting to know the nine other fellows, who represented such big-time media as National Public Radio, ABC News, the BBC, The New York Times, and The Washington Post (I was the only freelancer there). About half were believers, and half were skeptics like me.

My conversations with the faithful deepened my appreciation of why some intelligent, well-educated people embrace religion. One reporter discussed the experience of speaking in tongues, and another described having an intimate relationship with Jesus. My convictions did not change, but others' did. At least one fellow said that his faith was wavering as a result of Dawkins's dissection of religion. And if the Templeton Foundation can help bring about even such a tiny step toward my vision of a world without religion, how bad can it be?

The foundation recently named 12 recipients of its 2006 journalism fellowship, and I suspect that some of the new fellows have doubts about jumping on the Templeton bandwagon. The foundation could assuage the misgivings of those and other grantees with a few simple acts.

First, the foundation should state clearly that it is not committed to any particular conclusion of the science-religion dialogue, and that one possible conclusion is that religion~ at least in its traditional, supernatural manifestations~ is not compatible with science. To demonstrate its open-mindedness, the foundation should award the Templeton Prize to an opponent of religion, such as Steven Weinberg or Richard Dawkins. At the very least, the foundation should post this essay on its Web site.

Selected Works

Books
McSweeney's Books, 2012.
With Reverend Frank Geer. Edited and with an Introduction by Robert Hutchinson. Brown Trout, 2002. Royalties go to Help the Afghan Children Inc.
Misc. Writings
Review of The Beginning of Infinity, by David Deutsch, Wall Street Journal, July 20, 2011
Review of The Information by James Gleick, Wall Street Journal, March 1, 2011
Review of "The Moral Landscape" by Sam Harris, Globe and Mail, Oct. 8, 2010.
Review of "What Darwin Got Wrong," by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, Philadelphia Inquirer, June 27, 2010
Review of "The Shallows," by Nicholas Carr, Wall Street Journal, June 4, 2010.
Article in Slate, Aug. 4, 2009
Review of "Year Million," Wall Street Journal, June 13, 2008
Neuroscientific critique of the Singularity, IEEE Spectrum Magazine, June 2008.
Article in Discover Magazine, April 2008
Review of biographies of Einstein by Walter Isaacson and Jurgen Neffe, Chronicle of Higher Education, May 4, 2007.
A report on "mystical technologies" for inducing religious experiences, Slate, April 26, 2007.
Q&A with Francis Collins, Director of the Human Genome Project, National Geographic, February 2007.
Article on scientific explanations of religious experiences, Discover, December 2006.
Tenth-anniversay update of The End of Science for Discover, October 2006.
Review of The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite, by Ann Finkbeiner, New York Times Book Review, April 16, 2006.
Essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, April 7, 2006.
Essay in the New York Times Book Review, January 1, 2006.
Review of The Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney. New York Times Book Review, December 18, 2005
Profile of Jose Delgado, a pioneer of brain implants, Scientific American, October 2005.
An essay inspired by the Centennial of Einstein's revolutionary papers on relativity and quantum mechanics. New York Times, August 12, 2005
Researchers have found evidence for the controversial "grandmother-cell" theory. Discover, June 2005.
An essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, June 3, 2005
An essay published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, November 26, 2004.
An essay published in the New York Times, December 12, 2004
Cover story for Discover Magazine, October 2004.
A critique of Buddhism, published online by Slate (slate.msn.com) February 12, 2003.
Published in Discover Magazine, February 2003. A profile of the Harvard psychiatrist John Halpern and his five-year study of peyote use by members of the Native American Church.
An essay published in the New York Times, December 31, 2002.
An essay published on the oped page of the New York Times Christmas Day, 2002.
A list of articles written for Scientific American and other publications.
Outtakes from Rational Mysticism (published here only)
An account of Horgan's efforts to achieve satori in a Zen class.
A profile of the German anthropologist and authority on shamanism Christian Ratsch.
A profile of Diana Alstad and Joel Kramer, authors of The Guru Papers.
A profile of the Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast.
A profile of the British Buddhist Stephen Batchelor.
A profile of the guru Andrew Cohen, founder of What Is Enlightenment?, with digressions on Yogi Bhajan and Amrit Desai.