Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
For decades, sociologist Margaret Poloma struggled against the tone-deafness to spirituality that rules her discipline; she wanted to study prayer, to measure divine love, to "see God as an actor." In the meantime, having held a tenured post at the University of Akron since 1970, she built a respectable career with a long list of journal articles and books to her name. She became an authority on Pentecostalism and on the family lives of modern women. But all along, Poloma says, "I felt like I was swimming alone upstream."
That changed in the early 1990s, when she found an ally in David Larson, a psychiatrist who longed to integrate religion into the practice of medicine. He was in the process of founding the National Institute for Healthcare Research (NIHR); what the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is to medicine writ large, the NIHR would be for "the forgotten factor" of faith. In 1995 Larson brought Poloma to a conference organized by his funder: the John Templeton Foundation, established by the eponymous investor who died in July 2008 at 95. "That conference was a magical experience for me," Poloma remembers. It was there that she met Stephen Post, a bioethicist who would later create the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love with Templeton money. With Post she began receiving grants from the foundation. By 2007 she was co-director of the Flame of Love Project, administering $2.3 million from Templeton to establish "a new interdisciplinary science of Godly Love," with a focus on the Pentecostal tradition.
Other scholars aren’t quite sure what the "science of Godly Love" means, exactly. Anthea Butler, a historian of Pentecostalism at the University of Pennsylvania, remembers that when Poloma’s Flame of Love request for proposals appeared, "nobody in the field could figure out what the hell she was talking about." Many applied anyway. "She went from being an outsider to someone with tons of money who can set the terms of discussion," says Butler.
"This grant is something I would never have dreamed of," Poloma told me. "I feel like I’m soaring like an eagle." For her, all gratitude is due to the funder. "Where but Templeton would you find that kind of dialogue going on?"
Nowhere—and that’s what has some people so concerned. The kind of research Poloma and her colleagues propose, however empirical and peer-reviewed, seems to come as an affront to centuries of purported progress in disentangling natural science from supernatural belief. Depending on whom you ask, Templeton represents either the hijacking of nothing less than the meaning of life, or the restoration of its luster, which has been dulled by politics and cynicism.
Poloma’s story repeats itself throughout the cluster of academic fields that the Templeton Foundation has chosen to flush with money. This past January $4.4 million went to a project on free will, headed by philosopher Alfred Mele at Florida State University. In a particularly arresting case, between 2006 and 2009 MIT physicist Max Tegmark received $8.8 million to set up the Foundational Questions Institute (with the dashing acronym FQXi), which funds first-rate scientists to explore basic problems about time, space and the origin of the universe. Its conferences have been "a coming-out-of-the-closet experience," says Tegmark. "Lots of people reconnect with the real reasons they started doing science in the first place."