God, Science and Philanthropy | The Nation


God, Science and Philanthropy

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

The stakes are high. The Templeton Foundation holds assets valued at around $1 billion, a sum that will likely swell to $2.5 billion in the years to come as John Templeton Sr.'s estate is settled. That would put it squarely among the richest twenty-five foundations in the country, somewhere between the Rockefeller Foundation and the Open Society Institute. The foundation dispenses about $70 million in grants annually, the bulk of which goes to programs in the religion-and-science orbit, from an eight-year, $9.8 million grant to Duke University's Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health to $25,000 for a 2007 conference on Carl Linnaeus and religion in Sweden. For the often-fledgling, cash-strapped areas it funds, nothing else can compete.

About the Author

Nathan Schneider
Nathan Schneider is the author of Thank You, Anarchy: Notes From the Occupy Apocalypse and God in Proof: The Story of a...

Also by the Author

Unpredictable days, part-time work, and digital scheduling—welcome to the new battle over the clock.

Hackers are transforming an ancient city into a prototype for the future.

But what makes the foundation more influential than its deep pockets is the combination of elite research and broad dissemination. As a memo signed by John Templeton in 1995 put it, "The main purpose of the John Templeton Foundation is to encourage the top 1/10 of 1% of people and thereby encourage all people to think that progress in spiritual information is possible, desirable, can be done and will be done." The "top 1/10 of 1%" part happens in projects like the Humble Approach Initiative, a series of high-level interdisciplinary seminars that since 1998 have covered topics such as "Universe or Multiverse?" and "Faith, Rationality, and the Passions." At each step, the foundation tries to keep a wider audience abreast. Along with advanced research, it funds public essay contests and lectures. A series of periodicals, including In Character and Science & Spirit, have tried to build readerships around Templeton's favorite topics—the former was even, for a time, sent to every member of Congress. The foundation supports the annual World Science Festival in New York and takes out lavish ads in magazines and newspapers to showcase handpicked intellectuals answering Big Questions about God, science and markets.

The founder's flagship program, though, is the Templeton Prize, usually handed out each year by Prince Philip at Buckingham Palace. The first went to Mother Teresa in 1973; this year's laureate is biologist and former Catholic priest Francisco Ayala. Winners have run the gamut from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to physicist Freeman Dyson. The award's value is consciously pegged to be bigger than that of the Nobel Prize.

The zoologist and author Richard Dawkins quipped in his 2006 book The God Delusion that the Templeton Prize goes "usually to a scientist who is prepared to say something nice about religion." He and others among the so-called New Atheists have been the foundation's most strident critics lately; they believe Templeton is corrupting science by trying to inject it with religious dogma and, in turn, misrepresent science to the public. The advance of science steamrolls over religion, they say, and Templeton is deluding people into thinking otherwise.

These are no minor charges. Recent years have witnessed political and religious campaigns to both undermine and co-opt scientific authority on matters ranging from climate change to sex education to evolution. Organizations like Answers in Genesis, which advocates for young-earth creationism, and the Discovery Institute, which orchestrates the intelligent-design movement, have been trying to squeeze creationism into public school science classes. Within this environment, Templeton has struggled to maintain a delicate balance between alarmed scientists on one side and its mission to bring religion into conversation with science on the other.

In the past the foundation has funded book projects related to intelligent design by theorists William Dembski and Guillermo Gonzalez, who were affiliated with the Discovery Institute when they received Templeton grant money. By then, though, Templeton had already begun funding a program that opposes creationism at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "We do not believe that the science underpinning the intelligent-design movement is sound," wrote one foundation official in a 2007 letter to the Los Angeles Times. Templeton has since taken pains to promote evolutionary theory among Christians, such as through the BioLogos Foundation, which was headed by geneticist Francis Collins until President Obama appointed him director of NIH. Still, Templeton continues to find itself in murky waters; in May, for instance, it supported a conference celebrating the retirement of the eminent philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who also happens to have been a sometime ally of intelligent design.

Indeed, the larger the foundation becomes, the harder it is to pin down. "They've become fuzzier and fuzzier," says California Institute of Technology astronomer Sean Carroll, one of Templeton's more outspoken critics. Even Jeffrey Schloss, a Templeton trustee who is part of the new $10 million grant project on evolutionary biology based at Harvard, admits that without the foundation "there'd be a bit less accommodationist fluff that proposes integration [between religion and science] at the expense of rigor."

Nonreligious scientists who accept Templeton grants—like biologist David Sloan Wilson and psychologist Jonathan Haidt—insist that the money comes without strings attached. "No coercion, no corruption," Haidt says. But Nobel Prize–winning chemist Harry Kroto won't accept that. "They are involved in an exercise that endangers the fundamental credibility of the scientific community," he contends. Kroto has taken to organized resistance; in 2007, when the Royal Society of London considered accepting Templeton money for one of its programs, he was among eleven fellows, five of them Nobel laureates, who successfully lobbied against the plan. Since a Templeton lecture series in 2004, the Royal Society hasn't worked with the foundation, though some fellows and its president, astrophysicist Martin Rees, have done so individually.

Now Dawkins and Kroto, with eight other advisory board members of Project Reason, founded by New Atheist author Sam Harris in 2007 to promote secularism, are at work on another offensive. Project Reason hired British science journalist Sunny Bains to investigate Templeton and build a case against it. Her unpublished findings include evidence of pervasive cronyism: more than half of the past dozen Templeton Prize winners were connected to the foundation before their win, and board members do well obtaining grant money and speaking gigs. Bains also argues that the true atheistic tendencies of leading scientists were misrepresented in the foundation's Big Questions advertisements. Templeton's mission, Bains concludes, is to promote religion, and its overtures to science are an insidious trick with the purpose of sneaking in God.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size