God, Science and Philanthropy | The Nation


God, Science and Philanthropy

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Though some critics refuse to go near anything associated with Templeton, others are forced by its ubiquity to make compromises. Sean Carroll, for one, will work only on scientific projects funded by Templeton (such as the FQXi) that aren't solely under the foundation's banner. "It represents a serious ethical dilemma," says A.C. Grayling, a British philosopher and former columnist for New Scientist magazine; he accuses the foundation of "borrowing respectability from science for religion."

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

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These critiques have taken a toll on the Templeton brand. "I don't think Templeton money is dishonorable, and I have taken it myself," says Michael Ruse, a philosopher of science at Florida State University. But Ruse expresses relief that his latest book wasn't funded by any Templeton grants. "The whole business has become so politicized and open to attack by the New Atheists—they would claim that I am just a paid spokesman."

In response to its critics, the foundation cites the careful peer review process its projects go through and the integrity of the leading institutions with which it partners. "The goal is to insist that the scholarship that is done in theology and philosophy is scientifically informed, and that the research done on the scientific side is conceptually rigorous and clear," explains Michael Murray, a Templeton Foundation vice president. In many cases these protocols and elite affiliations are enough to persuade eminent scientists, like Rees and Carroll, to put aside their misgivings and participate in Templeton projects.

Still, few Templeton grantees are fully aware of the breadth of the foundation's activities, much less the quixotic vision of its founder, John Templeton—or, as friends of the foundation have called him since he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1987, "Sir John."

In the foundation's boardroom, no one can hide from Sir John's gaze. His bust is mounted above the far end of a long meeting table, and his portrait hangs on a long wall. The offices are in one of a cluster of new towers scattered among industrial relics and hillside homes in West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, fourteen miles up the Schuylkill River from downtown Philadelphia. There, away from the distractions of big-city political and intellectual life, John Templeton's legacy is meant to carry itself out, unadulterated. As the foundation grew larger, it became increasingly concerned that it not stray from the mission he gave it. By the time he died, an elaborate audit system had been put in place to ensure that his wishes would forever be its holy writ.

Templeton's own spirituality was eclectic. Though a lifelong Presbyterian, he imbibed the wisdom of religions both Eastern and Western, ranging from his friend Norman Vincent Peale, the prophet of the organization man, to Ramakrishna. Early on, his mother exposed him to the Unity School of Christianity, a turn-of-the-century movement that emphasized positive thinking and healing through prayer. The Unity School considered itself progressive and even, loosely speaking, scientific: a practical application of Christianity to modern life.

Out of his humble origins in small-town Tennessee, Templeton built a career as one of the great architects of globalization—"the dean of global investing," Forbes once dubbed him. As he grew older, though, his wealth ever multiplying, Templeton began turning his attention away from business. "All my life I was trying to help people get wealthy, and with a little success. But I never noticed it made them any happier," he told Charlie Rose in a 1997 interview. "Real wealth is not in money; it's in spiritual growth."

When Templeton created his foundation in the mid-'80s, conventional wisdom still largely held that religion would retreat as science secularized the world. But in Templeton's eyes, this made religion the perfect investment. "To get a bargain price," he would say, "you've got to look for where the public is most frightened and pessimistic." Religion's potential value far exceeded the asking price; a lot could be done with a little. Templeton would rhapsodize about science's amazing progress in virtually every area of knowledge over the past century—except in spirituality, which he believed had remained stagnant. "It is no small wonder, then," Templeton wrote in his manifesto, The Humble Approach, "that some people believe religion is gradually becoming obsolete." The answer he envisioned wasn't simply a louder, timelier enunciation of familiar doctrines but a new posture he called "humility theology," an outlook that emphasizes how little is known about the divine and how much believers need to question and test their beliefs, as scientists do. Templeton thought that science could get religions out of their rut.

Through his mostly self-published writings, Templeton developed an idiosyncratic vocabulary, speaking of the search for "spiritual information" and of God as "Unlimited Creative Spirit." But many of Templeton's books are less properly theological than they are well-meaning self-help texts with a metaphysical bent. Uneasy with conventional meanings for "God" and "religion," he speculated in a 1990 document that "maybe God is providing new revelations in ways which go beyond any religion." Concerning atheism, Templeton seems to have thought that if religion were more sophisticated, the line between belief and unbelief might disappear. He once mused, "Could even atheists, who deny the reality of a personal God, begin to worship fundamental reality or unlimited mind or unlimited love?"

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