What is the purpose of the universe, anyway? I hadn’t started reading the Sunday papers with this question in mind, but after slogging through mass rapes in Congo, bombings in Baghdad and K-Fed’s worthiness as a father, I could no longer dodge it. Then, in the middle of the New York Times Week in Review section–some of the priciest real estate in the print industry–I came across a two-full-page ad under the headline “Does the Universe Have a Purpose?”
The text of the ad was the responses of twelve scientist-and-philosopher-types, ranging from the purposeless (biochemist Christian de Duve) to the purpose-driven (Jane Goodall) and the just plain whiny, as in astronomer Owen Gingerich’s “Frankly, I am psychologically incapable of believing that the universe is meaningless.” (Suck it up, Owen, it’s the only universe you’ve got.) I was miffed that I had not been asked to contribute my theory that this is a trial universe that has turned to be defective. But I was even more distracted by the sponsor of the ad–the John Templeton Foundation.
Just a couple of weeks ago the Templeton Foundation had showed up in the news in a somewhat less exalted context. John Templeton Jr., the president of the foundation, turns out to be one of the funders of Freedom’s Watch, the new right-wing group that has been running pro-war commercials conflating Al Qaeda with whomever it is we’re righting in Iraq. You may have seen the one in which a veteran complains that stopping the war now would render the loss of his legs meaningless, much like the universe itself.
This is not John Templeton Jr.’s first or only venture into right-wing politics. In 2004 he started the group Let Freedom Ring, aimed getting out the evangelical Christian vote for George Bush. He recently joined the Romney campaign’s National Faith and Values Steering Committee, a group that includes an antiabortion activist and a fellow from the Heritage Foundation.
So the real question may be, “What is the purpose of the Templeton Foundation?”
Founded by John Templeton Jr.’s father, Sir John Templeton, the investor, the foundation set out to bridge science and spirituality while–on a not obviously related track–promoting free enterprise. In just the last ten years, it has become a serious force in the academic world, generally funding anything too soft and fuzzy for the governmental grant-makers–studies, for example, on optimism, happiness, character, forgiveness and faith. This year, its $1.5 million annual Templeton Prize went to Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, who states, on the foundation’s website, that “We urgently need new insight into the human propensity for violence.”
Maybe he should have started by querying John Templeton Jr. on that one. Or maybe there was a mistake, and the foundation had intended the award not for the Canadian philosopher but for the Liberian warlord Charles Taylor.