Nature on Templeton

February 16, 2011 • 1:20 pm

The new issue of Nature contains “Faith in Science,” a three-page article on the Templeton Foundation by M. Mitchell Waldrop (access is free).  It’s pretty good, and lays out the problems that many of us have with the Foundation’s insidious blending of science and woo.  Templeton, of course, defends its mission via spokesman and vice-president Barnaby Marsh, who once tried to persuade me to apply for their grants.  But there is significant dissent.

Here are some quotes, pro and con, from scientists and skeptics. I stand 100% by what I said:

Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, Illinois, calls the foundation “sneakier than the creationists”. Through its grants to researchers, Coyne alleges, the foundation is trying to insinuate religious values into science. “It claims to be on the side of science, but wants to make faith a virtue,” he says.

But other researchers, both with and without Templeton grants, say that they find the foundation remarkably open and non-dogmatic. “The Templeton Foundation has never in my experience pressured, suggested or hinted at any kind of ideological slant,” says Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic, a magazine that debunks pseudoscience, who was hired by the foundation to edit an essay series entitled ‘Does science make belief in God obsolete?’ . .

. . .The [Templeton] prize has come in for some academic scorn. “There’s a distinct feeling in the research community that Templeton just gives the award to the most senior scientist they can find who’s willing to say something nice about religion,” says Harold Kroto, a chemist at Florida State University in Tallahassee, who was co-recipient of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and describes himself as a devout atheist . .

. . . Templeton’s interests gave the resulting list of grants a certain New Age quality (See ‘Top ten grants from the Templeton Foundation’). For example, in 1999 the foundation gave $4.6 million for forgiveness research at the Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, and in 2001 it donated $8.2 million to create an Institute for Research on Unlimited Love (that is, altruism and compassion) at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

“A lot of money wasted on nonsensical ideas,” says Kroto. Worse, says Coyne, these projects are profoundly corrupting to science, because the money tempts researchers into wasting time and effort on topics that aren’t worth it. If someone is willing to sell out for a million dollars, he says, “Templeton is there to oblige him”. . .

. . . Today, the foundation website explicitly warns intelligent-design researchers not to bother submitting proposals: they will not be considered.
The foundation’s critics are unimpressed. Avowedly antireligious scientists such as Coyne and Kroto see the intelligent-design imbroglio as a symptom of their fundamental complaint that religion and science should not mix at all.

“Religion is based on dogma and belief, whereas science is based on doubt and questioning,” says Coyne, echoing an argument made by many others. “In religion, faith is a virtue. In science, faith is a vice.” The purpose of the Templeton Foundation is to break down that wall, he says — to reconcile the irreconcilable and give religion scholarly legitimacy. . .

John Cacioppo, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, also had concerns when he started a Templeton-funded project in 2007. He had just published a paper with survey data showing that religious affiliation had a negative correlation with health among African-Americans — the opposite of what he assumed the foundation wanted to hear. He was bracing for a protest when someone told him to look at the foundation’s website. They had displayed his finding on the front page. “That made me relax a bit,” says Cacioppo.

Yet, even scientists who give the foundation high marks for openness often find it hard to shake their unease. Sean Carroll, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, is willing to participate in Templeton-funded events — but worries about the foundation’s emphasis on research into ‘spiritual’ matters. “The act of doing science means that you accept a purely material explanation of the Universe, that no spiritual dimension is required,” he says. . .

. . .Scientists’ discomfort with the foundation is probably inevitable in the current political climate, says Scott Atran, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The past 30 years have seen the growing power of the Christian religious right in the United States, the rise of radical Islam around the world, and religiously motivated terrorist attacks such as those in the United States on 11 September 2001.

Given all that, says Atran, many scientists find it almost impossible to think of religion as anything but fundamentalism at war with reason. They have a reflexive reaction against the idea, espoused by Templeton, that progress in spirituality can help to solve the problems of the world.

Well, I think that religion is fundamentally at war with reason—at least those numerous forms of religion that make untenable claims about reality.  But I don’t know any scientist who claims that all religions are fundamentalist.  And most of our reactions are not reflexive, but thoughtful.  Finally, what the bloody hell does “progress in spirituality” mean?

76 thoughts on “Nature on Templeton

  1. Typical, Michael Shermer deliberately missing the point – again – that his participation lends credence to Templeton’s overall project, NOT that anyone claimed they’d overtly pressure him to put forward a certain viewpoint.

    And Scott Atran – again – missing the point that people like Coyne are arguing against the idea that faith (read: unfounded, unsupportable metaphysical beliefs) is compatible with science, NOT that all religions are fundamentalist. And Scott – it’s not just “fundamentalism at war with reason.” Even mild-mannered-gnice-liberal-new-agey-caring-circle-healing-touch-reiki stuff is at war with reason. By definition. This isn’t hard to understand.


    1. Yes.

      Shermer is a recovering religious IIRC, and he isn’t as overtly skeptic as his projects, um, projects, having faith in faith and all that “taking-a-mistake-and-multiply-it” accommodationist skit.

      Atran I don’t know, but his summary was a strike out.

      1. Shermer is entirely & staggeringly mind-blowingly credulous when it comes to the Libertarian faith.

  2. I stand 100% by what I said.

    And well you should; you put it perfectly. “In religion, faith is a virtue. In science, faith is a vice.”

    As I like to put it, a person with faith is one who makes conclusions about that which he has concluded is inconclusive, has knowledge about that which she knows is unknowable. Faith is not “willful ignorance,” but rather “willful insanity” or “willful idiocy.” Faith is a thing deserving not praise and respect, but pity and scorn.

    Finally, what the bloody hell does “progress in spirituality” mean?

    I dunno. Increasingly elevated BAC?



      1. I used have a book of liquor infusion recipes. As I recall, you could come pretty close to Benedictine with just scotch and honey.

  3. In the Wizard of Oz spirituality is the curtain. Progress in spirituality is making the curtain harder to see behind by embroidering ever more awe inspiring designs on it.

  4. So it seems, not many are falling for Templeton’s follies, except for those directly corrupted by it.
    Does that some it up about right?

  5. Dr. Coyne, Congratulations for keeping the foundation’s feet to the fire. By not mincing words, you speak for many who agree that not all is hunky-dory at Templeton – but cannot express it as well as you do. Perhaps the most important outcome is to remind the foundation that their attempts to reconcile science and religion will be scrutinized by folks who do not accept such pablum uncritically.

  6. Finally, what the bloody hell does “progress in spirituality” mean?

    “Progress in spirituality” means all things to all people. Mostly, I think it indicates there’s going to be a subtle sort of bait ‘n switch put into practice: discoveries in topics like “forgiveness” are going to be used to help answer questions like “does the universe have a purpose?”

    Why so indirect? Because they have no interest in wasting their money on “unanswerables such as whether God exists.” Those who are curious and eager to advance their understanding of God are apparently not curious in that direction.

    At least, not if they think they’re going to get an ‘unsatisfying’ answer. It’s much better to do research on “altruism and compassion” and pretend that they’re making progress in religion-oops-I-mean-spirituality.

  7. Minor irk: I wish people wouldn’t use the term “devout atheist”. I’m sure Kroto was being cheeky, but it’s an annoyingly trite little phrase; what’s more, the irony and humour is very likely to be missed (or intentionally ignored) by the usual suspects, i.e. the faith-based community and their Gnu-Enabler chums.

    1. Other than, kudos to all involved for speaking plainly without attempts to spare anyone’s feelings. Intelligent Design embargo aside, Templeton’s a cash-filled back door for fiathful compartmentalisers.

    2. I used to worry about such language till it occurred to me that doing so served only to rob very smart people of their right to use metaphor and all the other tropes that go with the mastery of expressive language. If simpletons can only read at face value, that’s their loss. There are times to pick one’s words according to one’s audience, but those times wouldn’t include, we hope, interviews for articles in Nature.

      BTW, I was inspired by the article to find out more about Kroto–quite enjoyed his autobiography delivered at his Nobel reception:

      1. I’d agree that choice of audience bears some consideration. However, if one seeks to influence others, further consideration needs be given to the probable reaction of those who are simpletons and the likelihood (inferred from experience) of a remark that can be misconstrued being re-presented out of context.

        That said, I’m not overly bothered by the word choice. Additionally, I’ll note that the self-description may well not have been given in this interview; poking Google Books indicates Kroto’s self-characterization dates back to at least 1997.

        1. It’s in that Nobel acceptance speech I linked to above.

          Yeah, devout’s been secularized I’d say–devout football fan, devout stamp collector…(wait, no one does that any more).

  8. “what the bloody hell does “progress in spirituality” mean?

    Moolah. Fat stacks of Benjamins. As long as Templeton has them to give out, there is “progress”.

  9. essay series entitled ‘Does science make belief in God obsolete?’

    My essay answer? Yes.

    What? Payment is on a per word basis? Okay, then.

    Yes, absolutely.

    1. Similarly, at the part of the article saying that the T foundation had moved on to the “big questions such as,’does the Universe have a purpose?'”:


      1. It’s an inanimate object, it doesn’t have purpose unless you use it. I note we use but a small part.

        What us so hard to understand of “purpose is what you make of it”!? Methinks religious “purpose” is contaminated by religion. Yet another fail.

  10. Finally, what the bloody hell does “progress in spirituality” mean?

    It means the level of acceptability and respect for religion that is achieved in the scientific community. In their view, the greater the number in the scientific community who will express the idea that there might be some place for spirituality in science, the more “progress” there is.

    1. It means the level of acceptability and respect for religion that is achieved in the scientific community

      yes, exactly!

      This is their primary goal, period.

      It doesn’t matter at all what the results of the studies are to them, and this is why.

      In fact, I am more than willing to conclude that they WELCOME negative results to faith claims, since that’s exactly what scientists expect.

      they know there will be dozens of people who likely will disagree with the results of the studies anyway, and so any actual conclusions that could be made will be lost over time in the wash.

      Meanwhile, because they “accepted” the results, many scientists will be superficially duped into think them a valid funding organization, not even realizing, or not willing to realize (depending on the grant size), that they don’t care about the science, only that scientists are taking their money.

    2. That is what annoys me with accommodationists. Instead of going for a gap for gods, they aim at a gaffe for god.

  11. No, no no.

    You all have missed the “code”. Theists are always speaking in code when they say such tripe about “progress in spirituality”.

    In this instance, it means nothing more and nothing less than “an increase in the number of converts to our particular flavor of religious dogma.”

    It’s a command to convert to whatever flavor of Christianity is favored by Templeton.

    Geez, people. It’s not that tough a code.

  12. If someone is willing to sell out for a million dollars, he says, “Templeton is there to oblige him”. . .

    I can’t really explain why, but for some reason this line really made me crack up. I had visions of the hair and white toothy smile you can find over at the intersection.

  13. yes, I think it needs to be stressed again and again, that the reason Templeton shoud be viewed with such suspicion, is exactly because they are willing to accept negative faith-claim results from the studies they sponsor.

    It’s the magicians distraction! With one hand, they say: See? we accept whatever results come out of the research we fund.

    …all the while the gullible rubes miss the fact that they ONLY fund research that fits their agenda to begin with, which is to continually promote the concept that researching religious ideology IS a “scientific” endeavor. It’s getting scientists to even DO the studies that’s the win for them.

    They maintain a social awareness of religion being involved with science, and while it might not seem like much, that awareness is genuinely important in their fight to maintain religious thought in the US.

    that IS their mission. They don’t give a flying spit for what the results are (because they will ALWAYS be able to find critics to shoot them down anyways), so long as they can claim they, as a fundamentally religious oriented institution, are funding basic science contributing to our understanding of “faith”.

    it’s a total bait and switch.

    Shermer fell for it hook, line, and sinker. He never looked behind the curtain.

    but then, it’s MUCH easier to rationalize away uncomfortable facts when someone slaps greenbacks in your hand. Sometimes it’s a matter of survival.

    I doubt any of us are entirely invulnerable to that (even with tenure), though I truly do admire Jerry’s continued, consistent recognition of the problems inherent with accepting money from private grant organizations that are sectarian in nature.

  14. “For example, in 1999 the foundation gave $4.6 million for forgiveness research at the Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, and in 2001 it donated $8.2 million to create an Institute for Research on Unlimited Love (that is, altruism and compassion) at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio”.

    Hang on, this sounds a bit weird at first, but if they’re just researching the psychological benefits of things like ‘forgiveness’, ‘altruism’, and ‘compassion’, then it’s just positive psychology, not necessarily new-age woo.

    Or does this research have some weird metaphysical aspect I’m not seeing? Can someone answer?

    1. No, there doesn’t necessarily need to be an ulterior motive beyond the general goal of “make Templeton a respectable name in scientific funding”, which is bad enough on it’s own.

      It’s kind of horrible – Templeton is quite frequently saying “here’s some free money, the only string is that you make us look reasonable”. It’s a perfectly normal thing to do and accept, I mean it’s just some religious foundation offering you money to do your research, right? No harm in accepting, right?

      But then, being a religious institution, they’d know all anout the seduction of the innocent, wouldn’t they?

    2. Some of the stuff they fund is reasonable. But, as Tacroy says (along with many others), that very fact buys respectability for their funding of research on “progress in spirituality.”

  15. Finally, what the bloody hell does “progress in spirituality” mean?

    It means progress in renaming and rebranding religion as “spirituality” and thus in conning more and more and more and more people into thinking it’s perfectly compatible with science and always has been and always will be amen.

  16. My immediate reaction to all those who believe (or think) that religion and science are compatible is: Remember Galileo! Not long ago the Pope denounced the idea that the universe might have arisen spontaneously from nothing. Does he really think he knows more about physics than Steven Hawking?

    Years ago I saw John Templeton on Louis Rukeyser’s Wall Street Week. He seemed like such a kindly old man. Much later I learned he made his millions, dare I say, somewhat ruthlessly? (I forget where I ran across this.) In any case, bequeathing his fortune in this way (with all the restrictions on how his money is to be used) to his foundation was unfortunate. Think of how much good he could have done had he just left his money to straight scientific research with no agenda or restrictions.

    1. Not to mention how he renounced his American citizenship and moved to the Bahamas in the 60’s to avoid taxes. Think of how much tax-funded social services he skipped out on, money that might have actually done someone some good.

      1. Tax accommodationism: religious prizes and tax evasion are compatible, because people can do both.

        Pedophile accommodationism: religion and pedophilia are compatible, because catholic church.

        And on and on.

      2. I have no problem with legal price shopping, if Bahamas is willing to give him a better deal.

        When you’re not supporting the worlds most expensive war machine, taxes can be a lot ligther.

        1. I have no fondness for the defense budget, but at least some of his might-have-been taxes would have gone to social programs that actually help people, as opposed to the idiocy his foundation funds.

  17. As Jerry Coyne stated, religion is fundamentally at war with reason and reason is fundamentally at war with religion. It’s a cultural war with very obvious sides, there is no being friends and harmony between the two. That is why Michael Shermer should have made a point to have nothing to do with Templeton. That he embraces Templeton and dismisses the idea of a bias means that Shermer is very much compromised and not to be taken seriously.

    1. That he embraces Templeton and dismisses the idea of a bias means that Shermer is very much compromised and not to be taken seriously.

      I was with ya up until that part.

      that Shermer refuses to admit that taking Templeton money is not doing science any favors doesn’t mean that everything out of the man’s mouth is worthless.

      Do you agree with Jerry on everything?


      then does that mean that everything else he says is worthless?

    2. Shermer is a Libertarian who uncritically converted to Rand-worship long ago, and still uncritically accepts many of the principles of the cult. Just look up his libertarian posts at Skepticblog if you want to see his conversion story. I’m not surprised he’d fall for it. Disappointing.

      1. That’s right, we all real atheists are Scotsman (oops statist lefties)

        Not sure how science is somehow at odds with concepts of strong personal freedom.

        1. If libertarianism really were just about “strong personal freedom” you would have a point, but we all know it’s not.

  18. If you add ‘miracle’ as a possible explanation for a problem you’re working on, science automatically stops being a useful tool to learn more. Experiments and data are rendered meaningless by the power of a God who can do ANYTHING–including mangling data to deceive annoying meddlers.

    If God can do anything, then all hypotheses are equally probable, so you have no way to reject bad explanations: you may think it’s bad, but hey, God’s ways are mysterious. Maybe you, small human, just don’t comprehend the deeper meaning of that answer your results and experiments say it’s wrong.

    Thus, if you accept the tiniest bit of the supernatural, science loses its ability to reject bad answers, which means we effectively give up the idea that science is a good approach to learn about the world.

    1. Thus, if you accept the tiniest bit of the supernatural, science loses its ability to reject bad answers, which means we effectively give up the idea that science is a good approach to learn about the world.

      rhetorically speaking, you’re correct.

      practically speaking, you’re not though. otherwise, science would have been abandoned long ago.

      the reason science has stuck around, is simply because it DOES work. In fact, it’s the ONLY thing that works.

      1. Science works because (among other things) scientists don’t accept religion when they are doing science. No miracles allowed.

        When they say they believe in a God that does anything in this world, they are being incoherent. I don’t say scientists can’t be incoherent. I do say science and religion can’t coexist coherently.

    2. Classic error.
      I’ve had this explained to me by Rob Knopp so I know what I’m talking about.
      God did do miracles but only in the past. And only a few miracles – the ones associated with Jesus. All those other ones, you know, Mohammed on his flying horse, Zeus changing into a Swan etc, they are all false (I mean, really! A flying horse! Changing into a Swan! Pffft! Don’t be ridiculous!
      Because God has stopped doing miracles we can now rely in the validity and uniformity of scientific measurements and thus science both works and is completely compatible with religion (well, with Rob’s religion).

      1. Ah, Rob “WTF” Knop. Or maybe his middle name is “makes no sense”, I keep mixing him and Matzke up.

    3. No, not QUITE automatically, depending on the exact sense of “science” you’re using. One can still continue to do inductive reasoning that uses competitive testing of alternative descriptions based on Minimum Description Length. However, you have to account for the increase in description length associated with the claim of “miracle”; attributing it to a God who may do anything means an increase corresponding to a non-finite number of bits, and thus an increase in the ordinal degree of Turing hypercomputation for testing.

      Hypotheses only all become equiprobable if your assumption is on the lines God is equally likely to do anything (and infinitely active). This corresponds to requiring a higher-than-ordinal degree of complexity. The obvious downside resulting from this assumption (or rather, obvious in being a downside albeit not obvious in being resultant) is losing the ability to distinguish a hawk from a handsaw.

  19. The billionaire Templeton. So fuck you Templeton as it is harder to pass through an eye of a needle etc. So you are burning in hell like the rest of us Gnus.

  20. There is a critical problem with the argument that the Templeton Foundation’s policy is open as regards investigation of the truth claims or societal effects of religion. That problem is that they are virtually the only funding authority for such research. They may occasionally fund a study that gives a negative result to a religious question (the value of intercessory prayer or health effects in the black community) but these are pretty rare examples in their overall funding portfolio.
    If they are really interested in the question of whether religious claims match up to reality then why not so a systematic study – the sort of thing that science is the ideal tool. I suspect any one of us could easily come up with a long list of such studies (for instance compare the effects of Christian prayers compared to Muslem prayers). Or perhaps try to work out the factors that make religious societies so much more crime ridden and unhealthy than non religious societies.
    It seems to me that there is, in theory, the possibility for an impartial researcher to gain funding for such studies – although it looks pretty rare that the Templeton actually funds such cases. On the other hand there appears to be a sort of self selection of individuals who push the Templeton party line – at least in the way they report the results of their studies. A classic example is Elaine Ecklund’s surveys of religiosity amongst scientists. Any neutral reading of the figures she produced shows that the actual result is devastating to the idea that scientists are also religious. Her survey showed that almost 70% said they did not believe in God and less than 10% were certain there was a God and yet the media soundbite was that more than 50% of scientists are religious! One would hope that people would actually read that data that the study is based upon rather than trumpeting the accomodationist party line on this like Josh Rosenaus description of her findings in his review of Ecklunds book in the Washington Post.
    “Fully half of these top scientists are religious. Only five of the 275 interviewees actively oppose religion. Even among the third who are atheists, many consider themselves “spiritual.”
    As for “spirituality” – well I don’t need an atheist to discount the use of this term when a theist does it perfectly well – and to Sam Harris to boot!
    Listen to Dennis Prager’s response to Sam Harris’ use of the term “spirituality” – it’s at the 7min 50 seconds point in the following clip.

  21. Early Templeton prizes had nothing to do with science: the first went to the Catholic missionary Mother Theresa of Calcutta in 1973.

    One went to Watergate burglar and YEC Charles Colson.

  22. Just for the shear hell of it…

    “If someone is willing to sell out for a million dollars, he says, “Templeton is there to oblige him”. . .”

    Seems to me that if someone is willing to sell out for a million the real question is will they sell out for $5000? $500? $50?

    Another insidious aspect of the whole farce is that once someone does sell out, they’re done. They are owned by the faith heads. They become faith shills. Some may be honestly conned, but even those who are honestly conned have a very hard time admitting it.

    Like all forms of corruption, it is the kiss of death.

  23. …what the bloody hell does “progress in spirituality” mean?

    It is faitheist code for “knowing fraud”.

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