I believe I’m back on solid ground again with this post about the Templeton Foundation (in this case, the Templeton Religion Trust) and their incursion into Aeon magazine, a secular site devoted to “ideas and culture.” What we have here is an article by Manini Sheker whose work apparently wasn’t underwritten by Templeton—which would mean that Sheker was supported by the organization—but where the magazine itself apparently got money from Templeton to publish a dire piece touting the benefits of Catholicism. Or so I interpret from the phrase in the disclaimer below: “this essay was made possible through the support of a grant from the Templeton Religion Trust to Aeon.” In other words, Templeton gave money to the magazine for publishing, or enabling publication, of this article.
But how would that work? Readers are invited to help me out here, for this appears at the end of Sheker’s piece:
A bit about the author:
. . . and from The Conversation:
I’m a PhD candidate in social anthropology at the University of Sussex studying development and ethics in post-liberalization India. I hold a MPhil in International Development from the University of Oxford and a Masters of Social Work from the University fo Toronto. My writing has been featured in the Guardian, the Hindu, openDemocracy, Litro and Seminar magazines among other publications. In 2013, I was awarded the Ngo Human Welfare Prize by the University of Oxford for an essay on religion, freedom and development.
Now, why would Templeton fund this one way or the other? Well, read the article if you have the kishkas (click on screenshot below).
It’s a very bizarre piece of prose. The author begins on reasonable ground by discussing how the United Nations’ Human Development Index was formulated, and about the input of Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen’s “capabilities approach” for formulating that index of the well being of various countries. Sheker makes the point, with some justification, that one should also include non-material well being in the index, although I’m sure people would prefer clean water, toilets, sufficient food, and good healthcare, before they start worrying about whether their spiritual needs are met. I also feel that people always manage to find a way to meet their need for comity and fellowship regardless of whether there’s religion involved, so dragging in religious stuff, which is the real point of Sheker’s piece, seems almost irrelevant. Are Sweden and Denmark not sufficiently “developed” because they’re largely atheistic countries?
Then, all of a sudden, Sheker goes off the rails, touting the need for including Catholic social teaching and morality as a good way to improve countries’ well being. And that is surely why Templeton paid some money for this article, whomever the recipient was. A few quotes from Sheker:
As the world faces moral and economic crises, perhaps it is more relevant than ever to return to Maitreyi’s question, and to ask: what if economic and social arrangements were actually conceived within a moral or even religious framework? Would it help open our eyes to the real task at hand – human fulfilment? Would the most urgent problems, from global poverty to climate change, benefit from the kind of moral deliberation that is required by a religious point of view?
Her answer to the last question is clearly “yes!”
For the most part, the development establishment has been suspicious of religion, a nervousness only exacerbated in recent years by the rise of religious extremism. Institutionalised religion carries dark associations – it can be authoritarian, offend reason, thwart progress towards social justice and, in its most egregious, illiberal expressions, it serves up a retrograde vision of the future. There’s also the real fear that development activities, especially when carried out by faith-based organisations, can easily become pretexts for proselytising. Then there are those who, against much evidence, cling to the belief that religions are irrelevant to modern societies; that modernisation means secularisation.
This is a Big Lie: modernization does mean secularization, for as people’s lot improves, they have no need for religions. Sociologists have given evidence for that time and time again. Sheker simply ignores the fact that nearly all countries in the West are becoming less religious at the same time that their well being is improving. And yes, religions are irrelevant to modern societies; as Hitchens says, they’re the vestigial remnant of our fearful and bawling childhood as a species.
She goes on:
Post-Vatican II, Catholic social teaching engages directly with applying theological insights to the problem of contemporary poverty. It recognises that social problems can benefit from reflection on the Christian message. In many ways, the understanding of human flourishing derived from Catholic social teaching and from Sen’s work converge. Both recognise that the purpose of development is human dignity. Dignity depends on exercising one’s agency and realising freedoms such as being healthy, living in a peaceful environment, and so on. Any economic model that comes out of Catholic social teaching would rest on the principles of equity, participation, sustainability and human development. The rationale for human dignity in Catholic social teaching is a bit different, however.
You don’t need Christianity to deal with social problems; in fact, spreading religiosity is a way, as Marx realized, to get people to accept a problematic status quo: religion, as he said, is an “opium of the people”. Without the promise of a Better Life Hereafter, we have to figure out how to improve our lot in the Here and Now. The best “belief system” for tackling social problems is secular humanism, especially since Sheker adduces not a shred of evidence that Catholicism is the “true” religion, or that any of its grounding, in the new Testament, is based on true facts.
And get this Mother Teresa approach:
Catholic social thinkers hold that poverty neither determines human worth nor is a constraint to achieving ethical or salvific liberation. While poverty is not condoned, there is a recurring theme in Catholic thought that poverty can even strengthen and beautify the human spirit – voluntary poverty is certainly a mark of the good. Think of Saint Francis in Dante’s Paradiso, in romantic pursuit of Lady Poverty; he was the shepherd who, in making his choice to own nothing, ‘wore a crown again’.
There is also a deep ambivalence towards material liberation. Eliminating social deprivation is a moral imperative, but there is a very real danger that material prosperity presents acute dangers. Real liberation comes only when material things are renounced and one accepts suffering and complete dependence on God. True freedom comes when material, ethical and salvific liberation are cultivated together. In other words, true freedom can be attained only when all worldly goods are redirected towards God through charity.
. . . Though Sen recognises the limits of focusing on material needs, his model places importance on freedom and agency over the realisation of God (or the good). Social arrangements should be gauged by the extent to which they enable the former. From a religious point of view, earthly freedom is subordinate to the highest liberation in God. It is important not to disregard the significance of these concerns for millions of people worldwide, to remember that religious and non-religious communities share many ideas related to human fulfilment. The Catholic view of human flourishing performs an important task by requiring any approach to economic development to consider seriously the moral and non-economic consequences of development.
This is just preaching; she adduces no evidence that people would prefer God over starvation and sickness.
In all of this Sheker makes several fundamental errors:
- She equates morality with religiosity, not really considering that secular morality can be an even better source of welfare than is Catholic teaching. After all, “Catholic social teaching” can include “abortion is bad under all circumstances”, “homosexuality is a sin”, “women are inferior to men”, and so on. Those aspects of “morality” surely aren’t conducive to any form of progressive human development.
- She doesn’t consider that Christian morality doesn’t really come from scripture, as we know from the Euthyphro argument, but is pre-Biblical, probably based on rational reflection, evolved behavior, and non-religious social contracts.
- Sheker doesn’t deal at any length with how one is suppose to use Catholic moral teachings to improve the well being of the majority of countries in the world, which aren’t Catholic.
- She doesn’t consider whether, even if Catholic morality could improve people’s welfare, it matters whether the dogma on which that morality is based is true. After all, if the New Testament is fictitious, which most of us think it is, then morality based on Jesus and scripture is out the window. Why not “Muslim morality” or “Jain morality”? My view, of course, is that we have to have some ethical principles guiding how we determine the welfare of a country, but most of this will involve the idea that material well being (including health, reproductive freedom and so on) supercedes spiritual well being. Religion is irrelevant here.
I cannot emphasize how shockingly bad this article is. It starts out fine, but soon Sheker’s mask slips, apparently revealing her as a staunch Catholic who wants to proselytize a morality based on her religion, not worrying about the morality of other religions or the sounder principles of secular humanism—principles that don’t depend on belief in fictitious books.
And how did Templeton get its sticky fingers in here? Who were they paying to get this article published? We don’t know. Shame on Aeon for publishing such tripe!