Templeton poisons Aeon magazine with Catholic dogma

May 23, 2018 • 11:30 am

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:

Manini Sheker is a scholar and writer interested in religion, the arts, social justice, the environment and the good life. Her writing has appeared in The GuardianopenDemocracy and Litro, among others

. . . 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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!

h/t: Alexander

54 thoughts on “Templeton poisons Aeon magazine with Catholic dogma

  1. Yes, it’s a bad article. As you say, it starts out fine enough, though it is hard to see where the author is going, but the introduction of the Catholic point of view comes from left field.

    My guess is that Sen and the UN want to keep religion out of their development efforts in order to allow the recipients to make their own decisions regarding meaning-of-life issues and religion and to not be seen as proselytizing. The author acknowledges this but then gets into Catholicism.

    Development obviously involves change and change always causes a reexamination of priorities. Like many religious authors, Sheker would like her audience to assume that only religion can provide help in establishing these priorities by providing a moral basis for decision making. Of course that is garbage but she doesn’t examine it in this article.

  2. I found myself experiencing a bit of anger over her essay with its complete silence over the Catholic church’s interference regarding pressing needs like birth control and other aspects of women’s rights. Christianity has been a significant hinderance to the well being of people living in poverty. Weird how someone interested in social justice would just let all that slide. But hey, she got a pub. out of it.

    1. Pertinent observations.
      One could add that there is a clear correlation between poverty & inequality in a society, and religiousness. Of course, correlation is not cause, but it is a good place to start. Does poverty cause religiosity? Probably, confer Mr Marx. However, one could also ask “does religiosity cause poverty”? I’m far from convinced it doesn’t.

  3. A fair amount of Catholic morality comes from the ethical teaching of Aristotle (and Cicero).

    Both William Donaghue’s “Why Catholicism Matters” and G.K. Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy” (I have only read the latter in its entirety) are predominately defenses of Aristotelian virtue ethics, with relatively little space devoted to Jesus’ virgin birth, resurrection, etc.

    The Catholic church’s ethics is at its most wrong-headed on sexual ethics, though official Vatican statements on the ethics of money and business are actually pretty good.

  4. Arrg! This person claims to be a social/cultural anthropologist??? Ahhhhh!

    But they want to “put” an outside religion into cultures where it didn’t originate???

    Religious arguments (as a whole) aside, the very notions of shoving outside norms into another culture would be anathema (haha pun intended) to the very ideals of social anthropology!

    The writer should be tarred and feathered for promoting such nonsense.

  5. In a strange way I think she has a point. If RCC Inc. would use its worldwide influence and organisation to lead its many third world followers to implement better hygiene and simple technologies that would improve quality of life, and especially if it would use some of its accumulated wealth to pay for some of these I’d agree with her. But they don’t and they won’t. And their social message depends on who you are; they have a different message for my jesuit cousin (wealth is bad for you – you need to live your vow of poverty) than they do for Tony Blair (your millions are a blessing and you can enjoy them guilt free even if they are the fruits of lying, graft and corruption).

  6. “But how would that work? Readers are invited to help me out here.”

    My guess would be that Aeon applied for and received a grant from Templeton to support the magazine rather than any particular essay and that Aeon uses the grant money to pay authors for articles that it deems consistent with Templeton’s interests/values.

    This seems to be born out by the fact that when you type “Templeton” into Aeon’s search engine you are taken to 16 articles that all bear the same acknowledgement at the end. Templeton may be out of line here, but to say that “Templeton poisons Aeon magazine with Catholic dogma” is a bit of a stretch since–according to the disclaimer at least–Templeton is explicitly excluded from “editorial decision-making” or “content approval.”

    1. I’m not quite sure I believe that. It may not tell them which article to publish, but I bet the articles you looked up are about religion or religion and science. Templeton wouldn’t just give them a pot of money and say “Here, this is for your magazine” and that’s it.

  7. Aeon was on its way down awhile ago, so this isn’t surprising. I unsubscribed over a year ago because it had become a festering cesspool of using bad science to justify ideological and supernatural premises.

  8. Ignorance and poverty are the Catholic church’s cash register. Just look at the Catholic countries and their economic standing. However the Vatican loves the U.S. Catholics because that is where the big money comes from for the least effort. That Catholic morality is working on the big ideas such as eliminating birth control and abortion and sweeping pedophilia under the rug.

  9. I think her general points are not far off from what one sees in the various ‘mind training’ movements that are rapidly growing. Sometimes tough love in the form of equanimity training is necessary to be happier overall, materialism that leads to poor impulse control and constant ‘craving’ or stimulation seeking generally makes people unhappier, if you don’t take the time to develop your character you will probably be worse off in a number of ways, and so on. I even support the idea of Catholicism sort of growing with the times to support the current interest in these areas – but it is odd to imply it is sort of uniquely suited to play this role, when similar themes are seen in many religions and in the current secular interest in ‘mind training’ and meditation. Why only discuss Catholicism and nothing else? The title of the article is about ‘religion’.

  10. Upon learning that Templeton funds Nautilus Magazine, I immediately canceled my subscription.

    Yet the masochist in me continues to read their online articles, many of which are riddled with non-denominational attributions to “something more” than what science has to offer: a rather interesting perspective for self-proclaimed “science” magazine.

    As I’ve referenced before, even the excellent Quanta Magazine has explicitly partnered with Nautilus (its logo appears toward the bottom), thus lending Quanta’s own credibility to a Templeton-backed racket: https://www.quantamagazine.org/about/

    1. Oy vay! No, that looked familiar now, so I assume I checked one of the times you referenced it. But likely took my wait-and-see position as in the previous comment.

      Quanta is also syndicated with Scientific American, which I stopped reading since they hosted Templeton fundies like Caleb Scharf on astrobiology.

  11. My genuine reaction when bumping into this article on Twitter: <>. Glad my bullshit detector is still doing fine. Thx for the takedown, Mr. Coyne!

      1. It does support copy/paste (so long, I guess, as what you’re copying is text).

        Let’s try this –

        “the rich or comfortably off can make their own choice and the poor will have their choice made by someone else.”

        (From the Guardian’s comments section on Ireland’s current Catholic-dictated abortion laws)


  12. I stopped going to AEON a while ago. Their articles, in general, try to sound deep, but are generally nonsensical (especially the ones in math and physics, where I’m qualified to make a judgement).

    1. In general, in my estimation,as you say, the articles “try to sound deep, but are generally nonsensical.” And if not completely nonsensical, superficial. In some instances, the very superficiality renders them nonsensical…”Where’s the beef?” Ain’t none.

  13. There are parts of this article that I find appalling. It is the Catholic attitude from the Middle Ages in Europe. You be satisfied with being poor and tithing to the wealthy Church – you will get your reward in the afterlife. Look to the Church for authority and for deciding your morals.

    The UN recognizes that literally millions of people suffered and died in Africa because of the Catholic Church teaching not to use condoms under any circumstances. (In recent years they’ve decided they’re okay in limited circumstances for disease prevention. i.e. your husband or wife has HIV/AIDS.

    The “nobility in suffering like Jesus” message is just sick imo. That was Mother Teresa’s excuse for not giving her patients sufficient pain relief, or even a comfortable mattress to lie on as they died.

    I’d like to see the Catholic Church, and most other religious organisations (the Evangelical ones are worse) donate all the money etc they collect for charity work to organisations like Doctors Without Borders, Red Cross, Red Crescent, and other groups that help without bringing God into the equation.

    1. The Catholic Church donate all the money? Who would pay the legal fees for pedophile priests?

      1. Yesterday the Catholic Archbishop of Adelaide was convicted of covering up the paedophilic activities of a colleague many years ago when both were parish priests. It seems that their activity (or inactivity) will finally catch up with them, and they will well need funds for legal representation.

      2. Ha! Good point! Though the individual churches have declared bankruptcy in the past to avoid paying damages – they may avoid the bills that way too!

    2. Yes, I fervently agree. Are we sure that article isn’t a poe? What utter, total bullshit. As you said, it’s positively mediaeval (and I’m using that in its most derogatory sense).


  14. Catholics have been trying to use theology to encourage “development” for a very long time. From what I know, it hasn’t worked well in many places.
    It is well understood that development usually depends of freeing women from their reproductive imperative. The Church is happiest when every woman has 10 or 20 children – a bit of a roadblock to progress.

  15. The significant correlation between uncertain societies and religiosity reject the idea that religious morality has something to contribute to good societies. In fact, one may wonder if not religious morality evolved under dysfunctional circumstances…

    As for this specific Templeton incursion, it reads to me like they gave Aeon “an offer they could not refuse” (a bribe) to publish the piece.

  16. Well, read the article if you have the kishkas.

    In the neighborhood I grew up in, the folks of Polish-American descent used to eat kishkas (or at least I think that’s what they did with them). There was even a novelty polka song about ’em that became a minor hit on my hometown radio (mainly, I think, because it was soo terrible we smart-ass teenagers would call in during “request hour” and dedicate it to each other as a practical joke). I just found the tune on youtube, so you can hear it here — if you have the kishkas.

            1. But had close friends from there and Parma Hgts — or at least as close as Eastsiders and Westsiders in Cleveland can get. 🙂

            2. Grew up in Elyria, far west side.

              Learned everything I needed to know about Amrap (Parma spelled backwards) from watching the Ghoul on Channel 61 in the Early 70s. I was too young to remember Gholardi

              1. My bestie sent me a text yesterday with a picture of him sporting a brand-new goatee. I sent him a text back calling him “Ghoulardi.” 🙂

    1. 306,000 views?!? Was it really that popular?

      By the way, is your name pronounced KYOO-kech? I’ve never remembered to ask, but I have a bit of an obsession with knowing how to pronounce names.

      1. KOO-kek. That’s the American pronunciation anyway. My paternal grandparents, who came here from Slovenia after the First War, pronounced it with a soft “c” at the end “koo-kets.” My dad adopted the Americanized version, I think, when he got tired of correcting chief petty officers in the Navy during the Second War.

        The “-ec” and “-ic” endings are common among Slovenian surnames. The Slovenians who emigrated to the US can be divided into two camps — those who adopted the American hard “c” (as my family did) and those who changed the spelling to retain the old “-ets” pronunciation.

        1. Very interesting!

          “The Slovenians who emigrated to the US…”

          I might have this wrong, but wouldn’t the Slovenians have emigrated from Slovenia, and immigrated to the US?

            1. Two in two days (Tristram)! This is my proudest moment. I’d like to thank my parents, my first grade English teacher, our lord and savior….

              I’m just kidding. Since you’re far more knowledgeable than I am when it comes to our language (and literature, and the law, etc.), I can’t help but feel a bit of pride. Naturally, I accept that this is just an anomaly. I’m sure we’ll be back to our usual pattern of you educating me about words I never knew existed come tomorrow.

              1. You’re just butterin’ me up for the kill, BJ.

                You know the old saying, “the third time’s the coup de grâce.”

  17. Every time I see references to Mother Teresa or the part of Catholic philosophy that was the basis for her terrible deeds, I can’t help but be disgusted. If anyone who reads this hasn’t seen Hitchens’ documentary on her, go watch it.

  18. TO HELL with Catholic social teaching.

    Ireland is about to have a referendum on whether to overturn its mediaeval, Catholic-inspired, near-total ban on abortion, which has inflicted untold misery on hundreds of thousands of Irish women, Catholic and non-catholic alike.


    I do so fervently hope that the forces of enlightenment will prevail and Ireland will drag itself into the 20th century.


  19. Speaking of The Templeton Foundation, I’ve just run across something “funny”. I don’t mean “funny ha ha”, I mean “Funny peculiar”. Nova Wonders is a summer spin-off of Nova, the top-notch PBS science series. Last week’s opening program on the origin of the universe listed Templeton as one of the contributing funders. Oh no! Is Templeton trying to sneak religion into science programming on PBS? The entire program was very good. Not a hint of religious speculation at all. This week “Can Science Create LIfe?” All about CRISPR and genetics in general in the attempt to eliminate diseases and, maybe, recreate extinct species, there wasn’t a single reference to religious beliefs in the sense that Templeton might have wanted. And, Templeton was no longer listed as a contributing sponsor. Hmm, did they withdraw voluntarily or were they just dropped? Anyway, the program was excellent, as usual, and I look forward to next week’s episode “What is the Universe Made of?”

  20. One might suggest the impoverished mess of many African countries (and other resource-robbed regions) has its roots precisely in Western religious propagandising of missionary societies who forged ahead of the colonisers, who in turn imposed their own values on land ownership and wealth.

    When the colonisers surrendered power (if not their commercial interests) countries like Kenya were left with structures of Crown Land ownership that have underpinned political mayhem ever since. As Kenyatta said (and he certainly made hay of the situation) when the British arrived they had the bibles and the Africans had the land. And the next time they looked, the Africans had the bibles and the British had the land.

    But worse than this is the presumption that peoples who are deemed to need development by ‘donor’ nations don’t already have their own views of sacred/spiritual/ethical matters – often more subtle than those of us who have been trammelled by mainstream religious dogma.

  21. It seems to me that there might be an equivocation on the two senses of materialism.

    I’m a metaphysical materialist, but very far from a *economic* materialist. (My mother says of me “well, as far as addictions go, books aren’t so bad”.)

    Sen may well be the former, but the “capabilities approach” certainly has non-material (in the other sense) values (including health, belonging to a community, literacy, etc.) included.

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