In which Matthew and I went after Templeton

April 9, 2020 • 11:00 am

I had forgotten about this until Matthew reminded me the other day, as he was reminded of our joint bit of writing (one of only two we’ve done) while reading a book.  In 2008, about six months before this website began, Nature, which is becoming woker and woker, ran an editorial upon the death of Sir John Templeton, who left $1.5 billion to start the John Templeton Foundation. That money was to be used to try to find evidence for the divine through science. Or, as Templeton himself put it in 2005, he wanted to promote science that would help people discover “spiritual reality”.

Finding a Spiritual Way

About 12 years ago, I sold out. I had been helping a few thousand wealthy families and I did a lot of thinking that if I could tell you the rest of my life, I might help a few thousand wealthy families to become somewhat wealthier. But by selling out to my strongest competitor [Franklin Resources], I can now devote 100% of my time to trying to help people grow in a spiritual way. And that’s a wide-open field – very few people who have any substantial amount of money contribute to helping people grow spiritually.

The Study of Religion

We are tying to persuade people that no human has yet grasped 1% of what can be known about spiritual realities. So we are encouraging people to start using the same methods of science that have been so productive in other areas, in order to discover spiritual realities.

For example, to clarify, my grandfather was a medical doctor. But he had never heard of a germ. That was only 140 years ago. The medical doctors began to use that as a science, and now we know a thousand times as much about your body as my grandfather new as a medical doctor.

Or take the field of communications. As recently as when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated only 140 years ago, nobody in Europe heard about it for 17 days, because communications was so inadequate. Now we have this enormous communication system around us all the time. There’s 1,000 times as much communication as there was 140 years ago.

Again, this is due to applying methods of science to discover new modes of communication. So what my foundation is focused on more than anything else is to encourage people to donate to scientific research to help discover aspects of spiritual reality.

Since then, as I’ve written repeatedly, Templeton has kept injecting huge amounts of money into science (and theology) to foster Sir John’s agenda. That includes the annual award of the Templeton Prize, a big pot o’ cash designed to exceed the Nobel Prize (it’s now up to £ 1.1 million). Once given to pure religionists like Mother Teresa and Billy Graham, the Foundation usually confers now it on religion-friendly scientists who will argue that religion is useful and important: people like Martin Rees and Freeman Dyson.

And the Prize has a “new” purpose statement:

The Templeton Prize honors individuals whose exemplary achievements advance Sir John Templeton’s philanthropic vision: harnessing the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it.

Meet the new boss—same as the old boss. “Deep questions” or “Big Questions” have, for the Templeton Foundation, always been synonymous with “the numinous”, “the divine”, or “that which violates science’s naturalism”.

But I digress. Here’s Nature‘s 2008 smarmy editorial about science and religion being BFFs (click on screenshot).

An excerpt (my emphasis):

At the time of his passing last week, Templeton had poured some US$1.5 billion into the John Templeton Foundation, which funds research at the intersection of science and spirituality. Critics have maintained that the foundation needlessly conflates science and faith, with some calling for an outright boycott of Templeton funding.

. . . [John Templeton] believed institutional religion to be antiquated, and hoped a dialogue with researchers might bring about advances in theological thinking. The foundation’s substantial funding of science and religion departments around the world is directed towards those ends. Theologians have also used foundation money to develop and promote arguments that reconcile some of the apparent contradictions between science and religion. For those many scientists with a faith, promoting the compatibility of science with faith is a prudent and even necessary goal. Strict atheists may deplore such activities, but they can happily ignore them too. [JAC: I think this is Nature’s way of saying: “Atheists, if you don’t like it, bugger off.”]

The foundation’s scientific agenda addresses ‘big questions’, which has sometimes resulted in work that many researchers regard as scientifically marginal. One field popular with the foundation is positive psychology, which seeks to gauge the effects of positive thinking on patients, and which critics argue has yielded little. Also heavily supported are cosmological studies into the existence of multiple universes — a notion frequently criticized for lying at the edge of falsifiability. The concern is that such research has been unduly elevated by the foundation’s backing. But whatever one thinks of positive psychology and the like, the foundation’s support has not taken anything away from conventional funding. And in the field of cosmology at least, it has arguably yielded some new and interesting ideas.

The foundation’s management now falls chiefly to Templeton’s son, John M. Templeton Jr, whose Christian beliefs are reportedly much more conventional than his father’s. A critical scrutiny of the foundation’s scientific influence continues to be warranted, and no scientific organization should accept sums of money so large that its mission could be perceived as being swayed by religious or spiritual considerations. But critics’ total opposition to the Templeton Foundation’s unusual mix of science and spirituality is unwarranted.

Back in the day, Matthew and I took umbrage at the claim that science had anything to contribute to religion beyond disproving its empirical claims, and, in my book Faith Versus Fact, I argue that religion has contributed nothing to science. I stand by those claims. But in 2008, that book wasn’t written, but its germs can be seen in the letter that Matthew and I jointly sent to Nature. And, mirabile dictu, they published it:


The reason this came up is that Matthew was reading a book published in 2010, the last in a series of three by the author, which happens to end with the only known reference to our letter.

The title page (click to go to Amazon link):

The opening page with its epigraphs to which Lewis-Williams refers in the final page (below):

The closing page:

The quote we gave was pithy, but perhaps a tad too pithy. As I said above, science can also show that religious claims are wrong (or, in the case of empirical claims about history, supported). But as for the ideas rather than the empirical claims of religion, yes, science’s sole contribution is to destroy them.

28 thoughts on “In which Matthew and I went after Templeton

  1. Good things to remember. For religion to exist into the future it seems to need attachment to real elements such as science or even government. Making it on it’s own is getting harder all the time.

  2. I have grasped 100% of spiritual reality. It’s quite simple and anyone can apprehend it. Spirituality is not real. See, simple. Carry on.

      1. Speaking of oxymorons, no business could have a more ironic title then Franklin-Templeton. Franklin disowned his son because he went over to the Tories. Templeton renounced his US citizenship to avoid paying taxes on the income he earned as a US citizen – and went over to the British.

  3. What about Kenneth Miller and his 2014 Laetare Address at the University of Notre Dame?

    I have written extensive reflections on the notion of ‘faith’ and ‘reason’ in official Catholic doctrine/teaching/public promotion versus how ‘reason’ is understood in the scientific method. ‘Reason’ as understood in the former is distinctly different from how ‘reason’ is understood in Catholic ideology. I sent these reflections to Dr Miller but did not receive a response.

  4. science can also show that religious claims are wrong (or, in the case of empirical claims about history, supported). But as for the ideas rather than the empirical claims of religion, yes, science’s sole contribution is to destroy them.

    I mildly disagree.

    First, I’d put ideas and empirical claims in the same boat, just as science tests both non-religious empirical claims and hypotheses. You can test hypotheses, likewise you can test religious ideas. Or at least, you can separate them into “testable” and “untestable,” test the first set, and point out that the second set have nothing to do with science.

    Second, I’d say science tests these things and drop the “can show they are wrong” as sinning by omission: scientific tests could show them wrong or right. The results chips fall where they may. It’s certainly not preordained that all religions had to be wrong about all their most important claims and ideas…that’s just the way it turned out. But, importantly, we test because we don’t presuppose the answer is “you’re wrong.”

    We’re at a point in history where many of the “standard” supernatural claims have been testing and found wanting. Faith healing, ghosts, telepathy, out of body experiences, etc… We can say now that they are wrong ideas and science destroyed them. But we say science destroyed them based on the tests being run fairly, without bias towards what those results would be. We don’t say before we do the test that the only possible result of the test is the destruction of the claim.

    1. Along those lines, I think Matthew and Jerry have made an error here that Jerry has previously and rightly called out.

      “Surely science is about finding material explanations of the world”

      No, science is about testing ANY explanations of the world, including numinous ones. It’s just that the numinous ones don’t test out as correct explanations in this universe. They could have, and science could well have detected this.

      1. I’d agree with that.

        Materialism is the result. It may even be the expectation based on past inductive results. But it’s not the assumption, premise, or any sort of unbreakable rule.

  5. I would argue that science more or less confirmed a central tenet of Buddhism, namely that the ‘self’ (the psychological “I”, in a very specific sense) is an illusion. This can be discovered either subjectively (with either luck or meditative practice), or simply accepted in the light of, among others, Roger Sperry’s spectacular ‘split brain’ experiments, and the ‘modular self’ neurological model.

    I would also argue that Templeton would never support or mention this as it ruins everything for the Abrahamic religions — by indicating no unified “soul”, nor “seat” for it in the brain, nor anything that could carry out “free will”, and therefore leaving nothing to be judged by a God.

    1. Interesting. Yes, it does seem that if we take identity or self to primarily refer to the pattern of activity in the brain, that the idea of a continuous identity goes out the window. Heck, every day you wake up your brain patterns have changed slightly from the day before. Your very atoms have changed – about a full pound or so of them. You might not notice it, but you’re a slightly different “you.” The idea that you’re exactly the same as you were the night before, either materially or in terms electrical brain activity, is an illusion.

  6. Templeton wrote:
    We are tying to persuade people that no human has yet grasped 1% of what can be known about spiritual realities.

    Several problems with that statement.

    1. Spiritual realities are not known to exist.
    2. There has yet to be ANY evidence that ANYONE knows ANYTHING about spiritual realities.

    Most of this blog’s readers realize Templeton’s mission will go nowhere.

    1. Yes, I was stopped at that as well. Many weak arguments begin by saying, we don’t know half what we could, or this is at least 1000 times more likely than that. But such a claim requires first that we know what 100% of something is, or how to quantify vague ideas. Like some guy you meet in the check out line at the grocery store, Templeton thinks he knows how much spiritual reality exists. I don’t think so.

      1. Theists like him try to persuade us that god exists but we just don’t know it yet; we must keep LOOKING and eventually we’ll find him like we did germs!

        My answer to that is that god does not exist but they just don’t know it yet. Look all you like but you’ll never find god…because god is supernatural. Now, if they want to play games and say “but god is also natural” then they must explain how they know that.

          1. David Frost also admits to asking the occasional question that he wishes he hadn’t, including one he tossed at prolific science fiction writer Isaac Asimov.

            “He was saying he didn’t believe in God and so on,” Frost said. “And I said, `Yes, but is there a force that we don’t know about?’

            “And he said, `Well, there may be, but if there is we don’t know about it.’ Which was game, set and match to Isaac Asimov there.”


  7. Most readers of this site probably believe
    (with Darwin) that the steady advance of science underlies the steady, if slow, decline of theism in the popular mind. This is broadly likely, but there are curious zigs and zags. To my mind, the strangest recent zag was the Intelligent Design vogue. It
    began in the 1980s, just when DNA sequence data was beginning to make “descent with modification” even more inarguable. Could it be that the creationists sensed how DNA sequence information would eventually reach the popular mind, and therefore laid down a fog about ID as a ploy and a distraction?

    1. I am amazed and puzzled why science in general, and the indisputable facts of evolution, have not had a bigger and impact on the decline of religion. I can understand why one might cling to deism and pantheism (I do sometimes), but religion, never. In the 21st century, religion should be as believable as classical mythology. I just don’t get it.

  8. The hypothesis that religion is ‘made up’ is proven by human history. Shown by libraries, and demonstrated by great comments …

    Libraries … let us make a fiction section.
    Feynman … religion is wishful thinking.
    Hume … what ‘ought to be’ just isn’t.
    Hume … more likely that humans say things.
    Nietzsche … all made up.
    Wittgenstein … all playing with language.

  9. Awesome short letter to Nature.
    In connection with the Templeton foundation, in his “The God Delusion” Dawkins narrates a quip by Dennet: “Richard, if ever you fall on hard times…..”

  10. Excellent writing

    Dawkins I think first argued that science is “deeply corrosive” to religion.

    1. No, of course not. It’s not there at all. My c.v. has “reviewed scientific publications”, of which this one is BOT, and then “popular writing”, which are articles, book reviews and stuff that aren’t “scientific”. Stuff like this isn’t on my c.v.

  11. I was struck by the fact that Sir John almost got it right. Premise one: Science (medical, communication) has made incredible strides over time. Premise two: Theology has not.
    Therefore, Science (with my big pot of money) should rescue moribund theology. Oops. There is a more parsimonious conclusion.

  12. Remember folks, if you say realities enough times then you can just go ahead and put a QED after it. I think you have to say it like a hundred times or something. Spiritual realities (etc. x 100), QED.

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