Templeton Prize winner spouts more nonsense in Scientific American

March 22, 2019 • 10:15 am

The other day, theoretical physicist Marcelo Gleiser of Dartmouth College won the £1 million Templeton Prize for “affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” At the time I used his quotes reported by the media to show that, while Gleiser may be a good physicist, he’s not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer when it comes to talking about atheism and “the limits of science.”

This is all confirmed in a new Scientific American interview with Gleiser conducted by Lee Billings, an associate editor who writes about cosmology and physics. Read on, but don’t waste a lot of time:

It’s the usual pap espoused by scientists who are also “spiritual” in the way Templeton likes: touting the limitations of science, saying there are other ways to answer the Big Questions, and, especially, dissing atheism.

One of the most disingenuous parts of the interview, and a sure sign of thoughtless accommodationism, is the call for “humility.” Of course, that call applies only to atheists and scientists, not to believers:

[Billings] Right. So which aspect of your work do you think is most relevant to the Templeton Foundation’s spiritual aims?

[Gleiser] Probably my belief in humility. I believe we should take a much humbler approach to knowledge, in the sense that if you look carefully at the way science works, you’ll see that yes, it is wonderful — magnificent! — but it has limits. And we have to understand and respect those limits. And by doing that, by understanding how science advances, science really becomes a deeply spiritual conversation with the mysterious, about all the things we don’t know. So that’s one answer to your question. And that has nothing to do with organized religion, obviously, but it does inform my position against atheism. I consider myself an agnostic.

It always sounds good to tout “humility”, doesn’t it? The thing is, scientists are already humble, because we’re forced to be. Yes, there are arrogant scientists (Lynn Margulis comes to mind), but as far as practicing science goes, you’re always looking over your shoulder asking “What if I’m wrong?” “How can I make sure that there are no flaws in my work that others might see?” You don’t become famous by being loud (although sometimes that helps); you become famous by being right. And the more arrogant you are, the more likely others are to replicate your work.

Do you know this famous quote by Thomas Henry Huxley?

“Sit down before fact like a little child, and be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abyss Nature leads or you shall learn nothing.”

Gleiser’s double standard for humility becomes clear when he goes after atheism but doesn’t go after believers:

Why are you against atheism?

I honestly think atheism is inconsistent with the scientific method. What I mean by that is, what is atheism? It’s a statement, a categorical statement that expresses belief in nonbelief. “I don’t believe even though I have no evidence for or against, simply I don’t believe.” Period. It’s a declaration. But in science we don’t really do declarations. We say, “Okay, you can have a hypothesis, you have to have some evidence against or for that.” And so an agnostic would say, look, I have no evidence for God or any kind of god (What god, first of all? The Maori gods, or the Jewish or Christian or Muslim God? Which god is that?) But on the other hand, an agnostic would acknowledge no right to make a final statement about something he or she doesn’t know about. “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” and all that. This positions me very much against all of the “New Atheist” guys—even though I want my message to be respectful of people’s beliefs and reasoning, which might be community-based, or dignity-based, and so on. And I think obviously the Templeton Foundation likes all of this, because this is part of an emerging conversation. It’s not just me; it’s also my colleague the astrophysicist Adam Frank, and a bunch of others, talking more and more about the relation between science and spirituality.

I’ve already discussed this cockeyed view.  The idea that atheism is “belief in nonbelief” is a Deepity, for it sounds profound but upon examination proves shallow and, indeed, stupid. Atheists don’t “believe in nonbelief”: they reject acceptance of gods because there is no evidence for gods. That’s all there is to it, and, contra Gleiser, it’s absolutely consistent with the scientific method. In fact, the refusal to accept “truths” when there’s no evidence for them is the hallmark science—although there is no formal “scientific method.”

In contrast, Gleiser’s own agnosticism is simply a chickenshit way to avoid conclusions that he’d draw in any other area of science. If one posits that there are aliens living on Mars, but we find no evidence of them after repeated scans of the planet, and no signs of life from sending up biological probes, then you’re being unscientific. As Vic Stegner used to say, “The absence of evidence is evidence of absence—if that evidence should be there.”

As I wrote in Faith Versus Fact:

In science, if there should be evidence for a phenomenon but that evidence is consistently missing, one is justified in concluding that the phenomenon doesn’t exist. Examples are the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot, as well as paranormal phenomena like ESP or telekinesis. Seeking evidence for such things, the skeptics always come up dry. It is the same with God, though theologians will object to comparing God to Bigfoot. The philosopher Delos McKown had a more parsimonious answer for God’s absence: “The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike.

And I said this after examining Barbara Forrest’s convincing argument that the success of methodological naturalism implies an underlying philosophy of philosophical naturalism (i.e., “there are no gods”):

Although Forrest wrongly implies that science can’t examine the supernatural, her overall argument makes sense. If you spend your life looking in vain for the Loch Ness Monster, stalking the lake with a camera, sounding it with sonar, and sending submersibles into its depths, and yet still find nothing, what is the more sensible view: to conclude provisionally that the monster simply isn’t there, or to throw up your hands and say, “It might be there; I’m not sure”? Most people would give the first response—unless they’re talking about God.

Gleiser’s agnosticism is of the second variety.

It’s quite curious, but understandable, that while Gleiser says that “I have no evidence for God or any kind of god,” he still says he’s an agnostic, and at the same time goes after atheists while keeping his mitts off of religionists. After all, it is the religionists who believe in stuff without any evidence, and Gleiser implicitly admits that. So why does he call out atheists but not believers? The answer is one word: Templeton.

Finally, what are the limits of science? Clearly they involve things that science can’t address because they involve issues not resolvable by empirical examination. Those issues are fewer than we think (for instance, science might be able to provide answer to “why do we find some things beautiful and other things repulsive?”), but we already know that science can’t fully resolve issues of subjective preference—like moral questions. If you decide what your moral preferences are (e.g., “it is best to maximize well being”), then you can approach the question empirically: what actions do maximize well being? But if that’s not your goal, and you have some other subjective morality (e.g., “abortion is immoral because it involves murder”), then science can’t answer that. (I do point out, though, that if the anti-abortion argument rests on the existence of a unique soul in humans, science might be able to tackle that.

I know very few scientists who would say that science can answer every question. It can’t, and sometimes we need clear-thinking input from philosophers and those trained to think logically. So when Gleiser emits the following bromides, I’ll just note that secular humanism, with no need for woo or “spirituality”, would arrive at the same conclusion:

. . . But let me play devil’s advocate for a moment, only because earlier you referred to the value of humility in science. Some would say now is not the time to be humble, given the rising tide of active, open hostility to science and objectivity around the globe. How would you respond to that?

This is of course something people have already told me: “Are you really sure you want to be saying these things?” And my answer is yes, absolutely. There is a difference between “science” and what we can call “scientism,” which is the notion that science can solve all problems. To a large extent, it is not science but rather how humanity has used science that has put us in our present difficulties. Because most people, in general, have no awareness of what science can and cannot do. So they misuse it, and they do not think about science in a more pluralistic way. So, okay, you’re going to develop a self-driving car? Good! But how will that car handle hard choices, like whether to prioritize the lives of its occupants or the lives of pedestrian bystanders? Is it going to just be the technologist from Google who decides? Let us hope not! You have to talk to philosophers, you have to talk to ethicists. And to not understand that, to say that science has all the answers, to me is just nonsense. We cannot presume that we are going to solve all the problems of the world using a strict scientific approach. It will not be the case, and it hasn’t ever been the case, because the world is too complex, and science has methodological powers as well as methodological limitations.

How you prioritize things like the value of lives versus the value of cars can be largely a subjective weighing of issues, but even then science can help resolve these questions once you specify an desirable trade-off between dollars and lives or dollars and convenience.  So no, science can’t by itself solve “all the problems of the world”. But it’s a damn sight better than religion in solving the problems of the world! Again, it’s understandable that Gleiser directs his ire at science and not religion. Why not indict Catholicism for saying it not only didn’t help solve the AIDS crisis, but made it worse? As Rebecca Goldstein told me, “Moral philosophy is a throughly secular enterprise.”

Gleiser is a Templeton flack, and I have nothing but contempt for his disingenuous attacks on atheism and science. Well, if he’s not disingenuous, he’s a very sloppy thinker.

Finally, why did Scientific American publish this article? The magazine is supposed to be about science, not science and woo. And the article is misleading and irrelevant, appealing only to believers who want to think their faith is consistent with science.

Here’s a photo of Gleiser from Australia’s Eternity News, which also had the headline below his photo:

h/t: Dave

Templeton Prize awarded to physicist for blending science and woo

March 19, 2019 • 12:15 pm

Well, once again the canny John Templeton Foundation has awarded its million-pound Templeton Prize to someone who’s not a religious figure but a scientist who enables religion and criticizes materialism and atheism. This time the Big Dosh went to Marcelo Gleiser, a professor of Physics and Astronomy at Dartmouth College. He’s a theoretical physicist and also a prolific popular writer, having produced six books, some of which seem to emphasize the limits of science. And that’s apparently what he got he Prize for: for adhering to Sir John Templeton’s program that science and spirituality (aka religion) were both required to apprehend the “ultimate truths” about the Universe and answer the “Big Questions.”

Marcelo Gleiser

I don’t know his work, so I’ll just give excerpts from the media, taken to show what they say is the scientific/spiritual basis for his prize. It does seem to involve blending materialism with metaphysical speculations as a way to understand the cosmos.

The quotes from the media are indented, my splenetic take is flush left. All emphases are mine.

From the Salt Lake Tribune:

A Dartmouth College professor who says he is a religious agnostic but whose work has focused on the links between science and the mysteries of creation is the winner of the 2019 Templeton Prize.

While Gleiser describes himself as an agnostic, he is an avowed critic of atheism.

“I see atheism as being inconsistent with the scientific method as it is, essentially, belief in nonbelief,” Gleiser said in a 2018 interview in Scientific American. “You may not believe in God, but to affirm its nonexistence with certainty is not scientifically consistent.”

No atheist/scientist I know of says that the nonexistence of God is certain, though many of us say that there is not a whit of convincing evidence for the existence of God, and thus we’d be willing to bet a substantial sum that a divine being who runs the cosmos doesn’t exist.

. . . In a videotaped acceptance of the award, Gleiser said the “path to scientific understanding and scientific exploration is not just about the material part of the world.

“My mission is to bring back to science, and to the people that are interested in science, this attachment to the mysterious, to make people understand that science is just one other way for us to engage with the mystery of who we are.”

The Templeton Foundation noted that through the years, Gleiser has become skeptical of pronouncements that “physics has solved the question of the universe’s origin. He also increasingly rejected the claims of fellow scientists who asserted the irrelevance of philosophy or religion.”

Gleiser told RNS that this position, as well as his agnosticism, stems from his belief that “science has to show soul” and that, in the end, both religion and science “share the same seed.”

That “seed” may be curiosity, but the difference is that science’s seed blossoms into a plant—understanding—while religion’s seed is like a jumping bean, hopping this way and that but never arriving at a final destination. Gleiser is very good at confecting Deepities.

Above he also touts the “other ways of knowing” trope: “Science is just one other way for us to engage with the mystery of who we are.” What he doesn’t say is that science is the only way to affirm the “truth” of what we are:—if “being human” means anything that can be apprehended and affirmed.

From the Daily Fail:

His bestselling book The Dancing Universe refutes the idea that science and spirituality are irreconcilable.

‘Atheism is inconsistent with the scientific method,’ Professor Gleiser said.

‘Atheism is a belief in non-belief. So you categorically deny something you have no evidence against.

‘I’ll keep an open mind because I understand that human knowledge is limited.’

This is pure bullshit, if you’ll pardon my French. Atheism is the refusal to accept the existence of gods, and the refusal to accept something for which there’s no evidence is perfectly consonant with the scientific method. In fact, this is the kernel of the scientific method. Gleiser seems to think that all atheists say that the existence of gods has been absolutely, categorically disproven.  Well, they’ve been disproven with the certitude with which the Loch Ness Monster, or Bigfoot, have been “disproven”. Would Gleiser say that the refusal to accept the existence of Nessie is “inconsistent with the scientific method”?

It actually sounds as if Gleiser was angling for this prize, for why else would someone distort what atheism is, and make such ridiculous statements, unless he wanted Big Dosh and public acclaim? And he’s got it, of course. As for his last sentence, we all know the adage about not keeping your mind so open that your brains fall out.

And from Tempeton’s own citation of the winner (my emphasis):

Marcelo Gleiser, theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and a leading proponent of the view that science, philosophy, and spirituality are complementary expressions of humanity’s need to embrace mystery and the unknown, was announced today as the 2019 Templeton Prize Laureate.

Gleiser, 60, the Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy and a professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, has earned international acclaim through his books, essays, blogs, TV documentaries, and conferences that present science as a spiritual quest to understand the origins of the universe and of life on Earth.

. . .Gleiser is a prominent voice among scientists, past and present, who reject the notion that science alone can lead to ultimate truths about the nature of reality. Instead, in his parallel career as a public intellectual, he reveals the historical, philosophical, and cultural links between science, the humanities, and spirituality, and argues for a complementary approach to knowledge, especially on questions where science cannot provide a final answer.

Okay, what ARE those “ultimate truths that Templeton’s always touting”? And how can spirituality and religion answer them with the certainty that science can apprehend its truths? Can we please have just one “ultimate truth” that spirituality or religion has revealed? Please? Just one?

He often describes science as an “engagement with the mysterious,” inseparable from humanity’s relationship with the natural world. Gleiser’s writings propose that modern science has brought humankind back to the metaphorical center of creation – his doctrine of “humancentrism” — by revealing the improbable uniqueness of our planet*, and the exceptional rarity of humans as intelligent beings capable of understanding the importance of being alive. This inversion of Copernicanism, he argues, prompts the need for a new cosmic morality where the sacredness of life is extended to the planet and all living beings.**

. . . . “The path to scientific understanding and scientific exploration is not just about the material part of the world,” said Professor Gleiser in his videotaped acceptance of the Prize at http://www.templetonprize.org. “My mission is to bring back to science, and to the people that are interested in science, this attachment to the mysterious, to make people understand that science is just one other way for us to engage with the mystery of who we are.”

Clop, clop, clop . . . yadda yadda yadda. Once again we hear the tedious drumbeat of Templeton’s Prize Horses being paraded through the town. Another million pounds thrown away to delude the public about Other Ways of Knowing. And another big horse takes its stall in the Templeton Stable. If those are the Augean stables, then I am Hercules.

h/t: James


*aka some Force Out There that made our Earth—and us—special

**you can get this from secular humanism, too

Another big Templeton grant for philosophy (religious philosophy, of course), and a note on Templeton’s corruption of the field

February 19, 2019 • 9:30 am

A certain philosopher who could be mistaken for Santa Claus called my attention to this article in the Daily Nous, a website devoted to the profession of philosophy—and by “profession” I mean “job”. Below you can read yesterday’s announcement of a big new John Templeton Foundation (JTF) grant by clicking on the screenshot, but I’ve put the entire announcement below (it’s also announced on Leiter Reports):

Luis Oliveira, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Houston, has received $1.3 million to lead an international project on the epistemology of religion.

The central question of the project is “What arguments are there for believing in God or for following a specific religious tradition?”, according to the University of Houston.

The project aims to “connect Latin American philosophers with colleagues from the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom to stimulate academic interest and research in the epistemology of religion.”

The funding for the project is from the John Templeton Foundation. Funds will support summer seminars in Latin America, research scholarships, academic prizes, and a conference at  the University of Houston. You can learn more about the project here.

There’s a bit more from the University of Houston’s exultant announcement about the Big Questions, and about how Templeton’s dosh will be used.

Summer workshops planned over the next three years in Brazil, Argentina and Chile will connect Latin American philosophers with colleagues from the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom to stimulate academic interest and research in the epistemology of religion. Fellowships will bring Latin American scholars to U.S. universities in order to further strengthen research ties between the two groups.

The project is religiously neutral. This means the work won’t be limited to one religious tradition and will include study of the reasons for atheism and agnosticism, Oliveira said. Scholars of every persuasion will be involved.

He said the timing is right. “In the last 15 years, discussions of religion in the public sphere have become very acrimonious and not very philosophical at all,” he said. “There has been too much one-sided conviction. The atheists think religious people are ignoring the scientific evidence. The religious people think atheists are ignoring obvious aspects of the human experience. Very few acknowledge the force of the points made from the other side.”

While the Daily Nous announcement doesn’t say anything about nonbelief, the UH announcement says the project is “religiously neutral”. And by that they mean “the work won’t be limited to one religious tradition and will include study of the reasons for atheism and agnosticism.”  Well, I’m not heartened by the note that other religious traditions will be involved (that’s only to be expected), and not much heartened by their claim that the work “will include the study of the reasons for atheism and agnosticism.” How about “NO EVIDENCE, PEOPLE!”?  Can I have some dollars now? Can I go to Argentina and talk about atheism?

As for the main question, “What arguments are there for believing in God or a specific religious tradition?”, don’t we know the answer now? There have been almost no new arguments for God’s existence since medieval times, with only gussied-up emendations proffered by the likes of Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig.  And as for “what arguments are there for believing in a specific religious tradition?”, the answer is “WHERE YOU WERE BORN AND WHO BRAINWASHED YOU”. Can I have some dollars now and maybe a trip to Chile?

And there’s this:

The atheists think religious people are ignoring the scientific evidence. The religious people think atheists are ignoring obvious aspects of the human experience. Very few acknowledge the force of the points made from the other side.

Well, the empirical (scientific) evidence for God is exactly as copious as the scientific evidence for Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster. That is, no evidence. The “data”, as Vic Stenger used to say, consist of the absence of evidence for God when there should be evidence. 

The other scientific evidence consists of empirical refutation of religious claims, including the claim that prayer works and that there was an Exodus, Adam and Eve, the de novo creation of life, and so on. Liberal religion accepts these refutations while still clinging to claims that are harder to refute (or, as in the case of theologians like David Bentley Hart, lapsing into arcane and flabby theobabble), while conservative faith, like evangelical Christianity and Islam, won’t be swayed by scientific evidence.

And “obvious aspects of the human experience” as evidence for God? How does that work? As far as I can see, this isn’t evidence but revelation and wish-thinking: “I think there is a God because I feel/want to believe that there is one.”  I don’t acknowledge the “force of these points made from the other side” because that force is equivalent to the force of drag applied by a single barnacle affixed to a humpback whale.

In sum, I see absolutely nothing that this expensive study will add to the sum of human knowledge, though it will contribute to the sump of futile human endeavor.

It appears that philosophers are still divided on the issue of whether it’s okay to take Templeton money. When Googling philosophy and Templeton, I came upon a pair of articles by Dan Dannett and Alfred Mele from 2014. In a generally positive review in Prospect Magazine of Mele’s book Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will, Dennett brings up Templeton at the end (click on the screenshot below):


This review could similarly end on the mild, modest verdict that Mele has done his job and done it well. But there is a larger context worth considering. Suppose you were reviewing a scientific report that drew the conclusion that a diet without fat was in fact unhealthy, and that butter and cream and even bacon in moderation were good for you, and suppose further that the science was impeccable, carefully conducted and rigorously argued. Good news! Yes, but the author acknowledges in fine print that the research was financed by a million dollar grant from the Foundation for the Advancement of Bacon. We would be entitled—obliged—to keep that fact in the limelight. The science may be of the highest quality, honestly and sincerely reported, but do remember that the message delivered was the message hoped for by the funder. This is not reporting a finding contrary to the goals of the fact-seekers.

So it is important to note that Mele’s research, as he scrupulously announces, and not in fine print, is supported by the Templeton Foundation. In fact, Mele is the director of a $4.4m project, “Free Will: Empirical and Philosophical Investigations,” funded by the Templeton Foundation, almost certainly the most munificent funding of any philosopher in history. The Templeton Foundation has a stated aim of asking and answering the “Big Questions,” and its programmes include both science and theology. In fact, yoking its support of science with its support of theology (and “individual freedom and free markets”) is the very core of its strategy. The Templeton Foundation supports, with no strings attached, a great deal of excellent science that is otherwise hard to fund. The Foundation supports theological and ideological explorations as well, and it uses the prestige it garners from its even-handed and generous support of non-ideological science to bolster the prestige of its ideological forays. It could easily divide itself into two (or three) foundations, with different names, and fund the same research—I know, because I challenged a Templeton director on this score and was told that they could indeed, but would not, do this.

Alfred Mele is in an unenviable position, and there is really nothing he can do about it. Was his decision to stay strictly neutral on the compatibilism issue a wise philosophical tactic, permitting him to tackle a more modest project, demonstrating the weakness of the scientific argument to date, or was it a case of simply postponing the more difficult issue: if, as science seems to show, our decision-making is not accomplished with the help of any quantum magic, do we still have a variety of free will that can support morality and responsibility? The Templeton Foundation insists that it is not anti-science, and demonstrates this with the bulk of its largesse, but it also has an invested interest in keeping science from subverting some of its ideological aspirations, and it just happens that Mele’s work fits handsomely with that goal. And that, as I persist in telling my friends in science whenever they raise the issue, is why I advise them not to get too close to Templeton.

Mele responded briefly at the Daily Nous, saying that he’s never felt pressure from Templeton and was working on free will long before the JTF gave him money (he admits, though that he got about $9 million from Templeton!)

An excerpt from Mele:

As I’ve said in print, I enjoyed working with JTF on the Big Questions in Free Will (BQFW) project and I never felt pressured to do anything that seemed wrong to me. I have friends there now — good, hard-working people who love philosophy and want to showcase what philosophy can do. But, of course, Dan has a right to express his opinions about JTF.

. . . I don’t take Dan’s remarks personally. I know his views on JTF. We had a friendly discussion of them in London a couple of years ago while I was in the midst of directing the BQFW project. It’s safe to say that we disagree about what JTF is up to. His views about JTF come through clearly in his article, and writing about Free was an occasion for him to express them. Tying those views to me by way of the agnosticism about compatibilism in Free is ineffective, for the reason that I mentioned. If JTF likes neutrality about compatibilism, I’m their guy; I’ve pretty much had that market cornered for almost 20 years.

But the issue is not whether the JTF pressures its awardees to come up with a specific set of findings. The issue is whether the JTF distorts philosophy (and science) by funding projects in areas that are ideologically and philosophically compatible with Templeton’s mission, which is to show that science can help answer the “Big Questions” about God and spirituality. Projects defending free will and attacking its detractors fit nicely into that schema.  As Dan notes, the JTF funds projects that are more purely scientific to help buttress the religion side of its agenda, so the Scientific Horses are put in a stable with the Woo Horses, in hopes that they will breed and produce the kind of wooish hybrids that Templeton loves.

The $1.3 million grant above is in one of the religion stalls of the Templeton stable, which makes it pretty much a waste of money. Yes, philosophers like Mele may indeed take JTF money without feeling pressure, but they don’t realize (or want to ignore) how the JTF slants the philosophical playing field by funding ideologically agreeable projects. This is unlike the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation, which have no ideological slant and fund science projects based on the assessment of whether they’re going to find out anything interesting and important.

Templeton gives half a million dollars to demonstrate that science and religion can help each other find truth

February 14, 2019 • 9:15 am

Lest you think that the Templeton foundations have changed their mission, have a gander.

As you may recall, when Sir John died in 2008, he left much of his fortune—acquired by creating investment funds and moving to the Bahamas to avoid taxes—to his own foundations, with the aim of showing that science and religion are not only compatible, but that the methods of science can help uncover spiritual realities. (In other words, the fusion would help answer “The Big Questions”, which are not scientific but religious and spiritual.) As Templeton said in 2005:

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.

(Let’s leave aside the question of “what is a spiritual reality?” and move on. )

The John Templeton Foundation (JTF) website adds more:

Although Sir John was a Presbyterian elder and active in his denomination (also serving on the board of the American Bible Society), he espoused what he called a “humble approach” to theology. Declaring that relatively little is known about the divine through scripture and present-day theology, he predicted that “scientific revelations may be a gold mine for revitalizing religion in the 21st century.” To his mind, “All of nature reveals something of the creator. And god is revealing himself more and more to human inquiry, not always through prophetic visions or scriptures but through the astonishingly productive research of modern scientists.”

And the JTF’s statement of “Our Vision”:

We take our inspiration from the intellectual legacy of Sir John Templeton. Our vision is one of infinite scientific and spiritual progress, in which all people aspire to and attain a deeper understanding of the universe and their place in it. We look forward to a world where people are curious about the wonders of the universe, motivated to pursue lives of meaning and purpose, and overwhelmed by great and selfless love.

From the outset, Templeton has funneled millions of dollars into accommodationist enterprises, aiming to effect a fusion between science, religion and spirituality.  Yes, his legacy funds real science projects, but you should always remember that the aim of the JTF and its affiliate enterprises is to use that money to answer the Big Questions about spirituality, God, and religion.

According to the John Templeton Foundation link (click on screenshot below) and a new CESAR project website (Conjunctive Explanations in Science and Religion),  the JTF recently coughed up nearly half a million dollars to fund a project about how science and religion can help each other to find truth about the cosmos.

From the CESAR website:

The CESAR project is a collaboration between Ulster University, the University of Utah, and Queen’s University Belfast and is funded by the John Templeton Foundation. It builds on an earlier project on ‘Explaining and Explaining Away’ at Ulster University, which was also funded by the John Templeton Foundation.

Okay, so two Irish universities and one in America are swilling at the trough. What is the aim? It’s to show that not only can science inform religion (which of course it does, entirely by showing that the claims of religion are wrong), but that religion can inform science. Here’s the project statement on the JTF page (my emphases):

While there is general agreement that science and religion need not be in conflict, this project investigates the much more positive thesis that scientific and religious explanations can work together in mutually enriching ways. The unique contribution lies in how the project draws upon the history of science and religion and philosophy of science to explore an important but understudied aspect of scientific reasoning: how two (or more) hypotheses can work together as a ‘conjunctive explanation’ rather than as distinct, competing explanations. The relevance to science and religion will be explored along two dimensions. First, the project seeks to demonstrate that theological and philosophical perspectives can inform scientific practice rather than merely accommodating the findings of science. Second, it explores how the concept of conjunctive explanation can apply not only within science, but also to cases where scientific and religious explanations work together. Research will address the following questions: a) Historically, how have theological assumptions influenced thinking about how explanations can work together rather than compete, especially in the context of evolutionary biology? b) Philosophically, how can it be determined whether two explanations work together, rather than compete, to account for the evidence? c) How can the answers to these questions provide new insights in science and religion?

It’s clear from this description that the project aims to create “joint” scientific and religious explanations that together can be more productive than scientific explanations alone.  I’m not sure how this would work, unless they’re thinking of something like intelligent design (which the JTF no longer funds), i.e., something like Behe’s thesis that “evolution and God’s mutation-making can together explain life on Earth better than just evolution alone.” Now JTF, as I said, doesn’t fund ID any more, though they once did, but the statement above is the closest I can come to a “conjunctive explanation.”

Note, too, that aim “a)” is to confect these “conjunctive explanations” for evolutionary biology in particular. (They’ve dropped “philosophy” here and just deal with “theological assumptions”.) By infusing theology back into evolution, they are doing something akin to Intelligent Design work. And I can’t imagine how adding theology to evolution can better “account for the evidence”. Pray tell us, JTF! (Perhaps “pray” was not the best word here. . .)

Note as well that this project is not trying to find out whether “conjunctive explanations” are productive. Rather, they seek to demonstrate that adding theology and philosophy can inform scientific practice. In other words, they’ve assumed what they’re trying to show.

I’m prepared to believe that philosophy can help scientists do their job, as philosophy is a discipline that can help us think logically and rationally. But I’m not prepared to accept that theology can add one iota of useful information or practice to science. Yes, religionists say that in the past some scientific advances have been motivated by religious impulses, often citing Newton or Lemaitre, but those days are long gone and, in fact, most practicing scientists today are atheists. If there’s been a scientific advance that came from religion in the last few decades, I’d like to know about it. And of course all kinds of nonreligious impulses can inspire scientific hypotheses, including a dream that a snake formed a ring by biting its own tail.

What will come of this project?  As always, the Templeton money gets wasted by funding scholarly conferences that have no impact and academic papers that nobody reads. The project description continues with a description of the “deliverables” (oy!):

Deliverables consist of at least nine articles in academic journals and six conference papers, while two academic workshops will result in two edited volumes. The project activities and findings are expected to stimulate new directions in science and religion and also in the history and philosophy of science since they address an important topic relevant to scientific practice. The project is also expected to promote understanding of science and religion at a popular level and this will be facilitated by a public engagement workshop and two magazine articles.


In science, most people don’t start a project with a firm idea of how many papers and articles and workshops will result, for you don’t know what, if anything, you’re going to find. I seriously doubt whether this $500K grant will have any tangible effect on the progress or direction of science: the size of any effect would be about the size of a barnacle’s effect on the swimming direction of its humpback whale host.

h/t: Matthew

New York Times op-ed: Science can learn from religion

February 3, 2019 • 10:00 am

UPDATE:  If religious practices promote well being, one would expect that more religious countries would have happier inhabitants. But the graph below (prepared by reader gluonspring) shows that this is not the case: the most religious countries score lowest on the UN’s “happiness index.” Of course this is a correlation and not necessarily a causal relationship, and there are other factors as well (people may turn to religion if they are poor and unhappy), but this certainly goes against DeSteno’s hypothesis.


I’ve gotten the link to this new NYT op-ed from about a dozen readers, with some explicitly asking me to respond.

Okay, I’ll bite, though my response will be limited to this site as there’s no way in hell that the New York Times would publish a piece saying that science and religion are not mutually helpful. The writer is David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University and author of the book Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride. More about him and his funding sources (yes, you can guess!) later.

The article manages to press all my buttons, including extolling the oleaginous Krista Tippett (I had to listen to her ask Daniel Kahneman this morning how he manages to “inhabit the space of his theories”!) and criticizing Steven Pinker. But let’s examine the arguments, which are independent of whether DeSteno loves Krista Tippett (she is, by the way, funded by Templeton).

DeSteno’s thesis is that religion has contributed to science, and that arguing for a divide between the areas “might not only be stoking needless hostility; it might also be slowing the process of scientific discovery itself.”

How does this occur? According to DeSteno, religion has found ways to control not only individual behavior, but also group behavior—and in good ways. If we study these religous methods, we could concoct hypotheses about how we can apply this behavioral control to society at large. In other words, the contribution of religion to science is that it suggests hypotheses. These hypotheses can then be tested using science to see if they work. As DeSteno says:

Religious traditions offer a rich store of ideas about what human beings are like and how they can satisfy their deepest moral and social needs. For thousands of years, people have turned to spiritual leaders and religious communities for guidance about how to conduct themselves, how to coexist with other people, how to live meaningful and fulfilled lives — and how to accomplish this in the face of the many obstacles to doing so. The biologist Richard Dawkins, a vocal critic of religion, has said that in listening to and debating theologians, he has “never heard them say anything of the smallest use.” Yet it is hubristic to assume that religious thinkers who have grappled for centuries with the workings of the human mind have never discovered anything of interest to scientists studying human behavior.

Just as ancient doesn’t always mean wise, it doesn’t always mean foolish. The only way to determine which is the case is to put an idea — a hypothesis — to an empirical test. In my own work, I have repeatedly done so. I have found that religious ideas about human behavior and how to influence it, though never worthy of blind embrace, are sometimes vindicated by scientific examination.

So what are these “religious ideas”? They include these:

1.) Meditation. The idea that meditation can reduce suffering and make people more moral has, says DeSteno, been supported by science. He also says that idea comes from Buddhism.

2.) Ritual. DeSteno says that science has found that the repetitive actions of rituals lead to greater self-control and more feelings of “affiliation and empathy”. He implies that the use of rituals originated in religion.

3.) “Religious virtues such as gratitude and kindness.” See below.

That’s about it, but one can think of other ideas as well. Whether they come from religion is debatable, and I’ll get to that in a minute. DeSteno’s conclusion?

If this view is right, religion can offer tools to bolster secular interventions of many types, such as combating addiction, increasing exercise, saving money and encouraging people to help those in need. This possibility dovetails with a parallel body of research showing that by cultivating traditional religious virtues such as gratitude and kindness, people can also improve their ability to reach personal goals like financial and educational success.

. . . My purpose here isn’t to argue that religion is inherently good or bad. As with most social institutions, its value depends on the intentions of those using it. But even in cases where religion has been used to foment intergroup conflict, to justify invidious social hierarchies or to encourage the maintenance of false beliefs, studying how it manages to leverage the mechanisms of the mind to accomplish those nefarious goals can offer insights about ourselves — insights that could be used to understand and then combat such abuses in the future, whether perpetrated by religious or secular powers.

Science and religion do not need each other to function, but that doesn’t imply that they can’t benefit from each other.

It’s clear that what DeSteno means is that science can find out stuff if they test hypotheses derived from examining religion, but that science itself doesn’t benefit. Science is, after all, a set of practices that help us find out stuff, and it isn’t and has never been helped by religion. It is society that benefits—supposedly.

DeSteno calls these testable hypotheses “spiritual technologies”, a word he got from Krista Tippett (it has shady overtones from Scientology, though). But he also says, correctly, that these practices can be separated from religious dogma, and also don’t vindicate the dogma of any religion. In response to Pinker, who, when faced with DeSteno’s ideas, said that these are cultural and not religious practices, DeSteno says that it’s hard to separate the two.

And it is, which is one of the problems of DeSteno’s thesis. Are these techniques derived from studying religion and its supposed successes, or do they come from elsewhere? I’m willing to admit that meditation comes from Zen Buddhism, though many people don’t see that as a religion. But that aside, it does seem to have value, though some people, like Dan Dennett, never feel the “mindfulness” and “out of self” experiences touted by adherents like Sam Harris. I would be interested to see if the scientific studies of meditation explicitly credit Buddhism, but I won’t carp if they did.

As for the other two, I am not so sure they come from religion.  Ritual probably long preceded present-day religions, and may have had little to do with belief in divine beings. The origins of ritual are lost in the irrecoverable past of our species. Indeed, religion may have adopted rituals like singing and dancing from the teenage phase of our evolutionary history.

And, of course, there are other ways of bonding. Do soccer fans derive their chants and solidarity from observing religion? I don’t think so. There are many things that help us bond, and many rituals that facilitate that, and surely some of those don’t come from religion. I won’t go into this in detail as readers can think of these on their own. But why not write an article like “What science can learn from soccer”?

Here’s some video from that proposed article:

As for “gratitude and kindness,” I deny that these ideas derive from religion. While some religions emphasize them, many urge them on adherents to their faith but urge intolerance and dislike towards members of other faiths. That, indeed, was the situation throughout most of religious history. If you ascribe “gratitude and kindness” to religion, you must also ascribe “dislike, xenophibia, and intolerance of others” to religion as well. Here DeSteno is brandishing a double-edged sword.

There are many reasons to think that religion adopted the “gratitude and kindness” stand from secular reason and from evolution. These virtues would have arisen via experience and evolution over the long period of time when humans lived in small groups—groups of people who knew each other and thus could practice these virtues in light of the expected reciprocity from others. And, of course, secular ethics has emphasized these virtues from since forever. As Rebecca Goldstein told me, moral philosophy is a thoroughly secular enterprise. And she’s right. Religions simply took over these virtues from preexisting groups.

But there’s more to say. Religion has also had a malign influence on humanity, not, perhaps, through scientific study of religious methods of behavior control, but from secular enterprises apeing religious methods to control people. For example:

  1. Threats as a way to control behavior. There’s nothing more compelling than making people behave than by threatening them if they don’t. Religion is excellent at doing this, especially through threats of burning in hell. Other threats have been used by dictatorships to make people conform. What are Nazism and Stalinism but oppressive ideologies that use the methods of religion, including god figures, threats, ritual, and punishment of apostasy and blasphemy?
  2. Deprivation of freedom of expression. Religions have been suppressing heresy for centuries, a technique taken over by totalitarian regimes to ensure control.
  3. Use of raw power to get your way. Here I’ll mention how some Catholic priests have used the cachet of their church to sexually molest young people.
  4. Promises of reward if you give money or effort to the church. People who tithe expect rewards, often in the afterlife. But “prosperity gospel” hucksters like Creflo Dollar, as well as Scientologists, use these promises of reward to bankrupt their acolytes.

Now scientists may not have studied these religious methods to judge their efficacy. After all, who would fund a study of whether gaining religious power over someone makes them more likely to succumb to sexual molestation? But the hypotheses that these methods work can reasonably be ascribed to religion (at least as reasonably as the three ideas mentioned above), and they have been used to damage human beings. On balance, one can’t say that the existence of religions has been an overall good in making humans feel good and behave well. Likewise, we can’t say that scientific discoveries about human behavior would be less advanced if religion hadn’t existed.

When I read this article, I immediately thought, “I smell Templeton in here.” (By the way, the self-aggrandizing rat in the wonderful children’s book Charlotte’s Web is named Templeton!) And it doesn’t take much digging to find that DeSteno has been and still is amply funded by Templeton. Here are two past grants he’s had, both listed on his c.v.:

John Templeton Foundation Co-PI’s: David DeSteno and Lisa Feldman Barrett Informal Science Education via Storytelling: Teaching Scientists and Philosophers How to Communicate with the Public Funding Program: Academic Engagement November 2016 – October 2018; Total costs: $216,400. J

John Templeton Foundation PI: David DeSteno Behavioral Measures of Virtue: Moving from the Lab to the “Real World” Funding Program: Character Virtue Development June 2014 – May 2016; Total costs: $244,251

And, on January 22 of this year, Northeastern University noted that DeSteno and a colleague now have three more grants from Templeton adding up to a cool $600,000:

DeSteno and fellow Northeastern psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett recently received three grants from the John Templeton Foundation for a total of nearly $600,000, including two grants to continue offering workshops that help scientists such as Routledge communicate complex information to laypeople.

Hundreds of scientists from all over the world have applied to attend the first three workshops, and a dozen have been selected to participate in each one. According to DeSteno, several of their workshop attendees have written articles for major news outlets such as theTimesThe Wall Street Journal, and Scientific American. Now they are planning a fourth workshop this fall in Boston.

Some of these grants have been to teach scholars to communicate with the public. As Templeton described the first grant above, which expired in October 2018:

Scholars yearn to provide insights into some of the big questions. Yet, too often, they are limited in their abilities to communicate findings directly to a knowledge hungry public .The result is either that scholars write mainly for one another, placing important knowledge in insular academic journals that are beyond the reach and interest of the public, or rely on intermediaries to digest and transmit knowledge. If science and philosophy are to maximally enhance well-being and benefit humanity, scholars must have a way to more easily disseminate their discoveries to the public. Success in doing so requires learning not only how to tell a good story, and how to write in different styles, but also how to approach, pitch and work with editors at prominent publications.

There’s the Big Questions trope again, which is TempletonSpeak for “osculating faith.” I see workshops like this as Templeton fostering a way to spread its own views to the public, as DeSteno does here (this article could have been written by a Templeton flack). And two of DeSteno’s new Templeton grants are for further workshops in this kind of communication.

There’s a lot of dough to be made, and public approbation to be gained, by claiming that science and religion have a lot to teach each other. Yes, science can often test religious claims (Adam and Eve, the efficacy of prayer, and so on), and these claims are always dispelled. As for religion’s contribution to science, as outlined by DeSteno in this article, well, it’s not impressive.

It’s not to the New York Times’s credit that they continue publishing religion-osculating pieces like this. Would that they gave the same space to criticisms of religion!

Templeton the rat (from the Charlotte’s Web Wiki)

h/t: Greg Mayer, Michael

FIRE is supported by Templeton

January 31, 2019 • 1:00 pm

What do you do when an organization you admire gets money from an organization you detest? I’ve just found out that FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a free-speech group whose work I admire, has gotten lots of dough from the John Templeton Foundation. To see the article on the FIRE website, click on at the screenshot:

Gag me with a spoon! This is what FIRE writes:

“FIRE is grateful to the Templeton Foundation for its generous investment in the fight to defeat censorship and preserve academic freedom on campus,” said FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff. “The grant will give FIRE tremendous resources to engage a wider audience and better understand the current attitudes and arguments about campus rights. FIRE has been eager to pursue a project like this since our founding in 1999. The Templeton Foundation has now made it a reality.”

Businessman and philanthropist Sir John Templeton gave his foundation the motto “how little we know, how eager to learn” to exemplify its support for open-minded inquiry and the hope for advancing human progress through breakthrough discoveries. The Templeton Foundation supports research on subjects ranging from complexity, evolution, and infinity to creativity, forgiveness, love, and free will. It encourages civil, informed dialogue among scientists, philosophers, and theologians, and between such experts and the public at large, for the purposes of definitional clarity and new insights.

As the Templeton Foundation noted when it gave this grant in 2016, the money is $2,547836, and the grant goes from January of 2017 to December of this year. As for me, well, I’ll still report on FIRE’s activities promoting free speech on campus, but I won’t be involved with them in any other way (not that they’ve ever asked me!).


Templeton funds more atheist-bashing

September 27, 2018 • 10:30 am

Lois Lee, a religious scholar whom I’ve written about before, is the lead investigator on a big Templeton grant, or, as The Conversation describes her in erroneous spelling, “Principle [sic] Investigator on the Understanding Unbelief programme.” Templeton gave her and her co-PI Stephen Bullivant (also a religious scholar) nearly three million dollars to study the nature and variety of “unbelief”. While the grant summary pretends that this is a dispassionate inquiry into the origin and nature of atheism, I wrote at the time that giving the grant to these two was “like asking creationists to direct a sociological study of why so many scientists accept evolution.”

And indeed, it’s clear from Lee and Bullivant’s writings that their study is tendentious. It’s not a rational inquiry into atheism, but rather an attack on atheism, and, in Lee’s latest article in The Conversation, “Why atheists are not as rational as some like to think” (click on screenshot), she positively celebrates irrationality. Note that the obligatory picture of the Satan Atheist accompanies the article:

I’m not sure I want to dissect this egregious and lightweight piece; it’s best summed up by saying its thesis is this: “Atheists are irrational, just like religious people.” In other words, “You’re just as bad as we believers are”: not a very persuasive argument.  In fact, Lee adduces no strong evidence that atheists are just as irrational as believers. Rather, she uses a series of arguments, many of which rest on opinion rather than data, e.g. “some atheists are irrational” or “many atheists don’t arrive at their nonbelief through reason or science, but because they’re indoctrinated by their parents.

Who would deny this? Certainly not all atheists arrive at their stand by reason, but many of them have enough rationality to think “there’s no evidence for religious beliefs”, which is all the rationality you need to reject religion. You don’t have to be rational in every aspect of your life. Further, Lee fails to mention that religious belief is completely irrational—in the sense that there’s no evidence supporting the existence of Gods or the factual (and conflicting) assertions of the world’s many religions.

So yes, perhaps to some people “atheists aren’t as rational as you’d like to think”, but so what? What matters is not whether atheists are 100% rational, or whether some of them become atheists for reasons other than reason, but whether the claims of religion are true. That crucial issue isn’t discussed. Lee’s purpose here is simply to criticize atheists rather than to examine whether atheism can be seen as it truly is: a rational response to a lack of evidence for gods.

Here are a few of her assertions that I’ve summarized in bold (Lee’s direct quotes are indented):

Atheism is a sad way to live. Here Lee begins her celebration of irrationality, which I take to be osculation of religion (I’m betting she’s religious):

When you ask atheists about why they became atheists (as I do for a living), they often point to eureka moments when they came to realise that religion simply doesn’t make sense.

Oddly perhaps, many religious people actually take a similar view of atheism. This comes out when theologians and other theists speculate that it must be rather sad to be an atheist, lacking (as they think atheists do) so much of the philosophical, ethical, mythical and aesthetic fulfilments that religious people have access to – stuck in a cold world of rationality only.

That I don’t get. Why does atheism “not make sense” because it’s “sad”? And of course many of us nonbelievers are not sad at all. We fall in love, enjoy friendship, beauty, books, art, and food. What we don’t do is proselytize or believe in divine fairy tales. What we have here from Lee is a knowingly distorted indictment of nonbelief.

Many atheists arrive at nonbelief for non-rational reasons.

Even atheist beliefs themselves have much less to do with rational inquiry than atheists often think. We now know, for example, that nonreligious children of religious parents cast off their beliefs for reasons that have little to do with intellectual reasoning. The latest cognitive research shows that the decisive factor is learning from what parents do rather than from what they say. So if a parent says that they’re Christian, but they’ve fallen out of the habit of doing the things they say should matter – such as praying or going to church – their kids simply don’t buy the idea that religion makes sense.

This is perfectly rational in a sense, but children aren’t processing this on a cognitive level. Throughout our evolutionary history, humans have often lacked the time to scrutinise and weigh up the evidence – needing to make quick assessments. That means that children to some extent just absorb the crucial information, which in this case is that religious belief doesn’t appear to matter in the way that parents are saying it does.

. . . Some parents take the view that their children should choose their beliefs for themselves, but what they then do is pass on certain ways of thinking about religion, like the idea that religion is a matter of choice rather than divine truth. It’s not surprising that almost all of these children – 95% – end up “choosing” to be atheist.

My response is “so what?” Many atheists give up religious beliefs as adults, not children.  And again, the main issue for me is whether it IS rational to be an atheist, not how you come to be an atheist. Of course not everyone gives up or rejects faith for the same reason.

Atheists purport to think scientifically and love science, but not all of us are that way.

But are atheists more likely to embrace science than religious people? Many belief systems can be more or less closely integrated with scientific knowledge. Some belief systems are openly critical of science, and think it has far too much sway over our lives, while other belief systems are hugely concerned to learn about and respond to scientific knowledge.

But this difference doesn’t neatly map onto whether you are religious or not. Some Protestant traditions, for example, see rationality or scientific thinking as central to their religious lives. Meanwhile, a new generation of postmodern atheists highlight the limits of human knowledge, and see scientific knowledge as hugely limited, problematic even, especially when it comes to existential and ethical questions. These atheists might, for example, follow thinkers like Charles Baudelaire in the view that true knowledge is only found in artistic expression.

Yes, of course not all atheists are completely rational in everything they do. But some are more rational than believers, especially in the crucial area of embracing superstitions. And any believers who see “scientific thinking as central to their religious lives” are, I submit, deluding themselves.

I’ll give one more quote and pass on:

Clearly, the idea that being atheist is down to rationality alone is starting to look distinctly irrational. But the good news for all concerned is that rationality is overrated. Human ingenuity rests on a lot more than rational thinking. As Haidt says of “the righteous mind”, we are actually “designed to ‘do’ morality” – even if we’re not doing it in the rational way we think we are. The ability to make quick decisions, follow our passions and act on intuition are also important human qualities and crucial for our success.

It is helpful that we have invented something that, unlike our minds, is rational and evidence-based: science. When we need proper evidence, science can very often provide it – as long as the topic is testable. Importantly, the scientific evidence does not tend to support the view that atheism is about rational thought and theism is about existential fulfilments. The truth is that humans are not like science – none of us get by without irrational action, nor without sources of existential meaning and comfort. Fortunately, though, nobody has to.

Check out that link. It doesn’t really show that “rationality is overrated” but that “gut instincts can be correct and we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss them.” But “gut instincts” can also be the result of rationality, whether conscious but not pondered at length, or unconscious but either the result of evolved ways of thinking or unconscious ways of thinking that have been adaptive in the past.

In the end, I’d like to see Lee justify the rationality of theism. Is there any scientific evidence for gods or the divine? If so, where is it?  Templeton, of course, doesn’t care: their purpose here is to cast aspersions on nonbelievers.

Lee’s article is accompanied by a “disclosure statement”:h/t: Michael

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

Templeton wastes $ 630,791 on “biology” research, finally making its anti-evolution agenda explicit

April 6, 2018 • 9:00 am

The John Templeton Foundation has announced yet another big grant for “biology” research, except that its principal investigators are a theologian (Christopher Southgate) as well as a biologist (Niles Lehman). Click on the screenshot to go to the announcement. As you see, the grant, which just started, will last 32 months, and eat up over half a million dollars:


But first meet the principals/ Southgate is an associate professor of Theology and Religion at the University of Exeter. His own website details his activities, and, as usual, he’s been supported by Templeton in several ways. There’s no evidence that he has any qualifications to be Principal Investigator on a biology grant:

THEOLOGY – Chris has taught at the University of Exeter since 1993. His main fields of study are the science-religion debate, ecotheology and environmental ethics. He welcomes enquiries from prospective research students. His current project is on divine glory (see Zygon, Dec 2014)

His current teaching includes the modules ‘Evolution, God and Gaia’, and ‘God, Humanity and the Cosmos’. His book The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution and the Problem of Evil (Westminster John Knox Press, 2008) has been described as ‘quite excellent’ (Church Times)

Chris is Project Director for a major new project in practical theology, aimed at identifying good practice after a congregation has suffered a sudden tragedy. For details see www.tragedyandcongregations.org.uk. This project is funded by the Templeton World Charities Foundation Inc.

SCIENCE – Chris will also be Principal Investigator on a new scientific project starting in January 2018 entitled ‘Cooperation and interpretation in the emergence of life’. More details shortly.

But wait—there’s more:

Southgate’s research and teaching won him a Templeton Award, and he has since served as a Coordinating Editor of the Science and Religion Textbook Project for the Templeton Foundation.

But wait: there’s still more!:

  • “How can congregations be helped in times of tragedy?”, £154,977 from the Templeton World Charities Foundation [JAC: see above]
  • “Information and the Origins of Life’, with Andrew Robinson. £196,562, Science and Transcendence Advanced Research Series, made possible by the Templeton Foundation, 2008-2011.

As usual, once you have a stall in the Templeton stable, they keep giving you big buckets of oats.

Niles Lehman is a professor of chemistry at Portland State University, and, at least, has some qualifications, since his research is in prebiotic chemistry. Like Southgate, he’s been munching from Templeton’s feed bag for a while; this announcement is from 2006:

Niles Lehman, Chemistry faculty, received a $436,432 grant from the John Templeton Foundation for “NetLife: Experimental Evolution of Networks in Abiogenesis.”

What a pity he had to put together a Templeton grant proposal with a theologian. But why on earth did Lehman do it?

Well, of course, there’s the money—essential to advance both your research and your career. But that isn’t all: have a look at Templeton’s description of what the grant is about. I’ve rarely seen Templeton be so explicit about why they’re constantly going after neo-Darwinism:

The Darwinian research program has been very successful over almost 150 years. But two of its core presumptions militate against pursuit of one of JTF’s key areas: ‘the exploration of the evolution and fundamental nature of life, especially as they relate to meaning and purpose’. These Darwinian presumptions are: the centrality of competition, and the need to avoid teleological explanations. 

In other words, because the Templeton foundation doesn’t like competition (although of course Sir John made his money as a mutual fund manager) or nonteleological—i.e., naturalistic—explanations, they have to attack the evil instantiation of those paradigms: modern evolutionary biology. Clearly, Templeton is trying to buttress Sir John’s original agenda, which was to find evidence for God in science, and to finally answer those Big Questions of meaning and purpose. And such evidence would be teleology in biology: non-materialistic evidence of “purpose” or directionality in evolution.  Ergo, this grant sets out to find it:

This project works at the transition from non-life to life, to clarify key characteristics of life at its origin, and therefore its fundamental nature. We draw on published work by the project team showing the importance a) of cooperation between RNA fragments in developing catalytic ability and correct folding, and b) of purposive responses to signs in the environment (interpretation) understood within a naturalised teleology, also demonstrated in single RNA molecules. Showing interpretation in proto-life implies that meaning-finding and purpose goes ‘all the way down’. Through empirical research and computer modeling, the present project seeks to answer the question: can a cooperative system of RNA catalysts be constructed capable of two modes of action based on interpretation of the state of the environment. Using proven experimental systems, computer models and game theory, we will explore adaptive interactions between these two behaviors in evolutionarily ancient molecules. The project aims to show that cooperation (rather than mere competition) and interpretation (which is inherently purposeful) may together have been intrinsic to the emergence of life. We expect at least four major papers to result from the study, together with presentation at the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life, a review article on the philosophical implications, and a TED talk. The proposed work could help to show that the default mode of Nature can be meaning-seeking and cooperative, not selfish as is widely supposed.

I am astonished, for of course cooperation between fragments of RNA could be (and almost certainly is) the result of natural selection, not God telling the molecules, “Thou shalt cooperate in helping big molecules fold properly.” As for the “purposive responses to signs in the environment. . . understood within a naturalised teleology”, I have no idea what that means. If they find molecules cooperating (and by that I mean “working together”), how can that provide evidence for God? Does the cooperation of molecules in clotting blood, or fighting antigens, also denote “purposive responses”? No, I’m afraid that Drs. Lehman and Southgate will have to do better than showing cooperation to convince us of teleology in nature.

Well, they strain at gnats:

. . . we will explore adaptive interactions between these two behaviors in evolutionarily ancient molecules. The project aims to show that cooperation (rather than mere competition) and interpretation (which is inherently purposeful) may together have been intrinsic to the emergence of life.

Again, what does it mean to say that “interpretation is inherently purposeful”? Is that the job of theologian Southgate to get his $300,000 by pronouncing, “Cooperation means God did it”? And in what way would “interpretation”, which is a phenomenon of human mentality, have been “intrinsic to the emergence of life”?

So we see again an enormous waste of money, and a seemingly reputable scientist getting mired in the hinterlands of theology. It is beyond me how a researcher can participate in such a project, unless he’s either a believer or desperate for money.

The only good thing about this announcement is that Templeton pulls no punches in telling us why they don’t like modern evolutionary biology: it’s too naturalistic (no teleology) and too competitive (presumably between “selfish genes” or organisms themselves in ecology and evolution). And so they throw money at projects that attack these paradigms.

The thing is, we have no evidence against pure naturalism, and competition among genes and individuals is well documented. Of course “selfish” genes can produce cooperation, something that Dawkins has been at pains to emphasize given the misconstrual of his title “The Selfish Gene.” But that’s not enough for Templeton. They not only want to show cooperation (which is presumably why they fund people like David Sloan Wilson and Martin Nowak), but also that the cooperation comes from God. Sadly, there’s still no evidence for Templeton’s teleological God (remember, they once funded Intelligent Design projects for that reason), and so they throw good money after bad.

I find the John Templeton Foundation reprehensible, for they take advantage of scientists’ need for money to push their own agenda, which is a nasty miasma of theology and science. I decry any scientist who would take money from them, and I won’t listen to excuses like “I’m just doing pure science.” In this case Lehman doesn’t have that excuse, for he co-wrote a grant with a theologian designed to find purpose in the origin of life. Shades of Genesis!

Here: have a six-minute video (click on screenshot) featuring Southgate telling us about God’s nature, and supposedly answering the question, “Did God make animals suffer?” (I gather Southgate’s answer is “yes”, and his astonishing explanation is apparently so that animals could experience the sufferings of Jesus and, like humans, be redeemed by the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Typical theological apologetics. This bit starts at 4:42.)

Creation may be groaning, but so is Professor Ceiling Cat (Emeritus)!

The University of Edinburgh and the John Templeton Foundation royally screw up evolution and science (and tell arrant lies) in an online course

March 25, 2018 • 9:00 am

Reader Simon sent me this video, which is a short (8-minute) lecture that’s apparently part of an online Coursera course on Science and Philosophy sponsored by the University of Edinburgh, the EIDYN Research Center run by Edinburgh’s Department of Philosophy, and the John Templeton Foundation. The presenter of this talk on creationism and evolutionary biology, S. Orestis Palermos, is a lecturer in philosophy at Cardiff University (also identified as a “research explorer” at Edinburgh).

If you had any pretense that Templeton is in favor of rigorous science, it will be dispelled by this video, which argues that science, like religion, is based on faith, and that evolution is merely an ad hoc rationalization of observations that is not science because it can’t make predictions. It’s also ineffably sad that the University of Edinburgh is sponsoring this nonsense.

I’ve put a transcript of the video below (also prepared by Simon), with the really bad parts in bold; and I’ve added some comments. What we see here is the pernicious influence of postmodernism on science: a claim that science gives us no objective truth because it’s based on faith. This is rotten philosophy and is also either clueless or deliberately duplicitous. Palermos doesn’t deserve the monicker of “philosopher”—not if that monicker requires one to be rational. In this video Palermos acts like Ray Comfort with a Ph.D.: a distorter and outright liar in service not of Jesus, but of postmodernism and perhaps faitheism.

Click on the screenshot below to go to the short lecture, and be prepared to gnash your teeth!

Simon’s transcript (indented; my own comments are flush left):

The final lecture of the free online course science and philosophy is dedicated to the topic, evolutionary biology and creationism science or pseudoscience. This lecture focuses on the same scientific status of evolutionary biology and genetics.

Within western society, there is a tendency to raise science to a special epistemic status. Science is always taken to be better than fairy tales, myths, and of course, religion. If a claim is supposed to be scientific, then it is supposed to constitute some kind of absolute truth that will always be true and which is impossible to deny. So for example, many times, in order to support a claim, we say that this is a fact that is scientifically proven.

No scientist would make the claim that science gives us “absolute truth”; and we use the word “proven” not in the sense of “absolute unchanging truth” but, “supported by evidence so strong that you could bet your house on it.” For Palermos to make his claim means that he has no understanding of how science is done or how we should regard scientific “truth.” That disqualifies him from the outset to give this lecture.  But let’s proceed:

But is this attitude towards science correct? What if science is not the kind of secure, absolute knowledge that scientists make it out to be, and which most of us accept unreflectively? And if science can be questioned, then how does it compare with other predictive and explanatory devices like myths and religion?

A particularly, interesting case in point is whether creationism should be taught alongside evolutionary biology as part of the standard curriculum in the schools in the United States of America.

The standard approach to this long-standing debate is to claim that evolutionary biology as opposed to creationism is scientific. Therefore, we have a good reason to teach the one but not the latter. Evolutionary biology is science, creationism is pseudoscience, and obviously we should always prefer disciplines that are scientific.

However, upon further reflection it is not quite obvious whether this claim is actually valid. For the second half of the 20th century, the best philosophers of science, philosophers like Sir Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, Imre Lakatos and Paul Feyerabend, attempted to explain what science consists in and how it differs from myths and religion. And no matter how hard they tried, eventually, the debate died out their realization that science, much like religion, requires faith.  To choose one scientific theory over another, is simply a matter of aesthetics in the hope that this theory and all to the other is going to work out.

Here we have another lie. I’m not that familiar with Lakatos or Feyerabend’s views, but I doubt that any of them would equate the epistemic status of science with that of religion. Popper, for sure, saw evolution as a historical science, and one that produced the best understanding we have of the natural world. He also rejected creationism, although he did see natural selection—only one aspect of evolutionary theory—as hard to test). See here for a refutation of Palermos’s distortions about Popper. And if Kuhn put creationism on an equal footing with religion, with the choice simply “a matter of aesthetics”, I’m not aware of it. Readers with philosophical expertise might weigh in here.

But clearly it’s not “aesthetics” to regard evolution as a much better explanation of the data than creationism. We have reliable ways of dating the Earth and its fossils, and we have observations that comport fully with evolutionary theory but not with creationism (biogeography, dead genes in the genome, vestigial organs, and so on). And yes, evolutionary theory makes predictions. One, that marsupial fossils would be found in Antarctica, since the group crossed that continent when it still linked South America to Antarctica, was verified within the last two decades. We’ve predicted that transitional forms existed—transitions between fish and amphibians, reptiles and mammals, and reptiles and birds—that were later found. Even Darwin predicted in The Descent of Man that humans evolved in Africa, and from other apes. That prediction didn’t begin to be verified until the early 20th century, long after Darwin had passed away. Much real-time evidence, as well as historical evidence and both predictions and “retrodictions” (observations that, in retrospect, make sense in light of evolution but not creationism) are detailed in my book Why Evolution is True. 

To reject the historical evidence of fossils, vestigial organs, and biogeography, as not constituting “real” evidence is another misunderstanding of science. Much of physics, and nearly all of cosmology, rests on historical observation and reconstruction. So is human history itself! Is it an “aesthetic preference” to think that Julius Caesar really lived when all we have left are traces of his existence—his writings, those of his contemporaries, statues, coins, and so on? The notion that history can’t buttress empirical theories is a fantasy promulgated by the likes of Ray Comfort. It shouldn’t be shoved down the throats of students by a misguided professor of philosophy. But on with this dreadful “lecture”:

But there is no way to disprove or prove in theory. And since there is no way to prove it or disprove it, then there is no point where it becomes irrational for a scientist to stay with a failing theory.

It’s just a lie to say that we cannot adjudicate the likelihood of evolution versus creationism from data (I reject the term “prove”) as a way of getting better and better explanations for our universe. Yes, there is a point where it’s irrational for a scientist to stay with a failing theory like creationism. And that is when the data are so strong against it that you’d be a fool (or a religious believer) to maintain what is palpably false.

But wait! There’s more!

So, the best example of this is the case of heliocentricism. Heliocentricism was first put forward about 2,000 years ago. And for about 1,600 years, it was a failing theory. However, at some point, Kepler and Galileo decided to take it up. And even though it was failing for 1,600 years, they managed to convert it in a very successful theory. The choice, however, to do so, was not because the theory was a good one—since obviously it was failing for a long time—but simply because they liked it and for some reason they had faith in it. So scientists choose to stay, we the few, simply because they have faith in it. So both science and religion seem to require faith, which means that it is not so easy to distinguish between creationism and evolutionary biology.

Kepler and Galileo “converted” heliocentrism to a good explanation because of OBSERVATIONS, you moron! It was not because they had “faith” that the Sun was the locus of the solar system.

Instead of writing a lot here, just read my essay in Slate, “No faith in science“, which dispels the canard that science requires some religious-like “faith.”

Moreover, even by the most rigorous standards for distinguishing between science and pseudoscience, what is known as Imre Lakatos’s sophisticated falsification, it was seen that evolutionary biology in creationism and actually, on a path. So, creationism may not be scientific but then again, neither is evolutionary biology, which  appears unable to predict anything but only provides an explanation for the phenomena after the fact have taken place. Parenthetically, this is what is known within philosophy as an ad hoc hypothesis. To introduce an explanation in a hypothesis, only in order to explain something that is already known. And not to provide an explanation or a prediction for something new. And most philosophers of sciences agree that introducing such ad hoc hypotheses within science should always be avoided because it turns a scientific theory into pseudoscience.

This is again a twofold lie: the claim that historical data cannot constitute support for a theory, or help us distinguish between theories, as well as the claim that “evolutionary biology is unable to predict anything.” I’d add here that although creationism has been falsified by many lines of evidence, evolution could have been falsified by observations like 400-million-year-old mammal fossils, an absence of genetic variation in species, or adaptations in one species which are useful only for a different species. But the falsifying observations haven’t been made. As I say in WEIT, “Despite a million chances to be wrong, evolution always comes up right. That’s as close as we can get to a scientific truth.”

Let’s get to the end of this pack of Palermos’s lies and distortions:

However, both evolutionary biology and creationism are guilty of introducing side ad hoc hypothesis. And so it would seem that neither is scientific.

Now, add to this the fact that genetics, which is a special discipline of evolutionary biology, is facing a number of anomalies. Like any other discipline in the past, in any other scientific field, [it] is most likely to change in the future. It becomes even less obvious why evolutionary biology and genetics should be taught in schools as scientifically proven theories but reject creationism as being pseudo-scientific.

Ah, now we hear that Palermos also claims that genetics isn’t really science. I’m not sure what “anomalies” he’s talking about (Epigenetic modification of DNA? Horizontal movement of genes?), but if genetics weren’t science, we have a lot of valuable and useful data that suddenly acquire the epistemic status of Mormonism. That’s just garbage—and it’s lying to the students of this course.

So this lecture delivered by professor of philosophy and theology Cornel Carnihim from the University of Nottingham, will go over some of themes in an accessible and captivating way.

The lecture purposely avoids to put forward any conclusion but it raises a number of interesting questions. Does the epistemic polity between creationism and evolutionary biology mean that neither of them should be taught as part of the standard curriculum? Or should we teach both, but with intellectually honest attitude that neither is quite scientific? And then, does this mean that we trust and pursue both to the same extent? Or should we invest our efforts to develop the most plausible hypothesis in a way that will finally make it stand out from religion?

Isn’t it better to be honest about the status of our best scientific theories, such that future students can know their limits and attempt to improve them, rather than dogmatically believing that they amount to proven knowledge when in fact, they’re far from it?

Isn’t it better to be intellectually honest about why virtually all scientists rejection creationism and accept evolution—a stand based on evidence—than to push postmodernism on a credulous group of students by equating religious faith with scientific confidence?

Shame on the John Templeton Foundation, and shame on the University of Edinburgh, for presenting these lies and distortions in a lecture on evolutionary biology! And Templeton, if you’re listening, how dare you fund a program that fundamentally misrepresents the nature of science? If you claim you’re promoting science in your program funding, you’re also undercutting the claim with junk lectures like this. And that is why no scientist should be taking money from the John Templeton Foundation.

As for the University of Edinburgh, they’ve got some housecleaning to do.