Monday, June 07, 2010

The Templeton Foundation Dilemma

If you are interested in issues of science & religion, then there is a good chance that you are familiar with the Templeton Foundation. In fact, it is also quite likely, that you have a strong opinion about he intentions of the foundation. When Laura Sizer and I were planning our Science & Religion Lecture Series at Hampshire College, we also looked at the possibility of Templeton funding. However, we decided against approaching them, as Templeton money can be controversial - many (especially in the sciences) see the foundation trying to sneak religion into science. The reality is complex. Some of their funded projects have made valuable contributions to science (and science's impact on society at large), and some of their projects are indeed dubious in nature - especially considering that they are funded under the banner of science (for example, a study about the effects of prayer). We have made it a habit to ask our speakers about their impressions of the Templeton Foundation. So far the results are 50-50. Half are suspicious of their intentions and the other half are grateful for their funding and insist that the funding comes with no strings attached.

Just this past week, Templeton Foundation was one of the sponsors of the World Science Festival in New York City. As expected, it sponsored a session titled Faith and Science (it did that last year too), and predictably it also generated criticism for including speakers who more or less agree with Templetonisc point of view regarding science & religion (see Sean Carroll's post on this). I actually agree with the criticism here. I think they will be served better to have the full spectrum represented - and critics of religion don't necessarily have to include shrill voices, rather one can include somebody like Philip Kitcher or Steven Weinberg on the panel.

Whether one likes it or not, the Templeton Foundation is a major player on issues related to science & religion - so we may better know what we are dealing with here. Well, here is an excellent article by Nathan Schneider, God, Science, and Philanthropy, that provides an in-depth and nuanced look at the foundation. In fact, it covers it from all different perspectives:

If you feel a bit icky about foundation's intent, then read this bit about a grant to MargaretPoloma for the "science of Godly Love":

By 2007 she was co-director of the Flame of Love Project, administering $2.3 million from Templeton to establish "a new interdisciplinary science of Godly Love," with a focus on the Pentecostal tradition.

Other scholars aren't quite sure what the "science of Godly Love" means, exactly. Anthea Butler, a historian of Pentecostalism at the University of Pennsylvania, remembers that when Poloma's Flame of Love request for proposals appeared, "nobody in the field could figure out what the hell she was talking about." Many applied anyway. "She went from being an outsider to someone with tons of money who can set the terms of discussion," says Butler.

"This grant is something I would never have dreamed of," Poloma told me. "I feel like I'm soaring like an eagle." For her, all gratitude is due to the funder. "Where but Templeton would you find that kind of dialogue going on?"

Nowhere—and that's what has some people so concerned. The kind of researchPoloma and her colleagues propose, however empirical and peer-reviewed, seems to come as an affront to centuries of purported progress in disentangling natural science from supernatural belief. Depending on whom you ask, Templeton represents either the hijacking of nothing less than the meaning of life, or the restoration of its luster, which has been dulled by politics and cynicism.

If you are looking for a sympathetic view of the foundation, read here about scientists who like the foundation:

Indeed, the larger the foundation becomes, the harder it is to pin down. "They've become fuzzier and fuzzier," says California Institute of Technology astronomer Sean Carroll, one of Templeton's more outspoken critics. Even Jeffrey Schloss, a Templeton trustee who is part of the new $10 million grant project on evolutionary biology based at Harvard, admits that without the foundation "there'd be a bit lessaccommodationist fluff that proposes integration [between religion and science] at the expense of rigor."

Nonreligious scientists who accept Templeton grants—like biologist David Sloan Wilson and psychologist Jonathan Haidt—insist that the money comes without strings attached. "No coercion, no corruption," Haidt says.

And for outright opposition to the foundation's work:

But Nobel Prize–winning chemist Harry Kroto won't accept that. "They are involved in an exercise that endangers the fundamental credibility of the scientific community," he contends. Kroto has taken to organized resistance; in 2007, when the Royal Society of London considered accepting Templeton money for one of its programs, he was among eleven fellows, five of them Nobel laureates, who successfully lobbied against the plan. Since a Templeton lecture series in 2004, the Royal Society hasn't worked with the foundation, though some fellows and its president, astrophysicist Martin Rees, have done so individually.

Now Dawkins and Kroto, with eight other advisory board members of Project Reason, founded by New Atheist author Sam Harris in 2007 to promote secularism, are at work on another offensive. Project Reason hired British science journalist Sunny Bains to investigate Templeton and build a case against it. Her unpublished findings include evidence of pervasive cronyism: more than half of the past dozen Templeton Prize winners were connected to the foundation before their win, and board members do well obtaining grant money and speaking gigs. Bains also argues that the true atheistic tendencies of leading scientists were misrepresented in the foundation's Big Questions advertisements. Templeton's mission, Bains concludes, is to promote religion, and its overtures to science are an insidious trick with the purpose of sneaking in God.

Though some critics refuse to go near anything associated with Templeton, others are forced by its ubiquity to make compromises. Sean Carroll, for one, will work only on scientific projects funded by Templeton (such as the FQXi) that aren't solely under the foundation's banner. "It represents a serious ethical dilemma," says A.C.Grayling, a British philosopher and former columnist for New Scientist magazine; he accuses the foundation of "borrowing respectability from science for religion."

These critiques have taken a toll on the Templeton brand. "I don't think Templeton money is dishonorable, and I have taken it myself," says Michael Ruse, a philosopher of science at Florida State University. But Ruse expresses relief that his latest book wasn't funded by any Templeton grants. "The whole business has become so politicized and open to attack by the New Atheists—they would claim that I am just a paid spokesman."

But it is the political dimension that may feed the most suspicion. This is particularly true after the death of John Templeton. Here is a bit about Jack Templeton and the political alignment of the foundation:

Only now, though, are we beginning to learn how that struggle will express itself in his father's absence. With Harper gone, and his replacement yet to be announced, there is a vacuum at the top. It is, says physicist and trustee Paul Davies, "an anxious time." What seems to have people there most on edge right now, though, is not so much science as politics. In this respect too, the younger Templeton differs in kind from his father. He has financed a right-wing organization of his own, Let Freedom Ring, which once promoted the "Templeton Curve," a graph he designed to advocate privatizing Social Security. Now Let Freedom Ring lends support to the Tea Party movement. Jack Templeton's money has also gone to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and to ads by the neoconservative group Freedom's Watch. In 2008 he and his wife gave more than $1 million to support California's Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage.


Templeton has long maintained relationships with a network of right-wing organizations that share its interest in open markets, entrepreneurship and philanthropy. The Heritage Foundation, for instance, received more than $1 million between 2005 and 2008, and the Cato Institute, more than $200,000 in the same period. Templeton's charter stipulates that the chief executives of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation and the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty are entitled to be members of the foundation, and both have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in Templeton grants in recent years. Those organizations also receive contributions from Big Oil and take part in the campaign to distort the scientific consensus on global warming.

Exceptions to the rightward trend abound: psychologist and Templeton trustee David Myers penned What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage; just last year the foundation treated the Marxist literary theorist TerryEagleton to a Templeton Book Forum event at the Harvard Club in New York—the list goes on. Grants to conservative think tanks are a comparatively minor part of the foundation's overall giving, but they send a strong signal nonetheless. "There is no getting around the fact," declared a glowing 2007 National Review article, "that it [Templeton] has quickly become a major force in conservative philanthropy."

What to make of all this? Unless the foundation takes a conscious decision to become primarily political, I think it will keep on sponsoring a mix of projects and will keep on promoting its own particular view of science & religion. With Jack Templeton at the helm, I don't see the foundation taking steps to court scientists skeptical of its mission (they did do a u-turn with Intelligent Design - but I don't see them opening up any doors for critics of religion). I think the Templeton Foundation will likely keep its mixed record: Funding some well-deserved projects and starting up some interesting interdisciplinary areas of research, along with supporting some brazenly religious projects in the guise of science. In short, it will still be a lightening rod for some and a genuine supporter of science for others.

Read the full article here.


Marjorie Searl said...

I really enjoy your blog and this recent one about the Templeton Foundation gives much food for thought. We were at the Chautauqua Institution during a week sponsored by the Templeton Foundation and found it to be less substantial than most of our weeks at that wonderful place. Keep up the good work!

Margaret said...

Thanks for this well-balanced and informative post.

Salman Hameed said...

Thanks Margaret and Marjorie.