Monday, April 11, 2011

Templeton and ‘Spiritual Progress’

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.
The moment I learned that Martin Rees had been awarded this year’s Templeton Prize, I knew it was going to be controversial. In the piece I wrote and posted only a few hours after the announcement, I tried to explain why Rees was a surprising choice (to most observers, who really don’t know the Templeton Foundation almost at all) and why, in my understanding, he had won. In a nutshell: besides being a hugely accomplished scientist and being so active on issues of “science and the public”, he has been tackling “Big Questions”, which for the Templeton Foundation, contributes to “spiritual progress”. I’ll try to explain this further down.
Still, I was stunned by what The Guardian’s Michael White has called “a meteor shower of abuse” inflicted on Rees from many in the scientific community. It was, however, nice to see other, more objective and fair writings by some atheists.
I say I was stunned by that reaction, for two reasons: 1) Rees is a non-believer (or, to put it bluntly, an atheist), and I would have imagined more disagreement from the religious circles (as in the reaction by the editor of First Things); after all, Rees has not endorsed Religion or joined the Templeton Foundation, and he still doesn’t see any value in the dialogue between Science and Religion; 2) I would have thought that the attacks (like Jerry Coyne’s) would have focused more on the “spiritual progress” objectives of Templeton, instead of insisting on the largely discredited claim that “Templeton's mission is a serious corruption of science.” It’s interesting that those who have stayed away from Templeton and the projects it funds (research, meetings, prizes, etc.) have a cartoonish view of the Foundation, while those (including non-religious people) who have participated in any of its activities have come away with a good, respectful impression. At the very least, I would have expected such (rigorous) scientists to examine the process by which grants are given out, before condemning Templeton.
Let me mention in passing some (public-knowledge) info on the process by which the Prize is awarded: 1) people (anyone) nominate(s) candidates with a much supportive documentation as possible; 2) a Review Committee (made of 10 very diverse experts) receives the full submissions and spends a couple of months reviewing them; 3) the Review Committee members then submit their rankings and explanations; 4) the Review Committee meets to discuss the top 50 candidates and short-list a dozen or so; 5) the Judges (9 outstanding individuals from around the world) meet and select the winner, at which point no one, not even the president of the foundation, can have any say on the outcome. No wonder we now year after year get exceptionally good winners.
Now, let me go back to what I think is the important issue to examine here, namely what exactly is meant by “making spiritual progress” in the Templeton worldview.
As I said in my reply to a comment on my previous post, the Templeton Foundation, following the views, philosophy, and directives of its founder, believes that there are “spiritual realities”: humans have a spiritual dimension, in addition to their physical/material one. This belief is shared by the overwhelming majority of humans, past and present. (Nothing new or important, up to here; materialists, of course, reject this idea.)
Now, one of Templeton’s main ideas, that one may or may not agree with, is that we know very little about those “spiritual realities” and we should try to help humans make progress in this realm.
But, before examining this, one must ask: what do “spiritual realities” encompass? In addition to the usual religious concepts associated with the spirit, i.e. prayer, thanksgiving, love, and the divine, the Templeton literature cites some surprising themes under “spiritual realities”, such as creativity, purpose, and infinity; and one can place “altruism”, which is an important theme for Templeton, either in the field of evolution or in the realm of “spiritual realities”.
And I should also mention one of Templeton’s main philosophies, namely “Humility Theology”.
As I keep repeating, one may or may not agree with this whole worldview, and even those who believe in the spiritual dimension of humans may not agree that one can, through research and funding, achieve progress in understanding those spiritual concepts, themes, or “realities”.
Templeton will fund any solid project (and again, everything is at least triply refereed, and the acceptance and funding rate is rather low) that will somehow advance our understanding of those themes. A case in point is the project known as “Foundational Questions, for which an Institute (FQXi), seeded by a multi-million-dollar Templeton fund, provides grants to “catalyze, support, and disseminate research on questions at the foundations of physics and cosmology.” It is instructive for everyone to check out this project’s website, to see who works on it and on what kind of research projects (not a hint of “religion”).
The crucial point I am aiming to make is that Templeton has been redefining the realm of the spiritual, by including in it concepts like creativity, purpose, and infinity (which then leads to someone like Rees qualifying for the Prize under its “spiritual progress” objective), and also making the bold claim that we can make advances and “discoveries” in spirituality by undertaking research in it, using the tools that science and philosophy have given us.
I think this is the major philosophy of the Templeton Foundation, and unfortunately most observers miss it completely with their allergic reaction to anything related to “religion”.
Finally, to bring together all these threads, I would like to make two points: 1) Templeton has often funded projects that either had no theological undertones whatsoever or ended up producing  results that were not favorable to “spirituality” (the famous study on the effect of prayers on the recovery from heart surgery); 2) the work that Rees has done on the multiverse in particular, thus relating to “infinity”, has, in my view, gotten him the Templeton Prize, even though the multiverse is rarely hailed by religious people (Templeton people tend to like it, however, based on the humility theology principle mentioned above).
So, to make a long story short, one may or may not subscribe to the philosophy of the Templeton Foundation, but to attack it as the (religious) wolf in the (scientific) henhouse or to describe it as a network of either naïve or sinister religion-promoting people is uninformed or misleading.


Mohamed said...

This is fascinating stuff, Nidhal. Like everyone else I have nothing but respect for Sir Martin’s work. He's more willing than most scientists to think about speculative ideas concerning the multiverse and the Big Bang. He describes himself as non-religious but church-going, and would rather science and religion just get along than be constantly at each other’s throats.

However, the problem I have with the Templeton Foundation is that it seems to work very hard to give people a false impression that science and religion are actually reconciling, not just that they should be. In effect, people outside of the scientific establishment would get the impression that science and religion are working together towards a combined spiritual reality. This quote from The Guardian is a perfect example:

"But with Rees’s acceptance, the substantial resources of the Templeton Foundation have, in effect, been welcomed at the heart of the British scientific establishment. That such a highly regarded figure has received its premier prize will make it that little bit harder for Dawkins to sustain respect amongst his peers for his crusade against religion."

So, according to the Guardian article, now that such a distinguished and respectable scientist has accepted the Templeton Prize, we may conclude that “the British scientific establishment” is rejecting Dawkins and his fellow noisy atheists in favor of Templeton's ideals. That type of declaration seems dishonest to me.

Here's the link for the guardian piece:

I’m also curious if any interesting or important discoveries have resulted from Templeton-funded projects.

Also, where can one find out more about the “Humility theology” you mentioned?

Lina Malkawi said...

It is possible to be a spiritual atheist, and I think this prize helps to build bridges between spiritual people of all traditions.
Spirituality unites, where religion divides.

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Mohamed, Thank you; I am glad you found my piece interesting, and it has encouraged you to learn more about those ideas.
I agree with you that the Guardian piece drew unwarranted conclusions, but I don't think the Templeton officials claim that Science & Religion are converging.
On 'Humility Theology’, John Templeton, the late founder of the foundation, has written a few books on this theme (his favorite idea): ‘The Humble Approach’, ‘God, Science, and Humility’, etc. I would also like to encourage you to check out an article or two on Freeman Dyson’s philosophy, which is very similar to ‘humility theology’: Freeman Dyson and Humility Theology and The Varieties of Human Experience . (Freeman Dyson, whom I’ve always greatly admired, is actually very similar, in his background and approach, to Martin Rees.)
Finally, on the success of the Templeton Foundation in producing ‘discoveries’ or great results in research, first it must be recalled that Templeton is a newcomer (as a funding agency, it has been around for only a decade or two) and has limited funds (less than 1 % of the NSF’s); secondly, and more importantly, Templeton funds a large variety of projects, from dozens of books, seminars, and workshops each year, to supporting pure research (e.g. FQXi) and even nurturing Math geniuses. I don’t have a list of specific achievements from the Templeton projects, although by law everything is required to be publicly accessible (all projects, I think, are listed on their website). I think it’s a bit too soon to assess Templeton’s success, although we should certainly keep a critical eye – and an open mind.

laura said...

I am sure that this was not your intention but, by stating that physicalist/materialists reject the notion of a "spiritual reality" and then going on to equate that with, among other things, love, altruism, creativity, etc., it implies that physicalist/materialists also reject those things. Not so. We simply believe that these things can be understood in terms of events and processes that are physical. Please do not encourage the idea that physicalism requires the rejection of such things; it does not.

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Laura, I think you just misunderstood my statements. I never said or implied that physicalists/materialists reject love, altruism, creativity, etc. I would be crazy to say or imply any such thing.
What I said was that materialists reject the idea of a “spiritual dimension” for humans “in addition to their physical/material one”. As far as my understanding goes, materialists reject the concept of 'spirit'; do you disagree?
Then I said that “the Templeton literature cites some surprising themes under ‘spiritual realities’, such as creativity, purpose, and infinity… [i]n addition to the usual religious concepts associated with the spirit, i.e. prayer, thanksgiving, love, and the divine…” I went on to explain that this is the surprising element in all of Templeton’s philosophy.
I honestly fail to see why you were shocked by my statements.

Ali said...

@ Lina

A spiritual atheist, for me, is an oxymoron.

Lina Malkawi said...

@ Ali,
It depends how you define spirituality. Two of my good friends are atheist yet spiritual.

Spirituality is defined by some as our deepest sense of connection and belonging and linked to eight positive emotions: awe, love (attachment), trust (faith), compassion, gratitude, forgiveness, joy and hope.

All of these emotions cannot be scientifically measured, which is why science has a difficulty conversing not only with religion, but with spirituality as well.

Ali said...


"Spirituality is defined by some as our deepest sense of connection ..."

Connection to what?

Lina Malkawi said...

Connection to something greater than oneself—-community, cause, nature, universe, etc.

Ali said...

"Connection to something greater than oneself—-community, cause, nature, universe, etc."

The moment you say connection to something greater than oneself, I believe you are invoking God. Your connection is not a mechanical connection because it does not stop at the level of the community or a cause. Nor is it selective. Your connection is everywhere and to everything. It includes nature and the universe as you said. In other words, you acknowledge that you are a part of an intermingled web. This web, if you think about it deeper, you will realise, is a carefully woven tapestry. You cannot admire the tapestry without thinking that it has a weaver. When you say you are connected by beauty, awe, love, etc, what you are doing is admiring the tapestry. You may define this admiration the way you like or the way that suits you and call it spirtual atheism. But there is no such thing as spiritual atheism. In effect, what you are doing is deliberately blinding out your admiration of the tapestry at levels beyond its physical nature. Its like admiring the original painting of Monalisa and being deliberately blind to the fact that it is a materpiece by da Vinci. You will think Monalisa is beautiful, a great painting, a fantastic masterpiece, etc, etc. but you are unwilling to accept that it was painted by someone. Likewise, you admire nature and accept that you are connected to it but you will call yourself a spiritual atheist because you do not want to acknowledge anything beyond physical matter. Not that it is not there. But that you just do not want to think about it. I think this is what they call cognitive dissonance.

PS. 'You' in the above rant refers not to Lina Malkawi but to the 'spiritual atheists.'

Lina Malkawi said...

Interesting. I am not an atheist, so I can't respond to that. What, then, would you call someone who considers himself a "spiritual atheist?"

By the way, I wouldn't call it cognitive dissonance. One characteristic of spirituality is being comfortable with not knowing.

Religion on the other hand seeks simple, one-dimensional answers to complex problems.

Abdelhaq said...

The decision by the Tempeton Foundation to award its annual prize to Martin Reese is loaded. The process of selection, as described by Dr Guessoum, is clear and sound as one would expect. However, the lobbying behind the nominations and eventually the award of the prize (the monetary award as far as I know is greater than the one for the Nobel prize; this may be the reason why the chemist and Nobel laureate Harry Kroto is cross with the Templeton laureate:)) is just mind bugling. I wonder if Dawkins was nominated? and for that matter, a muslim like Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr would be a far better choice for the Templeton Foundation than Reese and his likes. I just wonder what arguments one would put forward to reject the nomination of Prof. Nasr (he is already on their books with an award in Science and religion in 1999). Moreover, if one would look at the list of laureates one can easily identify philosophers like charles Taylor, Holmes Rolston III, and Michael Novak, and none of them has the east-west dimension that Nasr symbolizes. Brandeis University awarded the 2010 Gittler prize to Prof. Seyyed Nasr,, and this says a lot about the work of Prof. Nasr. But then again, one has to be reminded that the Templeton Foundation is a Christian Foundation at heart which now embraces "moderate" atheists. With the proper lobbying, people like Bernard d'Espagnat end up pocketing $1.5M, nice for those for whom the dollar sign is a symbol of worship.
Enough said. It is easy to manufacture consent as Chomsky writes. The goal was Martin Reese. The process had to lead to Martin Reese. The rest is jargon.

Mohamed said...


Thanks for the references to the Freeman Dyson articles. I thought both essays were excellent, and they helped me understand John Templeton’s outlook a little better and what his Foundation means when they refer to “spiritual progress.” I still question if the ideas that Humility Theology deals with can be yoked to science, since much of them are basically untestable beliefs, in my opinion. However, I like the approach that Templeton advocates, that is, the posture of humility in the face of what we don’t understand. A spirit of humility and inquiry at the same time… I like that!

Also, you got me interested in Dyson’s philosophy and I’m going to be checking out more of his work now.

Salman Hameed said...


Elaine Howard Ecklund's book deal with scientists who think of themselves as "spiritual atheists". Here is a look at some of the data and its interpretation at Gene Expression. Carl Sagan, perhaps, may be considered a prototype in this category - though I also see some problems with such categorization. But ultimately it is about relating to the awe and wonder of nature - though for many it may still only be a physical reality. But, like everything else, one may see a full spectrum of views regarding this interpretation of spirituality - rather than a hard boundary.

Nidhal Guessoum said...

So you’re saying the process is “clear and sound”, but there is lobbying and a pre-chosen winner?! Who gets lobbied? The 9 judges, the 10 review committee members, or the nominators? If you mean either of the first two categories, you better come up with evidence before making any accusations. If it’s the nominators, there is really no need for any lobbying, since any one person can put forward a nominee, and it doesn’t matter who or how many recommend a candidate, it’s the quality of the CV that counts.
What you’re also claiming, then, is a conspiracy of sorts at Templeton, since that kind of “lobbying” can’t be done by only one person and would be known by a number of people; but somehow, no one (the executives and employees who have left Templeton and the committee members who have served in one function or another) has ever spilled the beans…
Now, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, you acknowledge, has received an award from Templeton, this “Christian Foundation”; isn’t that a contradiction? You think Nasr is much more worthy of the Prize than Rees and other winners, but everyone has his/her favorite, and many have found Rees an excellent choice. And that’s why there is a process, with committees – unless you think everyone involved in that is corrupt, and it’s all a big show…

Abdelhaq said...

Assalam Alaikoum Nidhal,

Martin Reese is an outstanding astrophysicist, and no one can deny that. But it remains a fact that he is an atheist, and he does not hide it either. Now explain to me how an atheist astrophysicist ends up with the Templeton prize? that I do not understand. The Templeton Foundation is a Christian Foundation, isn't it? if they have widened their horizons, then we are very likely going to see in a future not too far names like Sam Harris, and Lawrence Krauss creep up the ladder and end up with nominations that will have them pocket the $1.5M.

As for Nasr, if you check the records, you will find that he has received an award to teach a course on Science and religion (or something of that nature), nothing of the order of $1.5M, and you too have received money from the Templeton to write and publish your book. We are not talking about the small scales, it is all about the big scales and their impacts on the dynamics of the field of Science and Religion.

Martin Reese's CV in Astrophysics cannot be matched easily, but his CV cannot match that of Seyyed Hossein Nasr on the subject of Science and Religion, and since The Templeton Foundation is all about Science and Religion, the challenge would be on the Templeton side to show how an atheist like Reese has contributed to the Science-Religion Field. They did not have a problem with Freeman Dyson, Ian barbour and some of the agnostics to whom they awarded their prize, but this one is a tough one to pull.

As for lobbying, you know very well what I mean. All sorts of people are solicited to write letters left and right to support a nomination. It happens all the time, and I am familiar to a certain extent with the Nobel prize process (from my days as a graduate student, many of my teachers went on a writing campaign to get Victor Weiskoff on the list of nominees. This was in the early to mid 80s. You should read a bit about the history of some Nobel prizes, and you will quickly find out why some did get the prize and some did not. One example is Sidney Coleman from Harvard, David Politzer's supervisor. Just check the history and you will find why David Gross and his student Frank Wilcek were on the ticket and why the supervisor of David Politzer was not).

Now, you are suggesting that there is no lobbying for the Templeton prize and that I find a bit naive coming from someone who sits on the board of advisors of the Foundation. I wonder if all the advisors have at one point or another received money from the Foundation, because I do not understand why you are defending the choice of the Templeton Foundation.

At the end of the day it is a question of dollars and how high is one's price, and it looks like Martin Reese's is $1.5M.

Nidhal Guessoum said...

I’ve tried to explain the process by which Templeton operates, both for the Prize and for grants (triple refereeing even for a small grant, like for writing a book). You may not like or trust the process, but that does not give you grounds for your accusations.
More importantly, please stop making statements about me and the members of the Board of Advisors being corrupt (receiving money to defend Templeton). You should check out the long list of (rotating) members and their credentials before hurling such gratuitous accusations at them.
From now on, unless you address issues with arguments instead of accusations, I will ignore your comments.

Ali said...


"What, then, would you call someone who considers himself a "spiritual atheist?""

Spiritual atheism is like believing it is not dark because there is sun-light but would not believe that the sun exists. I could not think of anything to call this, other than congnitive dissonance. Having said that, there might be a few who have not really thought too much about their sirituality. Many among these few, I think, will not be atheists if only they analysed their spirituality a little.

Abdelhaq said...

Assalam Alaikoum Nidhal,

All government funding agencies in the west publish the lists of grants that they award for different purposes including tax purposes, but the Templeton Foundation is a private foundation. However, they do have on their website the list of grants they awarded since 1996, but I guess it is not complete since I know of at least one case that is not listed. And a large number (more than 50%) of the advisors have received grants from Templeton at one point or another (nothing wrong with that).

It looks like you have been offended by the fact that I mentioned that you received a grant from Templeton, but you shouldn't since Templeton funds must be acknowlegded in your book, and anyone who reads your book will identify the source of funds.

You cannot deny that there is a great deal of lobbying taking place behind doors, and it is easier to preach to the converted.

You are "mature and vaccinated" and you can choose to ignore my comments, it is your right to practice. But ignoring them does not necessarily mean that they are wrong.

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