Changes for the Templeton Foundation

By M. Mitchell Waldrop
At the headquarters of the John Templeton Foundation, a dozen kilometres outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the late billionaire seems to watch over everything. John Templeton’s larger-than-life bust stands at one end of the main conference room. His life-sized portrait smiles down from a side wall. His face peers out of framed snapshots propped on bookshelves throughout the many office.

It seems fitting that Templeton is keeping an eye on the foundation that he created in 1987, and that consumed so much of his time and energy. With a current endowment estimated at US$2.1 billion, the organization continues to pursue Templeton’s goal of building bridges between science and religion. Each year, it doles out some $70 million in grants, more than $40 million of which goes to research in fields such as cosmology, evolutionary biology and psychology.

As generous as the foundation’s support is, however, many scientists find it troubling — and some see it as a threat. Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, Illinois, calls the foundation “sneakier than the creationists”. Through its grants to researchers, Coyne alleges, the foundation is trying to insinuate religious values into science. “It claims to be on the side of science, but wants to make faith a virtue,” he says.

But other researchers, both with and without Templeton grants, say that they find the foundation remarkably open and non-dogmatic. “The Templeton Foundation has never in my experience pressured, suggested or hinted at any kind of ideological slant,” says Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic, a magazine that debunks pseudoscience, who was hired by the foundation to edit an essay series entitled ‘Does science make belief in God obsolete?’

The debate highlights some of the challenges facing the Templeton Foundation after the death of its founder in July 2008, at the age of 95. With the help of a $528-million bequest from Templeton, the foundation has been radically reframing its research programme. As part of that effort, it is reducing its emphasis on religion to make its programmes more palatable to the broader scientific community.

Like many of his generation, Templeton was a great believer in progress, learning, initiative and the power of human imagination — not to mention the free-enterprise system that allowed him, a middle-class boy from Winchester, Tennessee, to earn billions of dollars on Wall Street. The foundation accordingly allocates 40% of its annual grants to programmes with names such as ‘character development’, ‘freedom and free enterprise’ and ‘exceptional cognitive talent and genius’.

Unlike most of his peers, however, Templeton thought that the principles of progress should also apply to religion. He described himself as “an enthusiastic Christian” — but was also open to learning from Hinduism, Islam and other religious traditions. Why, he wondered, couldn’t religious ideas be open to the type of constructive competition that had produced so many advances in science and the free market?

That question sparked Templeton’s mission to make religion “just as progressive as medicine or astronomy”. He started in 1972, by endowing the Templeton Prize for progress in religion. He stipulated that the cash value should always be higher than that of the Nobel Prizes; it currently stands at £1 million (US$1.6 million). Early Templeton prizes had nothing to do with science: the first went to the Catholic missionary Mother Theresa of Calcutta in 1973.

By the 1980s, however, Templeton had begun to realize that fields such as neuroscience, psychology, and physics could advance understanding of topics that are usually considered spiritual matters — among them forgiveness, morality and even the nature of reality. So he started to appoint scientists to the prize panel, and in 1985 the award went to a research scientist for the first time: Alister Hardy, a marine biologist who also investigated religious experience. Since then, scientists have won with increasing frequency. In 2010, the prize went to Francisco Ayala, a geneticist at the University of California, Irvine, and a former Dominican priest who has spent 30 years fighting the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in schools as alternatives to evolution.

The prize has come in for some academic scorn. “There’s a distinct feeling in the research community that Templeton just gives the award to the most senior scientist they can find who’s willing to say something nice about religion,” says Harold Kroto, a chemist at Florida State University in Tallahassee, who was co-recipient of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and describes himself as a devout atheist.

Scientists as allies

Yet Templeton saw scientists as allies. They had what he called “the humble approach” to knowledge, as opposed to the dogmatic approach. “Almost every scientist will agree that they know so little and they need to learn,” he once said.

The scientific attitude informed the motto that Templeton crafted for his foundation: “How little we know, how eager to learn.”

The foundation began with just two employees in a room above the garage of his oldest son, Jack Templeton, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. The foundation’s initial activities were also modest: administering the Templeton Prize, funding science and religion courses at universities and seminaries, and sponsoring essay contests.

“But the foundation was a research project in his mind,” says Jack Templeton, who retired from his career as a paediatric and trauma surgeon in 1995 to become the organization’s president. The slowly growing staff was bombarded with ideas and directives in a near-daily stream of faxes from Lyford Cay in the Bahamas, where the elder Templeton had lived since 1968.

Templeton’s interests gave the resulting list of grants a certain New Age quality (See Table 1). For example, in 1999 the foundation gave $4.6 million for forgiveness research at the Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, and in 2001 it donated $8.2 million to create an Institute for Research on Unlimited Love (that is, altruism and compassion) at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

“A lot of money wasted on nonsensical ideas,” says Kroto. Worse, says Coyne, these projects are profoundly corrupting to science, because the money tempts researchers into wasting time and effort on topics that aren’t worth it. If someone is willing to sell out for a million dollars, he says, “Templeton is there to oblige him”.

Read the entire Nature News article, here.


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2 Responses to Changes for the Templeton Foundation

  1. Quite a fascinating article. I don’t know if “faith” is a dirty word for all scientists, but in any case, although it does have a religious implication, its first definition in Wikipedia “is the confident belief or trust in the truth or trustworthiness of a person, concept or thing.” I would hope scientist have this kind of faith in what they are doing. So much is semantics and word preferences that are really saying the same thing. We have faith that the sun will rise, the seasons will progress and in a host of things that take for granted.

    The Gita teaches us that we are our faith, whether in science or in God. And the scientists objectivity–or anyone’s–is very rare. Most people have their biases or flaws which color their view of anything. We begin with a premise, say that there is no God, and then we find the evidence, ignoring what is contrary. This fact, called a knowledge filter, was a major premise, in Forbidden Archeology, which showed that those findings which didn’t fit into the current scientific establishment (and many scientist’s funding) were ignored or derided.

    I find some scientists have with their own brand of fundamentalism, comparable to some religious persons, though they don’t have some organization to blame for it. Things are often not what they appear–not all scientists are truly “objective” (is it even truly possible if one has a bias against God or the devout?, or in general to not have a bias towards one’s own way of perceiving) and not all religious people are unthinking sentimentalists (as it seems many modern scientists would contend).

    It would seem to me that the bigger question to asked by this foundation is if believing in God is reasonable or not, and if it is, then why the subject of consciousness and a transcendent origin of the universe, would not be a reasonable topic for objective scientists. Just because some religious people are not scientifically minded and could be thought of as more sentimental, that doesn’t automatically make faith in God is unreasonable and anti-scientific. Indeed, the first scientists were religious people.

  2. Religion without philosophy is simply sentiment. Trying to live in a bubble of love wihout undersatnding the far reaching inter-dimensional ramifications of the technology of love, is not the answer.

    On the other hand, scientific groping into the nature of reality, wihout considering the purpose of reality, is like chickens scratching the earth in search of bugs. Without focusing on more profound, all-encompassing perspectives, what can their furtive scratching in the dark accomplish? A scientist may receive an award, for example , for eliminating toenail fungus. But unless we know how to end the cycle of birth and death, of what value is such knowledge?

    Therefore, religion must have a philosophical framework. And science must have a spiritual framework. Working in someone’s business, political, or social enterprise, without trying to understand the intentions of the person at the head of such an enterprise will probably not lead to accomplishing the goals of the leadership, and most probably will be at odds with those goals, in various respects. Empowerment will not be forthcoming.

    And of course, those in charge of a foundation are at liberty to give reasearch grants to those who can promote evidence that will support the view of the grantors. Why should anyone be surprised or upset about that? Monsanto, for example, not only hires scientists whose research will support a view that their products are healthful. They go so far as to arrange for their company officials to be placed in major chairs of the FDA, to endorse those products. Kroto and Coyne perhaps, should approach entities like Monsanto for their research grants and see if their grants come with no strings attached.

    Scientific groping in the dark, with applications that don’t take the spiritual aspect into consideration, have brought this planet to the point where sustainability is becoming a glabal concern. Therefore the global cultural bias for science over religion, as the panecea for our overwhelming head-to-head stand-off with the material nature is not doing us any good.

    Of course, it’s all about the horse and the water. One can point the way, but you can’t make him drink. This is afterall the material realm, where the determination to arrive at a satisfactory result independent of God’s help is the name of the game. The child defiantly insists, “No Ma, I want to do it myself!” So it goes.

    But that should not be a cause of personal disappointment on the part of those who have had a change of heart, and are ripe for opening the doors of their hearts to God. Such scientists and the people in general are really in good hands. They may be unaware of the understanding that we’ve all been committed to this institution, known as the material world, for our reclamation, but they have eternity to work this out. And we are meanwhile free to proceed with our rectification. Sure, as we grow, we’ll want to encourage others, but that old horse has to choose for himself.

    Hare Krishna! Ishan das

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