About a dozen readers have sent me this item, I suppose because they wanted my response. I’ve sat on my hands about this, as it involves the physicist Sean Carroll, whom I consider a friend, a really nice guy, and someone who has always provided prompt and thorough replies when I’ve plied him with many questions about physics. So consider this post a disagreement among friends.
The issue? The Templeton Foundation, of course. As I’ve noted before, Templeton has just funded a glossy science magazine, Nautilus, that has an online version. As far as I can see, the John Templeton Foundation (JTF) is the only provider of start-up funds for the magazine. To be sure, Nautilus hasn’t yet shown signs of mixing science and religion (wait a while!), but Templeton is nothing if not canny, and they love to draw projects like this into their stable, giving the Foundation the scientific respectability it needs to push its science-and-religion-are-friends agenda. Indeed, they’ve already advertised Natutilus widely on the JTF website; Templeton’s director of “cultural engagement” sees the magazine as an extension of the Foundation’s mission of engaging the “Big Questions” (i.e., God’s role in the universe); and the magazine’s “digital editor” admitted that Templeton worked with the fundees to help shape the magazine’s editorial content.
Templeton doesn’t do anything like this without calculating the benefits to their operation, and Sean knows that well. Indeed, while blurbing the magazine on his website, Carroll noted that he’s on the magazine’s board of advisors. Sean (who has always highlighted the dangers of the Templeton Foundation) didn’t mention that Nautilus was funded by Templeton—I’ll chalk this up to an oversight—but several of us, including me, noted that omission in our comments.
In response, Sean then wrote a long and eloquent defense of his views about this, “On Templeton,” a piece reprinted at Slate as “Science and religion can’t be reconciled: Why I won’t take money from the Templeton Foundation.” (The Slate piece has garnered over 3300 comments!)
The good news is that Carroll’s statement about Templeton’s mixed message, and his explanation about why he won’t take money from the JTF, is really, really good. An excerpt (my emphasis):
And that’s the real reason why I don’t want to be involved directly with Templeton. It’s not a matter of ethical compromise; it’s simply a matter of sending the wrong message. Any time respectable scientists take money from Templeton, they lend their respectability — even if only implicitly — to the idea that science and religion are just different paths to the same ultimate truth. That’s not something I want to do. If other people feel differently, that’s for them and their consciences, not something that is going to cause me to shun them.
But I will try to explain to them why it’s important. Think of it this way. The kinds of questions I think about — origin of the universe, fundamental laws of physics, that kind of thing — for the most part have no direct impact on how ordinary people live their lives. No jet packs are forthcoming, as the saying goes. But there is one exception to this, so obvious that it goes unnoticed: belief in God. Due to the efforts of many smart people over the course of many years, scholars who are experts in the fundamental nature of reality have by a wide majority concluded that God does not exist. We have better explanations for how things work. The shift in perspective from theism to atheism is arguably the single most important bit of progress in fundamental ontology over the last five hundred years. And it matters to people … a lot.
Or at least, it would matter, if we made it more widely known. It’s the one piece of scientific/philosophical knowledge that could really change people’s lives. So in my view, we have a responsibility to get the word out — to not be wishy-washy on the question of religion as a way of knowing, but to be clear and direct and loud about how reality really works. And when we blur the lines between science and religion, or seem to contribute to their blurring or even just not minding very much when other people blur them, we do the world a grave disservice. Religious belief exerts a significant influence over how the world is currently run — not just through extremists, but through the well-meaning liberal believers who very naturally think of religion as a source of wisdom and moral guidance, and who define the middle ground for sociopolitical discourse in our society. Understanding the fundamental nature of reality is a necessary starting point for productive conversations about morality, justice, and meaning. If we think we know something about that fundamental nature — something that disagrees profoundly with the conventional wisdom — we need to share it as widely and unambiguously as possible. And collaborating with organizations like Templeton inevitably dilutes that message.
There’s no question that Templeton has been actively preventing the above message from getting across. By funding projects like the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion, the JTF has done its best to spread the impression that science and religion get along just fine. This impression is false. And it has consequences.
How deliciously strident! And on this Sean and I agree completely. Faith is virtue in religion but a vice in science, and Templeton conflates that distinction. By constantly intimating that there’s More to Reality than Science, the JTF tries to give epistemic credibility to faith by donning the mantle of science—underneath which is a carefully concealed clerical collar. The JTF does this by co-opting scientists to either spread Templeton’s message or, as Carroll notes in the bold section above, to buttress that message by occupying a stall in their stable of thoroughbred researchers.
Where Sean and I disagree is whether scientists should, while refusing direct funding from Templeton, nevertheless participate in the Foundation’s projects, as Sean does as an advisor to Nautilus. His rationale is this:
You will never see me thanking them for support in the acknowledgments of one of my papers. But there are plenty of good organizations and causes that feel differently and take the money without qualms, from the World Science Festival to the Foundational Questions Institute. As long as I think that those organizations are worthwhile in their own right, I am willing to work with them. But I will try my best to persuade them they should get money from somewhere else. . . So I won’t directly work with or take money from the JTF, although I will work with people who do take money from them—money that is appropriately laundered, if you will—if I think those people themselves are worth supporting or collaborating with in their own right.
I’ve pondered this at length, both now and earlier, and I’m not sure I understand his distinction. Why is it inappropriate to take money from the JTF but nevertheless appropriate to help organizations that do? Granted, those organizations do engage in valuable science education, but they’re also pushing Templeton’s agenda on the side.
The World Science Festival, for instance, is a good thing, but almost always includes a panel on “science and faith”—no doubt to placate the JTF, which partially funds the affair. (I once refused to participate in that panel because of the Templeton connection.) If you think it’s not okay to take money from the JTF, is it okay to lend your name to other organizations that do? The name-lending, after all, is what Templeton really wants.
Look at it this way. Suppose that, as a good liberal, you’re opposed to organizations that promote racism, like the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC), and won’t take any money from them, even if they were to support pure scientific research on genetic differences between ethnic groups. Would it then be okay, if the CCC sponsored a World Ethnic Festival that included a panel on “How different are human ‘races’?”, to participate on such a panel? Granted Templeton isn’t obviously as invidious as the CCC (though the JTF does support a number of pretty right-wing groups), but my point is that there’s no clear criterion for what is “appropriate laundering” of money from a pernicious organization. Either you’re lending your credibility that that organization’s efforts or you’re not.
Sean recognizes that this is a judgment call:
So I won’t directly work with or take money from the JTF, although I will work with people who do take money from them—money that is appropriately laundered, if you will—if I think those people themselves are worth supporting or collaborating with in their own right. This means that approximately nobody agrees with me; the Templeton-friendly folks think I’m too uptight and priggish, while the anti-Templeton faction finds me sadly lacking in conviction. So be it. These are issues without easy answers, and I don’t mind taking a judicious middle ground. It’s even possible that I’ll change my mind one way or another down the road in response to new arguments or actions on the part of the parties involved.
If I were less charitable, I wouldn’t call this “taking a judicious middle ground,” but—to paraphrase P. Z. Myers—”occupying a spot halfway to Woo Town.” But let us hope that Sean does change his mind. I have enormous respect for him as a scientist, a science communicator, and a good human being; and I would love nothing more than for him to say, “I’m not taking any money from Templeton, no matter how it’s laundered.”
But there is one thing I absolutely think he must say. In his Templeton piece, Carroll notes:
And if anyone is tempted to award me the Templeton Prize, I will totally accept it! And use the funds to loudly evangelize for naturalism and atheism. (After I pay off the mortgage.)
Now that does not compute! After all, Templeton Prize money—currently £1.1 million, or $1.7 million—comes directly from the Templeton Foundation. It is not laundered. Granted, the chance that Sean will win the Templeton Prize is, in view of his history of anti-accommodationism, only marginally higher than that of Richard Dawkins winning that award, but the issue is an ethical rather than a practical one. Say it ain’t so, Sean!