The new issue of Nature contains “Faith in Science,” a three-page article on the Templeton Foundation by M. Mitchell Waldrop (access is free). It’s pretty good, and lays out the problems that many of us have with the Foundation’s insidious blending of science and woo. Templeton, of course, defends its mission via spokesman and vice-president Barnaby Marsh, who once tried to persuade me to apply for their grants. But there is significant dissent.
Here are some quotes, pro and con, from scientists and skeptics. I stand 100% by what I said:
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 [Templeton] 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 . .
. . . Templeton’s interests gave the resulting list of grants a certain New Age quality (See ‘Top ten grants from the Templeton Foundation’). 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”. . .
. . . Today, the foundation website explicitly warns intelligent-design researchers not to bother submitting proposals: they will not be considered.
The foundation’s critics are unimpressed. Avowedly antireligious scientists such as Coyne and Kroto see the intelligent-design imbroglio as a symptom of their fundamental complaint that religion and science should not mix at all.
“Religion is based on dogma and belief, whereas science is based on doubt and questioning,” says Coyne, echoing an argument made by many others. “In religion, faith is a virtue. In science, faith is a vice.” The purpose of the Templeton Foundation is to break down that wall, he says — to reconcile the irreconcilable and give religion scholarly legitimacy. . .
John Cacioppo, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, also had concerns when he started a Templeton-funded project in 2007. He had just published a paper with survey data showing that religious affiliation had a negative correlation with health among African-Americans — the opposite of what he assumed the foundation wanted to hear. He was bracing for a protest when someone told him to look at the foundation’s website. They had displayed his finding on the front page. “That made me relax a bit,” says Cacioppo.
Yet, even scientists who give the foundation high marks for openness often find it hard to shake their unease. Sean Carroll, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, is willing to participate in Templeton-funded events — but worries about the foundation’s emphasis on research into ‘spiritual’ matters. “The act of doing science means that you accept a purely material explanation of the Universe, that no spiritual dimension is required,” he says. . .
. . .Scientists’ discomfort with the foundation is probably inevitable in the current political climate, says Scott Atran, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The past 30 years have seen the growing power of the Christian religious right in the United States, the rise of radical Islam around the world, and religiously motivated terrorist attacks such as those in the United States on 11 September 2001.
Given all that, says Atran, many scientists find it almost impossible to think of religion as anything but fundamentalism at war with reason. They have a reflexive reaction against the idea, espoused by Templeton, that progress in spirituality can help to solve the problems of the world.
Well, I think that religion is fundamentally at war with reason—at least those numerous forms of religion that make untenable claims about reality. But I don’t know any scientist who claims that all religions are fundamentalist. And most of our reactions are not reflexive, but thoughtful. Finally, what the bloody hell does “progress in spirituality” mean?