FIRE gets huge Templeton grant

An old Jewish joke, which I’m allowed to tell because of my background, is this: “Jewish dilemma: free ham”.  But this dilemma is even bigger, at least for me. FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, is an organization I’ve long admired, for its mission is to preserve free speech and civil liberties on American campuses. To that end it provides legal and advisory help for students, rates college campuses for their compliance with Constitutional free speech (the University of Chicago gets the highest rating), gives talks on campuses throughout the U.S., and helps file legal suits when freedom of expression is curtailed.  They do good stuff.

So imagine my shock when I saw this on their homepage today (click to go to article):


Templeton! And FIRE! Indeed, on the John Templeton Foundation website you can see the announcement of the grant to Robert Shibley (FIRE’s executive director) and Greg Lukianoff (FIRE’s President and CEO):


This is a big shot in the arm for a good but financially strapped organization (and of course I mean FIRE).  If I could find anything to carp about, it would be that the money is being used not for direct activism, but for surveying campus attitudes, so that in the end the money will produce a bunch of reports. As Templeton says:

These efforts will result in reports, articles, resources, events, activist networks, media, and more. In the end, FIRE aims to generate knowledge and spark activism, ultimately creating the momentum necessary to restore respect for free expression on campus.

And the FIRE site advertises the jobs created by the grant, which look a bit, well, academic-y:

With today’s announcement of SOAR, FIRE is also opening the job application process for nine new positions. FIRE is seeking energetic applicants who are entrepreneurial and passionate about its mission to fill the following positions by January 3, 2017:

Although I’d prefer more activism here, the grant does include an “outreach component” that will make FIRE’s mission and activities more widely known.

Whenever Templeton gives out a big grant like this, I ask myself, “What’s in it for the Foundation?” After all, their mission is ultimately to answer the “Big Questions”, melding the scientific with the numinous, and Big Questions are indeed identified in the Templeton announcement—but they’re purely secular ones. I hope I’m not so churlish that I won’t acknowledge it when Templeton money goes to good uses that don’t seem to promote their agenda of free-market capitalism and the empowerment of religion; and this appears to be one of those. But I’d prefer to congratulate the good folks at FIRE for getting the money, and I’ll still be keeping my eye on Templeton.


  1. GBJames
    Posted October 19, 2016 at 1:13 pm | Permalink


  2. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted October 19, 2016 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    Templeton may be worried that restrictions of its own speech is around the corner, but who knows?

    The answer to many of Templeton’s Big Questions may simply by the Big Bang.

    The ‘free ham’ dilemma is about as bad as the time my father discovered that Jack Nicholson and Adam Sandler were co-starring in a movie together.🙂

  3. Posted October 19, 2016 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    When it comes to free speech, there seems to be a melding of principles between classical liberals and more libertarian conservatives. While both are less authoritarian, the differences and disagreements appear in how either uses their free speech. This is often why more classical liberals, such as Sam Harris, get confused with or lumped together with fascist conservatives by some regressive leftists, because there are overlaps, and many ideological purists often conflate incidental agreements with full support for “the enemy”. Templeton obviously recognizes that university attitudes to unpopular ideas has an impact on their mission, especially with the waning interest in Religion within the generations that are currently enrolled in, or will be soon attending, college.

    There is a growing popular interest in science for the younger generations, and this interest, coupled with the regressive attitudes many religions have towards the naturalistic conclusions of science, has left these generations tired of conventional religion, yet still curious. If Templeton can find a wedge there, then they might be able to push their agenda on the next generation of scientists. Taking polls and surveys and gathering data would make perfect sense as marketing research for their bullshit, while funding the cause that will help fight to allow their views to be heard on campus.

    Sounds like a brilliant strategy to me.

  4. Posted October 19, 2016 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    I suspect Templeton sees Fire as an allie in the right wing/conservative christian version of the anti-political correctness fight. The version where they want it to be acceptable to say racist, “Islamophobic”, bigoted, sexist, or homophobic things.

    • Posted October 19, 2016 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

      I wanted to add a bit of an explanation based on my recent experiences on youtube. What I’m seeing is a number of anti-regressives who have reasonably made fun of ridiculous things like campaigns against manspreading, or outrage over a scientist who put a spacecraft on a comet being attacked for a shirt, now defending Trumps statements as though it’s comparable overblown upset. I’m seeing similar conflation between things like the black girl at yale with Halloween costumes, and legitimate issues with race. The line between legitimate offense, and illegitimate offense is being blurred.

      • Posted October 19, 2016 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

        Sorry for another comment, but I meant to add that it’s a worrying trend, and is causing me to more, and more distance myself from such people, because it’s sometimes hard to tell whether they are truly advocates of free speech, or sexists, racists, bigots in sheep’s clothing.

        I also want to make it clear I have no such issues with WEIT, or most of those who comment here. I’ve never seen anything in this context that makes me question people’s motivations.

  5. Kevin
    Posted October 19, 2016 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    “Jewish dilemma: free ham”. That reminds me to grill hamburgers every Friday night during next Lent while all the kids in the neighborhood are playing outside.

    Templeton used to cause me rage. I’ve recently entered into an epistemologically calm place by accepting the fact that nothing Templeton does or pays for will ever serve their final agenda, which I can only assume, is proof of a Christian God.

    Taking Templeton money will only ever benefit the people who take the money. At this point, they are just giving it away.

  6. Randall Schenck
    Posted October 19, 2016 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    Sorry but I first had to pick myself up off the floor. Not being Jewish I had not heard that one and would not be allowed to use it.

    Does tainted money spend the same, yes it does. I suppose the answers are already known and that will be yes, yes and maybe. And is it not true that the farther you get from the beginning of any event the less is know about it. If half the people you ask at random cannot say who we fought in the revolutionary war?

  7. eric
    Posted October 19, 2016 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    “What’s in it for the Foundation?”

    I’ll go with the obvious answer for 200, Alex: they want to ensure believers are allowed to evangelize on campus. FIRE’s broader concern over free speech is just the vehicle to get there; I doubt very much they care about free speech on non-religious topics.


    Kevin said:

    I’ve recently entered into an epistemologically calm place by accepting the fact that nothing Templeton does or pays for will ever serve their final agenda, which I can only assume, is proof of a Christian God

    I agree, however taking the money is still questionable. The same way the tobacco industry will never prove smoking is healthy but taking their money for research on the health effects of cigarettes is still a questionable call.

    An organization has to have a solid, credible reputation for impartialness to be able to pull credible research out of tainted money. And when they do it, they’re putting their reputation on the line. Fortunately, when it comes to investigating free speech on college campuses, FIRE has that ‘solid, credible reputation’ (at least IMO).

    • Kevin
      Posted October 19, 2016 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

      I would take money from the tobacco industry. No research I could do would ever serve their benefit, except maybe to make tobacco healthier (if that’s even possible). Of course, the tobacco industry is more pragmatic than a religious organization. If big tobacco does not get an answer they like, they will stop funding and go somewhere else or just ride it out and live with the regulations pushed onto them.

      Templeton’s aims, if regulated by science, become as harmless as philosophy or metaphysics. But if they allow themselves to be tied down that way then they will have truly shown their hand: we do not fund science, we fund other stuff.

  8. Steve Pollard
    Posted October 19, 2016 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    Is it too much to hope that FIRE will just take the money and carry on doing what they’re already doing?

  9. Posted October 19, 2016 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    What do they mean by: “SOAR will be focused on one core theme — exposing and overcoming the new campus move toward freedom of speech.”

    Did they mean to type “away from” instead of “toward”? Or did they mean to add “suppressing” after “toward”? Or is SOAR really sinister?

    • Jacques Hausser
      Posted October 19, 2016 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

      Reading carefully the grasnt’s description, it is “the new campus move toward freedom FROM speech.”

      • HaggisForBrains
        Posted October 20, 2016 at 5:26 am | Permalink

        Yes, I misread that a couple of times. “Freedom from speech” is a curious expression, perhaps more appropriate in a Trappist Monastery.

    • Posted October 20, 2016 at 6:38 am | Permalink

      You’re right, I misread and mistyped: it was freedom from speech. They are being a bit ckever, not making a typo.

  10. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 19, 2016 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    As the old saying goes (bowdlerized for delicate sensibilities), “if you get in bed with the devil, soon or later you’re gonna have to [engage in intimate relations}.”

  11. Gabriel
    Posted October 20, 2016 at 5:01 am | Permalink

    Templeton guys are no idiots. This is obviously money designed to get a solid foot in the door. Only time will tell how they will cash in…

  12. GM
    Posted October 20, 2016 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    Kind off topic but not fully.

    Have you seen this and does anyone know more details?

    • Posted October 20, 2016 at 11:40 am | Permalink

      I’ve seen that much of it already. I don’t have any more details.

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