An apology

Yesterday I wrote a post calling out a new MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) on “The Science of Religion” offered by the University of British Columbia and, as I reported at the time, sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation. Further research on this course, and correspondence from one of its teachers, Dr. Edward Slingerland (the other professor is Dr. Azim Shariff), has convinced me that that the course is not meant to give any justification for the existence of religious belief.

A review of the link still shows that the course is sponsored by Templeton:

Its maintenance and update has received additional support from a generous donation from the John Templeton Foundation.

I am further told that both professors are atheists, and Dr. Slingerland informs me that the course is simply one that discusses how people come to accept the existence of a nonexistent deity; that is, what makes people become religious when there is no evidence for the tenets of faith. There is no “pushing of religion”, I’m told.

In light of this, I offer my apologies to Drs. Slingerland and Shariff for misrepresenting and misunderstanding the content and intent of this course, and I have deleted the post. I also apologize to the readers for not doing my homework properly. What I have determined, and want to emphasize, is that both Slingerland and Shariff are respectable and productive scholars in their fields, and I did not mean to imply otherwise.

What I do not apologize for, however, is criticizing those who, like the two professors, take Templeton money to fund their research and teach courses funded by Templeton. Though some of that research may not further Templeton’s aims in a direct way (i.e., using science to prove the existence of God), I continue to see the organization as deleterious to the progress of science because most of its money goes to what Steve Gould would call “mixing the magisteria.”

But I screwed up with this post, and have no good excuse except duck-tending and my lack of responsible scholarly vetting. I will certainly try hard to vet and research my posts more carefully in the future.


  1. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted May 21, 2018 at 6:07 am | Permalink

    Would this be why all the links to your post on that course return a “Not Found” ?


    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted May 21, 2018 at 6:08 am | Permalink

      Oh, sorry –

      ” and I have deleted the post.”

      I missed that the first time I read through this page.


  2. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted May 21, 2018 at 6:16 am | Permalink

    “… the course is simply one that discusses how people come to accept the existence of a nonexistent deity; that is, what makes people become religious when there is no evidence for the tenets of faith.“

    This sounds like a topic for WEIT readers to light up the comment section with. My answer : mostly childhood indoctrination.

    • Posted May 21, 2018 at 6:38 am | Permalink

      Yes, but that doesn’t show how it got started. You can’t use an infinite regress here like you can to answer the “First Cause” argument.

      • Posted May 21, 2018 at 9:13 am | Permalink

        This is mystifying, Jerry. The Templeton link is the reason why I did not follow the course.

        And here is the course’s “About this course” page. Para. 4 finishes with this: “Its (i.e. the MOOC’s) maintenance and update has received additional support from a generous donation from the John Templeton Foundation.”

        Here is the link:

        I do not how you square that with what you were told.

        • Posted May 21, 2018 at 9:18 am | Permalink

          It wasn’t what I was told; the people who wrote me said nothing about Templeton. I coudn’t find a link on the first perusal, but now I see it. I’ll fix my post. Thanks for that. It’s just another example of looking for something that was there and not finding it. (I did search for “Templeton” and didn’t find it on that page, now I’m baffled!)

          But this doesn’t change my need to apologize in general if the course doesn’t push religion.

        • Posted May 21, 2018 at 9:35 am | Permalink

          The edX page on this MOOC no longer mentions the Templeton grant, only the SSHRC of Canada “partnership” grant. Interesting, since it did yesterday when I looked at it. I suspect Templeton is now the silent “partner.”

          So if PCC were mistaken, it is understandable given the information available to him at the time.

          FWIW, as a consequentialist, I don’t mind if Templeton money is involved as long as it is put to good secular use. I hope that this is such a case.

          • Posted May 21, 2018 at 9:38 am | Permalink

            I have the page in front of me, Darwin, and the Templeton grant is still mentioned, just after the SSHRC grant info.

            • Posted May 21, 2018 at 9:46 am | Permalink

              Try emptying your cache and reload. When I load it, the Templeton mention is gone. Strange.

              • Posted May 21, 2018 at 10:13 am | Permalink

                I am almost positive that this is what happened to me this morning. I read that page several times and simply didn’t see a mention of Templeton, so I apologized for saying earlier that Templeton was funding the course. But now Templeton is there again–on and off., apparently–and I wonder why it would be “hidden” on some pages. Templeton does of course have a history of hiding its involvement in symposia, meetings, and the like.

              • Posted May 21, 2018 at 11:50 am | Permalink

                No, I turned the laptop off, slept for 2 hours and it is still there, Darwin. Odd. Sorry for the delay…sleeping off a head cold.

              • Posted May 21, 2018 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

                When I google “edx science of religion” two page links come up. One makes no mention of Templeton and acknowledges only SSHRC. The other has this paeagraph:

                The initial production of this MOOC was partially funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada Partnership Grant on ‘The Evolution of Religion and Morality’ (PI: Edward Slingerland), and represents one of this grant’s major knowledge mobilization and research dissemination initiatives. Its maintenance and update has received additional support from a generous donation from the John Templeton Foundation.

                This paragraph says that the MOOC was initially funded by SSHRC but that its update and continuation are funded by a “generous donation” by Templeton. So it is not clear PCC had anything to apologize for regarding his statement about funding.

              • Posted May 21, 2018 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

                Yep, those are exactly the words that I have been referring to, Darwin. We are literally on the same page.

            • Posted May 21, 2018 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

              Well, then.


              • Posted May 21, 2018 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

                Hi folks – to clarify the confusion here: There are two website circulating. An old one from the first time we ran the MOOC, and a new one ( updated for our latest running of the course starting tomorrow.

                Templeton stepped in after we had already made the MOOC and run it once. That’s why the acknowledgment appears on the new site, but not the old one.

                I don’t want to have the whole debate about Templeton here in the comments section, but I’ll say that the foundation reached out because they wanted to get the word out about the course after someone at their organization took it. They didn’t ask for any changes, and the MOOC explicitly treats religion as a natural, psychological phenomenon. We were and are proud about the course and strongly believe it presents a fair reading of the current scientific research on religion. So we have no problem with someone wanting to expand its reach. It can give believers and non-believers alike much to learn and think about. If you’re interested, the course is free.

                -Azim Shariff

          • Posted May 21, 2018 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

            Or maybe the original statement was in error and it’s now been corrected (maybe in light of Jerry’s now-deleted post).


      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted May 21, 2018 at 10:14 am | Permalink

        First I apologize for insinuating the topic through your “an apology” post, but I think it’d be a good topic, and I can’t help it this is interesting.

        How religion got started – I propose that it is a fact that adults impose upon their own children, and the origin of religion cannot stand independent of that – it is coupled to the imposition upon numerous other things upon children, including religion. I think the coupling means the apparent infinite regress goes away. And thus if that is correct, religion should share common origins with other child-rearing factors.

        But maybe that’s for another time…

  3. Erik
    Posted May 21, 2018 at 6:25 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the update and I appreciate the fact that you were so quick to clarify the nature of the course – especially given how busy you’ve been with the ducklings. I decided to sign up to audit the course just to see their approach. We discuss the role of religion in the context of cultural evolution (e. g., the proliferation of “higher moral gods” in more complex societies) in one of my courses, and I’m interested to seeing how this course approaches that topic.

  4. BobTerrace
    Posted May 21, 2018 at 6:27 am | Permalink

    We all make mistakes,some small, some large, but it takes a mensch to own up an apologize.

    (self censored sentence about someone who never admits mistakes)

    • BobTerrace
      Posted May 21, 2018 at 6:28 am | Permalink


  5. Posted May 21, 2018 at 6:27 am | Permalink

    These days it is particularly heartening to see anyone correct a previous stance based on further evidence that they acquire. Perhaps there is hope for the world after all.

    • Glenda Palmer
      Posted May 21, 2018 at 10:59 am | Permalink


  6. Damien McLeod
    Posted May 21, 2018 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    Thank you Dr Coyne.

  7. Silvia Planchett
    Posted May 21, 2018 at 6:46 am | Permalink

    That’s why we follow you Jerry!

  8. Hempenstein
    Posted May 21, 2018 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    This sounds like the sort of course that I had hoped that I had signed up for a half-century ago at W&M (called, simply, “Religion”). It didn’t push religion, but it didn’t attempt to look under the rug, either. Other than that I don’t remember a thing about it.

  9. Dani
    Posted May 21, 2018 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    This is not a new course, I did it last year. It was actually pretty good! They bring some interesting facts about religion. For example, they discuss why the united states, being a developed country, still have a high percentege of religious people.

  10. Posted May 21, 2018 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    Well played, sir.


  11. Posted May 21, 2018 at 7:12 am | Permalink


  12. darrelle
    Posted May 21, 2018 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    Respect, Jerry.

  13. Lee Beringsmith
    Posted May 21, 2018 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    Your actions make me proud to be a fan of yours.
    Thank you for stepping up and admiting a mistake, you are a great example of just what it takes to be a good human.

    • Posted May 22, 2018 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

      @ Lee Beringsmith: Luckily I read your comment before posting mine – because it would have been plagiarism.

      Isn’t Mr Azim Shariff’s clarification rather feeble? The Templeton Foundation’s intentions are too well-known now, I think.

  14. GBJames
    Posted May 21, 2018 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    It is extremely valuable when people fess up to having screwed up. Thanks, Doc!

  15. Posted May 21, 2018 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    Good job, sir! Thank you for continuing to lead by example. You do yourself and us proud.

  16. Bill Bass
    Posted May 21, 2018 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    Well done.

  17. Tom Waddell
    Posted May 21, 2018 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    If one claims a thing to be true it is incumbent on that person to show objective verifiable proof.

    • mirandaga
      Posted May 21, 2018 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

      Could you p;ease provide objective verifiable proof for that claim?

      • Tom Waddell
        Posted May 21, 2018 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

        Well yes I can but it is obvious the claim is true. Your question was a surprise coming from one who follows Jerry’s blog that is all about using logic and reason to determine what is true.

        If I said I owned a BMW but never showed it to you despite multiple requests to do so, would you be even a little suspicious that I didn’t own a BMW?

        • GBJames
          Posted May 21, 2018 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

          Actually… I think most of us would agree that it is evidence that is critical to determining if something is true or not. Logic and reason are important but if you start with bogus assumptions…

        • Posted May 21, 2018 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

          I think mirandaga was just being facetious, as I was in my response below.


    • Posted May 21, 2018 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

      Is that true? 😉


  18. Posted May 21, 2018 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    I will echo those who commended you for the apology – a characteristic of a gentleman and a scholar.

  19. mikeyc
    Posted May 21, 2018 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    This is how it’s done. An honorable chap, that Dr. Coyne.

  20. Ed Collins
    Posted May 21, 2018 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    Well, I guess Nanaimo
    Atheist will have to call off the letter writing campaign to UBC.

  21. Posted May 21, 2018 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    “What I do not apologize for, however, is criticizing those who, like the two professors, take Templeton money to fund their research and teach courses funded by Templeton. ”

    Is it really always so clear to draw a line? I don’t think so. There are cases where it is better to get involved with the other side for the sake of a good cause – at least for a limited time.
    Thought experiment: You are a development aid worker somewhere in Somalia, a famine takes countless lives away every day, and you hear about the storage of food supplies of the terror organization Al Shabab, the branch of IS in East Africa, in a nearby warehouse.
    ( Al Shabab uses food donations in the areas to increase its influence in the population.)
    You would not hesitate for a second to use this food from AL Shabab if it could end the famine, even if the millet bags would bear the logo of the terror organization.
    In the face of the dying population, one would tolerate the fact that the food was bought with the money of Al Shabab.

    Well, making a pact with the devil to end a famine is one thing; but what about relying one’ s research activities on the money of an organisation like the Templeton Foundation? Is that really one hundred percent a bad thing or is it perhaps not so bad because what the Temple F. has as a goal is even thwarted by its own spending policy?
    Could it not be that the Foundation, in its efforts to gain acceptance not only from the religious but also from the entire scientific community, ultimately cuts into its own flesh by co-financing avowed atheists, as in the present case, without exerting any influence on their work and research?
    That the Foundation does not see the danger, or completely underestimates it, that its openness and support of scientists who do not share its views could be an obstacle to the actual intention of helping religious beliefs to further break through, since it is too convinced of it, and trusts that God undoubtedly exists?
    So if TF also co-finances scientists whose research contradicts their own goals, then I do not find this foundation policy at all worthy of criticism, but in a way quite respectable, even if this respectability would have its cause in the naive assumptions of those responsible for TF.

  22. Posted June 6, 2018 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    Just a footnote…..
    After following the discussion here and out of general curiosity I decided to have a go and sign up. Nothing to lose I thought. It’s the third week now and I must say it’s a bloody good course, even for a WEIT regular such as myself who has been around the block any number of times on both the subject of religion and evolution. I assure you all, it has no bias toward religion. Indeed quite the opposite… if I were religious I would find the deconstruction of religious tendencies in the course totally undermining to my faith. As for Templeton getting anything out of it in furthering their goals, I would say they have made a very poor investment indeed.

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