The Templeton Bribe

[ Mon. Aug. 2. 2010 ]

So you’re an organization whose mission is to blur the lines between faith and science, and you have huge wads of cash to do this.  What’s the best strategy?

Well, if you’re smart, you find a bunch of journalists who are not averse to being bribed to write articles consonant with your mission, give them a lot of money to attend “seminars” on reconciling faith and science (you also give a nice emolument to the speakers), enlist a spiffy British university to house these journalists, on whom you bestow the fancy title of “fellows,” cover all their expenses (including housing) to go to the UK for a couple of months, and even give them a “book allowance.”  What could be more congenial to an overworked journalist than a chance to play British scholar, punting along the lovely Cam or enjoying a nice pint in a quant pub, all the while chewing over the wisdom of luminaries like John Polkinghorne and  John Haught, and pondering the mysteries of a fine-tuned universe and the inevitable evolution of humans?

And the best part is this: forever after, those journalists are in your camp.  Not only can you use their names in your advertising, but you’ve conditioned them, in Pavlovian fashion, to think that great rewards come to those who favor the accommodation of science and faith. They’ll do your job for you!

The John Templeton Foundation may be misguided, but it’s not stupid.  The Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowships in Science and Religion pay senior and mid-career journalists $15,000 (plus all the perks above) to come to Cambridge University for two months, listen to other people talk about science and religion, study a religion/science topic of their own devising, and then write a nifty paper that they can publish, so getting even more money. What a perk! Imagine sitting in a medieval library, pondering the Great Questions. And you get to be called a fellow! And write a term paper! Isn’t that better than cranking out hack pieces for people who’d rather be watching American Idol?  Sure, you have to apply, and write an application essay stating how you intend to relate science and religion, but, hey, it’s only 1500 words, and once you’re in, you’re golden.  You may even get to be on the advisory board, and have a chance to come back to the trough.

As I said, The Templeton Foundation is smart—or rather wily.  They realize that few people, especially underpaid journalists and overworked academics, are immune to the temptation of dosh, and once those people get hooked on the promise of money and prestige, they forever have a stall in the Templeton stable. And, in the hopes of future Templeton funding,  perhaps they’ll continue to write pieces congenial to the Foundation’s mission.

The Temple Foundation is wily, but they’re not exactly honest.  Look at this:

After decades during which leading voices from science and religion viewed each other with suspicion and little sense of how the two areas might relate, recent years have brought an active pursuit of understanding how science may deepen theological awareness, for example, or how religious traditions might illuminate the scientific realm.  Fellowship organizers note that rigorous journalistic examination of the region where science and theology overlap – as well as understanding the reasoning of many who assert the two disciplines are without common ground – can effectively promote a deeper understanding of the emerging dialogue.

Now if you’re interested in seeing how science and religion “illuminate” one another, what’s the first thing you think of?  How about this:  is there any empirical truth in the claims of faith? After all, if you’re trying to “reconcile” two areas of thought, and look at their interactions, surely you’d be interested if there’s any empirical truth in them.  After all, why “reconcile” two areas if one of them might be only baseless superstition?  Is the evidence for God as strong as it is for evolution? Does the “fine-tuning” of physical constants prove Jesus?  Was the evolution of humans inevitable, thereby showing that we were part of God’s plan?

It’s not that there’s nothing to say about this.  After all, one of the speakers in the Fellows’ symposia is Simon Conway Morris, who has written a popular-science book claiming that biology proves that the evolution of human-like creatures was inevitable.  It’s just that the Templeton Foundation doesn’t want to promote, or have its Fellows write about, the other side, the Dark Side that feels that no reconciliation is possible between science and faith.  John Horgan, who was once a Journalism Fellow, talks about his experience:

My ambivalence about the foundation came to a head during my fellowship in Cambridge last summer. The British biologist Richard Dawkins, whose participation in the meeting helped convince me and other fellows of its legitimacy, was the only speaker who denounced religious beliefs as incompatible with science, irrational, and harmful. The other speakers — three agnostics, one Jew, a deist, and 12 Christians (a Muslim philosopher canceled at the last minute) — offered a perspective clearly skewed in favor of religion and Christianity.

Some of the Christian speakers’ views struck me as inconsistent, to say the least. None of them supported intelligent design, the notion that life is in certain respects irreducibly complex and hence must have a divine origin, and several of them denounced it. Simon Conway Morris, a biologist at Cambridge and an adviser to the Templeton Foundation, ridiculed intelligent design as nonsense that no respectable biologist could accept. That stance echoes the view of the foundation, which over the last year has taken pains to distance itself from the American intelligent-design movement.

And yet Morris, a Catholic, revealed in response to questions that he believes Christ was a supernatural figure who performed miracles and was resurrected after his death. Other Templeton speakers also rejected intelligent design while espousing beliefs at least as lacking in scientific substance.

The Templeton prize-winners John Polkinghorne and John Barrow argued that the laws of physics seem fine-tuned to allow for the existence of human beings, which is the physics version of intelligent design. The physicist F. Russell Stannard, a member of the Templeton Foundation Board of Trustees, contended that prayers can heal the sick — not through the placebo effect, which is an established fact, but through the intercession of God. In fact the foundation has supported studies of the effectiveness of so-called intercessory prayer, which have been inconclusive.

One Templeton official made what I felt were inappropriate remarks about the foundation’s expectations of us fellows. She told us that the meeting cost more than $1-million, and in return the foundation wanted us to publish articles touching on science and religion. But when I told her one evening at dinner that — given all the problems caused by religion throughout human history — I didn’t want science and religion to be reconciled, and that I hoped humanity would eventually outgrow religion, she replied that she didn’t think someone with those opinions should have accepted a fellowship. So much for an open exchange of views.

So, the Foundation doesn’t really want the hard light of science cast upon faith.  It wants its journalists (and nearly everyone it funds) to show how faith and science are compatible.  Those who feel otherwise, like Victor Stenger, Richard Dawkins, Anthony Grayling, Steven Weinberg, well, those people don’t have a say.  (In fact, the Foundation’s history of intellectual dishonesty has made many of them unwilling to be part of its endeavors.) If a miscreant sneaks in by accident, as did John Horgan, he’s told that he doesn’t belong.  The Foundation may pay lip service to dissenters, as in this statement (my emphasis),

Fellowship organizers note that rigorous journalistic examination of the region where science and theology overlap – as well as understanding the reasoning of many who assert the two disciplines are without common ground – can effectively promote a deeper understanding of the emerging dialogue.

but you won’t see Templeton giving Journalism Fellowships to people who have a track record of such views.  Instead, the Fellows spend their time pondering, “Now how on earth could those poor people think that science and faith are incompatible?”

These journalism fellowships are nothing more than a bribe—a bribe to get journalists to favor a certain point of view.  The Foundation’s success at recruiting reputable candidates proves one thing: it doesn’t cost much to buy a journalist’s integrity.  Fifteen thousand bucks, a “book allowance,” and a fancy title will do it.

Could this explain why those journalists who trumpet every other achievement on their websites keep quiet when they get a Templeton Fellowship?

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