Purity of essence

A little morality tale, in which our hero resists the lure of easy money and emerges with his self-respect somewhat intact.

Charles Townes is an accomplished scientist. He won the Nobel Prize in 1964 for inventing the laser (something a little more tangible than, say, demonstrating that spontaneously broken non-abelian gauge theories are renormalizable). He is also this year’s winner of the Templeton Prize for “progress towards research or discoveries about spiritual realities.” The Prize is awarded each year by the Templeton Foundation, and quite deliberately involves an amount of money (about 800,000 British pounds) that is larger than that for winning the Nobel Prize. Townes is one of those rare scientists who is overtly religious, and would like to see closer connections between science and religion. He sincerely believes that, by investigating the natural world, we are led to belief in a higher power.

The Templeton Foundation was founded by Sir John Templeton, one of the world’s most successful investors. Its primary purpose is to encourage a reconciliation between science and religion. It has been fantastically successful, at least with respect to public relations. In recent years there has been a spate of stories in major news outlets about how new discoveries in science are bringing modern science closer to religion. There have been no such discoveries, of course. What there has been is money — buckets and buckets of money, largely from the Templeton folks, to give prizes and host conferences and support scientists who will say nice things about religion.

I personally am in no danger of winning the Templeton Prize, having gone on record repeatedly as saying that science and religion are intellectually inconsistent, and that taking science seriously as a method for understanding the world is incompatible with honest religious belief. (Yes, I know, not everyone agrees with me.) But I recently received an invitation to speak at Amazing Light, a conference in Berkeley in honor of Charles Townes. The conference is devoted to science, not anything about religion, and I was asked to give a standard review talk about dark matter and dark energy. But the timing was suspiciously close to the announcement of Townes’ Templeton Prize, and a quick glance at the conference web page revealed that it was indeed receiving funding from the Templeton Foundation. It is being organized by something called the Metanexus Institute, and is part of a program known as Foundational Questions — organizations that are somehow associated with the Templeton web.

So I thought about turning down the invitation, since I didn’t want to get mixed up with this group with whose purpose I completely disagree. But the conference program seemed innocuous, and the impressive list of participants is full of good and smart people, so eventually I accepted. I figured that there wasn’t a moral obligation to completely dissociate myself from any activity involving people with whom I have disagreements. After all, some of my best friends are even Republicans.

Upon further review, I’ve changed my mind, and decided not to go to the conference after all. (As of right now my name is still on the list of participants, but it will go away eventually.) I talked to Mark, with whom I’ve discussed these issues before, and he made an argument that seems pretty convincing. The point is that the entire purpose of the Templeton Foundation is to blur the line between straightforward science and explicitly religious activity, making it seem like the two enterprises are part of one big undertaking. It’s all about appearances. You have a splashy scientific conference featuring a long list of respected participants, and then you proudly tout the event on a separate web page for your program to bring science and religion together. It doesn’t matter that I am a committed atheist, simply giving a talk on interesting findings in modern cosmology; my name would become implicitly associated with an effort I find to be woefully misguided. There are plenty of conferences, with less objectionable sources of funding; I can give this one a pass.

Perhaps this is much ado about nothing, and I shouldn’t be so fastidious about where conferences get their funding (which is not exactly plentiful these days). But, to me, these are issues of absolutely paramount importance, and the stakes are too high to permit any possible misunderstanding. I appreciate that the Templeton Foundation is actually, in its own way, quite pro-science, and is not nearly as objectionable as the anti-scientific crackpots at the Discovery Institute. And I have tremendous respect for friends of mine who are sincerely and fervently religious. I just think they are wrong. Religious belief is the Big Lie of our contemporary intellectual life, and scientists more than any other group should be intellectually rigorous about the absolutely real differences between science and faith. It might not be the most politically expedient stance to take, but those of us who fancy ourselves scholars rather than politicians have a duty to the truth more than anything else.

In fact I’ve already been to a conference that had some support from Templeton — the Notre Dame symposium where I spoke on why cosmologists are atheists. I have no regrets about that; it was a group of academic philosophers and theologians, explicitly discussing questions of religion and cosmology, and I was up there stating clearly what I thought (i.e., that it was all wrong). Everything was out in the open, there was no real danger of my position being misconstrued. Somewhat paradoxically, it’s the conference focused strictly on science that seems more problematic, because that’s where there is a danger that mere participation can be construed as implicit approval of the background agenda.

The unfortunate aspect of this late-blooming twinge of conscience is that none of the buckets of money being thrown around will be thrown at me. The honorarium for giving a talk at the Townes conference is $2,000 (over and above travel expenses), and writing a contribution to the proceedings gets you an extra $6,000. A guy could have quite the weekend in Vegas with that kind of scratch.

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