On Templeton

A few recent events, including the launch of Nautilus and this interesting thread on Brian Leiter’s blog, have brought the John Templeton Foundation (JTF) back into the spotlight. As probably everybody knows, the JTF is a philanthropic organization that supports research into the “Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality,” encourages “dialogue among scientists, philosophers, and theologians,” and seeks to use science to acquire “new spiritual information.” They like to fund lots of things I find interesting — cosmology, physics, philosophy — but unfortunately they also like to promote the idea that science and religion are gradually reconciling. (As well as some projects that just seem silly.) They also have a huge amount of money, and they readily give it away.

I don’t think that science and religion are reconciling or can be reconciled in any meaningful sense, and I believe that it does a great disservice to the world to suggest otherwise. Therefore, way back in the day, I declined an opportunity to speak at a Templeton-sponsored conference. Ever since then, people have given me grief whenever my anti-Templeton fervor seems insufficiently fervent, even though my position — remarkably! — has been pretty consistent over the years. Honestly I find talking about things like this pretty tiresome; politics is important, but substance is infinitely more interesting. And this topic in particular has become even more tiresome as people on various sides have become increasingly emotional and less reflective. But I thought it would be useful to put my thoughts in one place, so I can just link here the next time the subject arises.

In brief: I don’t take money directly from the Templeton Foundation. You will never see me thanking them for support in the acknowledgments of one of my papers. But there are plenty of good organizations and causes who feel differently, and take the money without qualms, from the World Science Festival to the Foundational Questions Institute. As long as I think that those organizations are worthwhile in their own right, I am willing to work with them — attending their conferences, submitting articles, whatever. But I will try my best to convince them they should get money from somewhere else.

I’ve had various opportunities to get money from Templeton, and I certainly don’t come running to blog about it every time the possibility arises. Once I even got a call from a corporate head-hunter who wanted to inquire about my interest in a job with JTF. (Someone had clearly not done their homework.) But it’s not, as many people argue, because I am worried that Templeton works in nefarious ways to influence the people it funds. That is pretty unclear; there are some dark murmurings to that effect, with this piece by John Horgan being perhaps the most explicit example, but little hard evidence. It wouldn’t be utterly shocking to find that a funding agency tried to nudge work that it supported in directions that it was favorable to; that’s the kind of thing that funding agencies do. But there are plenty of examples of people receiving money from JTF and swearing that they never felt any pressure to be religion-friendly. More importantly, I don’t see much evidence that the JTF is actively evil, in (say) the way the Discovery Institute is evil, deliberately lying in order to advance an anti-science agenda. The JTF is quite pro-science, in its own way; it’s just that I think their views on science are very wrong.

And that’s the real reason why I don’t want to be involved directly with Templeton. It’s not a matter of ethical compromise; it’s simply a matter of sending the wrong message. Any time respectable scientists take money from Templeton, they lend their respectability — even if only implicitly — to the idea that science and religion are just different paths to the same ultimate truth. That’s not something I want to do. If other people feel differently, that’s for them and their consciences, not something that is going to cause me to shun them.

But I will try to explain to them why it’s important. Think of it this way. The kinds of questions I think about — origin of the universe, fundamental laws of physics, that kind of thing — for the most part have no direct impact on how ordinary people live their lives. No jet packs are forthcoming, as the saying goes. But there is one exception to this, so obvious that it goes unnoticed: belief in God. Due to the efforts of many smart people over the course of many years, scholars who are experts in the fundamental nature of reality have by a wide majority concluded that God does not exist. We have better explanations for how things work. The shift in perspective from theism to atheism is arguably the single most important bit of progress in fundamental ontology over the last five hundred years. And it matters to people … a lot.

Or at least, it would matter, if we made it more widely known. It’s the one piece of scientific/philosophical knowledge that could really change people’s lives. So in my view, we have a responsibility to get the word out — to not be wishy-washy on the question of religion as a way of knowing, but to be clear and direct and loud about how reality really works. And when we blur the lines between science and religion, or seem to contribute to their blurring or even just not minding very much when other people blur them, we do the world a grave disservice. Religious belief exerts a significant influence over how the world is currently run — not just through extremists, but through the well-meaning liberal believers who very naturally think of religion as a source of wisdom and moral guidance, and who define the middle ground for sociopolitical discourse in our society. Understanding the fundamental nature of reality is a necessary starting point for productive conversations about morality, justice, and meaning. If we think we know something about that fundamental nature — something that disagrees profoundly with the conventional wisdom — we need to share it as widely and unambiguously as possible. And collaborating with organizations like Templeton inevitably dilutes that message.

There’s no question that Templeton has been actively preventing the above message from getting across. By funding projects like the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion, the JTF has done its best to spread the impression that science and religion get along just fine. This impression is false. And it has consequences.

So I won’t directly work with or take money from the JTF, although I will work with people who do take money from them — money that is appropriately laundered, if you will — if I think those people themselves are worth supporting or collaborating with in their own right. This means that approximately nobody agrees with me; the Templeton-friendly folks think I’m too uptight and priggish, while the anti-Templeton faction finds me sadly lacking in conviction. So be it. These are issues without easy answers, and I don’t mind taking a judicious middle ground. It’s even possible that I’ll change my mind one way or another down the road, in response to new arguments or actions on the part of the parties involved.

And if anyone is tempted to award me the Templeton Prize, I will totally accept it! And use the funds to loudly evangelize for naturalism and atheism. (After I pay off the mortgage.)

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124 Responses to On Templeton

  1. Josh says:

    This question always gets me (not trying to be sarcastic): Why is it okay for scientists to make claims about theology when they have no knowledge of the field–especially when the reverse is never okay? These anti-“religion” diatribes are always difficult for me to understand because they’re just so obviously wrong about fundamental claims in a field they have never studied. I don’t blame them for being naive about something they’ve never studied, but why the triumphalist rhetoric?

  2. AHN says:

    Prof Carroll:

    I wonder if you allow for agnostic theism to get along fine with science. By agnostic theism, I mean something like what Kierkegaard advocated, to wit, a faith in God that can never amount to knowledge. That is, Kierkegaard, as I understand him, believed that there is no such thing as knowledge of God’s existence, and that belief in God has nothing to do with empirical evidence or even philosophical arguments. In short, Kierkegaard was an agnostic, and yet, a believer, a theist: an agnostic theist. I believe Wittgenstein may have shared a similar view. This view, assuming it is coherent, seems to me to be perfectly compatible with science, since science is just about knowledge and, accordingly, empirical evidence.

    I am actually an atheist, or, rather, an agnostic atheist: I unequivocally do not believe in God, and I do not believe there could be such a thing as knowledge of God’s existence or any other object of faith. So I hope it is clear that I am not trying to win you over to religion’s side or anything of the sort. And I do agree that a great majority of theists–particularly creationists and those involved with the Discovery Institute–are not agnostic theists, and are therefore in conflict with science. I just wonder (a) if you think that’s the only legitimate or coherent form of theism, and (b) if not, whether you believe agnostic theism could be totally compatible with science.

  3. Newt23 says:

    haha…great example of refined scholarly language. “scholars who are experts in the fundamental nature of reality”

    Who are these “scholars in the fundamental nature of reality”? I think we may be experiencing a classic case of a selection bias. Ironic for a scientist to make this mistake without any peer criticism.

  4. Spike Pecan says:

    To build on Josh’s point — seems to me the primary difference between theists and atheists is that most theists are willing to admit that there’s a lot about God/creation/the human experience that we don’t understand, which is why we study it in multiple ways (science, philosophy, theology, etc.), and are willing to modify our beliefs as true evidence warrants.
     
    Atheists, on the other hand, seem content with grandiose, sweeping, self-righteous statements along the lines of “[d]ue to the efforts of many smart people over the course of many years, scholars who are experts in the fundamental nature of reality have by a wide majority concluded that God does not exist.” Which of course is an opinion, not a proof.
     
    How people who proudly identify themselves as “rationalists” present this type of reasoning to be conclusive has never ceased to amuse me.

  5. Brett says:

    Sean Carroll, I could not agree more with your comments.

    Newt23: they are called physicists. Try and keep up buddy. And selection bias? Is there a study going on here? Physics isn’t ‘statistically’ the laws that describe the way the universe works. So what the hell are you talking about?

    As for the religion comments:
    I believe that it is far more than just pure coincidence that a majority of criminals and people who do horrible things, just happen to be the most religious out of all of us. Do you find a lot of atheists in prison? on the battlefield? inciting: genocide, slavery, racism, and sexism? No.
    I can’t offer an explanation, but I’ve noticed this undeniable trend in society. It’s just like watching politics though, which is why all anyone can do is give their opinion and then revert back to not giving a fuck. All I can do is note my observations throughout my life and in history books; religion really seems to be something we need to rid the world of before we take the next big evolutionary step. Religion was our earliest attempt at explaining the universe, which is why we need to evolve past it and grow up. Half the population is living in the modern era and not taking this as a personal attack. The other half is, and they are showing us exactly what’s wrong with religion; it prevents civilizations from maturing.
    It’s like ‘aether’ crackpots…it was a good idea at the time and even Einstein bought into it for a short time, but we know better now and understand that it’s a primitive concept that flat out isn’t true.

  6. steven french says:

    Sean,
    Thanks for this – absolutely spot on! I did present at a Templeton conference once but now decline further invitations and refuse to apply for T money (even though they seem to give it away by the barrowload), pretty much for the reasons you articulate so well.
    cheers,
    Steven
    (a philosopher)

  7. Giotis says:

    “…scholars who are experts in the fundamental nature of reality have by a wide majority concluded that God does not exist.”

    so there is a minority who believes that God exists? That’s very encouraging for the believers…

    But really that statement is so pompous it sounds hilarious:-)

    and may I ask those experts what is the fundamental nature of reality then?

  8. Brett says:

    The reason that we know religion isn’t true is because all religion came from men. It wasn’t given to us by aliens (God(s) would classify as aliens), it was passed down by men who took advantage of the ignorance of uneducated people throughout history.

    I haven’t heard of a scientist (a good one who is relevant in their field anyway) who has conclusively stated that God does not exist. We have stated that religion is obviously not true, and since God is a creation of religion, there probably isn’t a God either (definitely not the God described by religion), though we have no way of proving that. Regardless of proof of God or not, God is not needed for the universe to function or exist, so it’s an issue that we can only waste time and effort on. That’s what atheists believe. That God probably does not exist (definitely not the god describe by religion).

  9. Sally Strange (@SallyStrange) says:

    What is the everloving point in believing, or even being agnostic about, a being which is undefinable, unfalsifiable, or otherwise “outside” the natural world? Such a being would have no detectable effects and so would be indistinguishable from a being that does not exist. Nobody believes in such a being because there is no “there” there to believe in. But then apologists for theism take this requirement of agnosticism for an undefinable pantheist sort of “god” and sneakily try to slip it into arguments about gods which are definable and testable and so on.

    Technically, I’m agnostic about everything I believe. But realistically speaking, I am about as certain that there are no gods as I am that the earth is going to continue to revolve around the sun for the next few billion years. “Gods” fall into the same category as unicorns, vampires, chakras, telepathy, and so on–things which humans have imagined but which don’t exist (inasmuch as we can say that anything doesn’t exist). This sort of attenuated agnosticism is utterly useless except if your goal is to soothe the wounded egos of god- believers. It’s actually an obstacle to getting real work done because it uses up everyone’s time and energy basically arguing about semantics. It’s tiresome and I wish atheists would knock it off.

  10. newt23 says:

    Brett, nice work. I’m not going to undermine your obvious understanding of scientific methodology…

    But I do want to suggest that your opinion on which group constitutes the “the scholars who are experts in the fundamental nature of reality” is stunningly limited. You have eliminated all forms of gaining knowledge, including other forms of scientific investigation.

    It’s fine, you probably haven’t participated in many scientific endeavors, nor read many scientific articles, but I think you should know that there are other areas of science that desire to lay claim to the banner of “scholars who are experts in the fundamental nature of reality”. In fact, some particularly radical thinkers suggest that all science is a mechanisms for despairing truth. Even more dangerous thinkers argue that the question nature of epistemology is still a lively debate. But you probably don’t want to bog yourself down with such details while in the beginning stages of your learning about science

    And if one is attempting to be, you know, empirically justified in asserting that all the “scholars who are experts in the fundamental nature of reality” have proven something to be true, at least we can be notified of which people constitute this group. This seems to be a minor request in light of the confidence with which it was asserted.

    As you will find out when you take more science coursework, Brett, conclusions are only as strong as the methodology.

  11. Brett says:

    Sally,

    that’s what makes atheists better than theists, because we have the ability to not polarize a debate and understand the the fundamental nature of reality, which is described similar to your comment: sure, a God could exist. Just as unicorns, vampires, chakras, and telepathy might exist in some alternate universe which is governed by different physical laws. The nature of reality is that nothing is 100%, though it may be 99.9999999% which is about what physicists require in order to claim a certainty.

  12. Brett says:

    Newt23, again, what the hell are you talking about? I never mentioned scientific methodology.

    Scientific articles? you mean like the ones you read from livescience.com or sciencedaily.com? You’re fucking brilliant, so I better step out of this one.

  13. Sally Strange (@SallyStrange) says:

    But I do want to suggest that your opinion on which group constitutes the “the scholars who are experts in the fundamental nature of reality” is stunningly limited. You have eliminated all forms of gaining knowledge, including other forms of scientific investigation.

    1. “Other forms of gaining knowledge” is, in my experience, a dog-whistle for “respect my personal revelation!”

    2. Other forms of scientific investigation do not attempt to determine the fundamental nature of reality, but they do investigate topics that could possible falsify some of the conclusions physicists have reached. None of them have done that so far.

    It’s fine, you probably haven’t participated in many scientific endeavors, nor read many scientific articles, but I think you should know that there are other areas of science that desire to lay claim to the banner of “scholars who are experts in the fundamental nature of reality”.

    Your condescension might be less giggle-worthy if you could actually name what scientific disciplines besides physics attempt to investigate the fundamental nature of reality. I certainly can’t think of any, but then I’m just an ordinary person with a piddling little B.S. in environmental science. I look forward to learning what these disciplines are.

    In fact, some particularly radical thinkers suggest that all science is a mechanisms for despairing truth.

    I can’t parse this sentence.

    Even more dangerous thinkers argue that the question nature of epistemology is still a lively debate.

    What makes a thinker dangerous? I’ve certainly participated in some lively debates about epistemology. When do I get my “dangerous thinker” badge?

    But you probably don’t want to bog yourself down with such details while in the beginning stages of your learning about science

    And if one is attempting to be, you know, empirically justified in asserting that all the “scholars who are experts in the fundamental nature of reality” have proven something to be true, at least we can be notified of which people constitute this group. This seems to be a minor request in light of the confidence with which it was asserted.

    He says “physicists” right up there, a couple posts ago–did you post before he did?

    As you will find out when you take more science coursework, Brett, conclusions are only as strong as the methodology.

    Let me distill your post:

    1. Brett doesn’t know science, so there, HA!

    2. There are other ways of knowing! But you can’t name them.

    3. It’s not just physicists who study the fundamental nature of reality! But you can’t name the other scientific disciplines that address that.

    Less than convincing, overall. Also less than coherent.

  14. kashyap vasavada says:

    Prof. Carroll:
    I am a retired physics professor here. I enjoy reading your blogs from physics point of view. It is possible that your anti-religious views may have been due to your experiences and exposure to only Judeo- Christian religions and recent fights between fundamentalist creationists and intelligent design people and scientists . If you read about eastern religions (specially Hindu philosophy) your views might change. It is well-known that Bohr, Schrodinger, Heisenberg and Bohm were deeply impressed by eastern religious philosophy. Concept of God is very subtle in it. Hindu religion has no conflict whatsoever with science. In case you are interested I will be delighted to send some articles I have written.

  15. newt23 says:

    Sally, thank you for distilling my post…you did pretty well considering how incoherent my post was

  16. newt23 says:

    Sean, unfortunately, I think you are giving us brothers in arms- the humanists- a bad name. All the time, I have to contend with the downstream frustration with folks due to overconfident statements made by people like you.

    hopefully, one day, you will take a lesson from evolutionary sociology and play nice.

  17. Chris says:

    Brett said:
    “I believe that it is far more than just pure coincidence that a majority of criminals and people who do horrible things, just happen to be the most religious out of all of us. Do you find a lot of atheists in prison? on the battlefield? inciting: genocide, slavery, racism, and sexism?”

    Ever hear of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, the three biggest mass murders in human history? All Atheists.

  18. Sally Strange (@SallyStrange) says:

    Hitler was most definitely not an atheist.

  19. newt23 says:

    Sally, nice rebuttal…

  20. Sally Strange (@SallyStrange) says:

    I am open to hearing any evidence that Hitler was an atheist. There’s plenty suggesting that Mao and Stalin rejected god-belief (unless you count believing they themselves were like gods), but for Hitler, not so much.

  21. Joe says:

    @Brett

    Taking the whole of human history into account, you don’t find a lot of atheists, period, so it’s not surprising you don’t find a lot of them in any given situation, criminal or otherwise.

    The reference to “scholars who are experts in the fundamental nature of reality” links to a survey of philosophers, not physicists. If you took for granted that he meant physicists, maybe you have an issue with the author. What I find hilarious about that reference is the following result from the same survey:

    Metaphilosophy: naturalism 49.8%; non-naturalism 25.9%; other 24.3%.

    So another way to cite that survey would be to say that less than half of the “scholars who are experts in the fundamental nature of reality” are naturalists. That makes me wonder why Carroll is so confident that “we” have a duty to move naturalism forward. Who is the we? The 49.8% ‘consensus’ of fundamental-reality-expert-scholars? Yeesh.

  22. Tony Rz says:

    I was sitting on the front steps praying when I saw this strange circular thing, all in movement, sliding across the ground, it was a few days after the death of a little nephew the same age as one of my sons who had been playing together, going shopping when he was killed, run over by the car he had started and put in gear, frightened he had jumped out the car window, as this thing swirled across in front of me it headed straight towards the window where my son was asleep and instantly, he woke up screaming, in sheer terror, please don’t hurt me. Well the next night as I lay in bed praying my night prayers, something again made me look up and on the wall was a black spot that looked like mildew, only this mildew moved, and slid across the wall and out the door, and in an instant, again, my son woke screaming in absolute terror, please don’t hurt me. The next day I was in the basement doing some meditation, and just as I felt myself falling inwards, there was this voice from a place, a particular point, in front and off to my right, that said with a voice full of hatred, a voice soaked in sulfuric acid, a voice that if hatred could be bottled would be one of the most terrible sounds imaginable, said to me ” WHAT DOES CHRIST CARE ABOUT YOU”. So don’t believe that is your privilege, but beware, he is waiting for you and he is not your friend.

  23. Pseudonym says:

    @Brett:

    I believe that it is far more than just pure coincidence that a majority of criminals and people who do horrible things, just happen to be the most religious out of all of us. Do you find a lot of atheists in prison? on the battlefield? inciting: genocide, slavery, racism, and sexism? No.

    Even assuming that there is a significant correlation, this of course says nothing about causation. Karl Marx could have been right that religion is “the sigh of the oppressed”, and that socioeconomic disadvantage is an underlying cause of both religiosity and crime.

    Having said that, it’s certainly true that people who regularly attend a place of religious worship also tend to give far more of their time and money to charity. I note that it’s not belief in a deity, but regular attendance, that’s the predictor.

    One caveat is that while it’s always been true that the median religious attendee has always given more time and money to charity than the median non-attendee, the mean religious attendee was recently beaten by the mean non-attendee, entirely thanks to two outliers. If you remove Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, the mean religious attendee is back on top.

    That’s certainly not a coincidence, and it’s also not especially surprising. It is intuitive that spending an hour a week having your ethical worldview directly linked to charitable giving is likely to make you give more to charity.

  24. Pseudonym says:

    @Sally Strange:

    There is a whole Wikipedia page summarising what historians think on the topic. The short version is that while he almost certainly was an atheist in the dictionary sense (i.e. he had no belief in deities), he probably wouldn’t have used the term to describe himself because of the link with Communism.

    Some of the stuff recorded in the Table Talk is pretty explicit. See if this sentiment sounds familiar:

    The dogma of Christianity gets worn away before the advances of science. Religion will have to make more and more concessions. Gradually the myths crumble. All that’s left is to prove that in nature there is no frontier between the organic and the inorganic. When understanding of the universe has become widespread, when the majority of men know that the stars are not sources of light but worlds, perhaps inhabited worlds like ours, then the Christian doctrine will be convicted of absurdity.

    Before anyone jumps to conclusions, I’d also like to point out that the fact that Hitler was nice to his dogs is not an argument in favour of animal cruelty.

  25. Meh says:

    A few more paragraphs from your link Pseudonym:

    “According to Hitler’s chief architect, Albert Speer, Hitler remained a formal member of the Catholic church until his death, and even ordered his chief associates to remain members”

    and

    “Biographer John Toland wrote that Hitler was still “a member in good standing of the Church of Rome despite his detestation of its hierarchy” and drew links between Hitler’s Catholic background and his antisemitism”

    Hitler tried to create a new religion based on a perfect race of humans and antisemitism. He believed in his own religion as a modification of Christianity. He was religious; he was also a unique level of crazy.