Not much more to say about the Templeton Foundation, but in the interest of open discussion it seems fair to point to a couple of alternative viewpoints. My original post was republished at Slate, where there are over 3300 comments thus far, so apparently people like to talk about this stuff?
For a more pro-Templeton point of view, here’s Jason Wright, explaining why he didn’t think it was wrong to take money from JTF. While he is a self-described atheist, he thinks that “questions like the ultimate origin of the Universe and Natural Law may be beyond scientific inquiry,” and correspondingly in favor of dialogue between science and religion. To be as clear as possible, I have no objections at all to dialogue between scientists and religious believers, having participated in such and planning on continuing to do so. I just want to eliminate any possibility that my own contribution to such a dialogue will favor any position other than “religion is incorrect.” (Obviously that depends on one’s definition of “religion,” so if you want to indulge in a boring discussion of what the proper definition should be — be my guest.)
From an anti-Templeton perspective, here’s Jerry Coyne, who doesn’t accept that it’s okay to draw a line between JTF itself and distinct organizations that take money from them. (Jerry’s post is perfectly reasonable, even if I disagree with it — but a short trip down to the comment section will give you a peer into the mind of the more fervently committed.) That’s fine — I admit from the start that this is a complicated issue, and people will draw the line in different places. But let’s admit that it is a complicated issue, and not pretend that there are any straightforward and easy answers.
One thing that seems to bother some people is that I agreed to be on the Board of Advisors for Nautilus, a new science magazine that takes funding from Templeton. It’s instructive to have a look at the Board of Advisors for the World Science Festival, another organization that takes funding from Templeton. It’s a long and distinguished list, and here are some of the names included: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Lawrence Krauss, Steven Pinker, Steven Weinberg. Are these folks insufficiently sincere in their atheistic worldview? Alternatively, would the world be a better place if they all resigned? I would argue not, for the simple reason that the WSF does enormous good for the world, and is an organization well worth supporting, even if I don’t agree with all of their decisions.
Refusing to have anything to do with an organization that takes money from a foundation we don’t like is easier said than done. What about, say, the University of Chicago? Here they’re taking $3.7 million from Templeton for something called Expanding Spiritual Knowledge Through Science: Chicago Multidisciplinary Research Network. And here’s $5.6 million from Templeton for a program labeled New Frontiers in Astronomy and Cosmology, celebrating “a unique opportunity to honor the extraordinary vision of Sir John Templeton.” And here’s $2.2 million for a program on Understanding Human Nature to Harness Human Potential. Not to mention that the UofC has quite a prominent Divinity School (home of the best coffee shop on campus) and Seminary. (They also denied me tenure, which doubtless set the cause of reason and rationality back centuries.)
There’s no question that the University of Chicago has done much more to promote the cause of religion in the world than Nautilus has — which has been, to date, precisely nothing. One could say, with some justification, that some parts of the UofC have promoted religion, while other parts have not, and it’s okay to be involved with those other parts. But we begin to see how fuzzy the line is. Big grants like those above generally put a fraction of their funds toward “overhead,” which goes into general upkeep of the institution as a whole. Can we really be sure that, as we walk across the lawn, the groundskeeping was not partially paid for by the pernicious Templeton Foundation?
But that doesn’t mean that self-respecting atheists employed by the UofC should instantly resign. I’m sure you could play the same game with most big universities. The world would not be improved by having thousands of atheist professors abandon their posts out of principle.
It’s much more sensible to be a consequentialist rather than a deontologist when it comes to these ethical questions. I’m not going to stay away from Nautilus, or the World Science Festival, or the Foundational Questions Institute, out of some fruit-of-the-poisonous-tree doctrine according to which they have become forever tainted by accepting money from Templeton. Rather, I’m going to try to judge whether these organizations provide a net good for the world; I will complain when I think they are making a mistake; and if I think they’ve gone too far in a direction I don’t personally like, I will disengage. That’s the best I think I can do, according to my own conscience. Others will doubtless feel differently.