Templeton Redux

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.


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92 Responses to Templeton Redux

  1. Joan Hendricks says:

    Not sure if you are counting how many are “with you” and how many “against you” on this issue with Templeton, but if you are you can add me to those 100% “with you”.

    I’m a lifelong outspoken atheist and always appreciate scientists taking some time to try to explain how science is about finding facts and religion is about indoctrinated belief with no factual back-up.

  2. Wes Hansen says:

    I posted the following on the wrong blog; I believe it is more suited to this new blog post. Please excuse my oversight.

    Science and religion share the same origin, mystery, hence, mysticism; as such they are classically entangled and absolutely resistant to decoherence. Both science and religion are generally ruled by priesthoods and both deny the fundamental (historical) role of mysticism. Unlike priests mystics don’t preach, rather, they wait and it would seem the waiting is over. Mystics are in the process of demonstrating the compatibility between science and religion and this process cannot be thwarted; its time has come!

    People who deny the compatibility of science and religion either don’t properly understand science, don’t properly understand religion, or some combination thereof. This being a scientific blog I’ll briefly discuss religion.

    Religious works, such as the Christian Bible, are esoteric texts; they’re written in the twilight language. Improperly translated (but sufficient for present purpose), the twilight language is the language of metaphor. This is to prevent harm befalling those who are not yet spiritually (mentally) evolved enough to handle the information contained therein. The relative truth underlying religious stories has been universally distorted. Some have done so with pure motive, i.e. to protect the knowledge and spiritual beings underprepared for that knowledge, and others with impure motive, i.e. in the pursuit of power and wealth.

    The Christian Bible was completely reworked after a Christian sect managed to convert Emperor Constantine (313 C.E.). Although this is controversial amongst historians it really shouldn’t be. The modifications were perfected and authorized during the Council of Nicea in 325 C.E. The Christian sect which managed to convert Emperor Constantine took the name Catholic which, literally translated, means universal. Their objective, which becomes obvious in light of their name and their repugnant history, was world dominance, hence, their motive impure. And look at what they have become, a community of pedophiles and protectors of pedophiles.

    The forefathers of modern science, the alchemists, often spoke of turning lead into gold; this is a metaphor. It refers to the same process, a psychophysiological process, which Jesus Christ referred to when he metaphorically spoke of being twice-born, once of the flesh and once of the spirit (mind). Humans, spiritual (mental) beings, “fall” into a state dominated by the physical when born into this physical world. As such we are dominated by three primary concerns: physical survival; physical reproduction; physical dominance or will to power. The mystic dies to this physically dominated state and is “resurrected” or “born again” into the spiritual or mentally dominated state; this is a return to the enlightened point of origin, hence, a return to Source.

    There are different processes which all yield the twice-born state but religions are all founded on the stories of virgin mother/hero savior pairs. The virgin mother is a woman who has never compromised her heart, a woman pure of heart, i.e. Mary (Christian), Parvati (Hindu/Vedic/Tantric), White Buffalo Calf Woman (Lakota Sioux), etc. The hero savior is the male counterpart to the virgin mother; he sees the Source made manifest in the virgin mother (spiritual mother) and immediately falls in love. In the pursuit of that love he discovers the Source within himself.

    The journey to this realization is long and arduous and it can happen in a couple of different ways. There are three guardians at the gate to illumination: duty; fear of death; desire for life. The hero savior does whatever necessary in his personal context to overcome duty. Briefly thereafter he encounters the virgin mother and the mother immediately disappears from the hero’s life. After a period of nine months the hero is given a choice: accept the boon offered and leave the journey or continue. Heroes who accept the boon offered are somewhat common; those, like Jesus Christ, Shiva, Krishna, etc., who choose to continue, experience an additional period of spiritual growth terminating on the hero’s biological day of birth. This is the nadir of the mythological round. At this point it could be said that the hero is intellectually or philosophically enlightened and it is at this point that the hero goes to the cross. That is to say, it signifies the commencement of the supreme ordeal. The supreme ordeal is the confrontation with fear of death (reasonably easy to overcome) and desire for life (a real bitch).

    This journey is described rather well by the Arthurian Romances where the virgin mother becomes a chalice bearing the knowledge of everlasting life. In the Tantric tradition the virgin mother is the “ferry across the ocean of existence.” The ‘Lapsit exillis’ refers to the divine seed, the philosopher’s stone, the golden embryo. This physically resides in the hero’s prostate gland resulting in a physically dominated existence (think of the lower three chakras). The whole point of the journey is to transfer this “seed” to the pineal gland resulting in spiritual (mental) enlightenment (think of the upper three chakras). The heart chakra is the Gate to the Garden of Eden, so to speak. This knowledge is tens of thousands of years old. It represents one of the oldest recognized patterns in human history and informs the longest continuous scientific experiment in human history (the contemplative tradition).

    Consider the knowledge of Hermes Trismegistus as presented in the Corpus Hermeticum in a book called, interestingly enough, Krater or The Cup:

     “Tell me then, father, why did God not impart intellect to all men?
     It was his will, my son, that intellect should be placed in the midst as a prize that human souls may win.
     And where did he place it?
     He filled a great Krater with intellect, and sent it down to earth; and he appointed a herald, and bade him make proclamation to the hearts of men, ‘Dip yourself in this Krater, you who are able; you who believe that you will ascend to him who sent this Krater down.’ Now they who gave heed to the proclamation and were baptized in intellect, those men got a share of gnosis.”

    The Krater is the virgin mother! Women do not have such a vast chasm separating the profane from the divine; the Golden Embryo is already, for the most part, resident in the pineal gland of women. This is why their prostate gland (Skene’s gland) is so miniscule! Woman is the Tree of Life; Man is the Tree of Good and Evil. In woman the opposites are, for the most part, harmonized – think of it as complete symmetry. For after all, both the river of life (ovulation) and the river of death (menstruation) flow from their bodies. The masculine creative principle (sperm) unites with the feminine creative principle (egg) within the bodies of women bringing forth new life! This is why the virgin mother leads the hero savior on his journey of spiritual (mental) enlightenment.

    When the journey is successfully completed the virgin mother and the hero savior are united in holy matrimony; this is the origin of marriage. The virgin mother and the hero savior are soul mates; they represent the scale-free binary pattern permeating all of existence, the solar physical and the lunar mental.

    For the last 400+ years science has concentrated on the solar physical. The transition now taking place will include the lunar mental. All of existence, including the Multiverse, has both a mental and a physical component. Mystics take this for granted but priests tend to refute it. But then mystics are enlightened, priests tend not to be.

    I commend the Templeton Foundation for the work they’re doing. For certain esoteric knowledge, the historical basis of both religion and science, deserves a seat at the table; the table is, after all, round! Esoteric knowledge is knowledge of the absolute; scientific knowledge is knowledge of the relative; a comprehensive understanding should include both. This is the Buddhist Theory of Two Truths. His Holiness the Dalai Lama (a recipient of the Templeton Prize), working in conjunction with Emory University, is integrating a math and science curriculum into the standard fare utilized by his monks and nuns (http://scienceformonks.org/). Watch the documentary The Yogis of Tibet (http://www.theyogisoftibet.com/) and then imagine the yogis therein with a full working knowledge of math and science!

    You know, the only research program adversely affected by your refusal to accept Templeton funds is your own – it’s something to ponder!

    Some other things to ponder:


  3. Ron Murphy says:

    I guess Templeton want scientists also for the philosophy of them being ‘inside pissing out rather than outside pissing in’. Perhaps they don’t worry about scientists being inside pissing inside.

  4. Meh says:

    DENIED YOU TENURE?! those dirty sons of bitches!

  5. Just a reminder that one can be a “self-respecting atheist” without thinking that all religion is a social evil, or recoiling in horror at activities perceived as “promoting religion”.

    The idea of an “atheistic worldview” that requires knee-jerk hostility toward religion is an unhelpful canard. So is your preferred definition of religion, according to which religion is “incorrect”.

    Religion can be studied as a set of social behaviors or as a symbol system used in moral discussion and the raising of children. To regard it solely or even primarily as a set of beliefs about the natural world is to miss most of its phenomenal reality. Sorry to be boring!

    I don’t like Templeton, because they promote the idea that religion aims at knowledge. I wish they would divert their resources toward fighting fundamentalism, which is the only real problem underlying all these controversies.

  6. Doc C says:

    I find it fascinating that this entire string is about the use of money to promote a preferred way of thinking. Isn’t that one of the biggest problems that arises from organized religion? If atheism and faith are different ways of appreciating the world, and different ways of negotiating it, then there is no right answer to the question of which is better, and really the only time of them is objectionable is when dogma determines action, rather than honest negotiation. It is a personal and environmental decision as to whether faith or atheism works better for an individual’s cognitive style. If the question is whether religion or naturalism are more correct, the answer depends on the question being asked.

    This entire debate is not about whether atheism or faith is better, it is about the political and financial promotion of one point of view over another, i.e. religion as a social promoter of certain beliefs, as opposed to secular groups undertaking such promotion. Does it really matter where the money originates if it serves a purpose? Does JTF ac5tively promote one way of thinking over another?

  7. Monty S says:

    Agree with this blog post – just commenting on your blog to say how much I appreciate reading your thoughts and to say how I noticed your great contribution to this BBC documentary on Richard Feynman: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p016d3kk/The_Fantastic_Mr_Feynman/

  8. Charles LaCour says:

    RE: Wes Hansen I completely disagree.

    If you look at religion at a very general level yes you can reconcile it with science it is when you get to the details of what it means that you run into problems. The idea that the mind of a Mystic can understand reality by just thinking and experiencing is predicated on the idea that the human conscious is transcendent to begin with which basically turns these argument into tautologies.

    I agree that the origins of the motivations for religious and scientific inquiry come from the same need to understand and put meaning to things. Just because two ideas com from the same need doesn’t mean that they are equally valid.

    By saying that science is ruled over by a “priesthood” is laughable. Yes you do need to make s study of the related material but anyone who can support their clames can overthrow an entrenched idea in science but in religion and mysticism even if you are well versed in the subject you are dismissed and labeled an outsider and in some areas possibly killed.

    The biggest difference in Religion/Mysticism what ever you want to label it is the approach to what we “know”. Religion places pure thought, faith and belief as the arbiter of truth and knowledge. Science places repeatable observation and experimentation in the place of criteria for what is valid or not.

    I find the argument that you need to be religiously mature enough to understand various writing like the Hebrew, Christian bible an empty and self fulfilling argument. It is basically the sam as saying if you really understood it you would agree with me so since you disagree you must not understand it.

    Having studies a number of religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity I do not see any truths coming out of them that don’t exist in secular contexts. They are all basically philosophic attempts to explain the world as it is through thought and conjecture placing the final definition of reality beyond our physical world making it by definition unknowable and untestable.

  9. vmarko says:


    I don’t quite understand such level of enthusiasm in claiming that “religion is incorrect” that you appear to be engaging in every now and then. Have you ever studied religion seriously enough to consider yourself competent for such a strong and sharp claim?

    I remember a conversation that I once had with a wanabee-scientist (i.e. a crackpot) about general relativity, and some of his claims that there is a better theory (soon to be developed from his ideas). At one point he said something on the lines of “I certainly don’t need to take a course on general relativity in order to conclude that it is incorrect, it is quite obvious!”, after which I saw no point in continuing the conversation.

    While I am not a person who blindly follows authority, I would take your claim that religion is incorrect much more seriously if you actually had a degree in theology (do you?). Otherwise, you can easily come across as a “theological crackpot”, claiming that all religion is garbage without actually knowing what you are talking about. If that happens, people will stop taking your claims seriously. Why do you risk getting yourself into such a position?

    Best, :-)

  10. Charles LaCour says:

    Marko: When religions make statements that have direct effects on the physical world they can be compared against scientific theory as well as tested. The statements that have supposed quantifiable real world results violate many ideas in physics and those that have been tested have all failed.

    Sean is just applying the same skepticism for fairies and elves to religion. I do not have to be an expert in the mythos of fairies and elves to without hesitation say that there are no and have never been fairies and elves.

  11. vmarko has expressed my main motivation for harassing Sean: it makes scientists look bad when they seem ignorant of a wealth of empirical data on some phenomenon (here religion) about which they keep making assertions. Reducing religion to a theory about the natural world ignores the research of generations of naturalistic scholars, as well as the everyday experience of millions, even if it does express the view of some polemical atheists.

    Religious language is poetic and transactional, and reading poetry literally shows a lack of education.

    Charles LaCour: The point is not that one needs to be an “expert” in religion to evaluate it. One only needs some familiarity with the vast range of religious phenomena that don’t depend on supernatural beliefs, and with the large number of religionists who have explicitly renounced the literal interpretation of myths and legends. You don’t have to be an expert to know that Buddhists are atheists, for example; but you do have to know something.

  12. vmarko says:

    @ Charles:

    “When religions make statements that have direct effects on the physical world they can be compared against scientific theory as well as tested.”

    I know of no such statements, at least unless they are very badly misinterpreted. The tricky thing about religion is that one can easily fall into a trap of interpreting statements literally (things like “god created the world 6000 years ago”, or such). It is similar to situations when a cosmologist says in a popular lecture “the universe was created by a big explosion of a primordial egg of matter”, and the audience starts imagining a hot chicken-sized egg sitting in empty space and exploding at some moment.

    This situation is particularly bad in the US, with all the Protestant congregations and churches having each their own interpretation and understanding of what Christianity is supposed to be, and even encouraging people to interpret the Bible themselves. It leads to a big messy mix of religion, superstition, prejudices and sheer human stupidity. I can certainly understand Sean and you (and many others) not bothering to disentangle that mess. But claiming that religion is incorrect only because some people have mixed it with a bunch of bullshit is flat out wrong.

    Every major religion has a serious, proper interpretation (sometimes more than one, like interpretations of quantum mechanics :-) ), and this is often quite non-obvious. This requires to be thoroughly studied before one can claim that religion makes testable predictions about the physical world. I am not familiar with any religion that makes such claims.

    “Sean is just applying the same skepticism for fairies and elves to religion.”

    This is just a consequence of ignorance. Religion can be compared to fairy-tales as much as theoretical physics can be compared to astrology and alchemy. It is like stating that all of theoretical physics is a bunch of garbage because planets certainly cannot have any influence on my faith through my birthdate. Is that a fair assertion? Hey, I am applying skepticism to theoretical physics, like you apply it to religion. :-)

    This is usually done by people who do not distinguish religion from superstition, magic, and such.

    “I do not have to be an expert in the mythos of fairies and elves to without hesitation say that there are no and have never been fairies and elves.”

    You are rephrasing the same line of thought as the crackpot scientist I talked to: “I certainly don’t need to take a course on general relativity in order to conclude that it is incorrect”. On the contrary, you *do* need to have a reasonable amount of knowledge about the myths of fairies and elves, if you want to discuss them seriously. At the very least you need to understand the terminology, definitions and main assertions about them (and maybe some history, interpretations of myths, usage in popular culture, etc.), before proceeding to draw conclusions about them.

    In short, do some research on the topic before you start making claims about it.

    Best, :-)

  13. Meh says:


    scientific evidence proves that history according to religion is false. There are certain religious historical claims that directly violate history as it is described by science. You are put in a situation of having to choose 2 versions of history; history as it is described by science or history as it is described by religion. Science also explains away many of the pillars of religion. You stopped listening to the crackpot because he had zero evidence to support his claim that relativity was incorrect. There is plenty of evidence to support the claim that religion is incorrect. The first and most recited being the timeline of religious events (through various religions) and what we find using scientific measurement not matching any of them. The age of the earth for example. If you’re a cosmologist, you would obviously not believe in something that directly violates some of the fundamental ideas in your field.

  14. Meh says:

    Show me a cosmologist that believes the earth is 9,000 years old and I’ll show you one of the many fine employees of Lense Crafters.

  15. vmarko says:

    @ Meh:

    “There is plenty of evidence to support the claim that religion is incorrect. The first and most recited being the timeline of religious events (through various religions) and what we find using scientific measurement not matching any of them. The age of the earth for example.”

    Have you ever read the tale of the three little pigs and a big wolf? I’m sure you know the story — the first pig made a house out of grass, the other out of wood, and the third out of brick. The wolf would come, say something like “I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house away!”, and would blow off the grass house and the wood house, but was not able to blow off the brick house.

    The story has a very important point, and children are being taught about it all over the world, in virtually all primary schools, for a very good reason.

    And then you come around and say that the story is dead wrong and should be dismissed, since nobody has ever saw a pig making brick houses, nor a wolf that can talk and blow strong wind. Sure, of course, technically you’re completely right. In addition, you have also completely missed the point of the story.

    There is this thing called “allegory”, and it is heavily used in religious texts. And for a good reason. But I guess nobody around here knows *why* religious texts are written purposefully allegorically. And that is the crux of my question to Sean — some people have actually bothered to *study* the concept of religion, and know that allegory has a very important role in expressing ideas. Allegories are being used in almost all aspects of human life (except in science), and ignoring them as a way of expression is just… well… ignorant! :-)

    “If you’re a cosmologist, you would obviously not believe in something that directly violates some of the fundamental ideas in your field.”

    I am actually engaged in an area of physics which is as closely related to cosmology as it can get (without actually being cosmology). But if you have ever read some serious text discussing how the Book of Genesis in the bible should be understood, you would never even try to compare its contents to cosmology. Apples and oranges stuff… 😉

    HTH, :-)

  16. Meh: The Bible contains myth, legend and history. Most of what’s in Genesis is myth and legend, so it’s pointless to treat it as history or scientific hypothesis (“age of the earth”). Some books like Kings contain numerous elements of historical truth; of course miraculous elements are added, and also they sometimes get things wrong. It’s not at all a question of “two versions of history”, merely of ancient documents and how to evaluate them. But first you have to quit confusing myth and history. Yes, the ancients often confused them. Can’t we be smarter?

  17. Lord says:

    “The world would not be improved by having thousands of atheist professors abandon their posts out of principle”

    Are you so sure of that? Sounds like a religious belief to me.

  18. Chance says:

    I need to buy some of your books, you’re such a lucid writer and thinker. Well said in this post, I agree 100%

  19. Neil says:

    If Templeton puts restrictions on the prize money–say, that you have to promote the view that science and religion are compatible–and you agree and accept, then you could be criticized as selling out. But if there are no restrictions and you can use the money to promote views opposite to those of Templeton, what is there not to like? Deontologist ethics often seem to involve shooting yourself in the foot.

  20. Peter says:

    As long as your writing remain as rational as it is now then I don’t have a problem who you work for – within reason :)

  21. Meh says:


    I respect your position, but you’re changing the subject in order to avoid the fact that there is a clear cut reason why Sean says “religion is incorrect”…because religion is factually incorrect. That’s the answer to your original statement I commented on. You’re line of reasoning can basically be summed up as:

    vmarko: I would take your claim that religion is incorrect much more seriously if you actually had a degree in theology (do you?)
    meh: (butting in) he makes that claim because it is proven incorrect with overwhelming evidence. Either religion is correct or science is correct in many instances.
    vmarko: oh no no, you misunderstood, I was talking about something different from than the factual integrity of religion when I said…”I don’t quite understand such level of enthusiasm in claiming that “religion is incorrect” that you appear to be engaging in every now and then. Have you ever studied religion seriously enough to consider yourself competent for such a strong and sharp claim?”

  22. Meh says:

    parables may be allegory, and allegory may be used as the cover for the blatant faults in religious logic in modern times; but what’s the excuse for all those years religions claimed they were 100% factual stories (aside from mentioned parables)? i.e. history before 1950 A.D.

  23. To those who claim that the Bible should not be taken literally, I submit the fact that it was until it started to conflict with science.

    Metaphor? Allegory? Metaphor or allegory for what?

  24. Meh says:

    And if a person needs a degree in theology to truly understand religion, then that means anyone who isn’t a theologian doesn’t understand it. By that logic, religion is a waste of time which most people don’t understand and should abandon. The reason why we should completely abandon religion becomes obvious if it’s purpose is to guide followers through life; because its’ meaning is lost if you aren’t a theologian! It is thereby completely ineffective in its purpose unless you dedicate your career to it.

  25. N. says:


    You quite amuse me by putting the Three Little Pigs story and religions into the same pot.

    Because you are right, you see.