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On Templeton money

I work on the naturalising of religion: that is, the philosophical implications of religion being an evolved and natural human phenomenon; I’m even writing a book about it. I would love to get a grant to support that work, and indeed as an academic I am required to seek grant money. There’s a natural granting body for this: the Templeton Foundation, which is flush with money even through the GFC. But I can’t apply, because it would be professional suicide this early in my career, or so I’m told. Why?

An excellent and rather complete essay on this has just been posted at The Nation, by Nathan Schneider, in which he notes that if one does accept a Templeton grant, one is immediately declared to be “pro-religion” by the so-called “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins and my good friends PZ Misrule and Larry Moran. This is because the founder of the foundation was a Christian who wanted to promote religion, and his son is even more an evangelical conservative. But, it looks to me, as it does to this writer, that the foundation itself is moving in a more or less independent fashion to the values and ideas of its founders, although how long that would last if too many of the grantees tended to the irreligious I cannot say.

But I have spoken now to several Templeton recipients and none of them have said there was the slightest interference or expectations placed upon them by Templeton, and I have spoken to Templeton folk and they have said the same. So maybe I will apply. Let the new atheists say what they like. I have sufficient confidence in my own independence (I’m an ornery cuss) to know when I am being asked to say things I do not agree with, or find results that aren’t there. So, the only concern the new atheists might have is that I would have been selected for a grant by Templeton: it is enough that you sup with the devil, no matter how long the spoon is.

It’s an experiment I think I will try.

[Hat tip to Laurie Lebo for bringing this to my attention on a mailing list]


  1. Mike Mike

    Well, you risk taking money away from more long-awaited “scientific” studies of prayer – where are your priorities? ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Matt S Matt S

    We agnostics don’t know how we will treat you if you get the grant.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Nor should you until you can make a knowledge claim about it. If there is evidence or reason to think there’s a grant, then you should know.

  3. Susan Silberstein Susan Silberstein

    Luckily, the rich and powerful can no longer have you drawn and quartered when you disappoint them.

    Read the fine print. Correspond with grant recipients to find out what’s what. Take the money if you can live with the conditions.

    I have never been a believer and did not grow up with people who ever talked about belief. My mother is an atheist and I’m not sure about my dad; he was, I think, an agnostic or an atheist. The stuff you write helps me to grasp thinking that is only “second hand” for me. Because that world view is important to know in order to understand the culture and society in which I live, I appreciate your research and what you write.

    You are always welcome here, but you know that.

  4. Matt S Matt S

    If you are actually concerned about taking money from a bad source I suggest you read Shaw’s Major Barbara. I think he does a good job there in presenting the issues fairly and I agree with his answer: better you should get the money from them than someone who agrees with them. Money is fungible, it does not care where it came from.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      The fungibility aspect is crucial here, I think (isn’t “fungible” defined on money?); otherwise confiscated money from drug cartels would be impossible for governments to use for charitable welfare activities. As Neil said, the influence relies on there being continuing or repeated funding, whereas I think, as he does, that it is a one-off grant for a fixed term, so Templeton can hardly apply any other influence than accept or reject in the first instance, and if they do not like the project on which I would embark, they won’t fund it. Either way, my work is not directed to their own ends, whatever they may be, since either I already share them, or I don’t, and there’s nothing they can do about it.

  5. John Fox John Fox

    I think the NA’s main objection would be that to accept Templeton money for a good project is to confer some respectability on them. I, of course, back you to the hilt; why should all that money go only to bad projects? The NA’s do, alas, tend to the fanatical; not, I think, Dennett. Massimo is an Old A, like Paul Kurtz, and also in the bad books of many NAs. It’s becoming a badge of honour.

  6. Go for it, mate. When faced with a hypothesis, one must endeavour to test it.

    As it is, I’m finding it amusing to imagine how an academic’s career could possibly be imperiled by the source of their funding in this economic climate (short of being backed by the Muslim Brotherhood or something). In the US at least, institutions couldn’t give two hoots where you get your research readies, so long as you’re paying half your salary and giving them their due chunk of indirect costs.

  7. Remind me to store “Planet Total Atheism” for later use: priceless.

    What amazes me is that while non-accommodationists may think the Foundation is responsible for the proliferation of certain bad ideas, they selectively ignore the vast amount of good ideas that would not proliferate without Templeton. Charles Taylor (Religion and Morality), Jonathan Haidt (Moral Psychology) and Joseph Margolis(Pragmatist ethics) are just three examples of people whose (extraordinarily good) work has been enabled by Templeton.

    Now, surely this ought to weigh in the judgment of the Foundation… yet for these people, it does not. It is as though the accommodation-issue is of such overriding importance that all other considerations simply don’t matter. Given the vast universe of research left outside this particular issue, and given ever-shrinking funding budgets in the humanities, such an orientation is ridiculous.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Nick, I totally concur. If we are evidence based in our judgments, then we must attend to all the evidence. It seems to me that a lot of prejudice, in the etymological sense, is in play when the critics of Templeton make their assertions (for they are surely not arguments).

      You have a free license to Planet Total Atheism. But I think I owe Larry an apology, because I should have known he would not mean to insult me. Larry is a little more… robust in debate than I am.

      However, the comparison is prejudicial and insulting nevertheless.

    • Mike Mike


      Whether or not the good is vast, is there any amount of bad ideas that would make the accomodationists of “Planet Total Chase The Money” stop selectively ignoring it? This sort of name-calling is a two way street.

      • Mike, you really don’t want to go there. Every American scientist who has accepted public funds is, by this logic, complicit in every military debacle from Vietnam to Iraq, funding Israel as a client state, impoverishing third world debtor nations, overthrowing democratically elected leaders in Latin America, and a laundry list of other crimes that pale in comparison to a billionaire throwing some money at bigots in California.

        “Selective ignorance,” too, is a two-way street.

      • Mike Mike


        Maybe I shouldn’t go there. I am in the private sector for a multi-national that does things that are simply wrong … but I continue to make a buck for them (and me). But, I think it is possible that I, or anyone can draw the line at some point. Comfort is nice, but doing what is right keeps, keeps, gnawing at you…

      • In short then, war, famine and colonialism are negotiable, but political speech you dislike is not. Is that about where you want to draw the line?

      • Mike Mike


        Not at all — more a cautionary tale that once you are in, it is all the easier to make excuses and I give major credit to those that get out from under it all or avoid it in the first place.

      • That sounds a lot like what a religious person might say–Jesus, or Buddha, e.g. Renounce! Renounce!

      • Mike Mike

        Or a non-religious person… As usual, that is not relevant, but the choices we make are.

  8. J.J.E. J.J.E.

    No worries about professional suicide! On the balance, if I had to predict whether outspoken atheism or accepting Templeton were more damaging, I would guess outspoken atheism would be marginally more damaging. Of course everyone prefers religion not be a part of professional life at all, except in obvious cases when religion IS professional life (like studying religion, duh).

    • Yes, I fear Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and Dennett will never recover from the terrible hit to their credibility and popularity when they came out as metaphysical naturalists.

  9. J.J.E. J.J.E.

    One thing I think is worth paying attention to when noting that Templeton funds a study isn’t coercion. I actually think that the issue is that Templeton clearly has an agenda and is willing to sink tons of money in order to pursue it.

    There is a lot of untapped human competence out there. Some of that competence is inside people sympathetic to Templeton’s goals and some is inside people indifferent or opposed to Templeton’s goals. It is largely by having people of all reasonable perspectives defend their ideas in public that we can come to a better understanding and possibly even to a consensus. However, Templeton has the resources to mobilize those who might already be in their camp. As a result, Templeton can readily unleash a disproportionately unanswered deluge of sympathetic academic output.

    Since these sorts of conversations (the compatibility of faith and science) can be heavily influenced by the appearance of consensus, Templeton’s “court packing” gives them a distinct advantage in attaining the that appearance. I think this is why Templeton is to be treated with suspicion. It isn’t that their perspective doesn’t deserve airing, it is because when one perspective has such a wealthy benefactor that it out-recruit its competitor, the worry is that money won the consensus game through “packing”, not arguments.

    • Allen Stairs Allen Stairs

      On J.J.E.’s comment — I guess I don’t expect that within any of our lifetimes the academic consensus will shift in favor of religion – no matter how much money Templeton might pour into the effort.

      But I’d stress something that others have more or less said: Templeton routinely funds things that are *very* far from anything that requires sympathy with religion. Case in point: they are pouring big money into projects on quantum information. And the people they seem likely to fund (decisions haven’t been announced yet, but I have some evidence) are serious physicists and philosophers who mostly don’t care about religion.

      • J.J.E. J.J.E.

        I don’t expect Templeton will ever shift the consensus within academia. But they will affect the rate of change. Whether they are playing rear guard as religion retreats or are the vanguard of its new resurgence, they are definitely pushing in favor of religion.

        And yeah, they do fund regular research. That doesn’t change the fact that they are pushing in favor of religion. For people who prefer that religion disappear, there is a tradeoff. You may evaluate it as a negligible tradeoff and say on the balance Templeton is good. Or you may view it is an significant tradeoff and view Templeton as bad.

        But one thing is clear, Templeton is unmatched (in funds and organization) in addressing the “science religion compatibility” question and they do push for “pro compatibility”.

  10. Allen Stairs Allen Stairs

    Addendum to that: Templeton *does* care about what it calls “big questions.” But they understand that very broadly.

  11. At this rate, John, you’re still going to be discussing Templeton money long after you’ve gotten the money and spent it on your vacation in Tahiti or wherever you’re going to go to study the effects of local climate on religious belief.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      I’m of course only going to Tahiti for research purposes. Well, I am now…

      • Tahiti is so yesterday!

    • A very interesting essay. It seems to underpin some of the more moderate views we’ve discussed here.

  12. Hey, John, if you got a few pennies for every time someone commented on Templeton money it wouldn’t be long before you wouldn’t need Templeton money.

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