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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. I think while it may be “professional suicide” for a scientist, it wouldn’t be so for a philosopher. If there is no evidence of interference in the projects they fund, I say “go for it”. Hell, I may even consider it if I need funding for my Mivart project 🙂

    • Mike Mike

      Why do you say that? Ayala et. al. have survived the evil new atheist cabal — is it just because they are old?

  2. And of course, the influence of Dawkins, Coyne, PZ, Moran, and the other assorted New Atheists on the academic career of any historian or philosopher is exactly zero.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      But they won’t invite me to their parties! Oh, wait, they already don’t… although Massimo Pigliucci has been nice to me, and PZ allowed me to buy beer with him in Canberra. Oh, and Larry organised a get together for me in Toronto a few years back. Damn! It looks like I go for the money or the friends…

  3. Allen Stairs Allen Stairs

    I have had Templeton money before, and am part of a foundations of physics group who hope to have it again. I’m neither pro- nor anti-religion, and in any case am at a stage in my career where I don’t need to care about the opinions of such as Richard Dawkins. But I will confess: the idea that Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris or Dan Dennett or any other such “new atheist” might be annoyed by my getting Templeton money, unlikely though it may be, is a pleasing thought.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      You have convinced me 🙂

  4. Neil Neil

    On the professional suicide claim: it’s absolute nonsense. I know many philosophers and scientists who have received Templeton money early in their careers, and it has done them no harm at all. Taking money from the Discovery Institute would be a different kettle of fish, but TF is not DI (Templeton does not fund intelligent design).

    • Neil, your last statement is not true. In the past the Templeton Foundation did give money to a variety of people who were at the time openly supportive of ID. They’re attempted to obscure this history, much to the annoyance of the cdesign propentists (see e.g. The TF is just more image conscious now.

      I do agree that pretending that evil attack atheists can (or will) destroy those people’s careers who take TF money is absurd – a fine example of attempting to paint valid criticism as extremism.

      • Neil Neil

        Dave, I am aware of this. We philosophers are capable of fine distinctions: notice the use of the present tense ‘does’. My statement is true (well, actually I am not 100% confident of that: it truly reports their current claimed position).

  5. Neil Neil

    I don’t even think it is true that the new atheists won’t invite you to their parties. Anyway, this old atheist will (okay, so its no consolation).

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      I’ll come down in July and we can test this claim then …

      • Matt S Matt S

        Where does Neil live such that you would have to head down to reach him? Neil does not appear to be a dwarfish name.

    • Neil Neil

      Turning into an experimental philosopher?

  6. If it is any comfort, this non-academic non-new-atheist will still buy you beer if you come to New York selling the book … if you’ll sign my copy!

  7. Better you take their money than someone who might be tempted to sell their independence.

  8. Just go for it and damn the New Atheists. Your welcome to come and eat at my table anytime.

  9. Kel Kel

    When Michael Shermer came to Australia a couple of years ago, I asked him about his involvement with the Templeton Foundation. He said that the foundation was really good to him, let him have complete control on who he picked and how it was edited. It was then I realised that the complaints regarding the organisation and funding were largely unfounded.

    I really don’t see the problem of getting a Templeton grant, if they aren’t distorting findings and funding valid research, then I can’t see why one wouldn’t seek them as a potential funding source.

  10. Go for it, John. The fact that Dawkins would even blurb such nonsense as The Electric Meme, albeit blurb it in a neutral way, rather takes the shine off his intellectual purity. He’s a tart for a different God.

  11. Ben Breuer Ben Breuer

    Pecunia non praedicat? [Ugh, my Latin’s spotty!]

  12. Mike Haubrich Mike Haubrich

    Get the money, man. This new atheist would still like to meet you. I would kick you in the shin, but then buy you an ale,

  13. I’m a little worried here. People can be influenced by things like where money comes from at a very subtle level. This can cause cognitive biases to slip in that people won’t even necessarily notice. In the hard sciences there are strong rules about funding disclosure for that reason. There’s the advantage there that experiments and the like can be repeated by others. That’s not an option in the same way for philosophers. And taking money can have long-term impact on people.

    Furthermore, there’s an issue of association even if you don’t think the money will directly influence you. Signaling and what people will think can be relevant. Would you for example willingly take a grant from the Church of Scientology or the Raelians? I suspect that concern about what that would look like would make one be less willing to do so. Now, maybe it shouldn’t. But it would seem like the two cases are somewhat similar.

  14. J. J. Ramsey J. J. Ramsey

    I find that the Templeton Foundation is in a fuzzy middle ground. It’s not so wrong-headed that taking money from them is necessarily a red flag about the quality of one’s work the way taking money from the tobacco industry or the Discovery Institute would be, but there is any agenda attached to the money and a risk of being subtly swayed in favor of that agenda.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      I wonder where that line lies that Joshua mentioned. What about DoD funding? What about funding from Israel? How about funding from a government that one disagrees with; say, the Conservatives?

      Does money come with moral stain, or is the moral value dependent upon what you do with it?

      • J. J. Ramsey J. J. Ramsey

        It depends. The more invested the funding source is in a particular outcome, and the more willing it is to skew facts in favor of appearing to show that outcome, the more suspect it is, and that applies to any of the potential funding sources that you mentioned.

      • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

        The Australian government has in its funding guidelines a number of “national priorities” that you are supposed to match if you want a grant. Sometimes these presuppose the conclusion. Should academics take up these grants?

        The fact is that academics have always had problems of patronage, and they do their work more or less despite the aims and intentions of their backers, whether that is government or church or industry or military. So the question I am asking here is:

        If I took up a Templeton, is it in any way different from taking up any grant? Does the source of the money influence the outcome of my scholarship?

        If this can be answered in a manner that does not exclude all academic funding, then I will be satisfied, but if it can only be answered either by undercutting the foundation of scholarship, or by saying that it’s all about tribal loyalties and getting funding from Our Kind (which amounts to the same thing) then I think no case against it can be made.

      • J. J. Ramsey J. J. Ramsey

        The Australian government has in its funding guidelines a number of “national priorities” that you are supposed to match if you want a grant. Sometimes these presuppose the conclusion. Should academics take up these grants?

        It’s one thing to have certain priorities (e.g. a strong national defense) and funding research that seeks to determine better ways of achieving those priorities. So long as the government isn’t, for example, pressuring researchers to find that Brand X explodium from a preferred supplier works better than Brand Y explodium from somewhere else, that’s okay. If the desired conclusion of a research program is set in advance, that is a problem.

        • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

          Which is the point of the Templeton money. Unless they are requiring people to find something agreeable to their view of religion, that’s okay, by parity of reasoning.

      • J. J. Ramsey J. J. Ramsey

        That’s why I described Templeton as a “fuzzy middle ground.” There’s technically enough freedom to use their funds to deal negatively with religion, but the foundation would still rather that you didn’t, as John Horgan found out.

  15. Most of your positions are similar to what the Templeton Foundation would like to support. That also applies to Michael Ruse, who has accepted Templeton Foundation money.

    As long as you aren’t compromising your conclusions you should be okay with accepting money from the Templeton Foundation. It certainly didn’t bother Francis Collins, nor should it have.

    Here’s the problem. Many of us would never be funded by the Templeton Foundation even though we are passionately interested in the same questions they address. Why is that? Because the Templeton Foundation is not really interested in funding research into those questions. They mostly want to give support to those who will advocate for the answers they have already decided are correct.

    Imagine that the AIDS Society was interested in funding research into the causes of AIDS but refused to fund those who thought HIV was involved. That’s great for some workers who agree—they’ll gets lots of money without compromising their beliefs&mdahs;but it doesn’t sit well with other scientists. There will be a certain sigma attached to the HIV deniers for taking the money but they’re already stigmatized, so it doesn’t matter.

    All it does is make it more widely known that one is an HIV denier.

    That’s sort of the situation with the Templeton Foundation. Taking their money identifies you as someone who leans toward their position—or at least doesn’t actively oppose it. If you’re okay with that then go for it. I already know how you feel about the New Atheists, science/religion compatibility, and accommodationist so it won’t make a difference to me. (Except that as a recipient of all that money I expect *you* to buy the next beer.)

    There are some people who won’t take the money for another reason even though they may be in sympathy with their goals. They don’t want to support a foundation that uses it’s support for *research* very selectively, based on the answers expected. That’s a different ethical issue and if you don’t care about it then it isn’t a problem. However, there are some of us who would admire you more if you choose to avoid seeking grants from such a foundation, especially since, in your case, it would be a real personal sacrifice.

    In that case, I will still buy *you* a beer!

    • Larry, it might be nice to not use an example that implicitly compares our dear host to an HIV-denialist, although your general point stands.
      Aside from that issue, given what John has wrote about religion, I’m not at all sure that his views are as close to Templeton’s as you seem to think. It is easy when one has a viewpoint that is far away from others to see the collection of other views as closer together than they necessarily are. John’s attitude towards whether religion is helpful and John’s attitude towards the likelyhood of any classical religion being correct both seem to clash strongly with much of what Templeton espouses.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Larry, I’d like to see that list of things that the Templeton Foundation would like to support, and a case made that they are the same, mostly, as mine. As Joshua kindly notes, my ideas are some distance away from theirs as I know them, and the fact that you are observing from Planet Total Atheism doesn’t mean you can willy nilly lump everyone else together.

      I find the HIV analogy distasteful and insulting. I think you must have known it would be, and intended to insult me. Remind me to use a similar analogy next time I characterise your views. How about Holocaust Denialism?

      Now answer the actual fucking question: does the source of the money and the intentions of the funders mean one cannot do good scholarly work?

      • Mike Mike

        In some cases, that is obviously true – the literature is full of stories of quashed research funded by various groups. Templeton may very well not do that, but is there any group you would not consider taking money from to do good scholarly work even if they ensured your freedom to publish? I would guess there are at least some, and would you point out that you had problems with others who chose to take that money? (you don’t have to “destroy” them if you don’t want to ::))

      • No I did not intend that HIV analogy to be an insult to you. I wanted to pick an example that represented a clear an obvious bias that we would all recognize. I consider you a friend and I would never deliberately insult a friend in the way that you imply. You are being way too sensitive.

        The bias in Templeton Foundation funding is much less obvious than the example I used, of course, but it’s still the same principle.

        As to the “fucking question,” I thought I answered it. If you were to receive funding you will probably continue to do the same level of scholarly work that you’ve always done. There’s a danger, of course, that you would tilt toward conclusions that the Templeton Foundation prefers but that’s not going to happen. There’s a danger that you might avoid looking at problems that would put you in conflict with the Templeton philosophy but that’s probably not going to be an issue because you would have found such problems by now.

        That’s the reality. Taking the money would not stop one from doing good scholarly work. I’ve absolutely no doubt that this reality applies to you. Then there’s the perception … unfortunately, you have to live with that as well.

        Furthermore, you can’t predict what kind of trouble the Templeton Foundation could get itself into in the next few years. It you’re certain that being funded by them won’t ever become an embarrassment, then go for it.

        Now let’s talk about the sort of things that the Templeton Foundation would like to support. We’ll take Dan Dennett and Michael Ruse as examples. It doesn’t take a mental giant to see why Ruse would get foundation money but Dennett would not. The Templeton Foundation likes to fund atheists who have kind words to say about religion and who maintain that science and religion are compatible. Even better would be funding someone who denies being an atheist.

        I see you as being closer to Michael Ruse than to Dan Dennett. Do you disagree?

  16. Rob Rob

    As reported by The Nation:

    “Project Reason hired British science journalist Sunny Bains to investigate Templeton and build a case against it.”

    So she is a hired shill, then.

    Pot. Kettle. Introductions.

  17. Science journalist John Horgan accepted some Templeton money (to go to a workshop in England) and he’s blogged about it. The piece should turn up with proper googling.

      • Mike Mike

        From Horgan:

        One Templeton official made what I felt were inappropriate remarks about the foundation’s expectations of us fellows. She told us that the meeting cost more than $1-million, and in return the foundation wanted us to publish articles touching on science and religion. But when I told her one evening at dinner that~— given all the problems caused by religion throughout human history~— I didn’t want science and religion to be reconciled, and that I hoped humanity would eventually outgrow religion, she replied that she didn’t think someone with those opinions should have accepted a fellowship. So much for an open exchange of views.

        Ouch. Plus he thinks Dawkins or someone like him should get the Templeton Prize to show “open-mindedness”, funny.

  18. Wes Wes

    I was very disturbed a while back to see that John Templeton Jr. had contributed a lot of money to the Pro Prop 8 campaign in California. I realize that he didn’t do it through the foundation, but I wouldn’t want my name associated with his in any way. It’s just bad mojo.

    • Wes,

      I take it this means you wouldn’t also want to take money from the Ford Foundation, on the basis of Henry Ford’s publication of “The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem”?

      • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

        Or the Howard Hughes Medical Research Institute, which funds medical research around the world (but he was a hypochondriac with a pathological fear of germs). Or the Gates Foundation (he is, of course Pure Evil). Or the Rhodes Scholarships (imperialist, racist, Anglocentric). Etc…

        I’d be interested to know what grants the critics of the Templeton have gotten, and what their sources think about the world.

      • Mike Mike

        If Henry Ford still ran the foundation, stood by his anti-semitic claims, and actively funded efforts to discriminate against Jew, would you choose to take their money?

      • Mike,

        I can see not taking the money as a statement in opposition to anti-semitism. Just as in this case I can see not taking Templeton money as a statement against homophobia.

        But Wes’s statement goes further, by implying the money is tainted by the founder/director’s actions, even when there is no fiduciary relationship between the two. The question here is not the meaning of the act of acceptance or refusal for oneself, but the right to judge such acceptance by others, when we all pay homage to Mammon every day, one some way or another.

    • Mike Mike

      I can’t speak for Wes, but yes I would say the money is tainted by the director (and organizer of the day-to-day operations, if Wikipedia is to be believed – always risky, I know.:). I don’t know much, but “follow the money” is a good heuristic. We all make difficult choices, but this is one that doesn’t pass the smell test for me.

  19. Ian H Spedding FCD Ian H Spedding FCD

    Didn’t I read somewhere that “the Isaac Newton of information theory” had accepted a Templeton grant but has yet to complete the promised book. If that’s the case then it’s money for old tropes.

    • That some of the money has gone to that does not mean it will all go to that.

  20. Neil Neil

    Many of the comments here raise a valid point about subtle biases. However the problem only becomes acute when there is a reasonable expectation of continued or repeated funding. Templeton does not usually work that way.

  21. Mike Mike

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

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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”.

  30. Allen Stairs Allen Stairs

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

  31. 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.

  32. 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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