From Abracadabra to Zombies
How much does it cost to determine scientifically why people believe in God?
Oxford, the oldest university in the English-speaking world, thinks it can do it for about $4 million. Well, not Oxford per se, but researchers at Oxford’s Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion and the Centre for Anthropology and Mind have been granted £1.9 million by the Templeton Foundation to try to answer the question about belief.
The Templeton Foundation was founded by Sir John M. Templeton (he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1987) who became a billionaire in the mutual fund business. Templeton, born in 1912 in Tennessee, was about 60 years old when he started using his wealth to promote religion and spirituality. In 1972, he established the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, which, in 2001, became the Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries About Spiritual Realities. He stipulated that it should pay more than the Nobel Prize. Templeton died in 2008 at the age of 95. His son "Jack", a retired pediatric surgeon, has been running the show since 1995.
In 2007, $1.5 million went to philosopher Charles Taylor, whose contribution toward progress “about spiritual realities,” said John “Jack” M. Templeton Jr., has been his argument that problems such as violence and bigotry can only be solved by considering both their secular and spiritual dimensions. A purely secular viewpoint, Taylor argues, leads to fragmented, faulty results. It is irrelevant to being awarded the prize that a purely religious viewpoint has, in fact, led to more violence and bigotry, rather than less. It is also irrelevant that the word ‘spiritual’—which seems to convey a warm, fuzzy feeling to many people—is left undefined and is rarely used with any precise cognitive meaning. The point is not whether the recipient is right or wrong, clear or vague, but whether his work can be used to further the propaganda purposes of the Templeton Foundation.
The 2008 winner, Polish priest and cosmologist Michael Heller, should help further the Templeton agenda with his question, “Does the universe need a cause?” Heller posits:
If we ask about the cause of the universe we should ask about a cause of mathematical laws. By doing so we are back in the Great Blueprint of God’s thinking….Why is there something rather than nothing?” When asking this question we are not asking about a cause like all other causes. We are asking about the root of all possible causes.
Heller has resurrected Thomas Aquinas’s
conundrum regarding the cause of an effect versus the cause of a
chain of causes and effects that is not itself part of the
chain. He has couched the conundrum in modern mathematics, which
led Jack Templeton to proclaim: “Michael Heller’s quest for
deeper understanding has led to pioneering breakthroughs in
religious concepts and knowledge as well as expanding the
horizons of science.” Heller’s nominator, Karol Musiol, had this
to say: “It is evident that for him the mathematical nature of
the world and its comprehensibility by humans constitute the
circumstantial evidence of the existence of God.” Neither man
said: given the fact that the universe is governed by
mathematical laws, it is not surprising that creatures with the
ability to understand and appreciate mathematics would evolve.
If they had, they wouldn't get the prize unless they added:
and God said let it be so.
Heller himself says that science is “but a collective effort of the human mind to read the mind of God.” If by God Heller means Nature, then he’s right but this hasn’t been a scoop since Spinoza’s time. Anyway, it’s not what he means, I’m sure. [I discuss the 2009 winner here.]
To discover what the Templeton Foundation wants to accomplish we need only follow the money. Templeton’s endowment is estimated at $1.1 billion; $60 million is given away each year to promote its goals.* According to science journalist John Horgan, the Templeton Foundation has spent more than a quarter of a billion dollars “on prizes, academic programs, publications, broadcasts, lectures, conferences, and research on topics such as the neurobiology and genetics of religious belief; the evolutionary origins of altruism; and the medical benefits of prayer, church attendance, and forgiveness.” The Templeton Prize is awarded in Buckingham Palace each year and even ex-convicts are eligible as long as they’ve found God. Charles Colson, Nixon’s chief counsel during Watergate who went to prison for his troubles, was the winner in 1993. Colson got religion while in prison and it has provided him with a source of purpose and income ever since. John Barrow, a cosmologist and mathematician at the University of Cambridge, won the prize in 2006 for his work defending the anthropic principle, the idea that it is unlikely the universe came about by chance. Or, as physicist Bob Park put it: “If things were different, things would not be the way things are.”
In addition to its signature prize, Templeton awards ten smaller prizes and numerous grants to fund, as their website delineates, “rigorous scientific research and related cutting-edge scholarship on a wide spectrum of ‘Core Themes’.” How Oxford plans to use the millions given it by Templeton provides a window into the goals of the Foundation. In a press release dated February 19, 2008, Oxford stated that the money is going to be “used to draw together and promote the latest scientific ideas about the meaning of religion and its origin in the human mind.” The press release includes a photo of a child at prayer with the caption: Nature or nurture? Science will tell. Dr. Justin Barrett will be playing a lead role in the study. He is described as “a psychologist who has been at the forefront of the development of the cognitive science of religion.”
Nature or nurture? Science will tell.
According to Barrett: “Cognitive science can
help to explain the origin and nature of human religion. [As
opposed to what? Elephant religion?] For example, developmental psychology has
been instrumental in determining that belief in religion seems
to be an integral part of human nature—it is found across all
cultures and is something that we grasp from a young age.” I can
attest to this. I was grasped at a very young age by my parents
and forced to go to church and a religious school. I’ve met
people from many cultures who have had similar experiences.
On a serious note, the notion of human nature is a slippery one. Humans might trace their ancestry back several million years, say, to some pre-hominid. Or, we might trace our ancestry back to hominids emerging some 100,000 or 50,000 years ago. In any case, there was no religion for most of the evolution that evolutionary psychologists say determined the best part of “human nature.” In any case, since the Oxford group is doing cognitive science, I assume that it intends to find the meaning of religion and its origin in the human brain. Wouldn’t a scientific approach leave it an open question as to whether religion originated in the brain, whatever that might mean?
Oxford says that it is going to use a good amount of the grant money to teach quantitative skills, which should come in handy for scientifically determined theologians bent on quantifying spirituality. It might help them understand, for example, whether a color patch on an fMRI signifies the presence of a god, an angel, impure thoughts, or methane gas. “A large part of the award, £800,000, will be used to run a ‘small grant competition’ providing 41 grants to support work by a range of scholars carrying out diverse individual research projects that will be the building blocks of the further development of the field.” Perhaps they will prove once and for all that quantum physics is God’s code for understanding not only divinity, but also ESP and crop circles.
Of course, no one who cares about science and freedom of inquiry should complain about other people spending their own money to study religions in a scientific way. But Oxford seems bent on using the money to prove certain things about religion and to validate the value of religion, which seem to be the very same goals of the Templeton Foundation. Most of the scholars who will apply for these grants probably believe religion is good, natural, and true, so using the money to investigate these issues may seem proper to them. But what kind of science is it whose goal is to confirm a bias?
Dr. Barrett asks: “is religion a part of the selection process that has helped us survive or merely a by-product of evolution?” This is science on the cutting edge. Everybody seems to be doing it, so it must be good science. Even mental disorders have been defended as good for the species. Dr. Paul Keedwell, an expert on mood disorders at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, argues that depression has helped the human race become stronger. This must be so, he says, otherwise depression would have been eradicated by evolution. The same thing must be true of religion. It must be good for us or it would have gone extinct by now. The thing is, some religions have gone extinct and it may be just a matter of time until the rest join them. We’re still evolving. Just because something has survived to the present doesn’t mean it won’t go extinct in the future. In the beginning, all religion was magical thinking. It still is. Does magical thinking have an evolutionary advantage? So far so good, we might say, but the human species is in its infancy. If the folks at the Templeton Foundation have their way, magical thinking will continue to flourish forever. But, for all we know, religion may eventually be the death of us all.
John Templeton (1912-2008) was, by all accounts, a decent man who chose to give a lot of money to people who promote or support his belief in “spirituality.” Many secular universities and scientific organizations have accepted Templeton money. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, for example, accepted one million dollars "to create The AAAS Dialogue between Science and Religion" and give "the illusion that science and religion are finding common ground" (Park 2008: p. 8).
Taking money from the Templeton
Foundation (TF) might compromise
the critiques of some participants at TF-sponsored conferences, says John Horgan (himself a
recipient of Templeton largesse). For example, several
scientists who attended a Templeton-sponsored conference at
Stanford University, titled “Becoming Human: Brain, Mind, and
Emergence,” told him that “they did not want to challenge the
beliefs of religious speakers for fear of offending them and the
“The dialogue was nominal,” says Horgan. “Each side listened politely to the other’s presentations without really commenting on them.”
Even so, some atheists are invited to Templeton-funded events. They’re not invited to promote atheism and attack religion, of course, though that is what the ungracious and unapologetic Richard Dawkins did at one such event. Dawkins and other renowned atheists, philosopher Daniel Dennett and physicist Steven Weinberg, have either spoken at or attended conferences supported at least in part by the Templeton Foundation. The only scientist I am aware of who has publicly stated he won’t take any money from Templeton is Sean Carroll, a physicist at Cal Tech. According to Carroll, “the entire purpose of the Templeton Foundation is to blur the line between straightforward science and explicitly religious activity, making it seem like the two enterprises are part of one big undertaking.”
The money given to Oxford should make the line between science and religion even blurrier. Oxford will be promoting a premier goal of the Templeton Foundation: anti-secularism. Jack Templeton made this goal clear in his comments on the worthiness of Charles Taylor:
Throughout his career, Charles Taylor has staked an often lonely position that insists on the inclusion of spiritual dimensions in discussions of public policy, history, linguistics, literature, and every other facet of humanities and the social sciences.
The subtext is clear: secular science alone can’t solve our problems. We must seek our answers in a realm that includes the non-secular,
The TF’s anti-secularism is also evident from the fact that Taylor was nominated for the Templeton prize by the Rev. David A. Martin, Ph.D., emeritus professor of sociology at the London School of Economics and author of A General Theory of Secularization, which, among other things, laments the way religion has been marginalized by sociology and pushed to the periphery of significance in some quarters. (Taylor wrote a blurb for the back cover of Martin’s follow-up: On Secularization: Towards A Revised General Theory, published in 2005.) Taylor’s latest work, A Secular Age, was published last September by Belknap Press. It is being promoted as “the definitive examination of secularization and the modern world.” At 896 pages, it is certainly the heftiest examination of religion in a secular world.
Those who argue that our only hope for peace on earth is to become purely secular will never win the Templeton prize. To win the Templeton Prize, one must be selective and focus on those aspects of “spirituality” that don’t involve bigotry, hatred, ignorance, or superstition. If you ignore many religions, many religious beliefs, and many religious practices, you can come up with a fine set of ideas showing how spirituality must move back to the center from the periphery if we wish to live free in a new golden age. I look at it a little differently than Charles Taylor does. In my opinion, secularism is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for peace on earth and for understanding the things of this universe. Religion, on the other hand, is a sufficient but not a necessary condition for continued misery and obfuscation of even the simplest truths.
For a million dollars, I'll tell them why that’s so. For another million, I’ll do it in 900 pages.
March 7, 2008
revised October 30, 2008
Sources (last accessed on March 4, 2008, except for Park, which was accessed in October 2008)
On Templeton money (from the blog Evolving Thoughts): "I would love to get a grant to support that work, and indeed as an academic I am required to seek grant money....it looks to me ... that the foundation itself is moving in a more or less independent fashion....So maybe I will apply."
On the other hand, there is this from God, Science and Philanthropy: "It doesn't help that the foundation is a longstanding donor to conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute. And while its founder preferred eternal questions to worldly politics, the son who has succeeded him, John Templeton Jr.—Jack—is a conservative Evangelical who spends his personal time and money opposing gay marriage and defending the Iraq War. Since his father's death, concerns have swirled among the foundation's grantees and critics alike that Jack Templeton will steer the foundation even further rightward and, perhaps, even further from respectable science."
Geoghegan, Tom. “Is depression good for you?” February 28, 2008,
Gledhill, Ruth. “Why do we believe in God? £2m study prays for answer,” Timesonline. February 19, 2008,
Horgan, John. “The Templeton Foundation: A Skeptic’s Take,” April 5, 2006,
The only prize the author ever won was in high school when the San Diego Knights of Columbus gave him a $100 U.S. Savings Bond for an essay on why the Catholic Church did not need more priests, just better priests. His religion teacher, Fr. Mooney, told him he was wrong and that he didn’t deserve the prize.