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A Scientific Defense of the Templeton Foundation

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Last week, the Templeton Foundation announced this year's winner of its prize honoring "a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life's spiritual dimension." In the early years, the award went to a range of figures in the religious world, including Mother Teresa and Chuck Colson, the Watergate burglar who later became a born-again Christian and a big figure in prison ministry. More recently, the award has been given to academics working on the science-religion interface. It was therefore appropriate that this year the Prize went to Francisco Ayala, a Spanish-born population geneticist at the University of California at Irvine. Ayala (a former Catholic priest) has long been interested in the science-religion relationship, and he has been prominent in the fight against the encroachment of Creationism into state-supported biology classes.

However, the announcement has not been without controversy. The Templeton Foundation was begun by the late Sir John Templeton, who made a great deal of money by starting mutual funds, and is essentially devoted to the promotion of the interaction and harmony between science and religion. It is hardly too strong a term to say that it is an object of derision by many of today's scientists, including my own colleague here at Florida State University, Sir Harry Kroto who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry (for discovering the structure of complex carbon molecules, "buckyballs"). Richard Dawkins has characterized the president of the Royal Society (of London), Sir Martin Rees, as a "Quisling" (after the war-time Nazi ruler of Norway) for his friendliness to the Foundation. Jerry Coyne, a University of Chicago biologist and a deservedly respected scientist for his work on problems of speciation, runs a blog (Why Evolution is True) where he writes of the foundation's "history of intellectual dishonesty." When it was announced that the National Academy of Science's premises would be used to introduce this year's prize winner he called it an "outrage." And then there is Minnesota biologist P. Z. Myers, who runs the blog Pharyngula, and whose splenetic keyboard surely qualifies him for the title of evolution's answer to Rush Limbaugh. It is not only the Foundation that sends up his blood pressure, but Ayala now also is in his line of fire. He is accused of "intellectual cowardice" and is characterized as "the master of non-committal waffle." Apparently Ayala received the award purely for "religious apologetics," even though somewhat inconsistently Ayala is also faulted for not making clear his own position on the God question.

I am a good friend of Francisco Ayala, a bond which goes back even before we together (along with others, including the late Stephen Jay Gould) appeared as expert witnesses in a trial in the State of Arkansas, where on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union we testified (successfully) against a law intended to bring Creationism into the state's biology classes. However, I know full well that Ayala is fully capable of defending himself, so I will say no more about him. But I would like to say a few words about the Foundation itself.

I should say as a preliminary that not only is it hard these days to go to any conference on science and religion without at least some Foundation support behind it, but that ten years ago I won an award of $100K to write a book on teleology. It was an open competition and I know for a fact that one of the Foundation's most prominent critics today also applied. So I see nothing dishonorable about that. Moreover, I was then as I am now an open non-believer. No pressure was put on me at all in that respect. I was not even asked to acknowledge the foundation in the preface of the book I wrote - Darwin and Design: Does Evolution have a Purpose? (Harvard UP, 2003). (I did acknowledge it and would have been ashamed not to do so.) I should say also that in recent years I have rather fallen out with the Foundation - at least with the recently fired chief operating officer. I felt, among other things, that it was funding some stupid proposals - for instance one on whether the subjects of prayerful pleas actually heal faster than those who are not - and I also disliked what I saw as an underlying snobbery. Success in grant applications was less a function of merit and too much a function of the prestige of the applicant's institution. This may seem a bit like sour grapes and perhaps it is. I am also capable of being sufficiently rude about everyone and everything that I am not sure that I would fund me.

Having said this, it seems to me that it was perfectly open to Sir John Templeton to have put his money into a foundation that seeks to reconcile science and religion. The money was earned honorably, even though one might have some questions about Sir John's decampment to the Bahamas and its tax-free economy. But so long as America is daft enough to let people get away with this, who am I to object? Speaking as one who has probably no more religious beliefs than Richard Dawkins, I don't see anything morally wrong with someone trying to reconcile science and religion. Clarifying that a little, I don't see anything morally wrong with religion as such. These days I don't much care for the Catholic Church, whether it be abusing small children, covering up the crimes of the priests involved, or leading the charge against universal health care because the restrictions on abortion were not sufficiently stringent. But I care for the work that the Church does among the poor and the sick, and I care also about the work that many Evangelicals are doing in Africa.

What I do dislike is the suggestion that those of us who are prepared to defend the Foundation and treat it like a genuine organization, rather than little better than Scientology, are therefore dupes and knaves. God knows - perhaps He does! - there are enough tensions in America between science and religion. Speaking now as one who has spent over thirty years fighting Creationism and its more recently manifestation, Intelligent Design Theory, I don't have to be lectured on that score. Nor do I have to accept that the only way forward is by eliminating religion - all religion. It's not going to happen, and even if one could eliminate all religion, I think there would be a loss and I am not sure that morally one has the right to do so. (Of course, one has the moral right to argue with believers, but not to force them to your position.)

So while I am a bit wary about the Foundation and shall be watching its future developments - especially now that Sir John is gone and his far-more-evangelical son has taken the reins - I shall continue to defend its existence and its purpose. I don't want to reconcile science and religion if this implies that religion must be true. At most, I want to show that science does not preclude being religious. But I don't see that what I want and what others want means that we necessarily have to be bad friends and despise each other.

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