The Templeton Foundation holds assets valued at around $1 billion, a sum that will likely swell to $2.5 billion in the years to come as John Templeton Sr.’s estate is settled. That would put it squarely among the richest twenty-five foundations in the country, somewhere between the Rockefeller Foundation and the Open Society Institute. The founder’s flagship program, though, is the Templeton Prize; this year’s laureate is biologist and former Catholic priest Francisco Ayala. The foundation dispenses about $70 million in grants annually, the bulk of which goes to programs in the religion-and-science orbit.
According to the foundation, they are among life’s “Big Questions,” the exploration of which constitutes its mission. Templeton money supports other causes, like promoting virtue, encouraging gifted youth and fostering free enterprise, but its core concerns are more cosmic: “Does the universe have a purpose?” “Does science make belief in God obsolete?” “Does evolution explain human nature?” As the advance of knowledge becomes ever more specialized and remote, these questions seem as refreshing as they are intractable; the foundation wants them to be our culture’s uniting, overriding focus. For those who work on matters of spirituality and science today, Templeton is around every turn, active in disciplines from biology and cosmology to philosophy and theology. Many leading scholars speak of it with a tone of caution; some who have not applied for grants expect to do so in the future, while a few have taken a principled stand against doing so.
Like debates about religion broadly, debates about Templeton often get mapped onto the culture wars in black and white, or red and blue. 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.
The stakes are high.
After the foundation’s initiative for research on forgiveness began in 1997, the number of psychology journal articles on the subject went from fewer than fifty per year to more than 100 in 2000 and nearly 250 in 2008. When Templeton first financed Larson’s NIHR in the early 1990s, the number of medical schools with courses on religion could be counted on one latex glove. Now, according to Dr. Christina Puchalski of the Templeton-funded George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health, three-quarters of US medical schools have brought spirituality into their curriculums.
He has financed a right-wing organization of his own, Let Freedom Ring, which once promoted the “Templeton Curve,” a graph he designed to advocate privatizing Social Security. Now Let Freedom Ring lends support to the Tea Party movement. Jack Templeton’s money has also gone to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and to ads by the neoconservative group Freedom’s Watch. In 2008 he and his wife gave more than $1 million to support California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage.
Templeton has long maintained relationships with a network of right-wing organizations that share its interest in open markets, entrepreneurship and philanthropy. The Heritage Foundation, for instance, received more than $1 million between 2005 and 2008, and the Cato Institute, more than $200,000 in the same period. Templeton’s charter stipulates that the chief executives of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation and the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty are entitled to be members of the foundation, and both have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in Templeton grants in recent years. Those organizations also receive contributions from Big Oil and take part in the campaign to distort the scientific consensus on global warming. (Among the issues it specifically lists as of concern is “the sanctity of life,” which America-watchers will know is code for a position that is anti-abortion and against many types of experimentation including stem-cell research. Source.) “There is no getting around the fact,” declared a glowing 2007 National Review article, “that it [Templeton] has quickly become a major force in conservative philanthropy.”
Nonreligious scientists who accept Templeton grants—like biologist David Sloan Wilson and psychologist Jonathan Haidt—insist that the money comes without strings attached. “No coercion, no corruption,” Haidt says. But Nobel Prize–winning chemist Harry Kroto won’t accept that. “They are involved in an exercise that endangers the fundamental credibility of the scientific community,” he contends. Kroto has taken to organized resistance; in 2007, when the Royal Society of London considered accepting Templeton money for one of its programs, he was among eleven fellows, five of them Nobel laureates, who successfully lobbied against the plan.
Author Richard Dawkins quipped in his 2006 book The God Delusion that the Templeton Prize goes “usually to a scientist who is prepared to say something nice about religion.” He and others among the so-called New Atheists have been the foundation’s most strident critics lately; they believe Templeton is corrupting science by trying to inject it with religious dogma and, in turn, misrepresent science to the public. The advance of science steamrolls over religion, they say, and Templeton is deluding people into thinking otherwise.
A good point raised by Dr. Sunny Bain: though supposedly set up “to pursue new insights at the boundary between theology and science”, it funds many activities that are entirely religious. These include the Epiphany prize for the, “most inspiring movie and the most inspiring television program of the year… presented by the Christian Film & Television Commission.” In the same way that we would want to know about Philip-Morris-backed smoking studies or MacDonald’s funded research that says fast food is good for you, we should all be aware of the agenda of this organization.