Science and Religion Have Never Been More at Odds. Can Conshohocken’s Templeton Foundation Bridge the Divide? – Philadelphia magazine

Longform

It’s shoveled more than a billion and a half dollars at research attempting to reconcile the spiritual and the secular. Is the foundation’s quest just some rich guy’s pie-in-the-sky dream or the key to human happiness?


Templeton Foundation

For more than three decades, the John Templeton Foundation has been shoveling money at researchers in an effort to reconcile science and religion. Illustration by Zach Meyer

One would think claims of performing miracles would have a bit more resonance.

After all, billions of people today hinge their religious faith on Jesus doing just that a couple thousand years ago. So when Christianity Today published a story on faith healer Heidi Baker back in 2012 — a story that validated her claims to have healed dozens of blind and deaf Mozambicans, and also mentioned her bringing dead people back to life — it seemed the sort of thing that would make a big splash, especially in the less-crowded news cycle of those simpler days, back when Facebook was still benign and Donald Trump hadn’t yet ridden the escalator down from his quarters in Trump Tower.

It’s true that Christianity Today is a niche publication, founded by Billy Graham for a readership of evangelicals — believers who are “born again.” Still, considering humans’ abiding interest in enjoying life on Earth — as Kenny Chesney put it, “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to go now” — a little more fuss about healings and resurrections would seem in order. Especially since, as the article noted, a religious studies professor at Indiana University, Candy Gunther Brown, had gone to the trouble of performing a study of Mozambicans cured by Baker via the laying-on of hands and concluded that they did indeed show statistically significant improvements in hearing and vision.

Funding for Brown’s project, “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Proximal Intercessory Prayer (STEPP) on Auditory and Visual Impairments in Rural Mozambique,” was provided by, among other institutions, a nonprofit headquartered in rented offices in a nondescript building just off the Schuylkill Expressway in West Conshohocken: the John Templeton Foundation. It’s named for its founder, Sir John Templeton, who grew up in, of all places, Tennessee and in the course of his remarkable life made a killing on Wall Street; took up residence in the Bahamas for tax purposes; was knighted by Queen Elizabeth and became pals with her husband, Prince Philip; and devoted his fortune to his vision of utilizing scientific methods and rigor to explore “the extent of and the meaning of our spiritual selves and our relationship to the Creator God of the Universe.” He died in 2008, but his dream lives on, faithfully tended by family members, a board of trustees, and 57 employees who continue to bestow the foundation’s largesse on a dazzling array of scientific and quasi-scientific endeavors.

The Templeton Foundation is so wealthy that it’s faced accusations its ­funding — it’s given away more than a billion and a half dollars in its lifetime — is skewing the direction of entire departments at universities by favoring research it hopes will further its aims, in particular beleaguered humanities programs that can’t readily find funding from other sources. Recipients of its many, many grants include the University of Pennsylvania (Templeton dollars helped found its Positive Psychology Center), Union Theological Seminary, Smith College, and the University of Oxford (where Templeton endowed a business college in 1983). That’s pretty august company. Meantime, we’re living in an era when conflicts between science and religion have never been more pitched, what with Donald Trump complaining that Christianity is “under siege” and pooh-poohing scientific advice on how best to deal with ­COVID-19.

­Studies on the efficacy of prayer may seem as obscure today as medieval quibbles over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But as complications from COVID erode America’s higher education system, the foundation’s funding has taken on new resonance. Which, oddly, has universities and researchers asking exactly the sorts of “big questions” Sir John enjoyed contemplating: What is science, anyway? Is our modern reliance on it misplaced? Can attributes like love and truth and beauty be quantified? And are advances in ­cosmology — the study of the origins of the universe — bringing us ever closer to understanding God?

The facts of Sir John Templeton’s life have been laid out many times, not least of all by Sir John Templeton, who was the author of more than a dozen books, most of which provide the same diet of well-digested details and are vanity publications of the Templeton Press. He was born in 1912 in Winchester, Tennessee; his grandfather, John Wiley Templeton, was a Confederate surgeon during the Civil War. Sir John’s dad, Harvey, was a lawyer; his mother, Vella, was an ardent gardener and adventurer — she frequently set out on months-long trips with young John and his older brother, Harvey — who was a follower of the Unity School of Christianity, an outgrowth of the Transcendental movement founded at the turn of the 20th century. Unity stresses a “positive, practical Christianity” emphasizing self-improvement, prosperity, and the curing of illness via prayer. (Modern-day adherents have ranged from jazz singer Della Reese and poet Maya Angelou to actress Betty White and Famous Amos cookie king Wally Amos.) As the movement’s co-founder, Charles Fillmore, once explained, “God is Spirit, infinite Mind, the immanent force and intelligence everywhere manifest in nature.” It’s woolly like that.

Templeton Foundation

John Templeton aboard a ship in 1934 en route to his Rhodes Scholarship. Courtesy Sir John Templeton Foundation

Sir John had a small-town upbringing — the stories he told about it emphasized his entrepreneurial zeal, including a bean-growing business he started at age four — before following Harvey to Yale, where he became Mr. All-Everything, including president of Phi Beta Kappa and a member of the Elihu secret society, while helping to pay his tuition by winning at poker. He then headed to England as a Rhodes Scholar, after which he toured 35 countries (one stop was Hitler’s 1936 Olympics) for seven months on a grand total of 90 pounds — his parents always emphasized thrift — before settling in New York for a career in finance.

Sir John’s start to becoming what Money magazine would one day call “arguably the greatest global stock picker of the century” was his decision, after Hitler invaded Poland, to take $10,000 in borrowed money and invest $100 in each of 104 companies on the New York Stock Exchange, all selling for less than a dollar per share. When World War II cranked the economy up again, he made a mint. One of the first U.S. investors to seek out foreign stocks, especially those of Japanese companies, he was an innovator in globally diverse mutual funds. (One of the credos he lived by was Baron Rothschild’s “Buy when there’s blood in the streets.”) One true believer’s investment of 100,000 Canadian dollars in the Templeton Growth Fund at its 1954 founding, with distributions reinvested, famously grew to $37 million Canadian by 1996 — “believed to be the world’s greatest mutual investment fund performance for that time period,” according to Templeton’s biography.

In the mid-1960s, Sir John gave up his U.S. citizenship to avoid paying $100 million in taxes and moved to the Bahamas. Twice wed — his first wife died in a motor-bike accident after 14 years of marriage and three kids — he was a member of the Presbyterian Church all his life and served on the board of ­Princeton Theological Seminary for 42 years. His death in 2008 from pneumonia, at age 95, prompted glowing obituaries in nearly every major newspaper in the world.

Templeton Foundation

Sir John in an undated file photo. Photograph by Ron Bull/Toronto Star/Getty Images

Today, a dozen years later, Sir John is probably best known for establishing the Templeton Prize. Originally called the “Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion” (“progress” was reportedly Sir John’s favorite word) and then, from 2002 to 2008, the “Templeton Prize Toward Progress or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities,” it was for many years presented by Prince Philip at Buckingham Palace. (Sir John’s knighthood was granted in 1987 in gratitude for his philanthropy.) The first recipient, in 1973, was Mother Teresa; others have included Billy Graham (1982), Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1983), reformed Nixon trickster Charles Colson (1993), the Dalai Lama (2012), Desmond Tutu (2013), King Abdullah II of Jordan (2018), and, this year, geneticist Francis Collins, leader of the Human Genome Project and head of the National Institutes of Health under both presidents Obama and Trump. As Sir John dictated, the value of the prize is adjusted annually so that it’s worth more than the Nobel Prizes, which he considered deficient for ignoring religion. In Francis Collins’s case, that amounted to $1.3 million.

Impressive though the Templeton Prize may be, a more far-reaching legacy is the Templeton Foundation, created in 1987. By all accounts, Sir John was exceedingly bright and irrepressibly curious. His great wealth bought him access to great thinkers, and his mother’s Unity background left him open to the notion that there is no single path to knowing God. He was more than willing to search the scriptures of all the world’s religions for wisdom and guidance, and his foundation’s board has been peppered with believers of many persuasions. One of his books, Worldwide Laws of Life, lays out a list of 200 “spiritual principles” drawn from sources as diverse as the Book of Matthew (“Love thy neighbor as thyself”), Booker T. Washington (“I shall allow no man to belittle my soul by making me hate him”), Socrates (“The unexamined life is not worth living”), songwriter Johnny Mercer (“Accentuate the positive; eliminate the negative”), the Buddha (“All that we are is the result of what we have thought”), Mike Ditka (“You never really lose until you stop trying”), and, um, Sir John Templeton (“Nothing is interesting if you are not interested”).

Templeton Foundation

John “Jack” Templeton Jr., center, at Buckingham Palace in 2002 as Prince Philip, right, presents the Templeton Prize to physicist and priest John C. Polkinghorne. Photograph by PA Images/Getty Images

Grants from the foundation have been similarly wide-reaching. Examples from the appendix of Sir John’s biography include a Duke University study on “Do Religious People Live Longer?”; one at Virginia Commonwealth University on the role of “family spiritual values” in alcohol use in adolescents and young adults; a project with the Center for Jewish and Christian Values to provide guidance on how public schools might include religious discussions in the classroom; various college and high-school essay contests on Sir John’s “Laws of Life”; and funding for a course, offered via Harvard Medical School’s Department of Continuing Education, called “Spirituality and Healing in Medicine.” This last is particularly interesting. According to the foundation’s 2012 annual report, in 1992, only three medical schools in America offered courses on spirituality and health; by 2005, thanks at least partly to liberal Templeton seeding, more than 100 of 141 accredited schools did. The sheer size of the foundation’s endowment — it has $3.3 billion in assets — has made it a blunt force in its spiritual quest.

Out of his diverse interests, Sir John managed to cobble together a philosophy he called “humility theology,” the basic thrust of which can be summarized thusly: God is infinite and unknowable. In the modern world, science and technology have been proceeding at a rapid clip, but theology has remained mired in medieval mud, leading to its eclipse by secular pursuits. Templeton hoped to use his fortune to jump-start a theological revival that would seek spiritual knowledge using the empirical and statistical methods of science. He was, characteristically, splendidly optimistic. As he wrote in his book The Humble Approach: Scientists Discover God:

Egotism caused men to think that the stars and the sun revolved around them. … Egotism is still our worst enemy. In fact, things are still not what they seem. Only by becoming humble can we learn more. Forces still undreamed of are probably present around us and in us. And more revelations about God’s universe will probably be discovered in the next century than in all the millenniums before.

Or, as one of Sir John’s own Worldwide Laws of Life puts it: “Humility leads to prayer as well as progress and brings you in tune with the Infinite.”

Through the years, Templeton dollars have been funneled into a host of initiatives with fuzzy-sounding names and, often, fuzzy imperatives: the Foundational Questions Institute, the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, the International Center for the Integration of Health and Spirituality, the Pentecostal and Charismatic Research Initiative, and the Flame of Love Project, created to establish “a new interdisciplinary science of ‘Godly Love.’” It was this last effort, with a seeding Templeton grant of $2.3 million, that funded Candy Gunther Brown’s study on intercessory prayer, in which believers pray for others. It is only one project in the field of “prayer studies”; others have sought to evaluate “distant intercessory healing” and even retroactive intercessory prayer, in which contemporary supplicants sought to affect the recovery of patients in the past. The results of prayer studies overall have been … mixed. Many have shown no effect or even, in the case of intercessory prayer, a negative health effect. (Researchers have postulated this might be due to subjects thinking, “Oh dear, I must really be sick if they’re asking other people to pray for me,” increasing their anxiety, which might then affect their health.) Others have shown slight outcome improvements. A meta-review of such studies concluded that their methodology and design were often so flawed that they were meritless. That seems to have been the case with Brown’s study, which one skeptic, current Google director of research Peter Norvig, termed “instructive because it achieves a rare pentafecta, triggering all five of the most important experiment design warning signs,” including having too few subjects enrolled and a lack of double-blinding and random controls. Norvig called it “a perfect example of how not to do experiment design.”

Here’s where we get to the heart of the Templeton conundrum. The foundation apparently has always duly and truthfully reported the results of the research it supports, even when those results don’t seem to favor godliness — by, say, showing that religious people don’t live longer. Similarly, while the foundation’s conferences and lecture series have featured religious thinkers like Cambridge paleontologist Simon Conway Morris and now-deceased quantum physicist Charles Townes, they also include skeptics and critics. (The foundation once supported research on and discussion about intelligent design but backed off when the lack of valid research proposals proved “disillusioning.”) The foundation’s director of strategic communication, Benjamin Carlson, points out that recent grants have funded projects “to engage with science” in madrasas, synagogues, seminaries and monasteries.

Grant-takers insist they’re under no pressure from the foundation to massage their research or opinions to qualify for funding. Oxford University’s famed anti-religion crusader, Richard Dawkins, has gibed that the Templeton Prize is usually awarded to “a scientist who is prepared to say something nice about religion,” but that didn’t stop him from accepting Templeton money to appear at an event. And while eminences like cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett, physicist Sean Carroll, and philosopher Massimo Pigliucci have publicly spoken out about the corruptive influence of Templeton’s muddling of science and religion, plenty of others are happy to use its funding to further their research. Each year, according to Carlson, the foundation provides more than $100 million in grants.

The humanities are in retreat on college campuses these days; everyone’s emphasizing STEM, coding, programming, ­engineering — practical pursuits that are worth student (and parental) investment of $50,000 a year and up. Among colleges that have jettisoned their philosophy departments in the past few years: England’s Middlesex University, Claremont Graduate University, Elmira College, and, in May, Liberty University (whose website notes the Templeton Foundation as a funder). Heather Templeton Dill, Sir John’s granddaughter and the current president of the foundation, hopes its work can forestall this erosion. “The great argument for the humanities is that by asking us to grasp the literature, the history, and the great ideas of human civilizations in all their breadth and variety,” she writes in emailed responses to a set of questions, “it makes us stretch, and might even help us become more compassionate and wise.” She calls that “a motivating inspiration” behind the foundation’s work: “By asking philosophers to speak with physicists, or encouraging evolutionary biologists to learn from cultural historians and vice versa, we hope to enrich not only these fields, but human knowledge more broadly. Sometimes the most innovative solutions come from people who bring an outside perspective to a problem.”

Fierce debates erupt every few years about the pros and cons of accepting Templeton’s millions, though they tend to take place in the comments sections of specialized publications like the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed. A 2013 article in the latter took note of a Facebook posting by Jason Stanley, a philosophy professor at Rutgers, that set off a Templeton uproar. Stanley wrote that Templeton money was sure to produce “a huge number of papers and books in our field taking a religious perspective,” adding, “This is not why I entered philosophy, and it is incompatible with my conception of its role in the university.” He vowed never to accept Templeton money or appear at Templeton-funded conferences, noting, “We know from social science that people tend to respond to the agendas of their funders in unconscious ways.” Dennett, who once engaged in a debate with astrologers, has expressed his dismay that the mere fact of his doing so made astrology seem more respectable to audience members. And he once told the Washington Post regarding Templeton’s conflation of science and theology, “I compare it to an art collector who spends a lot of money on excellent art and then has a show with a few pieces by his brother. It’s trying to elevate the prestige of his brother by having them in the same room with a Cézanne and a Monet.” Ouch.

Then again, consider the work of Anjan Chatterjee, a professor of neurology at Penn Med and director of the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics. In August, when I tele-interviewed him, Chatterjee was about to embark on a brand-new $240,000 grant from the Templeton Religion Trust. (“They came to me,” Chatterjee says. “I didn’t know what to think or make of it.”) He admits his final grant proposal, titled “The Semantic Space of Aesthetic Cognitivism,” is “a bit jargony”:

The aim of this project is to establish a taxonomy that makes explicit concepts that are both relevant to aesthetic cognitivism (AC) and useful for scientific study.

Or, as he explains in more down-to-earth language, “It’s organized around the philosophical concept of aesthetic ­cognition — the notion that engaging with art enhances our understanding.” Uh — our understanding of what? “The perfect question!” he beams. “How do we operationalize these terms so that we can conduct scientific research on them? What kind of ‘art’? What are we understanding? What does it mean to be transformed by art — to be elevated?” In other words, before research can even begin, scientists need a common system of scientific classification, to be sure they’re talking about the same things.

Chatterjee gives as an example the concepts of “the sublime” and “awe”: “If you ask the average Joe and John on the street, they might not make the fine distinctions between them that the experts do.” With his Templeton grant, Chatterjee plans to draw together a multidisciplinary panel of experts to define the concepts and words that are important to the work — himself as a neuroscientist, philosophers, theologians, psychologists, art historians … Once they’ve settled on the concepts that are important, Chatterjee will convene another panel of experts to decide what artworks tap into those concepts: “The goal is to have a set of stimuli — the artworks — normed by the taxonomy we’ve set out.”

It sounds a little … woolly. Across time and space, on my computer screen, Chatterjee shrugs a bit. “I’m thinking of writing a book,” he says. “I want to address a certain common view that aesthetics are frivolous. That they’re fundamentally impractical in all sorts of ways. Aesthetics are embedded in all of our lives. What does our environment look like? How do we react to it? What are our values? This isn’t about some high-end traveling exhibit at the Museum of Art. Aesthetics symbolize how our culture views itself — our experience of who we are.” Consider the recent contretemps in our city over the Rizzo mural and the Christopher Columbus statue. Those are works of art, Chatterjee points out — art so fraught with meaning that we’re willing to fight in the streets over it.

In case you’re wondering how the Templeton Foundation wound up in West Conshohocken, it was a matter of proximity. In 1995, Sir John’s eldest son, John Jr., known as Jack, retired from his job as a pediatric surgeon and director of trauma at Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania to join the foundation; he then took over as president in the early 2000s. The foundation actually had its start in a room above the garage at the family’s Bryn Mawr home; by that time, Sir John was ensconced in his Bahamian tax shelter and contributing ideas and opinions via frequent faxes. (Jack’s wife, Josephine “Pina” Templeton, an anesthesiologist at CHOP, died last year.)

Two of Sir John’s children, as it happens, became physicians. Son Christopher, who died earlier this year, was a farmer, but Sir John’s only daughter, Anne, was a surgeon; she died in 2004. (Anne was married to former Wyoming state senator Gail Zimmerman; in a typical Templeton rabbit hole, there’s an online interview with Zimmerman that shows him in a “trophy room” lined with the mounted heads and pelts of big-game animals he’s killed as he discusses the exhilaration of “the moment of taking a life.”) Jack died of brain cancer in 2015, whereupon Dill, a former teacher at her alma mater, Delaware County Christian School in Newtown Square, became president. (Her only sibling, Jennifer, a social worker with a Penn master’s degree in environmental studies, is on the board.) Last year, the foundation signed an extension of its lease at 300 Conshohocken State Road that downsized its offices by 25,000 square feet. Dill’s husband, Jeffrey — they have four sons — is a sociology professor at Eastern University’s Templeton Honors College, where study centers on the “Great Books.”

It was during Jack’s stint as head of the foundation that much of the controversy surrounding the organization sprang up. If his father’s theology was fuzzy, resting on those 200 Laws of Life that Slate writer David Plotz once described as “platitudes of high banality,” Jack’s was crystal clear: He was an evangelical Christian who put his own considerable fortune behind his beliefs. He poured $900,000 into the campaign to pass the Prop 8 initiative to countermand California’s law allowing gay marriage, was a major funder of the Red White & Blue PAC that supported Rick Santorum’s 2012 presidential campaign, and gave $100,000 to the American Crossroads PAC founded by Karl Rove. Under his leadership, the foundation contributed liberally to right-wing think tanks, including the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute. In 2004, the Templeton Freedom Awards were created, administered by what was formerly known as the Atlas Economic Research Foundation (it’s now the Atlas Network), a nonprofit supporting free-market approaches to eliminating poverty and noted for its refutation of climate change and defense of the tobacco industry. Jack also provided the seed money for Let Freedom Ring, an organization founded by former Chester County commissioner Colin Hanna to counter what he and Jack saw as the pernicious political influence of George Soros’s fortune. And the foundation-funded Epiphany Prize, awarded to movies and TV shows that are “wholesome, spiritually uplifting, inspirational, redemptive and moral,” was presented in 2005 to Mel Gibson’s divisive and anti-Semitic film The Passion of the Christ. (Another winner: the CBS series Touched by an Angel.)

Understandably, there was trepidation about what impact Jack’s political views would have on the foundation. But the major shift apparently was organizational. Sir John’s scattershot bevy of pursuits was winnowed down into what the foundation now bills as “Big Questions,” with more emphasis on psychology, philosophy and physics than theology. Communications director Carlson points out such recent Templeton-supported projects as Harvard astronomer David Charbonneau’s exoplanet discoveries and the Black Hole Initiative.

I wanted to visit Templeton Foundation headquarters — Sir John was notoriously averse to ostentation — and interview members of its staff, but COVID precluded that. Instead, Carlson and Dill answer questions via email. “My father worked very hard to carry out the vision set out by his father,” Dill replies to a question regarding the foundation’s future direction, “and he inspired me to strive to do the same — that is, to accelerate discovery and inspire curiosity on the deep questions of meaning, existence, and purpose in our world.”

If you read enough about the work of the Templeton Foundation, you develop a sort of sixth sense for when it’s behind new research findings. Announcements and headlines are frequently posed in the form of questions: “Can we learn what lies beyond our own horizons of perception?” “Is time really nonexistent?” In the spirit of Unity, they tend to accentuate the positive: “Yes, gratitude really does help you live a better life (and be a better person).” They’re often speculative: “How the geometry of ancient habitats may have influenced human brain development.” (I mean, who really knows?) Keywords include consciousness, the cosmos, quantum physics, God, free will, grit (or the more elegant “resilience”), character and, lately, genius, which the foundation has begun cultivating in young people via a mentoring program linking high-school kids with researchers and scientists through the Templeton-funded World Science Festival.

Then again, that footnotes revealing Templeton funding can be found attached to so many different research efforts may just be proof that the foundation’s grants are as ubiquitous as critics say. This concern may become more urgent as some Templeton-funded “scientific” findings crumble under further study. Penn’s Positive Psychology Center has seen doubt thrown on professor Angela Duckworth’s attention-garnering (and MacArthur ­Fellowship-earning) thesis on the importance of “grit” — a new meta-analysis says its effects are negligible compared to those of intelligence — and on positive thinking itself, which a new study says leads to more misery than having a realistic outlook does. Carlson is unperturbed by the suggestion that foundation-funded research is being upended: “Science makes progress gradually by pressure-testing ideas through accumulated experiments and evidence,” he writes.

It’s only fair to note that like any worthy source of controversy, the Templeton Foundation has been slammed from both sides. Bible literalists decry Sir John’s pantheism and the foundation’s support of Francis Collins’s BioLogos, a Christian think tank that promotes evolution (as opposed to creationism or intelligent design). On the other hand, the now-deceased physicist Freeman Dyson, the 2000 recipient of the Templeton Prize, riled scientists by dismissing the dangers of climate change and even arguing that its effects might prove salubrious, with excess carbon benefiting the growth of plants.

The foundation has been slammed from both sides: Bible literalists decry Sir John’s pantheism, while one Templeton Prize winner riled critics by dismissing the dangers of climate change.

Anjan Chatterjee, for one, doesn’t care to get drawn into discussions of God. “Neuroscientists have little to say about the veracity of religion,” he tells me. “We can say something about the experience of religion, though. If you are particularly religious-minded, I can say something about what your experience is like.” He suggests substituting “spirituality” for “religion”: “More people are comfortable with that. It’s the study of experiences you have that are elevating, that make us feel part of something larger — whether that’s climate change or a communal response to art.” The foundation, he notes, is placing no constraints on him. And it’s “one of the few places one can apply for funding to answer these kinds of questions. If there are concerns that Templeton might skew the direction of research, the solution is not to have them fund less work; it’s to find more funding sources for the work. We all think diversity is a good thing.”

Dill echoes this in her replies: “We wish that there were more funding for all the fields we support. … One thing we hear from the people we support is how important it is to them that we give grants in underfunded areas — that we try to prioritize projects that would not be funded by others, so we can make a difference.”

All these concerns are highfalutin matters, far above the pay grade of average Joes and Johns like you and me, who are just struggling to keep our heads above water in this year of COVID and economic upheaval and political chaos. It’s hard not to contemplate what the Templeton Foundation’s billions could do to better this world if applied to more practical charity, like, say, feeding Syrian refugees, or even unemployed Americans. But Sir John was adamant that he didn’t want his money used for such mundane purposes; there were, he said, sufficient resources devoted to them already. His eyes were on a higher prize.

Heather Templeton Dill won’t apologize for that. “As an organization,” she writes, “the mission that we are asked to carry out is addressed to a specific set of needs. Some might call it a spiritual hunger, or a crisis of meaning and purpose. It’s an uncommon mission, and one that we feel has a role to play in today’s world. Our hope, our dream as an institution, is to help people flourish and find joy by bringing the tools of science to bear on profound questions that at one point or another touch all of us.”

Hey, there’s no doubt that higher prizes are seductive. They provide a distraction from more mundane matters. They can start you thinking in new and different ways. For example, the Templeton Foundation’s Big Questions got me wondering: If God is truly infinite, then no matter how much you learn about Him (or Her, or It, or They) through experiments and science, you never actually get any closer to knowing Him (or Her, or It, or They) — right? Isn’t that what “infinity” is all about?

Then again, as Nathan Schneider, author of the book God in Proof: The Story of a Search From the Ancients to the Internet, once wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, Templeton’s Big Questions are “the kinds of out-there topics that make philosophy seem bold and exciting to a college freshman but can feel thoroughly desiccated after a few years in graduate school.” We’re all in grad school these days. No wonder philosophy departments are closing. I think I’ll go make myself a sandwich now.

Published as “Proving His Religion” in the October 2020 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

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