Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

Does Templeton “buy off” journalists?

The John Templeton Foundation — for which I now work, please note — has announced winners of its 2010 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowships in Science & Religion. They are:

Qanta Ahmed, Contributor, Huffington Post, and Broadcast Commentator
John Farrell, Freelance Journalist
Zeeya Merali, Freelance Journalist and Documentary Producer
Chris Mooney, Science Journalist and Reporter
Lisa Mullins, Chief Anchor and Senior Producer, BBC’s The World
Jane Qiu, Correspondent, Nature
Francis X. Rocca, Vatican Correspondent, Religion News Service
Carlin Romano, Critic-at-large, Chronicle of Higher Education
Ron Rosenbaum, Cultural Columnist, Slate
Peter Scoblic, Executive Editor, The New Republic

According to blogger and University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne, these poor souls are sheep being led to the slaughter. Wait, they’re not sheep, because sheep are innocent. They are corrupt. Excerpt:

These journalism fellowships are nothing more than a bribe–a bribe to get journalists to favor a certain point of view. The Foundation’s success at recruiting reputable candidates proves one thing: it doesn’t cost much to buy a journalist’s integrity. Fifteen thousand bucks, a “book allowance,” and a fancy title will do it.

Cheap shot. If you know anything about Ron Rosenbaum’s work (to cite just one of this year’s fellows), it’s hard to imagine him selling his professional soul to Templeton, or to anybody. And as someone who went through the fellowship last year, Coyne’s view is simply bizarre, and ideologically motivated. We had several atheists among our group of fellows, and as far as I know they were in no way coerced, or even nudged, to write anything favorable to religion. I wasn’t either, and I heard no journalist complaining about that. On my year (2009), we had at least three atheists address us, and one, Cambridge philosopher Simon Blackburn, was quite strong in advocating his materialistic views. Going from memory, he seemed to believe that science and religion had nothing whatosever to say to each other, because religion fails the kind of test people like Jerry Coyne insist it must pass to be taken seriously as a way of knowing. I found it hard to understand why someone who thought that religion was absurdity from soup to nuts would trouble himself to participate in the program. In the same way, I don’t understand why a journalist who thinks religion and science have nothing to learn from each other would seek a Templeton fellowship. Understand, I’m not saying that they shouldn’t; I just don’t see why it would interest one, any more than a religious fundamentalist who hated science would waste his time with a program built on the general premise that science and religion have something to learn from each other.
But then again, as the atheist Freddie de Boer observes about a certain class of atheist, they are obsessed by religion:

Sam Harris’s life is dominated by religion. It’s what he thinks about; it’s what he writes about; it’s how he pays the bills. He speaks all over the country about religion, he opines on it constantly, denying it is his constant endeavor. His intellectual and philosophical life could hardly be more centered around religion if he were a monk.
Me? I go weeks without thinking about religion or God. And why would I?

Look, don’t read me as discounting the atheist point of view, vis-a-vis science and religion, or anything else. It is perfectly just for them to object when they believe religion is compromising science — indeed, they may well perform a service to both science and religion by so doing. But to declare that anybody — even fellow non-believers — who is curious about the dynamic interplay between scientific and religious thought is some sort of heretic who needs to be denounced as a patsy and a sellout? Really? These fundamentalist atheists are so obsessed with their narrow dogmas and indignant orthodoxies that they marginalize themselves, except within their own sectarian claques. Learning from Mike Huckabee’s great line about the way he practices his religion would do them well: “I’m a Christian, I’m just not angry about it.”
Imagine a religious fundamentalist denouncing journalists who profess religious faith for participating in the T-C program, on grounds that Templeton has bribed me to have a different point of view on science. That would be as laughable as it is insulting. The truth of the matter is that I turned up in Cambridge knowing a lot about religion, but not much about science. What I saw and heard during those two-week seminars, and what I learned from my Templeton-subsidized research that summer (I designed my own reading program, which compared Taoist and Eastern Christian views of the body and healing) opened my mind to science. It turned out that I didn’t know what I didn’t know until I went on the fellowship. And I’m grateful for that. If the T-C seminar opened up the minds of others to religion — not in the sense of personal conversion, but re: taking religious thought more seriously than they otherwise might have done — then I think that’s a great thing too.
I would very much doubt that any journalist comes away from the T-C program more inclined toward religious belief, or toward scientific materialism, than when he or she showed up in Cambridge. It’s not that kind of program. But one hopes that spending two weeks in Cambridge listening to lectures from scholars and public intellectuals on issues in science and religion, and spending the summer reading and researching on one’s own, would deepen a journalist’s understanding of the world, and renew his curiosity. It is a strange kind of liberalism that insists an entire realm of human thought and experience — the religious one — must not be allowed to share the same room with science, for fear of contamination. It is obnoxiously illiberal, in fact.
I’ll close with this. Richard Dawkins is probably the leading New Atheist in the world. Though he once participated in a T-C seminar, he is no fan of the Templeton Foundation. But even he was disgusted by the hysterical vitriol left in the comboxes on his personal website, which is one of the premier New Atheist hubs on the Web. When he posted a letter last week saying the site’s staff was going to start editing comments to keep the worst stuff out, this is what happened. Excerpt from Dawkins below the jump

Imagine that you, as a greatly liked and respected person, found yourself overnight subjected to personal vilification on an unprecedented scale, from anonymous commenters on a website. Suppose you found yourself described as an “utter twat” a “suppurating rectum. A suppurating rat’s rectum. A suppurating rat’s rectum inside a dead skunk that’s been shoved up a week-old dead rhino’s twat.” Or suppose that somebody on the same website expressed a “sudden urge to ram a fistful of nails” down your throat. Also to “trip you up and kick you in the guts.” And imagine seeing your face described, again by an anonymous poster, as “a slack jawed turd in the mouth mug if ever I saw one.”
What do you have to do to earn vitriol like that? Eat a baby? Gas a trainload of harmless and defenceless people? Rape an altar boy? Tip an old lady out of her wheel chair and kick her in the teeth before running off with her handbag?

Dawkins goes on to point out that all he did was to say that the vitriol had gotten out of control among his commenters, and that they were going to try to keep the worst stuff off the blog. He continues:

Surely there has to be something wrong with people who can resort to such over-the-top language, over-reacting so spectacularly to something so trivial. Even some of those with more temperate language are responding to the proposed changes in a way that is little short of hysterical. Was there ever such conservatism, such reactionary aversion to change, such vicious language in defence of a comfortable status quo? What is the underlying agenda of these people? How can anybody feel that strongly about something so small? Have we stumbled on some dark, territorial atavism? Have private fiefdoms been unwittingly trampled?
Be that as it may, what this remarkable bile suggests to me is that there is something rotten in the Internet culture that can vent it. If I ever had any doubts that needs to change, and rid itself of this particular aspect of Internet culture, they are dispelled by this episode.

Now, I’m not arguing that people who have solid philosophical objections to the Templeton-Cambridge seminars are on the same level as combox freaks. But I would hope that Dr. Dawkins would reflect on what his own illiberalism on the subject of religion has helped midwife. There will always be fundamentalists, both religious and non-religious, but there is, I think, a large middle ground in which men and women of goodwill, both religious and non-religious, can meet to talk about areas of common interest, and do so with civility and respect. I found the T-C seminars, and the community we fellows formed last summer, to be just such a place. Given that there is no evidence that the Templeton Foundation has co-opted or otherwise corrupted any journalist who participated in the seminar (unless you call it “corrupt” to open up one’s mind by broadening one’s intellectual perspective; others call this “education”), one wonders what on earth the paranoia of Jerry Coyne and others is really about?
I once bought two English-language Wahhabist tracts at a radical Muslim bookstore in New York, some sort of guide to living the pious life for new Muslim converts. It was published in Saudi Arabia. Here, from a 2003 article I wrote for National Review, is what I found:

Elsewhere, I bought a couple of startling volumes printed in Riyadh. One stated that all Muslims must, by Allah’s command, wage war against Jews and Christians until they either convert or submit to Islamic rule. The other insisted, “There can be no brotherhood between Muslims and Christians, ever,” and urged readers to avoid non-Muslims out of concern that personal contact “may possibly lead you to love them.”

Ah, the fundamentalist mind. Could it be that the atheist fundamentalists are so afraid of science-minded folks meeting with scientists and others who are open to religious faith because that contact might make them conclude that there really are some intelligent, engaging people who take science and God seriously? And that not all religious people are cretins who must be forced either to surrender the intellectual and cultural battlefield, or convert? Why is the thought that journalists spending two weeks in Cambridge hearing from and querying some of the world’s leading scientists and intellectual figures — including hard-core atheists like Prof. Blackburn — so scary that it would lead a fellow as smart as Jerry Coyne to slander journalists he doesn’t even know?
Cosmologist Sean Carroll is an atheist and a scientist who wishes fellow atheists wouldn’t be so obnoxious. Excerpt:

A lot of the pro-obnoxiousness sentiment stems from a feeling that atheism is a disrespected minority viewpoint in our culture, and I have some sympathy with that. Atheists should never be ashamed of their beliefs, or afraid to support them vigorously. And — let’s be honest — there’s a certain amount of pleasure to be found in being part of a group where everyone sits around congratulating each other on their superior intellect and reasoning abilities, while deriding their opponents with terms like “superstition” and “brain damage” and “child abuse.” But these are temptations to be avoided, not badges of honor.
Within the self-reinforcing culture of vocal non-believers, it’s gotten to the point where saying that someone is “nice” has become an insult. Let me hereby stake out a brave, contrarian position: in favor of being nice. I think that folks in the reality-based community should be the paragons of reasonableness and even niceness, while not yielding an inch on the correctness of their views. We should be the good guys. We are in possession of some incredible truths about this amazing universe in which we live, and we should be promoting positive messages about the liberating aspects of a life in which human beings are responsible for creating justice and beauty, rather than having them handed to us by supernatural overseers. Remarkably, I think it’s possible to be positive and nice (when appropriate) and say true things at the same time. But maybe that’s just my crazy utopian streak.

Finally, a closing thought from the aforementioned atheist Freddie, who thinks intolerant atheist hotheads need to grow up. He says that their paranoia that people who hold religious beliefs cannot help but being tyrannical God-bots is contradicted by everyday experience, if only the fearmongers would pull their heads out of their bubbles and pay attention to the real world around them. Here’s more:

Elementary human psychology teaches me that the more you attack the fundamental basis for someone’s worldview, the more likely you are to earn violent pushback as a result. If you are a liberal, you don’t try to bring a conservative around on a particular issue by asking him to abandon conservatism altogether. You ask him to reconsider the issue at hand, and you do so in a way that demonstrates respect to that larger overarching belief.
This is not fun. You can’t post a vlog about it on Youtube and get people applauding you for it. You can’t posit that you are one of the few brilliant geniuses in a sea of idiocy by doing it. You can’t come up with all sorts of self-aggrandizing narratives with it. But it is the basic task of liberal democracy and it is the path of adulthood.
I have written about a great many controversial topics since I started blogging. I never get email that is more angry or embittered than I do when I criticize militant atheism. Why? I think it’s because, for most people, atheism is not just inimical to belief in God. It is inimical to pluralism.

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posted March 1, 2010 at 4:29 pm

The lesson here: to define yourself in terms of what you are against is to be enslaved by that very thing. So don’t spend too much time fighting atheists, or you’ll become an aatheist, and maybe even inspire a legion of aaatheists to attack you. Our dictionaries cannot handle the strain.

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posted March 1, 2010 at 4:33 pm

A few thoughts:
-Atheists (new or otherwise) did not invent Internet culture / posting tropes, nor (to my knowledge) have any of them claimed their forums to be immune from them.
-I strongly disagree with Freddie de Boer’s take for, basically, the same reason you yourself acknowledged. It’s not like we have the option of living in a world where other people WON’T try to influence our own lives through their religious beliefs. This may come in the form of impinging on our freedoms or waging jihad against us. An atheist looks at current events the way anybody else does–including you, Rod, right here on this very blog. If some atheists simply ignore current events and just watch American Idol, they probably won’t be confrontational, angry, “fundamentalist” New Atheists. If they do, they probably will be.
-I’ll give your organization credit in that I’ve never seen evidence of it attempting to be anything other than what it openly declares, and I’ve seen nothing that suggests it was a “bribe.” Honestly, I’m a bit surprised at some of these scientists (particularly Coyne), who so routinely get accused by creationists / eco-denialists / anti-vaxers of having been bought-off in order to tell their materialist lies, now turning around and sniffing at a bunch of journalists who very up-front and transparently applied to win a prize of a whole entire whopping $15,000. Even in today’s economy, $15k isn’t THAT much money–not enough to say someone’s a shill for life.
-I think a good deal of the hostile reaction from the Godlessphere is due to the presence of Chris Mooney, who is largely viewed as having acted in a sleazy, intellectually dishonest fashion on the whole “framing science” issue, ESPECIALLY regarding “Expelled”, and generally behaving with an attitude of unearned arrogance towards people who are actually far senior to him in matters of successfully communicating science. You don’t get to seriously accuse scientists who stripped Pluto of its planet status as having alienated / misled the public without sacrificing a whooooole lot of your own reputation as a science writer.

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Rod Dreher

posted March 1, 2010 at 4:57 pm

TTT: If some atheists simply ignore current events and just watch American Idol, they probably won’t be confrontational, angry, “fundamentalist” New Atheists.
That kind of quietism is explicitly NOT what Freddie advocates. As he writes: As I said, and I have always said, people do things out of religious conviction that must be opposed. Opposing those actions has nothing to do with eliminating the religious devotion that supposedly inspires them.
If stopping radical Islam depends on convincing all the Muslims of the world that their religion is a sham and that they ought to be atheists, then there will be no stopping radical Islam. Fortunately, as Freddie understands, that’s not necessary. There are plenty of Christians and Jews in our culture who are quite pious, yet who accomodate themselves to pluralism quite nicely. Freddie’s not saying atheists ought to be quiet about what concerns them; he’s just saying that they ought to be realistic, and unhysterical.

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posted March 1, 2010 at 5:01 pm

This is a slight off-ramp. Physicist Stephen Barr wrote an accurate but lacerating essay on Dawkins’ illogic in his book review of “The Devil’s Chaplain”. (Barr demolishes Dawkins actually):
Apart from the logical fallacies of Dawkins’ pedestrian thinking, Barr pointed out then that Dawkins’ criticism of religion bordered on hysterical.
Why Dawkins is now castigating his fellow travelers who apply the same tactics is beyond me.

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posted March 1, 2010 at 5:16 pm

Those New Atheists may be my intellectual superiors, but I have NEVER seen language like that quoted by Richard Dawkins’ on any religious website. So full of nastiness, anger and hatred. Seriously shocking. I don’t care how much these people know. “Whether there be knowledge it shall vanish away… But love never ends… ” That’s what I’m not seeing when I read Dawkins, et. al. Love. I see lots of knowledge and lots of smarts… and a whole lotta pride. But where’s the love? The greatest of these is love. All the knowledge in the world won’t save us. Only love.

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posted March 1, 2010 at 5:20 pm

Freddie’s not saying atheists ought to be quiet about what concerns them; he’s just saying that they ought to be realistic, and unhysterical.
It wouldn’t hurt if they would learn a little bit about what they are so quick to criticize, as well. Wading into the theological/philosophical depths presented by Dawkins, et. al., will not get your ankles wet. At the same time they quickly castigate anybody who would dare to criticize evolution without understanding it and being up to date on the latest research.
I suspect that if the “new” atheists would take the time to get a truer picture of religion, rather than relying on the caricatures that exist mainly in their own imaginations, they would have considerably less vitriol about it.

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posted March 1, 2010 at 7:51 pm

It looks like the vitriol aimed at Richard Dawkins has more to it than the addition of comment editing at

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posted March 1, 2010 at 8:19 pm

“suppurating rectum. A suppurating rat’s rectum. A suppurating rat’s rectum inside a dead skunk that’s been shoved up a week-old dead rhino’s twat.”
Is that anything like this?:

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posted March 1, 2010 at 9:40 pm

The hysterical gets attention and sells books. So of course books like “The End of Faith” and “God is Not Great” are going to get published. It also drives blog traffic which can translate into money. Freddie de Boer even pointed out that atheism is how Sam Harris pays the bills. So people do more of what they and others are rewarded for doing.
Two months off listening to lectures and getting paid for it sounds like a great gig. But the use of the term bribe is puzzling as journalists aren’t in a position to provide quid pro quo for the money.

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posted March 2, 2010 at 2:15 am

My hypothesis is that a certain fraction of the population is intrinsically negative and attack-oriented. They must attach themselves to some extreme ideology — it doesn’t matter which — atheism, fundamentalism, Randianism, … — and away they go.

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Hunk Hondo

posted March 2, 2010 at 9:54 am

Mr. Dawkins’ plight reminds me of an anecdote about A.E. Housman, who was discussing the work of two classical scholars (master and disciple) both of whom he despised. He said that when the older scholar first saw the latest book of his pupil, he must have felt “rather like Sin after she gave birth to Death.” Welcome to the world you helped make, Professor D.

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Clare Krishan

posted March 2, 2010 at 10:27 am

Is this not an example of what we metaphysically-minded (ie those agnostics who ascribe the eureka work-product of philosophy to right reason AND those of us with a religious sense who acknowledge that such ‘work’ is not our own product so much as a gift of grace emanating from a singular locus, a divinity, the Logos) call the problem of evil (aka the preposterous chaos of incongruity, atomism, aberrance, instability, incoherence all scientific concepts no)?
The tendency of humans to exhibit such ugliness that offends right reason is what metaphysicians call concupiscence, or covetous wishful thinking, letting what we ‘want’ cloud our prudential judgement, such that we can even act contrary to our own best interests, and may also do harm to the interests of others in the process (generating the kind of conflict that gives rise to grievances that require adjudication by an outside party to settle peacefully, dialog is good but undergoing a ‘trigonometry’ of ones peers is needed to establishes norms and rules). Harming self and others is what the problem of evil aka “sin” amounts to.
Even atheists will always have such conundrums to contend with. Intellectual industry (“thinking”) even in the materialistic scientific sphere always needs a point of departure for developing a thesis to defend against the dialectics of those who are in possession of alternative explanations. To become a “proof” an experimental result must be repeated, joining two data points indicates a possible directions for progress, fixing it in time and space as a “truism” requires a third coordinate, a test for falsification if you will.
Radical idealogues are uncomfortable conceding their physical incapacity as a human, subject to temporal limits, to find the triangulation point in the infinity of time and space that would be the falsification of God. What metaphysical realogues are comfortable with is the obvious beauty of the world as such, and each “discovery” is further evidence that the Truth is greater than the problem of evil…. such eureka moments in the face of the glorious awesomeness of it all gratify and humble one, that man is uniquely privy to participate in the development of his environment unlike all other sentient forms of existence. Man is the only creature that can split atoms (or split hairs in interminable disagreements leading to lasting discord)… The power to choose well when to do so is a special capacity that is assumed by many atheists, ie good will is taken for granted, and yet there is the evidence for the metaphysics of logical thinking, why is it a good thing to choose well? Where would science be if scientists failed to concede that there is a “right” and “wrong” answer to that question.
We metaphysical types concede that dialog between persons contains an inherent ability to triangulate, so long as both acknowledge their human nature, ie the “good” in choosing well. Those who fail to concede “good” will nearly always eventually stumble upon its opposite, evil! The falsification of atheism is the indignity one feels at man’s inhumanity to man. A humane man has dignity, he forms his will to seek the “good” he has discovered he possesses, the sacredness if you will, we religious folks speak of, inherent to simply being homo sapiens (“man who cogitates”).

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posted March 2, 2010 at 10:55 am

Clare, your metaphysical thinking seems akin to numerology, what with all these triangulations. Is there geometrology? Triginometrology?

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Ian Parker

posted March 2, 2010 at 11:16 am

I take a rather narrow scientific view. I feel that science should stand on its own. Scientific papers and the public personae of scientists should be agnostic. Neither faith nor faithlessness should be expressed.
Evolution should, of course, be affirmed and fundamentalist religion, that is to say religion that specifically denies scientific conclusions attacked.
There is a great deal we do not understand and it would serve Science well to remember this.

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posted March 2, 2010 at 6:12 pm

“My hypothesis is that a certain fraction of the population is intrinsically negative and attack-oriented.”
I describe these as people who would rather fight than win. I have actually seen quite a bit about them in books on domestic abuse.

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posted March 3, 2010 at 11:11 am

Richard Dawkins has already apologized for the piece that Rod quoted from:
There was not a previous problem with vitriol on The vitriol quoted was not aimed at Richard Dawkins, but at someone who works for him, and did not appear on Richard’s site, but was quote mined from another site.
Here’s a good roundup of what happened:

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Norwegian Shooter

posted March 8, 2010 at 11:28 am

Rod, the main point of the Templeton Foundation, and the reason why atheist scientists criticize it, is to blur the line of division between science and religion. To promote that there are two, equally valid “ways of knowing.”
You are right, it is ridiculous to suggest that the seminars can change someone into a faithful or faithless person. But they can provide two “ways of knowing” arguments, language, sources, suppositions, and the like as ammunition to journalists.
The Foundation also reinforces a common believers’ view that some atheists are just as fundamentalist as religious extremists. (It’s amazing how often this argument rests on how nice the atheist’s writing is) This false equivalence is the other major fallacy the foundation promotes.

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Steven Sullivan

posted March 8, 2010 at 12:41 pm

Me? I gone a lifetime without thinking about what Freddie de Boer says — or indeed, thinking about him at all. And why would I?
As to why Sam Harris would think about religion a lot, it might have to do with, oh, I dunno, the persistent efforts of the religious to dictate what goes into textbooks, who gets into office, what gets written into law, based on religious litmus tests. Little things like that.
And that’s just here in the USA, not even mentioning the frightening cultural, political and military power that religious fanatics wield in some other countries.

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Norwegian Shooter

posted March 9, 2010 at 6:15 pm

Jerry Coyne follows up on Dreher and the Templeton connection:

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