Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher


Science, religion and Templeton: A defense

posted by Rod Dreher

The prominent science journalist Chris Mooney, author of (among other titles) “The Republican War on Science,” is one of the 2010 Templeton-Cambridge journalism fellows. This is the program I was on last summer. The first session is wrapping up in Cambridge, and Mooney publishes his thoughts here and here. From the second entry:

First, I do not agree that I have heard skewed perspectives here. I don’t think any of the talks during the past two weeks could be said to have delivered arguments “in favor of religion and Christianity.” If anything, some of them-a presentation by Petr Granqvist that interpreted religion from the viewpoint of “attachment theory,” suggesting it might merely fulfill a psychological need from childhood; or a presentation by Kathleen Taylor on morality, which gave an evolutionary view that deeply undermined the workability of religious moral systems-could be taken as quite corrosive to traditional religion.
Yesterday, meanwhile, we heard from Robin Le Poidevin, a philosopher who is the author of (that’s right) Arguing for Atheism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. And we heard from Dame Gillian Beer, who has written with tremendous insight about the relationship between Darwin and literature (including the literary aspects of The Origin of Species) but whose talk was not really about religion at all, and certainly not about promoting either Christianity or atheism.
So to claim this fellowship is some kind of religious Trojan horse strikes me as pretty untenable. To be sure, most of the speakers presenting to us here haven’t been atheists, so far as I can tell. But all have spoken in a scholarly fashion, presenting expert takes on their respective fields. None have been preaching. I get the strong sense-and after all, this is Cambridge, a scholarly environment-that to do so would be deemed quite unseemly and inappropriate.

More:

Granted, there is also the matter of theology, which does have some presence in the Templeton Cambridge program. As mentioned in the last post, I feel much as the New Atheists do towards this field. It is hard for me to see how it can possibly achieve the kind of universal knowledge that science offers. In a sense, it is inherently sectarian, and inherently dependent upon taking various ancient religious texts as if they are in some sense true (a leap an atheist is never going to be able to make, for it is essentially an argument from authority).
But that doesn’t make theology absolutely worthless, because even if you don’t accept the premises, the field does feature rigorous attempts to clarify and explicate religious views and doctrines-views and doctrines embraced by much or most of humanity. We need to understand these views, if only because they are so prevalent. And as atheists, shouldn’t we want religious arguments to have their most articulate and nuanced presentation before we reject them? Academic theology is valuable for these reasons, and worth at least listening to and understanding.

Mooney goes on to say that he doesn’t understand how the New Atheist critics of Templeton Cambridge can denounce the program for being unbalanced, but then refuse to participate in it when their views are sought for balance. He concludes: “I don’t know what the New Atheists gain by slamming a journalistic fellowship, or how it helps get their word out.”
He’s right, but then again, one shouldn’t expect consistency from those folks. They were the ones howling over how unfair it was that the World Science Festival held a panel talk about science and religion and didn’t invite them, even though they believed the conversation shouldn’t be taking place at all.
Mooney has discovered this year what I discovered last year about the Templeton Cambridge program: that it’s a wonderful thing, a fantastic resource for journalists, both science journos and people like me, religion-oriented writers who have no background in science, to learn about the big questions implicit in both science and religion. Granted, Mooney is an atheist and I’m a theist, so I’m far less inclined to be bothered by the presence of religion in a program like this. What I found was what Mooney found: that the T-C program is on the up and up, and a far more inquisitive and open-minded undertaking than the New Atheists wish to think. Mind you, I now work for Templeton, but I was saying this last summer, before I even thought about a job here.
Did you happen to read the long piece on Templeton in The Nation? My comments below the jump, after a bit of background:


Earlier this week, I was in NYC for a big annual Templeton Foundation meeting of scientists, theologians and scholars from around the world who make up the Board of Advisors of the Foundation. This was my first time at this meeting, and it gave me a new appreciation for the interesting and important work JTF does. One quantum physicist told me, “I love coming to these meetings. It’s the only place where I can talk about both God and science, the two things that interest me most, without having to edit myself.” I can hardly express how invigorating it was to meet and to talk with so many brilliant men and women who have a passion for science, scholarship and religion. But there were also people present who don’t have faith, but who are great scientists whose work has been funded by Templeton. Celebrated string theorist Brian Greene and his wife were at the closing night dinner; he is not a religious man, but as he told the Atlantic Monthly, “The fact that I don’t have any particular need for religion doesn’t mean that I have a need to cast religion aside the way some of my colleagues do.”
I spoke with some of the advisors informally about Big Questions Online, the magazine we’re going to launch soon, and was pleased to receive a good response. These people want to communicate their research and the answers they’re finding to big questions to the broader public. You can’t talk with, say, neurologist and economist Paul Zak about his latest and as yet unpublished findings on how oxytocin affects human behavior without getting really excited about the implications (and, frankly, a bit scared — but mum’s the word until he publishes). You’d better believe we’re going to be writing about that. I spoke with a Greek Orthodox theoretical physicist who was fascinating on how the writings of St. Gregory Palamas appear to have anticipated by over six centuries some things that physicists are discovering today about the nature of reality. Maybe it’s the kind of person I am, but that sort of thing is catnip to me. I think there’s a big audience out there for these discussions and the fundamental questions of meaning they raise, and we’re going to be publishing for them. And we’ve also signed up some prominent skeptics and atheists to contribute regularly to our pages. Personally, I would rather publish the work of a vigorous and fair-minded atheist than a lazy theist whose views happen to agree with my own. This, I gathered from my experience last summer, is what Templeton wants. Until my exposure to JTF last summer, I had no idea about all the great, serious and solid research and work the Foundation supported. I’m excited to be a part of that now. If you’ve been a longtime reader of this blog, you can certainly see why.
Anyway, you may have seen The Nation’s feature on the Templeton Foundation, which is bouncing around the blogosphere. I read it over the weekend. It describes me and my boss Gary Rosen, formerly of Commentary, as “hardened partisans,” which makes me smile. I’ve been at the foundation for almost six months, and I don’t think Gary and I have talked politics even once. Anyway, Nathan Schneider is a very good writer, but knowing his piece was to appear in The Nation, I was prepared for it to to be hugely critical of the foundation. In the end, it was actually not bad (note well: that is my personal opinion, not necessarily the opinion of others at the foundation; I’ve only talked about it very briefly at work, and only with a couple of people). Though I don’t agree with Schneider that the Templeton Foundation is particularly right-wing — our foundation head, Dr. Jack Templeton, keeps his personal political activity strictly separate from the Foundation’s work — this conclusion is interesting:

…the foundation is also better positioned than most to foster a conservatism–and a culture generally–that holds the old habits of religions and business responsible to good evidence, while helping scientists better speak to people’s deepest concerns. On issues that range from climatology to stem cells, science has too often taken a back seat to the whims of politics, and Templeton’s peculiar vision offers a welcome antidote to that. To live up to this calling, Big Questions are one thing; but the foundation will have to stand up for tough answers, too, as it did when announcing the findings of a major study that intercessory prayer doesn’t improve medical outcomes, or when rebuking intelligent design.
John Templeton did want to hijack the meaning of life; he meant to remake the human race’s moral and cosmic toolbox in some scientific revolution of the spirit. His money has given new life to ancient questions that matter to all of us

How about that? Schneider found some things to object to in the Foundation’s work and background, but no smoking gun, or anything close to it. Of course, Schneider’s failure to condemn the Templeton Foundation as the root of all evil ruined P.Z. Myers’ day. Because Schneider actually committed critical journalism instead of a hatchet job, Myers denounced his piece as “one more swoop of the brush in an effort to always whitewash the foundation as sober, sensible, and serious, instead of the nest of delusional religious apologists that it actually is.”
That P.Z. Myers calls The Nation (!) a patsy for Templeton tells you more about P.Z. Myers’ delusional anti-religious mindset than it does about The Nation. Any fair-minded person who spent time with the folks at the Board of Advisors meeting this weekend would have seen sober, sensible and serious men and women of science, religion and scholarship. It doesn’t fit the Ditchkins narrative, but it happens to be true. If people like top science journalist Chris Mooney — an atheist who once published a book denouncing the GOP for its supposed “war on science” — and magazines like The Nation, fail to see Templeton as uniquely sinister, that reveals something about the hysterical, groundless biases of those who do.



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TTT

posted June 11, 2010 at 1:32 pm


One shouldn’t expect consistency from [New Atheists]. They were the ones howling over how unfair it was that the World Science Festival held a panel talk about science and religion and didn’t invite them, even though they believed the conversation shouldn’t be taking place at all.
On the contrary, the atheists were complaining about a lack of consistency–grammatical and argumentative consistency on the part of the panel organizers. If it is to be focused on the question “are science and religion compatible?” (as it was), then it is at best a cop-out to deliberately exclude anyone who would say “no”. If the point had been instead “Of the many ways in which science and religion are compatible, which is best?” or whatever, the other-ization would have been less obvious and irksome.



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Peter

posted June 11, 2010 at 2:30 pm


In all fairness, Mooney would be horrific person to apply for a Templeton fellowship, accept it, and then trash the organization. The fact he applied for it and took it means he was predisposed to the Templeton philosophy.
The fact that he agrees with you about the New Athiests–the new whipping-boys and girls–doesn’t necessarily give his defense of Templeton–which are likely quite sincere and intellectually honest–much credibility.



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Cultural conservative?

posted June 11, 2010 at 2:50 pm


Religious organisations can seldom do any good in the eyes of the Ditchkins.
I’m reminded of a joke attributed to Margaret Thatcher, who was damned by her critics whatever she did:
“If I walked on water, they’d say it was because I was afraid to get my feet wet.”



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Nate W

posted June 11, 2010 at 3:20 pm


Peter said: “The fact he applied for it and took it means he was predisposed to the Templeton philosophy.”
So what are you suggesting, that the only defenses that have any credibility would be those coming from people who don’t agree with what the foundation does? That a defense loses credibility just because a person agrees with what they’re defending?



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Peter

posted June 11, 2010 at 3:24 pm


A defense from someone on a paid trip to Oxford and a fellowship-paid sabbatical to do research should be understood in that context. That’s all I’m saying. For him to not defend Templeton under those circumstances would be newsworthy.



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steve

posted June 11, 2010 at 3:54 pm


I thought Schneider’s piece was pretty fair, but it is an historical piece. I am less concerned about Rosen than I was now that I have had a chance to skim some of his works away from Commentary. While you are certainly not a movement type, I think it fair to say you are a fairly right leaning social conservative on many issues.
My guess is that with Jack in charge (the Swift Boat people were pretty despicable IMHO), and the people he is hiring, there will be a tilt to the right, but only time will tell. The Templeton Foundation has been reasonably fair in the past. I think you have pointed out that the MSM generally shows its bias in what it chooses to cover. That is what I would expect rather than overt politicization.
Steve



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Rod Dreher

posted June 11, 2010 at 4:28 pm


Peter:
For him to not defend Templeton under those circumstances would be newsworthy.
No it wouldn’t have. As far as I’m aware, I’m the only person of my Templeton Cambridge class who bothered to address the controversy publicly last year. Nobody from Templeton asked me to write anything supporting them. Was it newsworthy that nobody else on the program last year wrote or publicly spoke in defense of (or critical of) Templeton? Of course not. Mooney, whom I don’t know, could have kept his mouth shut, and nobody would have said boo. I presume he spoke out for the same reason I did: because it’s a great program sponsored by a fine organization. Of course that means nothing coming from me, because I am a theist and a social conservative. But coming from a science journalist who does not believe in God, who has criticized the Republican Party as anti-science, and who openly doubts Templeton’s view that science and religion are basically compatible — well, that says a lot.
You, Peter, seem to have set up a no-win situation for Templeton, in which the only genuine judgment to have arrived at on the matter is one critical of the foundation. If you are a skeptic who participates on a Templeton program, and finds it to have been credible and useful, well, under your view, that judgment doesn’t count because you “took Templeton money.” To that I remind you that Mooney, like every journalist on the program, has the right to remain silent. To my knowledge, every one of my colleagues did last summer — and I would have as well if I had gotten to Cambridge and found that the program was dodgy in some way. What surprised me, as someone who turned up in Cambridge knowing very little about Templeton, was how intellectually substantive, even thrilling, the seminars and lectures were — and how agenda-free they were.
If you’ve made up your mind that there’s no way Templeton can be praised, well, that’s your right. But it’s unfair, and because it cannot be falsified, has the quality of a religious belief, not a legitimate judgment based on dispassionate evaluation of the evidence.



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Peter

posted June 11, 2010 at 4:39 pm


I’m the only person of my Templeton Cambridge class who bothered to address the controversy publicly last year. Nobody from Templeton asked me to write anything supporting them.
And look, now you are on the payroll.
I think the Nation article was fair. It raised concerns many have had about the Templeton Institute and found them mostly illegitimate. My only point was the Mooney isn’t a truth-speaker in the usual sense given his monetary and professional interest.
I think Templeton can be praised. In fact, I have no bone to pick with them. I just don’t think the New Athiests are the boogeymen who need to be mocked and dismissed at every turn and they have an interesting point about Templeton’s agenda. Journalists and scientists should be suspicious of rich people and foundations with agendas. A little sunshine is healthy.



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Richard

posted June 11, 2010 at 5:13 pm


Well, Peter, at least we don’t have to guess about YOUR prejudices!
Talk about bogeymen!
Look, people who have “concerns” about Templeton can express them all they want, and they can also get stuffed. It’s a private foundation with private money and if they want to fund manure-powered blenders that’s their business. You don’t have to accept the research it funds, but to dismiss it because there is cash involved is to impugn EVERYONE without the benefit of the doubt.
And you don’t get sunchine when you cover everything with a blanket.



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Turmarion

posted June 11, 2010 at 7:39 pm


Peter: I just don’t think the New Athiests are the boogeymen who need to be mocked and dismissed at every turn and they have an interesting point about Templeton’s agenda.
They may not be “boogeymen”, but of course the New Atheists themselves have an agenda, and many of them are quite quick to use mockery and dismissal towards religion. Cuts both ways. I might point out that there are other atheists who did not take Templeton money who believe that the New Atheists are not helpful to their cause, and that they are as extreme in their own way as fundamentalists are in theirs. Thus, criticism of the New Atheists can’t be completely blamed on those awful believers.



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MH

posted June 11, 2010 at 10:07 pm


I can’t get worked up over the Templeton Foundation. I think they’re trying to mix oil and water, but they don’t seem they’re run by Dr Evil to me. But it would be great if I could convince Templeton to give me a grant! But since I’m not a researcher that’s not likely to happen.
There was an interesting thread on an atheist forum about how roughly 8% of Americans state beliefs that are atheistic. But only about 1% self identify as atheists. So why the difference? It is like that other 7% doesn’t want to be part of an angry minority.



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Nate W

posted June 11, 2010 at 11:21 pm


“I just don’t think the New Athiests are the boogeymen who need to be mocked and dismissed at every turn”
We all reap what we sow.



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Richard

posted June 12, 2010 at 8:11 am


I love Templeton’s work but because it explores things that others don’t. But I’ll also be the first to admit I often do not understand some of what the research means.
Here’s a question: many neuroscientists are reporting that what they know about how the brain works – mirror neurons, for instance – suggest that things like morality, self-awareness, consciousness, etc. may simply be a sort of neural adaptation. And it follows that any transcendent worldviews may (note that) be nothing more than a non-biological attempt to explain what science only recently discovered. But how can thought, consciousness, awareness, etc. come from mere bits of matter? Awareness of the material universe is not, by definition, part of the material universe. In other words, knowledge of a thing cannot be one of the thing’s parts – it is transcendent to it.
Sorry if this is a red herring, but since reading the piece on Templeton, I was reminded of some of this reasearch and it’s been bothering me.



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Hector

posted June 12, 2010 at 8:33 am


Re: But only about 1% self identify as atheists. So why the difference? It is like that other 7% doesn’t want to be part of an angry minority.
More likely, because most atheists (at least the ones I tend to know) don’t define themselves by their atheism the same way that a lot of Christians define themselves by their Christianity.
I’m a Christian, and I self-identify as a Christian, and it’s an important part of my identity, and most people find out my religious beliefs pretty soon after first getting to know me. My mom is an atheist, but you could be friends with her for a very long time and not have the faintest idea about her religious beliefs or lack thereof. Because being an atheist is a relatively small and incidental part of her identity.
The same isn’t true, of course, of the professional atheists (like Hitchens, Dawkins, or that ‘Berlioz’ character that Bulgakov satirises so wonderfully in the introduction to ‘The Master and Margarita’). But I’d say that in my experience most atheists are not like Hitchens and Berlioz. Most atheists are the atheist equivalent of ‘Christmas and Easter Christians.’



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Steve Esser

posted June 12, 2010 at 9:37 am


Dear Rod Dreher:
I look forward to the new magazine, it sounds great. As someone who shares a deep interest in big questions, I wish you and the foundation well. It has an incredible opportunity to make a positive impact by funding cutting edge research that otherwise wouldn’t get much of a chance. I’ve been concerned that its direction might evolve away from the forward-looking vision of the founder: hopefully this concern will be unfounded.
Best regards,
– Steve Esser (also, a belated welcome to the philadelphia area)



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MH

posted June 12, 2010 at 9:46 am


Richard, water was not part of the material universe until it cooled enough for matter to condense and form compounds. So water is an emergent property of reality. A materialist would view consciousness in a similar way.
Richard said, “In other words, knowledge of a thing cannot be one of the thing’s parts – it is transcendent to it.”
The reflection API in Java and other modern computer languages says you’re logic is faulty.
Hector, that’s a good point. I would say may lack of belief isn’t that big a part of me. But the relates to why I wouldn’t want to be part of the 1%.
I should say that if the New Atheists are fundamentalists, they’re a fairly harmless sort. The write books and use harsh rhetoric. The world would be a much better place if fundamentalists of all stripes acted like that.



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Richard

posted June 12, 2010 at 11:57 am


MH, I don’t doubt my logic is faulty, but how so?
Water is reality; I’m not sure I understand how it emerges from reality (although maybe it did once at the Big Bang). A materialist has to explain how the non-material (though, awareness, consciousness) evolved from the material. It doesn’t make sense.



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MH

posted June 12, 2010 at 1:08 pm


Richard, your statement was that knowledge of a thing can not be one of the things parts. In computer science this is the concept of something being self-describing which is a kind of recursion. Modern computer languages include the ability for a program to examine its parts and take new actions based upon what is present. In a sense it is knowledge of a thing included within itself.
An example from living systems would be DNA which contains enough information about itself to make a new copy of itself.
The water example is to show how new properties of reality (liquidity for water) can emerge out of new organizations of matter. Liquidity was not present before the hydrogen and oxygen combinded, but is present afterwards. So a materialist would state that thoughts are an epiphenomena of specific states of matter related to the complex arrangements present.
As evidence they would point out that with an MRI a scientist can tell if you are thinking about a face or a banana based upon the regions of your brain that are active. So mental states seem related to specifc material states.
Take things a step further. Can we try to stimulate specific material states of the brain (via chemicals or electricity) and see if that creates mental states? The answer is yes because during brain surgery they need to keep the patient awake and stimulate the brain to find the correct region. As they are doing this stimulating specific areas produces specific responses. Drugs are a chemical example of the same.
So the chain of causality seems to be material leads to mental.



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Richard

posted June 12, 2010 at 4:28 pm


MH, I see some of what you’re saying, but a computer by definition can do nothing that is not in its input or programming to begin with; a computer can’t do anything ‘new’ on its own. This was proved by Gregory Chaitan, the IBM computer genius.
I still think that the materialist has two problems (at least): first, if the thoughts of your brain are no more than little elctrical impulses, then why should we trust them? Second, you’ve still got the problem that there is a category error in assuming you can go from the material (brain cells and electricity, for example) to the non-material (consciousness, awareness).
Now scientists know a lot about the regions of the brain, I’ll grant, but that is not new. By stimulating a certain region you may make me think about God, or I may be thinking about peach ice cream. The materialist cannot tell us what that little electrical impulse actually means to an individual.



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MH

posted June 12, 2010 at 5:27 pm


First I am using water and computers as examples of emergence and self knowledge. I’m not claiming that the mind is a computer as I don’t want to get bogged down in that debate.
I’m not completely sure what you mean by your first problem. But I would claim that since our minds evolved to deal with the material world, then error is eliminated by harsh reality. We can trust these impulses because we’re here and all the faulty cases were eaten.
In the second case reductive materialism seeks to prove they are the same thing. Emergentism is in contrast with reductionism because it claims that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. What you would need to prove is that one causes the other.
In experiment above the individual can tell you what they are thinking and you could in theory build a dictionary between material states of the brain and claimed experience. Given that mateiral changes can create mental changes that implies causality goes that direction.
But turn this around the other way. Can I cause changes in the material world with thoughts alone? So far to change reality I must always take physical action. So causality does not apear to go that direction.



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Siarlys Jenkins

posted June 12, 2010 at 10:41 pm


I sort of wondered why Templeton suddenly become a topic of discussion in the posts at Alexandria, Crossroads of Civilization. Now I see there was a context to it. I hope it is true that Jack Templeton keeps his political advocacy insulated from the work of the foundation, because the foundation would be badly compromised if he doesn’t.
But, fundamentally, the foundation is serving a good purpose. Suppose, just suppose, that there is a God, who created all that is, seen and unseen including that which we can examine through scientific study. Getting our understanding of each into a workable alignment would only make sense.
I’ve lost track of the post about the 6th century saint, but I have often corresponded with an Orthodox rabbi who says Judaism has understood what physicists call quantum mechanics since Sinai. I’m sure that’s not true in detail, but there would seem to be some common conceptual frameworks.
For those who insist on atheism, I must ask, how did Moses know, without the aid of satellites mapping cosmic radiation, that the universe began, creation ex nihilo, with a tremendous burst of electro-magnetic energy? How was he able to perceive the “surface of last scattering”? (Aka, the division of light from darkness). It seems someone able to observe the process must have informed him. No other creation mythos in the world matches this story — its usually something about an oversize wizard sitting in a swamp somewhere making little mud figures.
“southeast expiate” ???



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MH

posted June 13, 2010 at 6:59 am


Siarlys Jenkins, the big bang theory does not say the universe was created ex nihilo. It states that the universe evolved from a hot dense state. What was before the hot dense state is unknown.
Frankly I find the creation storie vague enough on the details that you could retroactively fit almost any theory onto it.



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