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.
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.