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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