Why the Templeton Foundation Is a Darn Good Thing

This week, an article at Slate has been making the rounds in which Sean Carroll, a Caltech physicist, proclaims loudly that he will never accept research funding from the Templeton Foundation. The Templeton Foundation is one of the largest non-governmental funders of scientific research in the world, and it distinguishes itself from other organizations through its interest in religion and its mandate to address the “big questions” like the meaning and purpose of life. Carroll and others believe that this religion-science collaboration stains of the purity of science, and I think this is great. It means there’s more Templeton research funding for me, my colleagues, and others who think that religion needs to be taken seriously. 

First, let’s have a full disclosure: I have co-written research grants for the Templeton Foundation in the past, I will write more in the future, and I will gladly accept their support should they ever offer it. The research I do, which focuses on the role of religious activities in harmonizing antagonistic relationships within small groups, is important; in fact, I think it’s very important. The more of my research gets funded, the more we’ll learn about how religion helps organize social groups, and the more the world will benefit.

Conversely, Carroll’s spurning of Templeton’s mission shows remarkable short-sightedness when it comes to the position that religion holds in human life – and in the Templeton Foundation. He’s a great physicist, but he fundamentally misjudges the level of analysis from which we need to approach religion, assuming – as many self-proclaimed advocates of steely rationalism do – that the most salient feature of religions is their explicit propositional beliefs. Use your analytic brain to discount those surface-level beliefs, he and his fellow partisans assume, and you’re justified in refusing to engage the entire religious enterprise.

Carroll writes that

(a)ny time respectable scientists take money from Templeton, they lend their respectability—even if only implicitly—to the idea that science and religion are just different paths to the same ultimate truth.

This sentiment, in addition to being a very nice textbook example of science chauvinism, reflects a mistaken belief that the only research funded by Templeton is the kind that, say, fuzzily tries to reconcile Darwinian evolution with theism. He’s wrong. The projects Templeton funds vary enormously in their aims and methods, from understanding the roots of human compassion to learning about the fundamental nature of time. Because of Templeton’s emphasis on interdisciplinary research, it’s one of the only reliable funders for investigators who straddle multiple academic specializations. Interdisciplinary work, meanwhile, provides massive benefits for society, because it doesn’t just produce discoveries – it’s obliged to show how those discoveries matter.

Templeton, Religion, and Culture

The particular fields in which I work fall broadly within the Templeton Foundation’s “Human Sciences” funding area. Projects funded under this aegis investigate the roots and potentials of positive human emotions and faculties, such as creativity, altruism, or gratitude. (These things may sound  “soft,” but try imaging a society without creativity or altruism; your imagination will frantically inform you that these soft subjects are damned important.) Religious values and aspirations play a key role in this sphere of investigation, and it’s here that Carroll’s lack of understanding is most glaringly apparent.

How does religion play into these questions about human potential? Well, humans are the cultural animal par excellence. Theologian Paul Tillich wrote that “religion is the substance of culture, (and) culture is the expression of religion.” Scientific evidence suggests that Tillich was right – religion is the structure upon which culture rests. You cannot understand a culture, its habits, or its attitudes without comprehending its religious worldview. This holds true even for secular nations such as Sweden, where many of the basic elements of life, from normative ethical stances to the very layout of cities and towns, are inextricably rooted in the country’s Protestant Christian heritage. In other words, religion isn’t ancillary to human life and culture; it’s not a superficial growth that can simply be sheared off the tree, as so many antireligious types devoutly wish. Religion is the roots and the trunk of culture…for good or ill.

The Evolution of Religion

The best argument to be made for the inextricability of religion and culture is the brute fact that religions have survived millennia of cultural dynamism and stress. This suggests (although, yes, it doesn’t completely prove) an adaptive function for religions. Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson argues that human cultural evolution is characterized by “multilevel selection,” in which evolutionary pressures force adaptations at the level of genes, individuals, and even collectives. His masterful Darwin’s Cathedral (2003) claims that many aspects of religion are products of multilevel selection pressures and intergroup competition.

Take the ancient Christian practice of caring for the sick: by ensuring that proportionately more Christians than Romans survived each scourge of plague that engulfed the empire (Romans who could afford it simply fled the cities, leaving behind the sick and dead), it helped Christianity grow relative to the pagan Roman population throughout the first centuries of Christian history. Christian emphasis on maintaining strong ingroup solidarity based on a shared religious worldview also made Christianity attractive to outsiders, causing it to grow rapidly through conversions.

Compared with the countless other religious movements that popped in and out of existence during the long centuries of the Roman Empire’s decline, Christianity offered something different: it enhanced the lives of the people who partook in it, materially helped them survive illnesses, and gave rise to very strong, resilient (if insular) communities that buffered individuals against the horrific vagaries of urban existence. In short: Christianity survived, persisted, and spread for a reason. And any other major religion that you can think of – Islam, Theravada Buddhism, Shaivite bhakti Hinduism – is similarly the result of a complex history of selection pressures. Each of these traditions survived a whirlwind of competition with other contemporary religious movements, cults, and worldviews. It’s extremely improbable that such religions would have come out on top of these competitions if they did not offer something tangible to their practitioners.*

The growing evidence that we humans use religious practices, values, and structures to organize our societies in cooperative ways – and that the religions that best help us do this are the ones that prosper and spread -– means that religion can’t just be ignored. Even religion’s unpleasant or disturbing expressions, such as gender oppression, uncomfortable alliances with coercive governments, and rejection of scientific knowledge, are rooted in this ancient culture-religion relationship. If we want to rid the world of these kinds of religious abuses, we can’t lazily wish religion away, or hope that secularization simply overtakes and eliminates religious worldviews.

Religion and Rabbits

Simplistic rationalism won’t overcome religion because religions are not the products of intentional, explicit reasoning. They are the longterm products of extraordinarily complex cultural pressures, selection processes, and evolution. Just as perfectly logical reasoning convinced 18th-century Australian settlers to introduce rabbits to their new continent as a source of hunting game, raw logic has convinced Sean Carroll that the explicit propositions of religious beliefs are, from a scientific standpoint, false and ought not to be entertained in serious public dialogue. But the Australian colonists did not understand that they were dealing with a system that was staggeringly complex, and that had not been designed by anything like explicit reasoning. Australia’s ecology was the unconscious product of eons of co-evolution between species. The colonists’ purely logical meddling, then, quickly ended in disaster, as hundreds of millions of nonnative rodents overran an ecosystem that was not adapted for their presence.

Similarly, refusing to engage religion – refusing to take it seriously as a motivator of human will and spirit – is an apparently rational decision that betrays a woeful misunderstanding of the delicate, unconscious, and evolutionary processes that endowed us with religious cultures. Religion is so entwined with what it means to be human that to simply dismiss religions as fairy tales is to misapprehend the entire human situation. Religion was not designed by conscious agents, and rejecting its explicit beliefs scarcely touches its actual nature. We must engage religion on a different level if we are to understand (and, yes, appreciate) it – just as an ecologist can only understand a biome if she begins from an awareness that nobody designed it, that it is starkly, majestically sui generis, that it is not beholden to the impoverished sort of logic that sees the value of land only in salability, or expendable resources, or weekend recreation potential.

Why It Matters

I am not saying that Sean Carroll sees the world through such a crassly utilitarian lens. What I am saying is that there is something one-dimensional about his thinking, reminiscent of the naïve assurances of past experts that the introduction of foreign species into complex ecosystems would be consequence-free, or that we could utterly shred the fabric of native cultures – all inextricably rooted, by the way, in religious worldviews – and assimilate them into the Christian, capitalist West without any negative effects. Using naïve and simplistic logic to analyze and carelessly dismiss long-established, intricately evolved systems with roots in deep time nearly always ends badly. This is why Carroll’s careless hostility toward religion does the world no favors. And this is why the Templeton Foundation is a good thing.

The stakes are high: if we fail to understand religion, we fail to understand ourselves. In a century in which our ecological and systemic challenges are biblical in proportion, and in which our struggle to find solutions to them will hinge absolutely on our ability to communicate across ideological lines, failing to understand ourselves will mean disaster. If a talented physicist in California chooses to persist with his naïvety when it comes to religion, assuming that he can simply reason the gods away and avoid any real engagement with religious attitudes, he only demonstrates his fundamental misunderstanding of how human beings operate. But his loss must not be our loss. It should instead be our gain, as the Templeton Foundation continues to fund research into science, religion, and the beliefs that motivate our behavior and passions. And with Carroll out of the competition, maybe I’ll be in line to get that next grant.


* Yes, this even includes religions that were spread through military action, such as Islam. Islam arose during a particularly unstable era of the Arabian Peninsula’s history, when religious loyalties were divided between various tribal cults, polytheistic traditions, and quasi-Abrahamic offshoots. Muhammad first gained followers by merely preaching, and the values he encouraged – honor in commercial dealings; humility; care for women, children, and the poor; etc. – were clearly prosocial; any society that actually embodied such values would have a clear advantage over a competing society that encouraged selfishness in transactions, greed in commerce, and exploitation of women and children. Of course, Muhammad lived in exactly such a culture as the latter. The fact that he gathered enough people to him to form an army in the first place says something about how appealing people found his new vision of how a culture should work.

  • ValPas

    Terrific analysis! And your writing is so clear and evocative. I’m a fan – have been for a while now. Good luck with your grant!
    As a scientist who was raised in a non-religious household, I was lucky not to have to battle the shadow of an oppressive god or mindless ritual. But I have always been fascinated with the phenomenon of religion – from the Greek and Hindu gods to contemporary New-Age mysticism. I think they all arise from internal, spiritual experiences (if I may use that phrase) by some visionary, but the vision can become solidified into cant and dogma by followers.
    As a biologist, I – like you – take the view that the past religions most likely to survive were those that promoted the survival and well-being of their adherents.
    If you’re interested in a book that takes this view, and that approaches spirituality from a sympathetic scientist’s mindset, here is a link to an overview:

    • Connor

      Thanks for the kind words, ValPas! Good to know that other science-literate people are willing to give this area of human experience a second look.

  • Matt Davis

    I think the sooner science definitively proves religion is a crock, the better for everyone. Of course, convincing everyone that their precious beliefs are false is easier said than done, but some concrete proof would do a world of good.

    • Collin237

      Since when are scientists supposed to “convince” people of things? Scientists find evidence, and the evidence speaks for itself. Religionists are the ones that thrive by “convincing”.

      There is not, and never will be, a scientific definition of “crock”.

      • Matt Davis

        Well, I didn’t say the scientists should be the ones who do the convincing. They can find the proof that religion is false, then the rest of us can go about showing the masses!

        The problem is, though, that some of these fundies ignore any science that disagrees with their dogma – see Ken Ham, for example.

        Just to add, I think we’re well on the way to proving that religious experiences are a product of the mind. I haven’t been following it recently but I heard that neuroscientists have been making progress on that front. Once we know that it’s all in the mind, then we know it’s not a communication from god or jesus or whoever, so we can immediately discount those who claim they saw or heard god in a vision.

        • Collin237

          But that doesn’t mean religion itself is crock. It only means that mental experience is a crock way to do religion.

          That’s not just semantics. Because then you get to promote other expressions of religion, such as actually going out and helping people.

          The worst aspect of religion nowadays is terrorism. Are we to hold out for the vague chance that someone will come up with a way to scientifically classify or diagnose terrorism? Of course not! We fight terrorism on the faith that it’s wrong.

          And when we fight against terrorism and other religious atrocities, what we’re fighting for is necessarily a rival of whatever deities the perpetrators worship. The only reason not to say that we’re on God’s side is that we’re letting murderers and old dirty books take away our right to define for ourselves one of the most powerful words in human language.