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Prize in the sky: The Templeton Foundation rewards "spiritual progress," but what the heck is that?

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Is there such a thing as a spiritual fact? Finding? Discovery? Something roughly analogous to, say, the discovery of gravity? X-rays? Photosynthesis? The double helix?

This question is brought to mind by the Templeton Prize, which was given last week to the British astrophysicist Martin Rees. John M. Templeton, one of the best stock-pickers in history and a devout Christian, created the prize in 1972 to recognize spiritual achievements, just as the Nobel prizes honor scientific ones.

Templeton gave the Templeton Prize for Progress toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities (its original name) instant cachet by making it bigger than the Nobel Prize; the award now totals one million British pounds, and the ceremony takes place in Buckingham Palace. Early winners included religious figures such as Mother Teresa, Billy Graham and Charles W. Colson (the Watergate convict turned born-again preacher) but over the past couple of decades most of the winners have been scientists who view science and religion as somehow compatible—or at least not in conflict.

The prize is administered by the Templeton Foundation, which Sir John established in 1987. In addition to overseeing the annual prize, the foundation spends tens of millions of dollars a year to support academic programs, publications, broadcasts, lectures, conferences and research on topics that supposedly have some spiritual component. Sir John died in 2008, and the Templeton Foundation is now run by his son Jack, a Christian and contributor to conservative political causes, including the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush.

Stung by criticism (from me, among others) that it has a pro-religion agenda, the foundation has purged most references to religion from its mission statement. It now defines itself as "a philanthropic catalyst for discoveries relating to the 'Big Questions' of human purpose and ultimate reality." But according to an investigation published this year in Evolutionary Psychology (pdf), the foundation's religious agenda "seems to have remained the same."

What bothers me most about the Templeton Foundation is that it promotes a view of science and religion—or "spirituality," to use the term it favors—as roughly equivalent. Consider this e-mail that Jack Templeton sent me last summer soliciting nominations for the Templeton Prize. He wrote: "The Templeton Prize parallels growing attention to the idea that progress in spiritual information is just as feasible as progress in the sciences." First of all, the Templeton Foundation has artificially created the "growing attention" to which Jack refers with enormous infusions of cash into science and other scholarly fields.

Moreover, the claim that "progress in spiritual information is just as feasible as progress in the sciences" is absurd, because there is no such thing as "spiritual information". To answer the question I posed at the beginning of this post, the notion of a spiritual fact, finding or discovery is an oxymoron. Spiritual claims abound, of course—"God is love," for example—but there isn't a shred of empirical evidence for any of them, certainly nothing resembling the overwhelming evidence compiled for heliocentrism, evolution by natural selection, atomic theory and the genetic code. And if spiritual information doesn't exist, how can there be "progress in spiritual information"?

Some Templeton-funded scholars have tried to drag science down to the level of religion by arguing that science can't produce truth either. I heard this claim in 2005 when I spent three weeks at the University of Cambridge participating in a Templeton fellowship for journalists, which featured talks by scientists and other scholars. In one talk the Christian theologian Nancey Murphy asserted that scientific claims are just as tentative as religious ones, hence scientists such as Richard Dawkins—who was in the audience—have no right to be so condescending to people of faith.

This postmodern tactic is ludicrous, because millennia of theology, Murphy's scholarly discipline, have not generated a single "discovery" (and historical or archaeological findings, such as the discovery of the Gnostic Gospels, don't count). Some might say—and I might agree—that the New Testament, in which Jesus exhorts us to love our enemies, represents an improvement over the eye-for-an-eye morality of the Old Testament. But replacing nasty religious opinions with benign ones in no way resembles, say, Einstein's improvement on Newton's model of gravity.

The Templeton Foundation itself may realize the futility of its quest to find common ground between science and spirituality. Martin Rees, the recipient of the 2011 Templeton Prize, has helped refine models of the big bang, black holes and other cosmic phenomena as well as proposing how humanity can avoid being destroyed by bioterrorism or some other catastrophe. But he's not religious. He calls himself an "unbelieving Anglican" who goes to church out of "loyalty to his tribe."

From Charles Colson and Billy Graham to an unbelieving astrophysicist? Now that's progress, even if it's not spiritual.

Photo of Martin Rees courtesy Wiki Commons

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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