The Corruption of Philosophy?

Tom Flynn

Is philosophical naturalism up for sale? If so, the John Templeton Foundation is the leading buyer. This free-spending institution has cut a mighty swath across fields from science to psychology, ethics to religion. Its impact on philosophy may be among the greatest of all, if only because there was so little high-dollar grantmaking in academic philosophy before Templeton entered the field.

If the Templeton name is new to you, here’s a thumbnail history.

Mutual-fund magnate (and devout Christian) John Templeton entered high-profile religious philanthropy in 1972, when he instituted the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. (Secularists might be forgiven for wondering whether “progress in religion” is oxymoronic.) The first winner was Mother Teresa (1973). Later winners ranged from scientists (Paul Davies, 1995; Freeman Dyson, 2000; John Polkinghorne, 2002; Martin Rees, 2011) to social activists (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1983; the Dalai Lama, 2012; Desmond Tutu, 2013), philosophers (Charles Taylor, 2007; Michael Heller, 2008), and religious innovators (Thomas Torrance, 1978; Billy Graham, 1982; Bill Bright, 1996).1 The current Templeton Prize winner is American theologian Alvin Plantinga, who developed newly subtle (some would say, devious) arguments for belief in God.2

Since its inception, the Templeton Prize carried a cash award larger than the Nobel Prize. In 2001, the “progress in religion” terminology was retired; the Templeton Prize henceforth honored “Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities” (a further oxymoron, perhaps). Today, the Prize’s website says that it “honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.”3

In 1987, fifteen years after creating his prize, John Templeton took the next step, launching his eponymous Foundation as a grant-making institution. (In the same year, he received a low order of British knighthood.) The Templeton Foundation immediately established itself as an unusual—and unusually generous—grantor. It tends to support projects that “center on bringing science and religion closer together—usually, with religion in the dominant role,” as historian Alexander Saxton wrote in a 2007 Free Inquiry exposé.4 “During its life,” Saxton continued, “the Foundation has moved steadily from the lowbrow fringes of our intellectual establishment to its respectable, highly privileged center. The methods by which this transformation was carried out have been crude but effective: the Foundation has simply bought up scientists, teachers, and educators.”

The Templeton Foundation can afford to think big. With an endowment reported at $3.2 billion, in 2016 it made 104 grants totaling $77.4 million.5 Sir John Templeton died in 2008; he was succeeded by his son, John Templeton Jr., whose Christianity was markedly more evangelical than his father’s. Upon John Jr.’s death in 2015, he was succeeded as president of the Foundation by his own daughter, Heather Templeton Dill.

By its sheer scale, Templeton’s giving has a potentially pernicious effect in every field it penetrates. Whether in the physical sciences, psychology, philosophy, or elsewhere, academics who hold naturalistic, humanistic, or atheistic worldviews—by all accounts, most of them—may be powerfully incentivized not to publicize those views lest that put them out of contention for a Templeton grant someday. Only the brashest or the most secure will feel comfortable openly taking stands unfriendly toward religion. This alone may weaken the influence of even a near-consensus world­view (as naturalism is among academic philosophers in the United States) while imparting a false sense of vigor to competing religious or “spiritual” worldviews though they have weak academic constituencies. As philosopher Maarten Boudry observes in this issue, “If you are willing to say something nice about religion and faith, or at least challenge naturalism and ‘scientism,’ you are more likely to get Templeton money. Plausibly, the Templeton Factor alone has artificially inflated the apparent appeal of religiosity and anti-naturalism in the academic world.”

Templeton largesse has especially favored projects promising to establish that science and religion are compatible, as well as studies in so-called positive psychology that spotlight the relation between mind and body in ways that suggest “spirit” may have a mediating role, perhaps enhancing resilience. Sometimes Templeton-funded projects yield disappointing results. Notable in this vein was the ten-year, $2.4 million Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP), led by no lesser New Age luminary than the cardiologist and mind-body guru Herbert Benson. In 2006, STEP revealed that seriously ill patients for whom strangers prayed had worse clinical outcomes that those who went unprayed-for—hardly the outcome Templeton funders must have anticipated.6

In the physical sciences, at least, Templeton largesse has attracted high-profile pushback, albeit principally from the “brashest or most secure” among academics. In 2005, physicist Sean M. Carroll spurned an invitation to address a Templeton-sponsored conference. He explained his decision on his blog, charging that “the entire purpose of the Templeton Foundation is to blur the line between straightforward science and explicitly religious activity, making it seem like the two enterprises are part of one big undertaking.”7

More recently, philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, the honorary chair of this feature, withdrew from the 2015 World Science Festival because the event and the session to which he had been invited were cosponsored by Templeton. “I don’t do Templeton-funded events,” Dennett noted, later telling Religion News Service’s Kimberly Winston: “I would be very happy to have the Templeton Foundation sponsor research on religion and science. But what they are doing now is sponsoring some very fine science with no strings attached and then using their sponsorship of that to try and win prestige for other projects that are not in the same league. . . . I compare it to an art collector who spends a lot of money on excellent art and then has a show with a few pieces by his brother. It’s trying to elevate the prestige of his brother by having them in the same room with a Cezanne and a Monet.”

Biologist Jerry Coyne applauded Dennett’s decision, writing: “I don’t think for a minute that the Foundation is interested in advancing science that has no spiritual overtones. They are coopting scientists into their stable and . . . they refuse to separate the pure-science projects from the spiritual projects.”8

Biologist and best-selling author Richard Dawkins, now a member of the Center for Inquiry Board of Directors, holds the Foundation in no higher esteem. He recently told Free Inquiry:

The Templeton Foundation tries, intermittently, to be respectable but the cloven hoof keeps surfacing. Fundamentally, what they are about is undercover deployment of vast wealth to subvert science. Decent scientists are, in effect, bribed to betray their principles and lend the prestige of their name to promoting superstitious nonsense which, but for the money, they wouldn’t touch with a bargepole. Nobel laureates and Presidents of the Royal Society are not immune. The world would be a better place if the Templeton Foundation didn’t exist.9

Accompanying this article is a listing of eighteen recent Templeton Foundation grants in fields from science to psychology to philosophy, presenting the breadth of the Foundation’s interests and the varyi
ng subtlety of its agenda. Of those eighteen grants, nine are in the funding area of “Philosophy and Theology.” They range in size from $4,655,995 (the largest grant in the series) to $33,051 (the smallest).

But in this three-part feature the focus is on philosophy, especially naturalism in U.S. academic philosophy. There, Templeton’s largesse has had an outsized impact. Why? As journalist Nathan Schneider noted in a 2012 Chronicle of High Education exposé:

Grants of a few million dollars are a drop in the bucket for the sciences, awash as they are with tax dollars and corporate contracts; but in philosophy, where such sums are unheard of, they have the potential to transform the whole field (emphasis added). The only question is whether philosophy is a worthwhile prize anymore—whether the discipline can still change how we think about science, what we think it means, and how we do it. The foundation is putting its money on yes.10

Templeton’s betting continues, much of it aimed to counter the naturalistic near-consensus among American philosophers. That consensus regards religion with hostility at worst, disinterest at best—a stance the Foundation will apparently go to substantial lengths to change.

Which brings us back to the smallest grant on our list.

That grant—to the Kaufman Interfaith Institute at Grand Valley State University (Grand Rapids, Michigan) in the relatively modest amount of $33,051—has a remarkable backstory, suggesting that the Templeton Foundation was so eager to undermine philosophical naturalism that it was willing to fund a proposal that raised worrisome ethical questions.

The grant assisted a Kaufman Institute senior research fellow, the prolific author Kelly James Clark, to complete editing of a manuscript between January 2013 and December 2014. Clark ably completed his work; it was published in 2016 as the 534-page Blackwell Companion to Naturalism (Wiley-Blackwell, 2016).

Like the better-known Oxford and Cambridge Companions series, Blackwell Companions are thick anthologies meant to provide students with “a comprehensive and authoritative survey” of a given field, “the ideal basis for course use, representing an unparalleled work of reference for students and specialists alike.”11 Balance and objectivity are de rigeur in a volume of this sort; there’s simply no place for an ideologue grinding an axe.

Philosopher and Free Inquiry columnist Russell Blackford (who also contributed an article to part one of this feature)12 reviewed the Blackwell Companion to Naturalism in these pages in 2016.13 While finding the volume in some ways impressive, Blackford found much to object to. In his opening paragraph, for example, Blackford quoted from the Companion’s back-cover blurb, which promised “that the Companion ‘offers a systematic introduction’ to the topics, one ‘that defines, discusses, and defends philosophical naturalism.’ For better or worse, though, this turns out not to be true.” Blackford found “surprising,” even “alarming,” “the book’s overall appearance of hostility to philosophical naturalism.” He called the book “well stocked with contributors—including, it appears, its editor—who are inclined to support methodological naturalism ƒa form of naturalism that does not entail outright rejection of the supernatural) while doubting or rejecting philosophical naturalism.”14 Also present were “numerous contributors who take an accommodationist approach to the relationship between religion and science.” “Missing, however, is even one chapter that provides a full-scale defense of philosophical naturalism. “… (T)he Companion contains little in philosophical naturalism’s defense and nothing in the way of a sustained defense. It does, however, contain sustained attacks on philosophical naturalism,” Blackford concluded. “There’s an appearance, therefore, of imbalance, or even of editorial bias, but we should hesitate before drawing sinister inferences about this.”

Yet, the descriptive text on the Templeton Foundation’s own website about its grant for this project—apparently drawn from James Kelly Clark’s funding proposal—suggests that Clark approached his work with a specific goal in mind:

Naturalism, in its various guises, has become academic orthodoxy. . . . Given its influence, it needs critique. I propose a book, attractively written and published in an important series, on naturalism and its shortcomings. The book, already under contract for the prestigious and influential Blackwell Companion to Philosophy series, will offer a systematic definition, defense and then critique of naturalism. . . . Each section of this edited collection will also include substantive criticisms of philosophical naturalism by both non-theists and theists. This offers a unique opportunity to be able to influence and critique naturalism in an important and widely read reference book. This project is NOT aimed at defending naturalism (capitalization in original): the book might better be called, “naturalism and its discontents,” with theists / non-naturalists getting the last word in every section. . . . (T)he volume . . . will instantly become the standard reference work on naturalism. It will also be used as a textbook on naturalism for both advanced undergraduate and graduate courses. . . . Because it contains powerful criticisms, it will influence the next generation’s understanding of naturalism and its discontents.15

This language provides a disturbing possible explanation for the defects in the Blackwell Companion to Naturalism that Blackford called out in his review. Clark had proposed to edit, in effect, a stealth assault upon philosophical naturalism that would be published as a presumably objective reference work. The Templeton Foundation funded it. One feels for Wiley-Blackwell, which may unknowingly have published a major reference title that is less a survey of its topic than a drive-by assassination attempt—though it’s hard to see how a world-class trade publisher could fail to detect the work’s agenda if a philosophically savvy editor had simply read through the manuscript.

No less remarkable is that the Templeton Foundation openly posted this apparent declaration of Clark’s intent on its website, in the same way it posts excerpts from many other grant requests it has funded—and that this material seems not to have come to light until now.

This episode seems to show that the Templeton Foundation is so harshly opposed to philosophical naturalism that it is willing to fund an ethically problematic grant proposal—and is no less willing to see a major publisher risk damage to the integrity of a lucrative series of reference works.

As for James Kelly Clark, clearly the Templeton Foundation has no regrets. In 2017, it made another grant to the Kaufman Interfaith Institute—a larger grant this time, in the amount of $214,079—to fund a Clark-led project to encourage “analytical, faith-based inquiry” bringing together Muslim and Christian philosophers and theologians.16

The John Templeton Foundation may be making progress toward the corruption of philosophy. But its Christian admirers may one day conclude that in its quest to do so, it has (pardon the expression) sold its soul.



Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).

The John Templeton Foundation spends lavishly—and sometimes questionably—in order to oppose naturalism in philosophy.

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