The Vacuous and the Vile

Tom Flynn

More Templeton Mischief. Free Inquiry has frequently reported on the vastly wealthy John Templeton Foundation, which since its founding in 1987 has made grants totaling many tens of millions of dollars to promote the notion that science and religion are compatible. Some of them backfired. In “Have Christians Accepted the Scientific Conclusion That God Does Not Answer Intercessory Prayer?” (FI, December 2018/January 2019), Brian Bolton chronicled a high-profile Templeton-funded study on the effects of intercessory prayer, which in 2006 wound up demonstrating unambiguously that prayer did not materially affect clinical outcomes.

The occasional failure aside, Templeton’s unstinting support for research whose results might be expected to favor religion tilted the playing field in the sciences profoundly. First, numerous predictably pro-religious studies received funding that otherwise might not have—and many of which never should have. Second, Templeton largesse imposes yet further distortion by discouraging researchers from pursuing projects that might show religion in a bad light, lest they disqualify themselves from consideration for future Templeton grants.

Additional millions were lavished on other disciplines, including philosophy, where Templeton grants had outsized impact because the field seldom previously attracted large outside grants. I examined this problem in “The Corruption of Philosophy?” (FI, December 2017/January 2018). In the same issue, my “Eighteen Recent Templeton Grants” profiled, well, eighteen recent grants that funneled often-outlandish amounts of money into projects, most of which displayed a dismaying pro-religious bias*.

If you were wondering, the Templeton Foundation is still up to its characteristic mischief. I place in evidence a grant in the area of “Philosophy and Theology” that was announced too late to make my 2017 “rogues’ gallery” of questionable grants. It’s more than a little breathtaking. A grant of $220,421 went to the ultraconservative Hillsdale College, where researchers Ian Church and Justin Barrett proposed to study “The Problem of Evil and Experimental Philosophy of Religion.” The study began in June 2018 and is scheduled to operate until May 2020.

Here are some direct quotes from the grant proposal:

During the second half of the 20th century, a cohort of philosophers, most notably 2017 Templeton Prize winner Alvin Plantinga, developed what many regard as a definitive rebuttal of the so-called Logical Argument from Evil. That argument holds that the existence of evil is logically incompatible with the possibility of an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good God. The rebuttal goes like this: since it is possible that some evil exists as a necessary condition for some greater good (such as affording humans free will to choose between right and wrong), the existence of evil is not logically incompatible with God’s existence.

According to Ian Church [one of the study’s lead investigators], professor of philosophy at Hillsdale College in Michigan, while many philosophers affirm the logic of the rebuttal, many also still find it deeply unsatisfying. “Even though many philosophers admit that the existence of God is logically compatible with the existence of evil, they argue that given our experience of evil, it still seems unlikely that there’s a God like this,” Church says. “This leads experimental philosophers to wonder what sort of experience, and whose experience, is informing these skeptical sentiments.”

[The investigators propose to] design and carry out a major cross-cultural survey of intuitive reasoning about evil. “We’re trying to see if there’s any variance in our intuitions about evil, and if so, what accounts for the variance,” Church says. “Does such variance give us reason to trust one person’s intuitions—even our own—over another’s?”

In other words, the investigators take it as a given—and Templeton’s evaluators apparently accept—that the work of twentieth-century theologians and philosophers, including the prominent Alvin Plantinga, conclusively resolved the Problem of Evil. As a result, it is (supposedly) no longer logical to think the existence of evil in the world incompatible with the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good deity. This case is considered so thoroughly closed that the most reasonable response to many secular thinkers’ persistence in doubting God’s existence is a cross-cultural study to determine what is faulty in the doubters’ thought processes. What could be keeping them from recognizing what Plantinga has wrought? Elsewhere in the proposal Church is quoted as saying, “We’re also trying to have an ear for issues that we might explore in terms of the psychology of the philosophers, and thus what motivates the kinds of arguments that are defended.” The possibility that doubters may have logical or technical objections worth pondering is not even considered; no, the flaw lies in intuition, a source of subconscious error that hapless secular thinkers may not even be aware of is shading their cognition.

Oh, please.

If the Templeton Foundation made grants for hubris, I could scarcely object to it supporting this proposal.

As you may know, the so-called Argument from Evil is one of the oldest philosophical objections to the idea of a god endowed with ultimate power, knowledge, and goodness. Its first recorded expression was attributed to Epicurus; while there is controversy whether Epicurus was its author, there is no question that the argument significantly predates Christianity. Ever since, atheists and other skeptics have considered it an unanswerable argument against the existence of a deity with all the attributes now ascribed to the Christian god.

During the twentieth century, Christian theologians and philosophers strove mightily to overcome this argument, and some of them believe Plantinga finally succeeded. But that view is hardly unanimous. Some secular thinkers concede that Plantinga materially advanced the formal logic on the believers’ side of the argument but still detect fallacies in his thinking. Other secular thinkers find Plantinga’s work almost risible—a brash and exuberant tilt at a windmill, but a tilt at a windmill nonetheless. In personal correspondence, biblical scholar and cultural anthropologist Hector Avalos noted that on one level, Plantinga’s argument doesn’t even have novelty going for it:

… the “great good” argument is an old argument: “Evil exists as a necessary condition for some greater good.” You will find a form of it in Genesis 50:20 (NIV): “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”

So, maybe we should award a Templeton Prize to the author of Genesis.

Given an attempted refutation of the Argument from Evil that is considered wholly convincing only among conservative Christians, there is breathtaking arrogance in a cross-cultural study that aims to, let’s not mince words, figure out what’s wrong with the way secular thinkers understand evil that precludes their yielding to the majesty of Plantinga’s accomplishment. That the Templeton Foundation saw fit to reward this arrogance with a six-figure grant tells us much. Who knows, maybe its evaluators have a subconscious “intuition” that the best arguments for God’s existence remain ultimately unpersuasive, and so they must support increasingly desperate efforts to cloud the issue.

Even co-lead investigator Ian Church seems to be wrestling with disturbing intuitions. Give him points for fairness when in the grant proposal he concedes:

“The way this project is set up could undermine many of the seminal versions of the argument of evil for atheism,” Church says. “In so doing it might provide intellectual support for theism, but I think this project is a double-edged sword—the results could also cut against arguments that favor theism.”

Roman Catholicism in Crisis. We move from the vacuous to the vile.

During the second half of the twentieth century, speculation about sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic church was something fair-minded people just didn’t do. Even to hint at such a thing was regarded as rank anti-Catholic bigotry. Near the turn of the twenty-first century came a trickle, then a stream, then a torrent of disclosures of appalling abuses within the church—and no-less-appalling coverups and stonewalling by bishops and even higher-ranking hierarchs. Priests abusing children, priests abusing adult congregants, priests abusing nuns, nuns abusing children, and high church leaders abetting it all—it seemed every dark sub-genre of bygone anti-Catholic prurience was being proven the stuff of plain, brute fact. Sometimes it even seemed that the old canards had only been passing along the plausible parts!

In recent months, observers stopped talking about a torrent of disclosures. Now it’s more like the dam burst. The Polish church revealed that priests in that nation abused 625 children just since 1990. In Australia, Cardinal George Pell was criminally convicted of abusing choirboys and sentenced to six years in prison. The effect on church attendance there was devastating. A researcher and former priest in Melbourne told The New York Times, “We’ve lost two, possibly three generations of young people, and now the situation is worsening. The older generation is following the young.” Back in the United States, damning recitations of malfeasance within the church by state attorneys general in Pennsylvania and Illinois will soon be followed by similar investigations in many other states.

In his “Doerr’s Way” column in this issue, Edd Doerr offers a brief but disturbing review of the whole sorry situation.

The 2018 General Social Survey (GSS) was recently released. According to Eastern Illinois University analyst Ryan P. Burge, Nones—those who claim no specific religious affiliation—now compose 23.1 percent of the U.S. population. That makes Nones very slightly more numerous than either Catholics (23 percent) or evangelicals (22.5 percent). Not only did Nones gain 1.5 percent since the 2016 GSS, Catholicism has been steadily losing “market share”; Burge says it is down 3 percent in the past four years. I expect that revulsion with the church’s handling of its sex-abuse epidemic accounts for much, if not most, of that decline. The revelations of the past several months, and those doubtless still to come, may deplete U.S. Catholicism’s ranks further still.

That’s progress, but it’s not enough.

Perhaps it’s time for secular humanists—and many, many other thoughtful, moral people—to demand that any persons of conscience who remain in the Roman Catholic tradition finally abandon that tainted institution.


I acknowledge the kind assistance of Hector Avalos, James Croft, R. Joseph Hoffman, Keith Parsons, and Judith Walker in my research for the Templeton item.


* Other Free Inquiry coverage of the Templeton phenomenon includes Mark Friesel, “The Templeton Prize: A Danger to Science?” (Summer 2001); a sidebar of mine, “Who Says Money Can’t Buy Happiness?,” in the cover feature “Humanism and the Science of Happiness” (October/November 2006); a major exposé by the late Alexander Saxton (“‘Sir John’ Templeton’s Foundation,” June/July 2007); and Derek Araujo, “2009 Templeton Award goes to Physicist/Philosopher for Proving … um, What?” (June/July 2009).

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).