I'm so sorry, you fellows, but I always religiously avoid your sort

[ Sun. Apr. 16. 2006 ]

EVERYONE HAS A fleeting fantasy in which they are reborn as, say, a Hollywood star or a stupendously wealthy author. My occasional fancy is that I am a science reporter of some repute, bringing beard-tuggingly important matters — such as the dialogue between science and religion — to the attention of readers and opinion-formers.

So I flirted with the idea of applying for a Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowship in Science and Religion. The placement at Cambridge University would undoubtedly be fun — I’d spend two months listening to scientists, religious scholars and philosophers. I’d hang out with serious thinkers, meet high-minded hacks, my credentials as an intellectual would soar. With a stipend of about £10,000, plus book allowance and travel expenses, it wouldn’t be a badly paid gig, either.

The only hitch, apart from selling the jolly to my editors, was the origin of the cheque. The John Templeton Foundation is an enormously wealthy charity that awards an annual prize of $1.4 million for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities (Sir John Templeton, a financier, insisted that the prize should be more lucrative than the Nobel Prize).

Over the past decade Templeton prizes have gone to scientists who have explored such concepts as nothingness, infinity, and multiple universes, exactly the kind of “wow” subjects that inspire awed contemplation. Next month the Cambridge University cosmologist John D. Barrow will receive his cheque at Buckingham Palace; he is praised for work that “has illuminated understanding of the Universe and cast the intrinsic limitations of scientific inquiry into sharp relief” .

Ah, yes, the “limitations of scientific enquiry”. This quote hints at the religious agenda of the foundation, which has become a significant donor to such institutions as Oxford University, where it is funding research to discover whether religious belief can reduce pain. The foundation is also paying for studies about the effect of prayer on health. That would be fine, were it not for the aims stated on the section of its website devoted to spirituality and health: “. . . the foundation hopes to contribute to the reintegration of faith into modern life”.

The foundation wisely rejects intelligent design but nevertheless emphasises the metaphysical dimension of any funded research: “What can research tell us about God, about the nature of divine action in the world, about meaning and purpose?” it asks. Which, to my reading, assumes the existence of both God and divine action.

Anyway, at the end of their jaunt, Templeton journalism fellows are “encouraged to write and publish news stories, editorial pieces, or magazine articles ... contributing to a more informed public discussion of the relationship between science and religion”.

Now, consider that one of my more memorable articles about just this topic contended that illusions of the divine may point to mental illness. Another article rubbished a study that claimed that childless couples could double their chances of IVF success by getting strangers to pray for them. Neither study was associated in any way with the foundation, but I wonder whether it would have considered those pieces “more informed”?

My vague misgivings have now been articulated by John Horgan, a science writer and agnostic who became a 2005 Templeton fellow. “I rationalised that taking the foundation’s money did not mean that it had bought me, as long as I remained true to my views,” he wrote last week in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the US equivalent of The Times Higher (click here to read his essay).

So, what happened when Horgan told a foundation official that he had no wish for religion and science to be reconciled? “She told us that . . . she didn’t think someone with those opinions should have accepted a fellowship.”

I applaud those writers who become Templeton fellows; I commend their desire to learn more and I wish them well in their efforts to keep an open mind. In truth, I envy them their two-month summer sabbatical.

Perhaps I lack backbone, but I worry that accepting the foundation’s largesse might make me a bit soft. And a soft reporter is the last thing needed by infertile couples who wrongly believe that a stranger’s prayer will help to bring them a child.

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