Troubles with Templeton obits

templetonBy most any measure, the late Sir John Templeton was a remarkable man. He was a pioneer in not one but two fields: investing in stocks and donating money to explore the intersection of science and religion. After Templeton died Tuesday, his obituaries were quite detailed and informative about one of those fields. You can guess which one his obituaries didn't fare so well. Religion News Service's obituary was not objectionable. It just wasn't insightful. Reporters Daniel Burke and Benedict Cipolla noted, appropriately, that Templeton grew up in a town not far away from the Scopes Monkey Trial occurred, a big influence on his outlook. Yet their religious analysis was only skin deep. Take this passage about the intellectual projects that Templeton funded:

High-profile initiatives have included a study on the healing benefits of prayer, overseen by a researcher from Harvard Medical School; an investigation into the development of purpose among young people; the Stanford Forgiveness Project; and the Templeton Religion Reporter of the Year award through the Religion Newswriters Association.

In February, the Templeton Foundation announced that it will donate $4 million to researchers at Oxford University to investigate the origins of belief in God.

While some critics questioned the subjects and methods of Templeton-funded projects, even skeptics acknowledged the caliber of many of the studies, and several grantees praised Templeton for his hands-off manner.

Surely this last paragraph needs an extra sentence or two of explanation; as I will note later, two publications asserted that actually the caliber of the studies was questionable. To get their point across, Burke and Cipolla should have found out what made Templeton's projects distinctive or not. A quote from an expert or academic would have been helpful.

This quote from Templeton, too, cried out for explanation:

"I formed charity foundations ... so that, within a century, humans will know a hundred times more about divinity and spiritual principles as any human has known to date," Templeton said in 2003.

Templeton presumably is referring to the masses, not spiritual leaders. But come on. Templeton is making a bold claim: that his charity foundations, and others like them no doubt, will reveal divinity and spiritual principles. A quote from a scholar or Templeton aide would have been helpful to readers.

At least RNS' story was critical and fairminded. Scientific American's obituary was one sided and sneering. According to reporter JR Minkel, Templeton was a well-meaning but naive old man. Consider the obit's final few paragraphs:

Critics charged that by attempting to reconcile what the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould referred to as the "nonoverlapping magisteria" of science and religion, Templeton was twisting scientific concepts in religion's name.

"This is a sad event, since from all I've heard from those who met him, he was a very nice fellow," biologist P. Z. Myers, a fierce opponent of creationism, wrote on his blog, Pharyngula. "It's just too bad that he threw so much money away into a fruitless and pointless endeavor that does nothing but prop up belief in unreality."

Others supported Templeton's work. He was knighted in 1987 by Queen Elizabeth II for his philanthropy.

While Queen Elizabeth is better known than P.Z. Myers, the contrast is not fair toward Templeton. Myer's quote is pointed and polemical. The Queen is not quoted, nor are any supporters of Templeton. Were no Templeton Prize winners available?

The Los Angeles Times' obituary had a different problem. It made an outright bizarre statement about the Templeton Foundation's projects:

... the Templeton charities have engendered controversy over the years for their support of research into such topics as character development, forgiveness, free enterprise and the role of prayer in medical healing.

Detractors have argued that the grants back flimsy science aimed at promoting religion and right-wing causes. The online magazine Slate called Templeton "a conservative sugar daddy" whose ultimate goal was "the reunification of science and religion."

How topics such as character development and forgiveness are controversial is never broached. I realize that numerous post-Enlightenment philosophies deny free will, as do some Christian ones. But unless I am wildly off base, a typical LAT reader would wonder why character development and forgiveness, or even prayer, meet intellectual resistance.

Don't get me wrong. Maybe Templeton's awards and prizes were hokum, although I doubt it given the roster of its past winners. But these obituaries needed to explain why it was so.

Please respect our Commenting Policy