The Politics of Big Questions

As I’ve worked on questions of religion and reason, both in the academy and as a journalist, the John Templeton Foundation has been around every turn. As I called, corresponded, and visited with many of the leading thinkers in the science-and-religion discussion, caution was the prevailing tone—some even joked that I should get them on the record saying something nice about the foundation. Those not applying for money now expect to do so in the future, if they haven’t taken a principled stand against it. It is probably for this reason that, in all the books and articles published on science and religion year after year, none addresses in any great depth what is really the biggest science-and-religion story of the last quarter-century: the Templeton Foundation itself.

With a new article called “God, Science and Philanthropy” in The Nation, I’ve attempted to change that. It’s a close look at a fascinating and controversial organization, created by a most uncommon man:

Templeton’s own spirituality was eclectic. Though a lifelong Presbyterian, he imbibed the wisdom of religions both Eastern and Western, ranging from his friend Norman Vincent Peale, the prophet of the organization man, to Ramakrishna. Early on, his mother exposed him to the Unity School of Christianity, a turn-of-the-century movement that emphasized positive thinking and healing through prayer. The Unity School considered itself progressive and even, loosely speaking, scientific: a practical application of Christianity to modern life.

Out of his humble origins in small-town Tennessee, Templeton built a career as one of the great architects of globalization—”the dean of global investing,” Forbes once dubbed him. As he grew older, though, his wealth ever multiplying, Templeton began turning his attention away from business. “All my life I was trying to help people get wealthy, and with a little success. But I never noticed it made them any happier,” he told Charlie Rose in a 1997 interview. “Real wealth is not in money; it’s in spiritual growth.”

It’s yet another chapter in history’s sloppy tango between science and religion.

Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.