Religious Group Funding Science Research

The John Templeton Foundation aims to create a dialog between science and religion. Each year, it gives out its version of the Nobel Prize for spiritual progress. Recently, it has been generously funding physics conferences. Many physicists welcome the funds, but others feel uncomfortable and don't want to attend.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

A religious foundation is beginning a multimillion-dollar effort to fund astronomy and physics research. That may seem unusual, and it is. The organization, the John Templeton Foundation, has long generously funded efforts to create a dialogue between science and religion with the hope that both sides will get along and learn something. NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.


You know how kids sometimes look warily at a strange food item that's been put on their dinner plate? That's how scientists have sometimes seen money from the Templeton Foundation. The foundation has a lot of money, an endowment of about a billion dollars soon to effectively double. This year, it's spending about $35 million on the science and religion effort. Max Tegmark is an astrophysicist at MIT. He first heard about the organization about eight years ago when he was at Princeton.

Mr. MAX TEGMARK (Astrophysicist, MIT): I got a call from the John Templeton Foundation. I thought to myself, `Who--what's that? What's the John Templeton Foundation?'

KESTENBAUM: So he asked around and his boss said...

Mr. TEGMARK: `Stay clear of those guys. Don't meet them.'


Mr. TEGMARK: That made me decide to go meet them basically because I don't like being told who I shouldn't talk to.

KESTENBAUM: Tegmark eventually met with the foundation's Charles Harper. He was relieved to find that Harper had a PhD in astrophysics, but Tegmark still had a couple of questions.

Mr. TEGMARK: What's your view of the big bang? And what's your view of evolution? And he just laughed and said, `Well, of course, I believe in the evolution and the big bang.' And I've since learned that, in fact, all major religions in the United States essentially also are cool about the big bang and evolution.

KESTENBAUM: Tegmark says he thinks there's a lot of unnecessary paranoia on both sides; religious people who find science threatening and scientists who don't want anything to do with religion. There are a lot of those around. In 2002, the Templeton Foundation tried to host a conference at Princeton. But Tegmark says the physics department didn't want to have anything to do with it. The conference ended up happening off campus. It didn't really focus on religion. It did ask physicists to speculate about deep questions, like why does time go forward?

Mr. TEGMARK: I would say it was the most fun conference I'd ever gone to.

KESTENBAUM: The conference honored the 90th birthday of John Archibald Wheeler. Wheeler's a famous physicist who also has a strong spiritual side. Tegmark says his Princeton colleagues stayed away, but others came.

Mr. TEGMARK: And it was really fun to have this sort of coming-out-the-closet experience where people would come up and share their thoughts about philosophical things.

KESTENBAUM: It's not just metaphysical queasiness that makes some physicists stay home. Some feel the Templeton Foundation is trying to buy scientific credibility for religious ideas. Sean Carroll is a cosmologist at the University of Chicago. He recently turned down an invitation to speak at an upcoming Templeton physics conference. He says part of what made him feel weird was the money being offered. Usually, physicists don't get paid anything.

Mr. SEAN CARROLL (University of Chicago): For my level of small fish participation in the conference, there was $2,000 to give the talk, an extra $6,000 if you wrote a conference proceedings, if you were invited to write an article for the book and then there was also a competition for young scientists. The best talk given there by any such person won another cash prize. I don't remember how much it was, but it was thousands of dollars.

KESTENBAUM: Over $100,000 in all to be given for the best nine presentations. A lot of money. Carroll doesn't like that Templeton underwrites what he sees as straight-up science meetings. The Templeton view is that there's something out there beyond the reach of science. And Carroll doesn't want to lend his name and credibility to that idea. `Look at the conference information posted online,' he says. It's on a religious Web site and it lists every scientist who is even tangentially involved with information about awards they have won. Nobel Prize winners get a special mark next to their names.

Mr. CARROLL: This is not something that you see at a typical science conference. Typical science conferences are about the science, not about the wonderfulness of their participants. And this is--you know, you can feel that this is perhaps part of the publicity machine at work. `Here we are, we're hosting this conference. Look at all these fantastic people that we get to go to it.'

KESTENBAUM: So what does the Templeton Foundation hope to get out of all this? The Templeton Foundation's headquarters are just outside Philadelphia. When you walk in, you'll see two walls of photos, winners of the Templeton Prize. It's given annually to honor progress toward research or discoveries about spiritual reality.

Mr. CHARLES HARPER (John Templeton Foundation): Charlie Townes, a physicist; George Ellis, a mathematician physicist; Holmes Rolston...

KESTENBAUM: The last seven years, it's gone to scientists. The prize is worth over $1 1/2 million intentionally picked to be more than the Nobel Prize.

Mr. HARPER: Sir John Polkinghorne, he's a physicist; Arthur Peacocke, a chemist or biochemist; Freeman Dyson, a physicist...

KESTENBAUM: The man putting out the pictures is Charles Harper, the astrophysicist who met with Max Tegmark. Harper is senior vice president here.

Mr. HARPER: We are launching a major initiative in funding physics research right at the boundary of where really great questions touch on, oh, what you might call ultimate issues, like, does freedom exist in the physical world? Why does the universe exist? Why is there order in nature?

KESTENBAUM: Harper says the foundation is not trying to buy anyone. He says the reason they're paying scientists to talk at the upcoming physics conference is so they will take the time to think deeply about what they present and write.

Mr. HARPER: We wanted to have the ability to say, `Look, if you're going to play in this project, we're willing to pay you seriously serious resources for serious work.' Also we're--the Templeton Foundation--we're new entrants to physics funding and cosmology. And people are wondering, you know, what's going on? So we think it's not unreasonable to be nice, to be generous.

KESTENBAUM: The Templeton Foundation deals with a variety of religions. It supports local discussion groups, it funds journalism fellowships and some of the Templeton projects look at possible scientific evidence for God. Earlier this year, a science conference, called Water of Life, looked into whether the chemistry of the universe might be fine-tuned to promote life as we know it.

Mr. HARPER: I think water molecules are part of this amazing miraculous tapestry of life, that it's not a miracle in the sense that it's a gap that science needs to explain. It's precisely what science has explained that can be appreciated as part of the hand of a deeply wise creator.

Ms. KATHLEEN DUFFY (Nun, Physicist): We're looking at the handiwork of God.

KESTENBAUM: Kathleen Duffy is a nun and a physicist.

Ms. DUFFY: So it's a question of trying to understand a little bit more about this wonderful divine presence that's permeating our universe.

(Soundbite of tuning forks)

KESTENBAUM: There are tuning forks and slinkies in her classroom. She's a professor at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia. Duffy is also president of the Metanexus Institute, which is running the upcoming physics conference for the Templeton Foundation.

Ms. DUFFY: I really think what we're looking for is top-notch physics. We really want the real stuff, you know, so that--I mean, there's no point in trying to make a synthesis with sciences that's not really good.

KESTENBAUM: How could you imagine them being integrated?

Ms. DUFFY: Well, I'd like theologians to take the science seriously and to try to incorporate it so that the pictures of God that we're, you know, giving are more in touch with that reality. And then--I mean, I'd also love scientists to--you know, to have this sense that, you know, spirituality, religion is--can be part of their life. That would be a dream, you know, that it would make enough sense to the scientists.

KESTENBAUM: For some scientists, though, the intersection of science and religion will always be the scene of a kind of a traffic accident. Lawrence Krauss is a physicist at Case Western Reserve University. For him, science is about taking nothing on faith and religion is about taking a very big thing on faith.

Mr. LAWRENCE KRAUSS (Case Western Reserve University): To me, the greatest thing that science can do for anyone, and the reason I think it's wonderful for young kids to learn it, too, is that there's no experience like having a cherished belief that you have proven wrong. A beautiful idea that seems so magnificent that it seems like it has to be true and then you find out it's false. Because that liberates your mind in a way that's hard to describe.

KESTENBAUM: Krauss once wrote an editorial which said he felt the Templeton money was creating false impression. He then returned home one day to find a book of religious quotations sent to him by the foundation's creator John Templeton. Krauss sent back a copy of his own book, "The Physics of Star Trek." It looks at extraordinary possibilities but there's no mention of God. David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Police in London have shot and killed a man at a south London subway station one day after the second wave of bombings in the city's transit system. So far, no link has been made between the shooting and the bombings in London. We'll continue to follow this story.

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