Online Extra: Science and Religion, But Not Politics

Templeton Foundation's Charles L. Harper disputes charges that the group promotes intelligent design and a conservative agenda

The Templeton Foundation, which has an endowment approaching $1 billion, will give nearly $60 million in grants next year to projects that use scientific methods to pursue spiritual discoveries. Projects range from a Duke University researcher's study of the effects of church attendance on blood pressure to a Harvard scientist's inquiry into the role of cooperation in evolution.

This focus has led some people to question whether the foundation is pushing a conservative agenda. In particular, the foundation has been accused of being a proponent of intelligent design after it funded a small number of intelligent-design-related seminars in the late 1990s. The foundation has also given money to several scientists who later became associated with the intelligent-design movement.

Charles L. Harper, a senior vice-president of the foundation, takes issue with the classification. He is quick to point out that the Templeton Foundation is the largest funder of religious projects that challenge intelligent design. BusinessWeek reporter Jessi Hempel recently spoke with Harper on the subject. Edited excerpts of that conversation follow:

How would you sum up the Templeton Foundation's aim? We're funding the dialogue and the interface related to the nexus of science and religion. Most people will have a caricatured notion of what that means. Right now the papers are full of intelligent-design debate, so most reporters are saying, "Well, of course you are for intelligent design." We're actually the principal critics in the intellectual realm at a research level.

You take issue with the theory of intelligent design. Can you explain where you feel it falls down? A popular notion [of the intelligent design theory] would go like this: You have science, and science explains things about the world. You have gaps in the scientific explanatory picture. Into those gaps you push God -- that's called the God of the gaps. A lot of people want there to be a failure of science to say, solve the origin of life.

The intelligent-design movement uses a term called "irreducible complexity." They would argue that evolution can't work. [I believe] there is something fundamentally wrong with the idea. They're debating the idea that evolutionary theory promotes a philosophy of atheistic materialism, nihilism.

They're pursuing the strategy of the gaps. [Intelligent-design proponents believe] there's a gap in the scientific logic and that gap needs to be protected because it's the territory of the divine. This kind of notion -- I would call it a folk concept. It's extremely widespread.

How does it differ from your approach? Our approach would be entirely different. We would want to recognize, encourage, and advance the scientific standing of the evolutionary process.

One doesn't see God only existing in the gap. Where God comes in is not a gap in the specific mechanisms but in what you might call a sense of wonderment and appreciation for the beauty and the elegance and the wisdom of the whole. It's a move away from a folk concept toward a concept that is actually very ancient.

It's to see a concert between understanding scientific appreciation and the theological perspective. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why does nature have the wonder and order that it does? We try to bring science and theology together in a mutual appreciation.

How widely held is your understanding among religious academics? You'll find many Nobel laureates in science and biology who think this way, and you'll find many fundamentalists who think this way. These hook concepts [that address heated culture-war issues] are very deeply entrenched in America. We call them fundamentalism and photographic negative fundamentalism. You'll find the latter very well established in Harvard faculty offices and the former outside of the elite academies.

Yet people are sometimes quick to lump you in with those who support intelligent design. Why do you think your perception is misunderstood? Because of the political situation right now, the media plays a scattering role. The media actually leads to lack of understanding on many of these issues because the media is usually playing politics. They tend to muddle us together with George Bush vs. whatever.

Once you get these things politicized -- and the intelligent-design people are highly politicized -- you tend to lose all hope of having any thoughtful advance on the ideas because everything just emerges into a great big mud fight between different partisan decision makers. These days a number of frustrated reporters [have] come to us, and they're rather frustrated they can't pursue the story they've been assigned by their editors because it just doesn't turn out to be right when they do the reporting.

What is the standard story you fear gets told about the foundation? The standard story is that Sir John Templeton must be a Christian fundamentalist. This is almost a bizarre notion. Sir John Templeton is as far from a Christian fundamentalist as imaginable. His way of thinking is quite close to Hinduism in the metaphysical aspects -- it's very multifaith. He's actually very critical of Christian evangelicals.

Isn't his son a born-again Christian? Jack has his own philanthropic activities; he does a lot of his own stuff. He and his father have worked very innovatively with lawyers to develop a donor-intent audit process. It doesn't lock down everything for perpetuity, but it makes sure that what has happened to many great American foundations could not happen to this one -- that is, that the staff of the foundation would basically invert the founder's vision. Ford would be the most well-known case of that. Also, MacArthur and Pew.

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