11 October 2005

Reporting on Reporting on the Templeton Foundation.

By Nick Street

On the front page of the Science section of The New York Times last week, Dennis Overbye posted an update on recent views of the Virgo Cluster — a spectacular and chaotic tangle of thousands of galaxies and trillions of stars. Astronomers are keen on Virgo, not just because it puts on a good show, but also because our own galaxy may leap into this cosmic mosh pit in a few billion years. Overbye tells us that at a distance of 50 million light years, the Virgo Cluster is “next door,” relatively speaking, “and its gravity is strong enough to have retarded slightly the expansion of the universe in our neighborhood.”

You might say that Presbyterian billionaire John Templeton is having a similar effect on coverage of the science and religion debates. In addition to the newly inaugurated Templeton-Cambridge Fellowships in Religion and Journalism, Templeton’s foundation also awards an annual Templeton Prize for “progress in religion.”

New York Times reporter George Johnson, who was recently in Cambridge to receive one of the journalism fellowships, notes that while the occasional non-Christian has won the $1.5 million Templeton Prize, the award has almost always gone to a Christian.

This bias is hardwired into circuitry of the Templeton Foundation, the stated purpose of which is “to pursue new insights at the boundary between theology and science,” overcoming what it calls “the flatness of a purely naturalistic, secularized view of reality,” and thereby “to join science with faith.”

Johnson argues that the worldview of the Templeton Foundation is distinct from the faith that guides the advocates of intelligent design. Still, he can’t avoid the conclusion that the “reconcilers” whom Templeton most wants to encourage are looking not just for awe in scientific discoveries but “the constant, hovering presence of the kind of God…who watches over us and responds to our prayers.” Curiously, after his encounter with Templeton money, the skeptical Johnson has been finding God lurking in the most improbable places. In his review of the Dalai Lama’s new book on the convergence of science and spirituality, Johnson writes that, “All religion is rooted in a belief in the supernatural.” Specifically, Johnson believes that karma, a Buddhist term used to describe the phenomena of cause and effect, is the same sort of otherworldly abstraction that he finds at the root of Christian efforts to reconcile science and faith.

For Johnson, this explains why the Dalai Lama “recoils at one of [evolution's] most basic tenets: that the mutations that provide the raw material for natural selection occur at random.” “There you have it,” he concludes. “Eastern religion’s version of intelligent design.”

Well, not quite. The Dalai Lama’s point illustrates a fundamental blind spot in the idea of random selection — namely, that in nature, the causes that effect evolutionary change aren’t random but very specific. Predation by polar bears isn’t a factor in the evolution of the Everglades manatee. Bacteria swarming around geothermal vents along the mid-Atlantic ridge don’t fret much about shrinking glaciers in New Zealand.

All natural phenomena — from the whirl of electrons around the nucleus of an atom to the dance of galaxies in the Virgo Cluster — result from specific chains of causes and effects. Consider that you’re reading these English words in the Roman alphabet on a computer screen and not in cuneiform on a clay tablet. There’s nothing random about it.

Does tracing back these ripples across the pond of space and time bring you face to face with a supernatural intelligence that sets the whole show in motion? Well, if you’re a Christian, yes. The universe has a beginning and an end and unfolds according to God’s will. If you’re a Buddhist, no. The ceaselessly changing universe has no beginning and no end, and there’s no abiding spirit or self that exists apart from it.

If you’re a science reporter for The New York Times, you should take care not to let the glint of gold blind you to the difference between these two points of view.

Nick Street is a graduate student at the University of Southern California.