Templeton Foundation Talk Tomorrow in Columbus

Tuesday, October 12, 2010 at 5:55 PM Bookmark and Share
Since 2006, the Ohio State University has hosted an annual discussion of religion, science and evolution entitled The Intersection of Science and Faith. It's funded by the John Templeton Foundation (JTF) and this year's discussion will be happening tomorrow (Wednesday) at 7pm at COSI in Columbus. Attendance is free, but registration is required to attend.

If you're in town, you should check it out!

Here's the announcement from the COSI calendar (PDF flier here):
Beyond Belief: Is Religion in Our Genes?
October 13, 2010 - October 13, 2010
Wednesday, October 13, 2010 (7pm-9pm)

Supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation

Join COSI and moderator Neal Conan, senior host of the National Public Radio talk show, Talk of the Nation, for a lively panel discussion with Andrew Newberg, MD, Director of Clinical Nuclear Medicine, Director of NeuroPET Research, University of Pennsylvania, and author of "Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief," and Nicolas Wade, New York Times science writer and author of "Before the Dawn," and "The Faith Instinct." This program takes place inside the WOSU@COSI Studios on COSI's Level 1.

Register: RSVP by calling 614.228.2674, registration is required.

Cost: This event is free

Admission: Free; registration is required - please call 614.228.2674 to RSVP.
Sounds interesting, right?  But what might we expect from the discussion? What's the John Templeton Foundation?  Who are the speakers?  To answer these questions, lets take a closer look at the speakers and the funding source.

I should first say a thing or two about my motivations for writing this post.  I'm always wary that discussions like these (where both parties are funded by an organization like the JTF) might sacrifice an honest presentation of the science in order to not offend their largely religious audience.  Such "less than honest" representations of the science aren't fair to the audience and shouldn't go unrecognized.  Furthermore, religious claims about the natural world are not immune from scientific falsification.  You can't do good science - or support good science - unless you are willing to call an idea false if that's where the evidence leads you. 

Because the goal of the JTF's is to bring together science and religion, they deserve considerable scrutiny from the scientific community to ensure their efforts never undermine good science or good science education.  So towards that goal of keeping them honest about the science, I decided to share a little about the JTF, the speakers' past involvement in the "science vs. religion" debate, and whether or not they've ever made (or repeatedly made) any big mistakes that might make one question their motives.

The John Templeton Foundation is an organization whose mission includes funding...
research on subjects ranging from complexity, evolution, and infinity to creativity, forgiveness, love, and free will.
Uh, "infinity"? Clearly this isn't a heavily science- or math-based organization.  This becomes more clear when they go on to describe that their vision...
is derived from the late Sir John Templeton's optimism about the possibility of acquiring “new spiritual information” and from his commitment to rigorous scientific research and related scholarship.
While the Templeton Foundation seems far from the ranks of anti-science religious organizations like the Discovery Institute, they to me have every appearance of being more pro-religion than pro-science.  They also seem keen to use science to somehow rationalize religious/supernatural beliefs while trying to avoid subjecting such beliefs to scientific falsification (where possible).

The emphasis on religion - and not science - is apparent elsewhere. For example, the Templeton Prize they award annually has the stated purpose of honoring individuals who have (emphasis mine)
made an exceptional contribution to affirming life's spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works... outstanding individuals who have devoted their talents to expanding our vision of human purpose and ultimate reality. The Prize celebrates no particular faith tradition or notion of God, but rather the quest for progress in humanity's efforts to comprehend the many and diverse manifestations of the Divine.
Also note the implicit assumption of a monotheistic religion (I'm sure you can guess which one) behind that last statement. 

For more on the JTF, you read a bit of criticism here, and here.  On to the speakers...

Andrew Newberg is an MD who has received funding from the JTF to explore the neurophysiology of spirituality and religious experiences. By his own account, he - like many Americans - seems (1) to be a spiritual person unaffiliated with any particular religion, and (2) he seems quite hesitant to say anything bad about the religious beliefs of others (both in general, and in particular).

While his beliefs may be none of my business personally, as a scientist, doctor and public speaker his supernatural beliefs do have relevance if they inappropriately color his medical and scientific work.  PZ Myers criticized Newberg back in 2006 (here) for overreaching in his interpretations of some brain imaging data, and others have leveled similar criticism at Newberg (e.g. here, and here) for letting his spiritual beliefs creep into his work.  

You can get a better sense of Newberg by watching the interviews here (part I, part II), here and here

Nicholas Wade is a science journalist who often writes about religion. He has also received funding from the Templeton Foundation.   His popular book 'The Faith Instinct' received a fair bit of criticism for sloppy application of genetics and evolution, and for focusing on the alleged benefits of faith while largely ignoring the many problems attributed to faith (see the reviews below).

Wade seems to side with one of two main camps in the "evolution of religion" world.  The first (Wade's) thinks that religious belief is a trait that we've evolved because it has been selected for. The second thinks it's more a by product of other evolved traits (e.g. those having to do us with being highly social, intelligent, advanced communicators) and not something with any real fitness value.

For some criticisms of Wade, Sam Harris takes him to task for botching his reasoning for holding the above view here. Wade seems to have gotten his philosophy wrong (also see here) while mincing words with Dawkins in his review of Dawkins' latest book , and has received broader criticism for being a bit too friendly to the anti-evolution crowd. Wade was interviewed by Stephen Colbert here (note his non-response to Colbert's cracks at young-earth creationism) and there's an interview with him in the American Scientist here.

Overall, it should be an interesting discussion.  My impression of these two is that Wade is less likely to misinterpret (or otherwise botch) the science, whereas Newberg seems more inclined to package the science in a way that won't offend anyone's spiritual beliefs - even if it should, and even if it means twisting or omitting parts of the science. Neither strikes me as likely to champion a position that is critical of the assumption that spirits, god, etc. actually exist.

So what will I be looking for from the talks? First, I'm eager to learn something more about neurophysiology during religious experiences (though I'd prefer hearing it from a less biased source than Newberg). Second, I'll of course be looking for an honest representation of the relevant science with as few personal religious beliefs coloring the discussion as possible.

Science is all about using evidence and logic to rule out untrue ideas, leaving our best understanding of all the facts on the table for further scrutiny. Whether or not religion is in our genes - it's possible (even likely?) that it only exists in our heads. Hopefully that fact doesn't get brushed under the table.

Resources & Links:

  1. Carolyn See. 2009  Book Review: 'The Faith Instinct' by Nicholas Wade. Washington Post.
  2. Rhazib Khan. 2009. The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures. Gene Expression (Discover Blog).
  3. Khan and Wade on Bloggingheads.tv can be seen here.
  4. A less critical review of Wade's book, The Faith Instinct., in the NY Times: The God Gene
  5.  The John Templeton Foundation (official website, Wikipedia)
  6. The Templeton Foundation - A Skeptic's Take by John Horgan.
  7. Andrew Newberg's website.
  8. Nicholas Wade's website.


Posted by: RBH | 10/18/2010 1:32 PM

I went to the panel discussion with Francis Collins in this same series a few years ago and it was all NOMA all the time, with no hint that alternative views existed (and I say that having had two friends on that panel).

The participants in this series are pretty carefully selected to reflect the 'accommodationist' viewpoint, reassuring the religious that they can both have their scientific cake and eat their supernaturalism at the same time.

Posted by: Paul | 10/20/2010 11:11 AM

Indeed. I caught most of the event (I missed the first 25 minutes or so), but from what I saw I found Newberg to be pretty disappointing (unfortunately Wade had flight troubles so it was just Newberg and Neal Conan).

He never entertained the idea that the supernatural realm might not even exist, he portrayed atheists/agnostics as somewhat dubious characters, and he was uncomfortably loose with terminology and his interpretations of his own work.

For example, if I recall correctly he acknowledge that brain imaging data is really hard to interpret - limiting what we can infer from those data - and that they have a quite small sample sizes for these kinds of phenomena. But he then went on to say that there's something "unique" going on in the brain during religious experiences.

I was told the discussion will be shown on the local PBS station at some point, so if it ever shows up on the web I'll be sure to post a link to the video.

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