Tuesday 12 April 2011

Templeton's not-so-hidden agenda

What does the Templeton Foundation think it's doing? This year's Templeton prize, worth one million pounds sterling, has been awarded to the UK's Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees. Usually this is an award for saying nice things about religion. This year, it seems, it's for not saying anything particularly unpleasant about religion.

Martin Rees at Jodrell Bank in 2007
Sir Martin Rees
Martin Rees is not a believer in God, though he does apparently go to church. He says this is because he likes the music and the architecture, but it could also have something to do with his job; in addition to being the Queen's stargazer he's also Master of Trinity College, Cambridge — a post I imagine requires some measure of ceremonial officiation.

I first learned of this year's award from Ian Sample's article at the Guardian, which has a link to the transcript of an interview he conducted with his subject. The transcript is revealing — inasmuch as Rees is careful to reveal as little as possible (though after Sample's opening gambit I'm not surprised his interviewee appears reticent).

So, if someone offers you a prize, no strings attached, for something more or less unspecified that you may or may not have done, should you accept? If it's a bottle of Scotch you might feel a tinge of guilt if you're not quite sure what it is you're supposed to have done to deserve it. But what if the prize is a million quid? That, I think, would require some serious soul-searching. What would concern me most is the acknowledged mission of the organisation awarding the prize, which is for "affirming life's spiritual dimension". Knowing that mission I would feel constrained in my subsequent actions and words. This is likely Templeton's intention. By spreading their money around they are casting a financial net over a number of economically vulnerable voices, ensuring their own agenda is publicised. You only have to look at how much publicity this year's award has already garnered, to see how effective a strategy that is. (And yes, I know I'm contributing to it, if only to a minuscule degree, but the alternative is to ignore the issue and let Templeton have the arena to themselves.)

Lewis Wolpert and Peter Atkins discussed the prize on the Today Programme last Thursday morning. They both consider it to be an insidious distortion of scientific motivation, but I was surprised to hear Atkins say that if offered the prize he would accept it. (This eventuality is, however, even less likely than the prize being awarded to Richard Dawkins, who has in the past referred to Rees as a "compliant Quisling" for allowing the Royal Society to host a Templeton event.) Atkins went on to say he would use the money to set up an organisation to oppose Templeton and promote the separation of religion and science.

Jerry Coyne responded to the award in no uncertain terms — again at the Guardian — only to be followed by Mark Vernon once more cheer-leading for Templeton a day or so later. (This is hardly surprising — Vernon admits to being in receipt of Templeton benefaction.)

This whole affair reminds me of the Writers of the Future Contest, intended to encourage serious young genre authors to enter a fiction-writing competition for generous prizes. These prizes used to include print publication and participation in a residential writing workshop. Year on year this award has nurtured some of genre writing's brightest young talent, and is held to be a Good Thing. Only one problem: the Writers of the Future Contest is funded by Scientology. There's no coercion, no indoctrination, no personality or E-meter tests, and as far as I'm aware Scientology is never even mentioned unless it comes up in connection with the contest's deceased founder, science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard.

But, tainted money is tainted money. And scruples are scruples — some people have them and some people don't.