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Wednesday, 2 September 2009

FEATURE: Faith, reason and the Templeton Fellowship

The Science Editor of the Daily Mail, Michael Hanlon, gives his take on the Templeton Journalism Fellowships.

Like a former Prime Minster’s aide, I have never ‘done’ God. I went to a soppy Anglican Primary School, with a liberal vicar, no hellfire or brimstone, no guilt-trips nor eternal torments. But even so, all that stuff about fluffy clouds and heaven, people getting nailed to posts and rising from the dead, the tricks with the bread and fishes … it all left me cold. At least the Tooth Fairy was good enough to provide tangible evidence for her existence.

Since childhood my atheism has waned and waxed. I went through a brief, and frankly risible, flirtation with faith in my early teenage years, mostly sparked by a pretty but unforthcoming girl in a bible study class, but that was that. The stony road of atheism for me ever since. But faith is a fascinating thing and so, when the Templeton Foundation approached me in late 2008 to ask if I would consider applying to be a Cambridge-Templeton Journalism Fellow for 2009, my curiosity was pricked.

The Templeton fellowships are run by the Templeton Foundation, a think-tank founded by the late Anglo-American billionaire Sir John Templeton ‘to encourage dialogue between science and religion’. In Sir John’s country of birth, this dialogue has become something of a tedious slanging match, with ‘science’ pitted against fundamentalist Christianity. Here of course things are a tad more subtle.

I went to a Templeton meeting in the 1990s in Washington and was impressed to find not the bunch of religious loonies I was expecting but impeccably secular cosmologists, philosophers and, in short, proper people. People like Cosmologist Neil Turok, protégé of Hawking. Here also Jill Tarter of SETI; if Earth’s alien-finder general could take the Templeton shilling then this had to be half respectable. But even so I had my reservations. The old Sir John died last year, and the Foundation is now headed by his son, John Jr, who is of a far more traditionalist Christian bent than his dad (John Jr has donated money to an anti-gay-marriage campaign in California). Then there is the Dawkins issue. Prof Dawkins, High Priest of the Atheists, actually spoke at a Templeton Fellowship a few years ago but now clearly regrets it, calling the Foundation a berth for ‘scientists who have nice things to say about religion’. More of Dawkins later.

In the end I decided my reservations were not enough to put me off. This sounded interesting at the very least, useful and contact-building almost certainly and, just possibly, intellectually enlightening to boot. Oh yes, and there is cash: $15,000, plus a books allowance and all expenses covered. Better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. So I agreed to apply.

So what is the Journalism fellowship and how does it work? Set up, I was told, in response to the 2001 Al Qaida attacks it attempts to allow a small group of ten journalists, selected annually, to ‘examine the dynamic and creative interface of science and religion’. No, I had no idea what that means either but I jumped through the hoops of the selection process (which include a rather formal interview and the writing of a studenty essay - in my case on Cosmology) and early this year I was informed that I was in.

The ‘fellowship’ is a curious beast, run jointly between the Foundation and Cambridge University, which was to be our temporary home. Intensive and demanding, it is every bit an American take on ‘English Academia’ – i.e. to a Brit intensely, and fascinatingly, foreign. First of all, it must be said, it is tremendous, rather theatrical, fun. You get to hole up in a posh hotel (the Garden House) for a fortnight at someone else’s expense and spend dreamy summer days in King’s College listening to world-class philosophers, biologists and cosmologists giving their take on the great issues of faith and reason.

In the evenings there is the rather camp air of the 18th Century Salon, with semi-formal dinners in various colleges with guest speakers holding forth on topics as diverse as Darwin’s correspondence and Isaac Newton. On one occasion, the Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees dropped in, no religious nutcase he. My fellow Templetonians were a diverse lot, representing a swathe of upmarket American and Canadian media, from a senior editor at Time magazine to the Literary Editor of the Toronto Globe and Mail. They will have to speak for themselves but I think I can fairly say that we all found the experience delightful and bewildering in equal measure. I certainly learned some stuff.

I found the palaeontologist Simon Conway Morris’s talk on evolutionary convergence truly fascinating. Sarah Coakley’s take on the evolution of co-operation was dense and demanding but all pretty much new to me. The philosopher Richard Swinburne mounted a forensic attack on the interpretation of the famous Libet experiments, which appear to show that free will is an illusion. My fellow Templetonians for the most part found Swinburne impenetrable and incomprehensible, a throwback to the 1930s perhaps. I agreed, but not that this was a bad thing. For me he was one of the highlights of the whole course.

Looming over the whole shebang the shadow of Richard Dawkins, whose name was often invoked. It is true we had some atheist input (from the excellent Simon Blackburn) but I got the impression that the Templeton ‘club’ sees Dawkins as persona if not entirely non grata then certainly rather beyond the pale. Some speakers were better than others. Tariq Ramadan, a controversial Muslim academic, gave a rambling talk on Islam. I found the neurobiologist Steven Rose dogmatic and unconvincing and the cosmologist John Barrow, whose talk I had been much looking forward to, rather impenetrable. But for the most part the speakers had prepared well and gave excellent value for money.

The Fellowship is controversial. When one of the Fellows, Edwin Cartlidge, a Rome-based British freelance, approached Anthony Grayling and Daniel Dennett for cooperation in his project (on materialism) they refused and mentioned the request to Dawkins, who writes about it on his website. Dawkins once spoke at one of the Templeton Fellowships but clearly regrets having done so, stating: “I see him [Cartlidge] as in much the same position I was in when I agreed to go, a victim of exactly the kind of subversion of science that Templeton is making its speciality.”

Well, I don’t think anyone tried to subvert me, nor my belief in reason and ‘science’. There was certainly no overt religiosity, no discernable prejudices espoused. Nobody tried to convert me, to Christianity or any other religion. Most of all (and again I am speaking only for myself) I felt and continue to feel under no pressure whatsoever to write in a particular way or take a particular line on anything whatsoever. We are supposed to get our theses published, in some form or other, in the papers or magazines for which we write but, again, how we do so and in what form any such writing appears is completely left to us and our editors.

As to the people whose shilling I took? Well, I don’t like John Jr’s take on gay marriage, but who can afford to examine the views and prejudices of all the directors and proprietors of the organisations for which we work? For its faults, the Templeton Foundation does at least appear to be encouraging people to think, and to think about some of the most intractable and fascinating problems facing both science and religion. And that cannot, surely, be a bad thing.

Michael’s new book is Eternity, Our Next Billion Years - recently published by Palgrave Macmillan.