Thin end of generous wedge

February 25, 2005

We must stem the subtle intrusionof religion intoscience, argues Sunny Bains

The agendas of those who fund science - such as drug companies or agrochemical corporations - have come under increasing scrutiny. And so they should.

But we make a mistake if we look at profit motives only. Private foundations also have axes to grind.

The US-based Templeton Foundation has spent a lot of money in the UK recently. It has promoted an international essay competition on the relationship between science and theology, paying the Royal Society to fly the winner to the UK to speak. It launched a fellowship for science journalists to learn about the interface between science and religion at Cambridge University's department of theology.

Now it is funding scientific research on the biological effects of religion at Oxford University.

The foundation was set up by Christian billionaire Sir John Templeton. Its declared intention is to "pursue new insights at the boundary between theology and science", focus scientific inquiry on topical areas with "spiritual and theological significance" and encourage free-market principles and spiritual progress.

It funds projects worldwide, many unconnected with science, such as the "Epiphany prize" for the "most inspiring" movie and television programme of the year, plus three prizes for religious journalism.

The foundation's president is John Templeton Jr, son of the founder and chairman.

Templeton Jr is also chairman of Let Freedom Ring (LFR), which was founded to raise money to help George W. Bush in the last presidential election. It describes itself as "supporting the conservative agenda", extolling Mr Bush's religious credentials and listing as one of its chief concerns "sanctity of life" - popular shorthand for opposition to abortion and embryonic stem-cell research.

The foundation has not given money to LFR, but Templeton Jr's leading role in both organisations suggests that their visions are, at least, not contradictory.

Back in the UK, the foundation is giving the Oxford Centre for Science of the Mind £1 million.

This virtual institution will investigate "how belief physically affects our brains, how religious faith affects experiences such as pain, whether there is a detectable physical difference in the brain between religious and secular faith and, ultimately, how the collection of physical matter making up our brains can generate consciousness".

Yet I am not aware of a single media report on the centre asking about the religious mission of its benefactor.

If an institution explored the health implications of fast food, and the sponsor was some "McDonald's Foundation", we might expect questions. Why is this case so different?

The Royal Society has been happy to accept foundation cash to showcase the winner of the Templeton prize for progress towards research or discoveries about spiritual realities. A senior staff member of the Royal Society told me: "We're pleased to work with organisations that complement our aims." He said nothing about what he thought the foundation's aims were.

It may be that Oxford, Cambridge and the Royal Society can just take the money, do good work and ignore their sponsor's religious agenda.

But I worry that without a clear explanation of its mission, every mention of the foundation's links to such prestigious bodies gives it more credibility as part of the British scientific establishment.

I find the pushing of the boundary between religion and science disturbing.

I find the lack of debate among either scientific bodies or journalists even more unsettling.

The foundation might be the thin end of the wedge that will enable other religious organisations - particularly those with a fundamentalist agenda - to follow suit.

If the UK is ten years behind the US, I believe we need to take steps now to prevent the intrusion of religion into science.

Otherwise, we may find our local education authorities one day putting stickers on our textbooks like they do in some parts of the US: "Evolution is only a theory..."

Sunny Bains is a science journalist who teaches at Imperial College London.

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