Are you there, God?

The Templeton Foundation invests millions so scientists might prove that faith works. But their answers aren't what Sir John Templeton wants to hear.

Published December 24, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Our culture views religion with a capitalist's skepticism. In October 1983, Ronald Reagan leaned over to Tom Dine, the Israel lobby leader, and said: "You know, I turn back to your ancient prophets in the Old Testament and I find myself wondering if we're the generation that's going to see that come about. I don't know if you've noticed any of those prophecies recently, but believe me, they certainly describe the times we're going through." The Cold War, in other words, was Gog and Armageddon all over again and as such its outcome could be accurately measured in the prophesies of the Good Book. The Jewish prophets worked like a weather forecast: gnomic but empirically shrewd.

For Reagan, religion was not an elusive private affair or a mystical revelation that the ancient desert eremites might have recognized, it was part of the quantifiable material world. Religion was true because it "worked." Americans want religion to pay off and give us a competitive edge. We are a nation of materialists, engineers and money-makers, not artist-monks, and our religion has a peculiar whiff of sanctimonious brimstone and hysteria: "Night of the Hunter" mixed with car salesmanship, gestalt therapy and a dash of the Harvard Business School. How much better if we could bring religion into line with what we really believe in: machines.

Since Galileo, religion and science have stubbornly refused to talk to each other. Like two disgruntled and bad-tempered old relatives forced to sit together at the same Christmas dinner table, they utter barely a word to each other except for an occasional "Bah!" According to many scientists, spirituality is largely an example of the Higher Twaddle, a gaseous domain of high-minded but improvable verbiage. Science is an arrogant, ill-mannered lout, say most religionists. The mood at table, alas, is grim.

But now into this awkward breach a larger-than-life gentleman has stepped. His name is Sir John Templeton, a brilliant mutual funds manager and committed Christian, a billionaire modestly domiciled in Barbados who established a charity known as the Templeton Foundation with the exuberant aim of reconciling the rival claims of religion and science. Recently, he has sponsored a number of science-religion conferences and discussions such as the open debate between Nobel Prize laureate Steven Weinberg and physicist-turned-priest John Polkinghorne, held in April 1998 at Washington's National Museum of Natural History.

Despite his 18th century and seemingly very English name, the 86-year-old Templeton is actually a Tennessee native who relinquished his American citizenship in favor of the British variety in 1968, and could thus be knighted. Having created the lucrative Templeton Growth Fund in 1954 (average annual growth 14 percent), he has come to be associated with a variety of odd-sounding bodies devoted to such missions as planetary wisdom, world peace and global harmony. Now Templeton has earmarked $40 million for the Foundation's pursuit of the ultimate intellectual Grail: scientific proof that faith really does pay -- in both the literal and figurative senses -- and that religion has a statistical basis underpinning it much like winged aircraft and off-shore investment. A vulgar conception of the Spirit, perhaps, but if it worked, to paraphrase Charles Fillmore, "The Lord would be my banker, for my credit is good."

Two years ago, the Foundation announced that it would fund experiments by professor Russell Stannard of the Open University and Herbert Benson of the Harvard Medical School into the medical effects of prayer. Stannard and Benson duplicated a similar experiment that Randolph Byrd conducted of coronary-care patients in San Francisco in 1988. Although Byrd's study initially seemed to show some positive results for prayers, his methods were later criticized, arousing widespread skepticism among scientists.

In the Stannard and Benson trial, two groups of hospitalized patients awaiting heart surgery were told that they were being prayed for by special "praying groups." Both sets were told that they were being assisted by concentrated prayer while in reality, only one group was the object of appeal. Stannard, a practising Christian, told a British newspaper that the Templeton Foundation had no vested interest in a positive outcome. "We are genuinely interested," he said with saintly neutrality, "in any experimentation that has a bearing on religion."

The carefully guarded results will likely be published in the year 2000. But in case there is a negative result, Stannard has a sly escape clause. It would not prove, he claimed, that prayer did not help. God, after all, might not be cooperative on that particular day. And why, for that matter, should he be especially interested in Open University experiments into his mysterious workings anyway? Then again, there might be a problem with what Stannard called "unwanted background noise," unaccountable prayers whizzing through the airwaves from more distant sources. Who could say? But if the outcome meant little if it was negative, why conduct the experiment at all?

"Enthusiasm for progress" is what Sir Templeton calls this attempt to put God on a par with earthquakes and the laws of gravity. He is clearly a charming, clever and ebullient man, a kind of modern Dr. Pangloss straight out of Voltaire's "Candide." Indeed, Pangloss' optimistic motto, "The best of all possible worlds," could well be his. "We always," Templeton says, "put things in an optimistic, progressive perspective."

Templeton also believes the world's religions offer attitudes worthy of emulation such as optimism, even-temperament and productivity, ideal qualities for a corporate employee. And like the effects of prayer, Templeton believes scientific laws can explain these attributes.

In a recent interview with Wired, Oxford planetary scientist and Templeton grant-award committee chairman Charles Harper described the qualities needed by a successful shoe salesman: "You are still reading Stendhal novels," he said, "and you are not selling so many shoes. So you stick in a cassette tape while you are commuting and you stick these maxims in your mind, and, lo and behold, it helps!" Otherwise put, drop your useless Stendhal and pick up your copy of the Templeton Foundation's spiritual manual "Worldwide Laws of Life: 200 Eternal Spiritual Principles." Instead of boring old character analysis and psychological acumen, you'll find the merry, uplifting saws of Johnny Mercer and Henry Ford.

Although our culture is obsessed with pretentiously scientific explanations for all human emotions, most people would concede that spirituality is a rather different matter. It's a tricky and ambiguous affair, honed by rather unscientific things such as suffering, instinct or a lifetime's cultural knowledge. It is neither a matter of information nor of neurology, and it is unquantifiable.

Why, then, do foundations, committees, willing scientists and philanthropists -- an entire class of well-paid international Dr. Panglosses -- devote millions of dollars to futile research into the nature of something that is by its very nature elusive? But Templeton's project mirrors our corporate culture's view of human personality and fulfillment where everything is rational and nothing is elusive. Sex, pain, passion: Read the conflict resolution manual. Simon the Stylite, climb down off that pillar and accentuate the positive!

One is struck by the similarity of this tinny view of the inner life and its Soviet equivalent. The Soviets, too, were "scientific" materialists who understood the persuasive power of spiritual kitsch. And they believed in that great red herring of the Enlightenment, scientifically determined happiness: a perfect recipe for unhappiness (not to mention vast amounts of bad prose).

A chilling example of this vision of scientifically engineered human contentment is provided by another Templeton endeavor. Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford neurobiologist, has been studying a troop of baboons in Kenya. The dominant male baboons had all been poisoned by contaminated refuse at a garbage dump, which the other members had not consumed. All at once, the troop became less violent, less hierarchical and calmer. The remaining baboons' blood pressure went down.

Templeton agreed to fund Sapolsky because he was intrigued by this metamorphosis and thought it could give clues to similar transformations among humans. After all, didn't these baboons seem to be accentuating the positive? Blood tests confirmed that they were indeed "happier," and that although the decease of the dominant males had been an accident, it created a permanent mutation. Perhaps one could suggest euthanasia for jocks?

Attempting to draw social moralisms from biology is banal at best. Do we really need baboon experiments to tell us that violence is not very nice and harmony lowers our blood pressure? At worst, the endeavor to give a scientific basis to our utopian wish-fulfillments and religious passions is highly suspect. When science becomes the willing handmaid of social utopias and personal therapy, it becomes a dislikable and bossy accessory of the Higher Twaddle. "I do believe," says the physicist Polkinghorne, "that religious belief can explain more than unbelief can."

Science has proven very little about our inner life, because the latter is the result of incalculable experiences. Can a Positive Feelings Index or a Productive Emotion Graph really tell us what goes on in the psyche of someone praying for a dying relative? It does not seem very likely that the current Templeton prayer study will tell us very much about some future health care directed by priests, vicars and rabbis -- or even optimistic venture capitalists. In other words, give science and religious feeling their very dissimilar dues, have a good laugh at Pangloss, then quietly pick up your Stendhal.

By Lawrence Osborne

Lawrence Osborne is the author of "Paris Dreambook" and "The Poisoned Embrace," both published by Vintage. He lives in New York City.

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