Why Templeton Wants to See Science in Seminaries

One of the fears about a foundation interested in both science and faith is that principles of faith will work their way into science research. But what about the other way around? 

The John Templeton Foundation is one of the most fascinating science research and education funders out there, giving to a wide spread of disciplines on a spectrum from hard physics to religious thought. The defining characteristic of its grantees is that they work on the “big questions,” a result of the foundation having backed away from identifying religion as a main interest. 

Templeton’s funding of matters of theology and spirituality, the devoted Christianity of its founder John Templeton, and conservative politics of his son and current foundation president Jack Templeton, have always made some scientists uneasy. There’s a strong belief among some researchers that faith and science should be as far apart as possible; some think even focusing on the "big questions" baits scientists into pursuing frivolous lines of research. 

Other researchers have felt assured that working with Templeton comes with no religious strings attached. And we’ve reported on programs Templeton has funded that are well respected and have an exciting interdisciplinary flair, especially as new technologies are bumping certain fields from philosophy into more empirical research.


But another aspect of Templeton’s unique approach is its efforts to actually insert more scientific thought into the realm of religion. For example, the foundation supports a program with the American Association for the Advancement of Science to the tune of $3.75 million to increase science education into Christian seminaries. Ten U.S. seminaries are about to receive a combined $1.5 million to implement science into their curriculum over the next two years. 

The seminaries are considered pilot schools for the program, and will be weaving scientific principles into existing courses that theological students already take, but might have intersections with history and concepts of scientific discovery. 

The rationale for the program is that religious leaders inherently end up being community authorities on all kinds of subjects that include science and technology, even though they typically receive almost no schooling on such subjects. The grants hope to change this, by providing them with a foundation of basic knowledge. You can watch a video of Jennifer Wiseman, director of the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion discussing the program here.

You can see how such a program is indicative of the concerns hovering over Templeton’s funding, as skeptics might question why AAAS would attempt to provide a stamp of scientific approval to religious leaders whose work is at odds with the principles of science. 

Related - Templeton Foundation: Grants for Science Research

But it sort of comes down to whether you believe science and faith are inherently in opposition. Or to be more specific, it’s about whether people devoted to a faith need to be at odds with matters of science. And I think that’s where AAAS and Templeton are coming from. 

From the perspective of AAAS, this is a religious country (some three-quarters of Americans identify as Christian), and religious leaders present a big opportunity to introduce more people to the principles of science. From Templeton’s perspective, staff have said they believe religion is better when it’s non-dogmatic and open to investigation and critical thought.

One other way to think of it is in the context of climate change, and the role that some religious institutions are playing (with support from foundations). There’s definitely a segment of people whose religion will undeniably put them at odds with those working to curb human-caused climate change. But that’s not the case with all people of faith, and to shun them from the discussion is a bad move. 

Related - John Templeton Foundation: Grants for Science Education