The John Templeton Foundation, the largest single funder of philosophical projects in the United States, has eliminated its “Philosophy and Theology” department.
A new funding area, called “Religion, Science, and Society” will “combine work previously supported by three separate departments: Human Sciences; Philosophy and Theology; and Culture and Global Perspectives,” according to an announcement from the foundation.
Templeton-funded projects often have a religious, theological, or “spiritual” component, so this change may be thought to be merely organizational, and not indicative of a shift in funding priorities. (John Templeton himself said that the purpose of the foundation is “to persuade people that no human has yet grasped 1% of what can be known about spiritual realities. So we are encouraging people to start using the same methods of science that have been so productive in other areas, in order to discover spiritual realities.”)
However, the descriptions of the old and new funding areas are rather different. Here’s how the “Philosophy and Theology” department is described:
The Philosophy and Theology Department supports research and catalyzes conversations that promise to build on wisdom contained within the world’s philosophical and theological traditions, in order to enhance our understanding of the world and how to live well within it
And here’s how the new “Religion, Science, and Society” department is described:
Religion, Science, and Society will support research on culture, religious traditions, and spirituality. This funding area will seek to advance our collective understanding of the ways in which religious and spiritual beliefs and practices affect human flourishing and to apply those insights to society in meaningful and practical ways. We will be especially interested in research that engages substantively and critically with the sciences, including robust interdisciplinary collaborations in which philosophical or theological understanding informs the findings and methods of the sciences.
Additionally, according to a source who asked not to be named, the director of the Philosophy and Theology department has been let go, as has the department’s administrative staff, leaving no one at the foundation with experience handling philosophy grants [note: the Foundation says this last part is false; see update].
But it has been substantial. Here’s a rough estimate I put together several years ago (for an American Philosophical Association session on “New Funding Organizations and the Direction of Philosophy”) that gives a sense of the significance of Templeton’s funding: in the five year period leading up to 2016, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) provided roughly $7 million to philosophers for philosophy-related projects, while the John Templeton Foundation provided roughly $57 million to philosophers for philosophy-related projects.
Many multi-million dollar Templeton-funded philosophy projects have been announced here on Daily Nous (see here for examples).
I hope to hear more about this change from people at the Templeton Foundation and will update this post as I obtain new information related to it.
UPDATE 1 (7/18/23): Benjamin Carson of the John Templeton Foundation has responded to some questions I sent along.
To what extent does the elimination of the Philosophy & Theology department at Templeton reflect a change in the amount of funding Templeton expects to provide to philosophy projects?
While the Philosophy & Theology Department will no longer be a named department, projects that engage with philosophical questions remain a priority for grantmaking of the John Templeton Foundation and will continue to be funded across our entire portfolio. We are interested in philosophy projects that do interdisciplinary work, such as grants we have given in Life Sciences, Character Virtue Development, and Mathematical and Physical Sciences.
One of our goals is to increase interdisciplinary collaboration, so we have never set allocations for individual disciplines. However, we expect to continue supporting philosophers and theologians through interdisciplinary research projects.
To what extent does the elimination of the Philosophy & Theology department at Templeton reflect a change in the kind of philosophy projects (if any) Templeton expects to support?
The Foundation remains committed to funding research all around the world and to supporting projects that engage with many different philosophical perspectives and faith traditions. This applies to all of the Foundation’s grant making areas.
Questions of interest for the new department (Religion, Science, and Society) will include:
What can we learn from the world’s wisdom traditions about living good and purposeful lives? How do we lead lives of meaning and purpose in the context of cultural evolution and technological change? How are religious beliefs and practices changing in the world today? What does it mean to be spiritual, and how does spirituality impact beliefs, values, and customs? Can religion and spirituality help address global challenges?
Are any funding commitments made prior to the announcement in danger of reduction or elimination because of these changes?
No. Existing grantees should continue to work with their assigned Program Officer. Existing grants may be reassigned to the new Religion, Science, and Society funding area, or to another department. Grantees to whom this applies will be notified by September 1, 2023. We will review all funding inquiries submitted to Philosophy & Theology this year and will assign them to a relevant department.
UPDATE 2 (7/19/23): Daniel Dennett (Tufts) wrote in with the following remarks:
The John Templeton Foundation has once again responded to criticism of its policies. It listens, and cares. I don’t know how many philosophers know about the bad old days when, for instance, Templeton was a major funder of the Cambridge University celebration of Darwin’s bicentennial in 2009; it required the organizers to schedule several workshops on Darwin and religion, which included—I’m not making this up—a talk by a theologian on “evolutionary Christology,” how God had arranged for evolution to generate a species, Homo sapiens, that was “worthy of accepting the Godhead.” It also funded workshops around the world that were required to include theologians among the participants. I participated in several such workshops and noted the dismay of the embarrassed theological hostages who had to sit there and wait their turn to say something about the topics at issue.
I stopped taking Templeton money at that point but also communicated with the Foundation officers on several occasions, including a tempestuous meeting at the Santa Fe Institute in around 2014, where I specifically asked their representative whether the Foundation could simply split into two foundations: one devoted to hard-to-fund important topics in science, and another devoted to spirituality, religion, and human wellbeing. I had no quarrel with their desire to fund pro-religion research; I was concerned that many scientists were reluctant to have their religion-neutral research give gravitas to the Foundation. I said I would be happy to apply to a Templeton Fund that was explicitly restricted to research on religion and its effects and causes. (This was a topic I myself had devoted some years to when researching for my 2006 book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, and in fact I had applied to them for funding to write that book back in 2004 or 2005, sending them the prospectus I had sent my publisher; it didn’t make it to the “submit full proposal” stage). The answer in Santa Fe was revealing: the Templeton Foundation was already legally split into three separate financial entities, so the renaming of one or more of them to achieve this insulation would be legally trivial, but they didn’t want to do this. They as much as admitted that they wanted to harness the prestige of their pure science support to give prestige to their support of work on spirituality. That was the inspiration for my 2014 analogy to the heiress who purchases great art to fill a museum so she can surround the works of her boyfriend with purchased masterpieces to enhance his reputation (the line that Prospect Magazine deleted from my published review of Mele without my permission).
I wrote a strongly positive review of Mele’s book. I did not insinuate that he had been pressured or had succumbed to pressure, but just noted that given the history of the Templeton Foundation, it was a tough choice to accept their support, just as it was a tough decision for the Santa Fe Institute to accept their support (which it did). Since that time, the policies at the Templeton Foundation have been adjusted, responding to the criticisms of many of us. Those who accept Templeton support today with a clear conscience—and that includes some of my best friends and colleagues—should perhaps express a little gratitude to those of us who kept the pressure on Templeton to clean up their act.
UPDATE 3 (7/29/2023): “Spoiler alert: this is really bad news for philosophy.” See this lengthy comment, below from someone who has been “engaged with the Templeton world for a long time.”
(Disclosure: Various Templeton-funded projects have advertised on Daily Nous.)