A dubious prize that aims to validate religion

By James A. Haught | 11 October 2023
Freethought Now

(Photo: Dreamstime.com)

Editor’s note: Although FFRF columnist James Haught died, sadly, on July 23 at age 91, we are lucky to still have a bunch of pieces Jim gave us to use — some fresh and others previously published — that we will be sending out till we exhaust this treasure trove. This column has been modified and updated from a piece originally published at Daylight Atheism / Patheos on June 3, 2019.

The Nobel Prize announcements last week made news. But another prize that bestows a larger sum than the individual Nobels is comparatively not well known — and for good reason.

A half-century ago, billionaire investor Sir John Templeton was the Warren Buffett of his era — and he felt strong religious urges. He made public declarations such as: “God is revealing himself more and more to human inquiry, not always through prophetic visions or scriptures, but through the astonishingly productive research of modern scientists.”

Templeton thought that the Nobel Prizes ignored religion, so he created a bigger jackpot for holy people: The Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. (I always wanted to take a photo of an abandoned church that had been turned into a bookstore, and submit it for the “progress in religion” prize.) Later, for some years, the award name was changed to “Progress Toward Research or Discoveries About Spiritual Realities” (whatever “spiritual realities” are).

At first, the Templeton Prize went mostly to religious figures like Mother Teresa, Billy Graham, Watergate felon Charles Colson, Campus Crusade for Christ founder Bill Bright and various theologians. Then it veered to major scientists who didn’t denounce supernaturalism. They reaped million-dollar bonanzas. The prize is high-prestige, traditionally presented in Buckingham Palace.

The mission of the Templeton Prize is dubious, however. Biologist Jerry Coyne has said that the award is designed to “give credibility to religion by blurring its well-demarcated border with science.” Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Martinus Veltman has wisecracked that winning a Templeton is “bridging the gap between sense and nonsense.”

For instance, the 2019 winner was a Brazilian physicist, Marcelo Gleiser, who denounces atheists and calls himself an agnostic. Gleiser accuses atheists of violating the scientific method by declaring flatly that God doesn’t exist and yet not offering direct proof that he isn’t real. He told Scientific American: “An agnostic would say, ‘Look, I have no evidence for God or any kind of god. What god, first of all? The Maori gods, or the Jewish or Christian or Muslim God? Which god is that?’ But on the other hand, an agnostic would acknowledge no right to make a final statement about something he or she doesn’t know about.”

The Templeton Foundation apparently gave him $1.5 million for taking a hard stand for agnosticism and against atheism. Well, the Brazilian physicist is correct — you can’t find scientific evidence to disprove gods, devils, fairies, werewolves, vampires, angels, heavens, hells and all the rest of the supernatural spectrum. Supernatural questions simply are unanswerable.

Aztecs once sacrificed humans to an invisible feathered serpent. Nobody today can prove scientifically that the invisible feathered serpent didn’t exist. But that’s a pretty good hunch.

Intelligent people have wisdom, and can make common-sense judgments without provable evidence. They can decide that Santa Claus is a make-believe fantasy, although they lack clear scientific proof of it. The same goes for leprechauns, poltergeists, etc. — all the way up the supernatural ladder to gods.

Actually, there’s clear proof that an all-loving, all-powerful Father-Creator god doesn’t exist. It’s called “the problem of evil.” Such a merciful deity wouldn’t have created hideous diseases or natural tragedies — and then do nothing to save people from them. It doesn’t disprove a cruel god, but it wipes out a compassionate one.

The Templeton Foundation seems to be getting desperate in its quest for recognition. It’s little surprise that the Templeton Prize is only a fraction as famous as the Nobels.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

James A. HaughtJames A. Haught died on 23 July 2023. He was editor emeritus of West Virginia’s The Charleston Gazette-Mail and was a senior editor of the Free Inquiry magazine. He was also the author of numerous books and articles; his most recent book was Religion is Dying: Soaring Secularism in America and the West (Gustav Broukal Press, 2010). Haught won 21 national newswriting awards and thirty of his columns were distributed by national syndicates. He was in Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in the World, Contemporary Authors, and 2000 Outstanding Intellectuals of the 21st Century.

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