Commentary: Why God and science don't mix

  • 30 July 2008
  • From New Scientist Print Edition. Subscribe and get 4 free issues.
  • Lawrence Krauss


THE investor and philanthropist John Templeton sadly died last month. He leaves behind a substantial financial legacy, including a famous investment house, and a foundation with assets of more than $2 billion.

I never met him, but we corresponded once, after I wrote an article in 1996 suggesting that the recent glut of university courses on "science and religion" had nothing to do with any inherent intellectual interest among scholars, but was instead due to the fact that the Templeton Foundation was offering $10,000 for anyone who wanted to develop such a course.

I was travelling when the piece appeared, but when I arrived home, a package from Templeton was waiting for me. There was no letter inside, just a copy of a book he had edited on quotations from Jesus. Inside the jacket he had written: "Dear Lawrence: God Loves you, and I Love you too."

I think this story tells a lot about the man. His $1.6 million prize for "progress in religion" has been awarded to scientists more than any other group because he felt that standard theology, including the scriptures, gave little true understanding of the God he believed in. Instead, he felt that the "humble" study of the universe is the best way to understand the "mind of God".

Templeton's attempt to broker a partnership between science and religion has produced a favourable response from many scientific organisations. What could be wrong with the notion that science contributes to spiritual enlightenment? After all, this very idea was espoused by Galileo when he tried to defend himself against charges of heresy for arguing in favour of a heliocentric solar system.

But not all scientists are so sympathetic. A number, including myself, have declined to compete for "no strings" money from the Templeton Foundation to support our research. And my co-commentator A. C. Grayling recently complained in these pages about New Scientist's decision to run advertisements from the Templeton Foundation (12 July, p 48, and see letters in this issue, page 22).

The problem for me lies in the foundation's apparent purpose: to use its funds to demonstrate how science can reveal the nature of God. Any spiritual enlightenment provided by science lies in the eye of the beholder, not in the underlying nature of physical reality. To suggest that science can bring us closer to an understanding of God presumes the existence of a deity. Such a presumption is inappropriate and misconstrues the nature of science.

Any spiritual enlightenment from science is in the eye of the beholder

Templeton was a financial wizard whose impact on the world will continue long after his death. His foundation may one day develop into a major private supporter of science. In doing so it could provide a wonderful living testament to its founder's altruism and spirit. But it will only achieve this if it gives up Templeton's original goal of using science for spiritual enlightenment.

The biggest obstacle that makes it difficult for scientists to accept support from Templeton is the sense that its publications often appear to imply that the work of those it supports validates the Templeton philosophy that science will bring us closer to God. The Ford Foundation, for example, does not claim that the results of its philanthropy imply that Fords are better cars.

Science must follow nature wherever it leads us. If it turns out to suggest that we are alone in a universe without purpose, we must accept that. The greatest legacy the Templeton Foundation could provide for its founder would be to support scientists' explorations of fundamental questions about nature without suggesting in advance what their answers might imply. One day they might even give a prize to an atheist.

From issue 2667 of New Scientist magazine, 30 July 2008, page 52