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Religion: Faith in science

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The Templeton Foundation claims to be a friend of science. So why does it make so many researchers uneasy?

At the headquarters of the John Templeton Foundation, a dozen kilometres outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the late billionaire seems to watch over everything. John Templeton's larger-than-life bust stands at one end of the main conference room. His life-sized portrait smiles down from a side wall. His face peers out of framed snapshots propped on bookshelves throughout the many offices.

It seems fitting that Templeton is keeping an eye on the foundation that he created in 1987, and that consumed so much of his time and energy. With a current endowment estimated at US$2.1 billion, the organization continues to pursue Templeton's goal of building bridges between science and religion. Each year, it doles out some $70 million in grants, more than $40 million of which goes to research in fields such as cosmology, evolutionary biology and psychology.

As generous as the foundation's support is, however, many scientists find it troubling — and some see it as a threat. Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, Illinois, calls the foundation "sneakier than the creationists". Through its grants to researchers, Coyne alleges, the foundation is trying to insinuate religious values into science. "It claims to be on the side of science, but wants to make faith a virtue," he says.

But other researchers, both with and without Templeton grants, say that they find the foundation remarkably open and non-dogmatic. "The Templeton Foundation has never in my experience pressured, suggested or hinted at any kind of ideological slant," says Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic, a magazine that debunks pseudoscience, who was hired by the foundation to edit an essay series entitled 'Does science make belief in God obsolete?'

The debate highlights some of the challenges facing the Templeton Foundation after the death of its founder in July 2008, at the age of 95. With the help of a $528-million bequest from Templeton, the foundation has been radically reframing its research programme. As part of that effort, it is reducing its emphasis on religion to make its programmes more palatable to the broader scientific community.

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