At 90, mutual funds wizard John Templeton promotes scientific research about God

Posted: Friday, March 28, 2003

NEW YORK (AP) Jesus warned that you cannot serve God and mammon,'' referring to worship of wealth. John Marks Templeton has tried heed those words by making money, but then harnessing that vast fortune to explore the nature of spirituality.

An investor and philanthropist who endows an annual prize billed as the world's richest, Templeton is fascinated by the intersection between religion and science. He's tried for decades to aid those who study how the two fields can offer insights into each other, and at a spry 90 years of age, he plans to keep at it.

I claim no human has known even 1 percent of what can be discovered about divinity. The best way discovered yet is by scientific experiments,'' Templeton said in a recent interview.

I'm happy to spend all my life on it now,'' he said. I work harder than I ever did before.''

That's saying something after a hugely successful business career.

In 1999, 300 experts ranked Templeton the 20th century's third-best investor (behind Warren Buffett and Peter Lynch). Money magazine proclaimed him arguably the greatest global stock picker of the century.''

Templeton puts his personal worth at $700 million today. Not bad for a boy from Winchester, Tenn., who worked his way through Yale and got an Oxford law degree thanks to a Rhodes scholarship.

Many years ago, he moved from the United States to the Bahamas and later became a British citizen. He was eventually knighted by Queen Elizabeth.

The lifelong lay Presbyterian also was a Sunday School superintendent at 15. Though he dropped thoughts of a missionary career, he decided after Yale to always donate a tenth of his income to charity.

I never met or heard of anybody who tithed and didn't become prosperous,'' he said. There's a magic to it.''

Templeton also served 42 years on the board of Princeton Theological Seminary, and says his guidance helped boost its endowment many-fold to more than $900 million (it has slipped since). There was a lot of luck involved, but maybe there was divine guidance. We prayed for it,'' he says with a soft-spoken drawl.

Since selling off his mutual funds empire in 1992, Templeton has toiled full time on his philanthropies, which dispense $40 million a year.

His most publicized project has been the annual Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, first awarded 30 years ago. He conceived of it as religion's version of the Nobel Prizes and has kept the prize (currently 725,000 British pounds, more than $1 million) above the Nobel amount.

The honor, won last week by ecological philosopher Holmes Rolston III, got a lumpily long-winded new title in 2001: the Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities.

Templeton explains that past judges mistakenly chose people with general religious accomplishments, and the new name sharply defines his original intention of encouraging scientific study of the spiritual aspects of existence.

That's also the major purpose of his John Templeton Foundation, established in 1987 and run by his son, John Jr. Some prominent scientists participate in its projects, which include books, conferences, research grants and the designing of college courses. Other scientists ignore the effort, though open hostility is rare.

But isn't it quixotic to measure progress in religious research?

Can working scientists discover information about spiritual matters like prayer, forgiveness, unlimited love'' or the evidence for purpose'' in the cosmos? (All of those were topics for recent grants given by the foundation).

Undeterred, Templeton defends his vision.

His interest in science and religion originated with books on cosmology he read in the 1930s. They presented a picture of a universe millions of times larger than most people had up to that time. ... It seemed ridiculous and self-centered to think God was just for one tribe or one planet, so we ought to study everything that's been created as evidence of what God is like.''

He said knowledge has increased vastly in fields like medicine, physics, economics and electronics while religious information remained static.

Why is it that there's so little progress made in any of the major religions?'' he asked rhetorically.

His answer: Scientists look forward to try to make discoveries, but there's never been a major religion that advocated discoveries.'' To him, relying on 2,000-year-old scriptures and traditions alone is like modern physicians using only Hippocrates.

Such comments unnerve religious traditionalists, most visibly creation science'' advocates. They think Templeton's foundation promotes evolution and seeks some united world religion.

The latter complaint is misguided, Templeton insists. As a believer in free enterprise, he thinks that in religion, too, competition is beneficial. Unity would be a drawback to progress,'' he says.

The foundation faced slow going for years, says founding board member Robert L. Herrmann, an Episcopalian and biochemist who wrote Templeton's authorized biography. But the last few years have seen a real interest on the part of scientists.''

A lot of people in science realize how huge and complicated the universe is'' and they're becoming more comfortable discussing spiritual matters, Herrmann says.

Yet Los Angeles science writer Margaret Wertheim is dubious. She attended some Templeton meetings, and got a grant for a documentary film, but is no longer interested in the foundation.

Wertheim, who is non-religious, says Christianity originally inspired modern science and thinks Templeton sponsors fairly sophisticated discussion about what religion is or should be.'' To her, the problem lies on the science side, where the foundation enlists well-known names rather than the iconoclasts and innovators.

But Templeton is serenely contented in his cause, and determined to pursue it as hard as he can.

We don't know whether this is our only life or not,'' says, so we ought to use that life to accomplish as much as we can.''

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