Great news came across my RSS reader the other day that author and journalist, Chris Mooney, was among twelve journalists selected by the John Templeton Foundation for an intensive two-month fellowship on the relationship between science and religion. The Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowships in Science & Religion provide financial support for scholars to study at their home institution and engage with US and European scholars at the University of Cambridge UK to “promote a deeper understanding and more informed public discussion of this complex and rapidly evolving area of inquiry.”
As one might suspect, the vast majority of the 239 comments at Chris’s blog post contain vitriol and bile that Chris would take such tainted money as that from the Templeton Foundation because the organization is partisan and this will forever constitute a conflict of interest, that Chris has formally left science, how dare he still call himself a journalist…blah-dee-blah.
As my colleague PhysioProf is wont to say: Bring out the fainting couch and some vapors.
I think all of us in the biomedical sciences know investigators who have taken funding from the tobacco industry before it was fashionable not to and very few of them have tied down friends and neighbors and forced them to smoke cigarettes.
And wait. How is it that 2% of the US population and 0.25% of the world population is Jewish yet 27% and 28% of Nobel laureates in Physiology/Medicine or Chemistry, respectively, are Jewish? Seems more consistent, although not causal, that a little religion helps your science.
I applaud Chris for devoting time to exploring science and religion with leading experts in the field. A journalist with another 40 or 50 years of writing ahead of him is wise to avail himself to all opportunities for inquiry and learning, especially on such a topic that is ubercontroversial to some and of obvious resonance to others.
My family and I don’t belong to any organized religion but I was raised in a Protestant-like offshoot of the Roman Catholic Church called The Polish National Catholic Church (our priests could get married, have families, birth control was ok, abortion was ok but not encouraged). One of the most critical skills I learned in the Polish church was how to bowl, laying the foundation for my future glory as an undergrad when my team won the intramural bowling title during my senior year.
But spending a third of my life in the southern US has opened my eyes as to the role that religion plays in the lives of good people who are otherwise highly-critical thinkers. Understanding religious faith in my community has been important in helping to convince African-American men of the need for prostate cancer screening and women for breast cancer screening. I have dozens of students who have chosen to pursue careers in nursing or the laboratory sciences because they feel it is a service to their community that is consistent with their faith. And yes, they know how to conduct well-controlled experiments and think that my belief in a PCR fairy is ridiculous.
I don’t support the tax-exempt status for religious organizations with huge properties and hordes of vehicles nicer than those I drive but, like it or not, religion that is not at the extremes does serve the public good. Yes, at the extremes religious differences are at the heart of the 30 or so wars going on in the world right now. Religion is used by some to attack, devalue, or deny science. Mindless religious belief can lead to sloppy thinking in other areas of one’s life.
In many cases, religion is a threat to science. Religion is often used as a shield for racism and other discriminatory behaviors. I hate this part of religion. I see it here in the southern US. It is ugly. I’m even mystified how the faith that sustained the ancestors of some of my colleagues through slavery is now used to justify discrimination against my other colleagues who are gay and lesbian. These are problems – a big problems that we must fight.
But in other cases, religion drives people to become excellent scientists and live meaningful lives of service, generosity, and altruism. Yes, one doesn’t have to be religious to live this way. But why is that? Why can some great scientists also be religious pillars of their respective communities?
So that is why I’m happy that Chris is doing this fellowship. He’s a great writer who recognizes the need for lifelong personal and professional development. I’ll be very interested to read his writing that comes out of this fellowship.
Congratulations, Chris, on being awarded this fellowship. Best of luck in your journey!