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Has the Templeton Prize Compromised Charles Taylor?

David Rand

The news media hailed the awarding of the Templeton Prize to philosopher Charles Taylor.
But just who is behind the Templeton Prize?
What does it mean and why was it awarded to Taylor?

This is an English translation of an article published in Cité laïque, number 9 (summer 2007), humanist review of the Quebec Secular Movement (Mouvement laïque québécois, MLQ)



Charles Taylor, Canadian philosopher at Northwestern University, Illinois, USA, and formerly at McGill University in Montreal, is the recipient of the 2007 Templeton Prize. He is the first Canadian to be awarded this very generous prize whose monetary value this year is 800,000 pounds sterling (almost CDN$1,900,000). The Prize is awarded annually to an individual who has contributed to "progress toward research or discoveries about spiritual realities."

The Quebec and Canadian media very warmly welcomed this event, giving the impression that the Prize's purpose is to reward academic excellence, similar to the Nobel Prize but with the addition of a "spiritual" dimension. In the 15 March 2007 issue of the Montreal daily Le Devoir, Guy Laforest wrote, "The announcement comes to us like the springtime sun which warms our hearts: philosopher Charles Taylor has just received the Templeton Prize for the superior moral and spiritual quality of his life's work." According to radio host Michael Enright (The Sunday Edition, CBC, 8 April 2007), Taylor hit the "academic jack-pot."

This event was all the more remarkable because of its timing, occurring only weeks after the same Charles Taylor was named copresident of a Quebec parliamentary commission – the Commission de consultation sur les pratiques d'accommodements reliées aux différences culturelles (consultative commission on the practice of accommodations based on cultural differences) – whose mandate is to study the issue of so-called "reasonable" (mainly religious) accommodations and make recommendations. The Commission is slated to submit its findings in 2008.

What is the true value of a prize? Not its monetary value, but rather its "moral" value so to speak, an indicator of the merit of the individual whose receives it. One way to measure this value would be to consider the avowed goal of the prize, the nature of the institution which awards it, and the various individuals who have received the award in the past and why they were chosen.

The Purpose of the Templeton Prize

According to the Foundation's web site [1], the Templeton Prize promotes progress in the field of religion. Just as, within the last two centuries, major progress has been made in the fields of "food, travel, medicine or electronics, and cosmology," Templeton fosters the idea of devoting more resources to research into "spiritual realities" in order to "accelerate progress in spiritual discoveries."

The goal, as stated on the web site of the Templeton Prize itself [2], is to "expand human perceptions of divinity and to help in the acceleration of divine creativity," and to use various means, in particular scientific research, to "help people see the infinity of the Universal Spirit still creating the galaxies and all living things and the variety of ways in which the Creator is revealing himself to different people. We hope all religions may become more dynamic and inspirational." The Prize is purportedly awarded without regard to "race, creed, sex, or geographical background."

The John Templeton Foundation

The Foundation was established in 1987 by John Templeton, a businessman and British subject, originally from the USA, born in 1912, who became very wealthy through the management of international mutual funds. The Foundation awards numerous prizes and grants – especially for projects which obscure the line between science and religion – of which the Templeton Prize is only the most important. Several examples selected from the Foundation's principal themes are listed in Appendix I.

In response to the question "Is the Foundation a religious organization?" the FAQ of the Foundation's web site answers, "No. We do not engage in religious advocacy. We support scientific research and related cutting-edge scholarship on life's big questions." The Foundation claims not to support "intelligent design" (ID) which it considers to be a political movement whereas the Foundation is a "non-political entity." Nevertheless, the Foundation's attitude toward this pseudoscience remains ambiguous. Although it rejects "research or programs that deny large areas of well-documented scientific knowledge" such as the evolution of species, the Foundation encourages debate about ID, enthusiastically promotes a rapprochement between science and religion, and suggests that the study of the history of life on earth may eventually reveal cosmic – even divine – purpose and design. According to the Foundation, the science underlying ID is not "sound"; however, the scientific consensus is that ID does not even have the merit of being false, because it is not a scientific hypothesis at all but rather a religious assertion disguised as science.

This ambivalence is reminiscent of the pseudo-evolutionist position adopted by the Vatican which, while recognizing the validity of the evolution of species, solidly supported by science, nevertheless maintains that a creator initiated and guided this process. This is known as "evolutionistic creationism."

The current chairman and president of the John Templeton Foundation is the founder's eldest son John M. Templeton Jr., M.D., an evangelistic Christian and chairman of Let Freedom Ring[3], an organisation of the American right which supported George W. Bush's re-election in 2004.

Former Recipients of the Templeton Prize

The first recipient of the Templeton Prize, in 1973, was the very controversial Mother Teresa, veritable icon of Christian charity. According to some, including Pope John-Paul II who beatified her in 2003, she had the qualities of a saint. According to journalist Christopher Hitchens, author of The Missionary Position[4], she was a Catholic fundamentalist whose highest priority was the propagation of her faith and her own reputation and who, in propagating them, did more harm than good.

An examination of the list of the other recipients of the Prize is also revealing. See Appendix II. Most recipients are either scientists promoting a rapprochement between science and religion, or preachers, especially Christian.

Charles Taylor, Templeton Prize 2007

Charles Taylor is a renowned Catholic philosopher, born in Montreal in 1931 and author of several important works such as Hegel, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity and Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited. He has been honoured with several distinctions including the famous Rhodes scholarship (1952) from Oxford University, the Marianist Award (1997) from the University of Dayton (one of the most important Catholic universities in the USA), and the title of Grand Officier awarded by the Ordre national du Québec (2000). In the 1960s, Taylor was on four occasions a federal candidate for the New Democratic Party, although he did not win. He has also counselled Pope John-Paul II as a participant of the Club of Castel Gandolfo, the pope's summer residence.

Taylor has stated that he plans to use the funds from his Templeton Prize "to advance his studies of the relationship of language and linguistic meaning to art and theology and to developing new concepts of relating human sciences with biological sciences."[5]

As a moderate Christian, Taylor of course disapproves of religious fundamentalism. However he reserves his fiercist criticism for secularism which would exclude religion from the public sphere, and spirituality from science. Thus, modernity must include a "spiritual dimension" and to neglect this dimension is harmful for society. Accordingly, Taylor claims that the rationalism of the Enlightenment sought to expunge morality and spirituality as quaintly anachronistic. [5] One thus recognizes in Taylor's attitude the classic prejudice of the believer who cannot conceive of any idea of morality not based on supernatural belief.

In an interview [6] given in November 2006 to the Italian daily La Repubblica, Taylor explains how it is possible, in his opinion, to transcend tribal conflicts: "it is a religious vision, ... , because we are all children of God, and ... there is that universal vision which, in this case, has profoundly Christian roots." This is a rather curious interpretation of history. Was not Christianity, like other religions, more often a cause of conflict rather than a solution? Has not the struggle for universal values – human rights, equality, fundamental freedoms – been fought, in numerous eras, against the assiduous resistance of religious authorities? If each human being is, in Taylor's world-view, a "child of God", what then of non-believers who do not recognize the existence of his hypothetical "God"? Are they excluded from that lovely family?

In recent interviews, Taylor has shown himself to be particularly annoyed by the ideas of Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion. Dawkins observes that the religiosity of moderate believers serves to legitimize the faith of fundamentalists, because both share the same theistic ideology, even though they may interpret that theism in different ways. In an interview [7] transcribed on the web site of the Templeton Foundation, Taylor, in an attempt to refute this very reasonable observation, makes use of the tired old cliché associating atheism with communist totalitarianism, as if the totalitarians and Dawkins were motivated by a common ideology.

Summing Up

The predominant theme in all these considerations is not so much science as it is theological pseudoscience. The Templeton Foundation claims to be apolitical and not to promote religion. However, it is obvious that this Foundation does indeed promote theology, and does so among scientists in particular.

In the discourse of the Foundation and the Prize, one reads numerous references to moral qualities such as love, forgiveness, etc. and also frequent mention of divinity, creation, "universal spirit" and so on, which apparently are supposed to be the wellspring of the aforementioned moral qualities. Again, one recognizes – as with Taylor – what could be called deistic creationism or creationism of morality, the unscientific principle at the heart of theism and deism which holds that morality is of divine origin. According to this principle, that it is the "Creator" who originally created moral principles. The scientific approach to the question would, on the contrary, be to look for the origins of human morality precisely where it manifests itself: among humans themselves, in the evolution of human behaviours and societies. But the Foundation takes no apparent interest in this line of research.

To summarize, one can say that the Templeton Foundation funds scientific research oriented by religious propaganda. In the activities supported by the Foundation, there are repeated examples of blurring the distinction between science and theology. It is difficult to see how an individual like Mother Teresa, who explained the pain of terminal cancer as Jesus' kisses, or Charles W. Colson and other preachers who received the Templeton Prize, could be considered contributors to science -- which the Templeton Prize claims to support. It is clear that academic excellence is not the Prize's first priority.

To the extent that the Prize can be considered an academic award, philosopher Charles Taylor is better qualified that many of the other recipients. But even in the case of Taylor, the theological aspect is central, even aggravated by a certain atheophobia. He is a friend of religion, but not of secularism.

The claim that the Templeton Prize is awarded without discrimination based on religious belief appears incompatible with the Prize's avowed purpose, its declared goals being strong imbued with theism or at least deism. The Foundation could easily make a major step in the direction of resolving this apparent contradiction by following the very pertinent advice of Harold Kroto, Nobel laureate for chemistry in 1996, that the next Prize be awarded to Richard Dawkins.

Implications for Secularism

These two almost simultaneous events – the nomination of Charles Taylor to the parliamentary commission established to study religious accommodations, and the awarding of the Templeton Prize to the same individual – can only be disconcerting for anyone who recognizes the importance of secularism.

Indeed, this commission has the mandate to outline and define the question of religious accommodations, to heed the opinions of the Quebec population on the topic, and finally to formulate recommendations to the provincial government with the aim of ensuring that such accommodations will in future respect the common values of Quebeckers. The commission must therefore provide the government with an answer to the pivotal question: Are religious accommodations admissible or not, and to what extent? The stakes are high indeed.

The decree which created the commission declares, near its very beginning, that church/state separation is one of the fundamental values of Quebec society. Secularism is thus among the highest priorities of the commission's mandate. Taylor has a decidedly multiculturalist vision of society, which would imply an approach more communitarian than secular. More than just another believer, Taylor has acquired, by virtue of his various writings and activities, the status of Catholic spokesperson. His opinions concerning the place of religion in modern society lead in an antisecular direction. And he has just been awarded a very generous grant from a foundation notorious for pushing theology among scientists. The implications for secularism in Quebec are not encouraging.


Some might say: Where is the problem? Public funds are not involved here. Let John Templeton give away his money to whomever he pleases! But when the sum of money is considerable, when the beneficiary of that sum plays a major role of public interest, influential for future legislation and for the future of secularism, and when, furthermore, both the donor and recipient are well known for their proreligious and implicitly antisecular orientation, then indeed there is a problem. There is reason to be concerned.

In fact, one might reasonably ask whether Taylor is not in conflict of interest. In my opinion, Charles Taylor has the ethical duty to resign from the Commission de consultation sur les pratiques d'accommodements reliées aux différences culturelles, and Quebec Prime Minister Jean Charest has a duty to request his resignation.

Appendix I: Some Grants And Prizes Offered by the John Templeton Foundation

Appendix II: Some Former Recipients of the Templeton Prize


  1. .John Templeton Foundation
  2. .The Templeton Prize
  3. .Let Freedom Ring
  4. .Christopher Hitchens, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, Verso, 1997
  5. .Biography of Charles Taylor on the web site of the Templeton Prize
  6. .La modestie de provincialiser l'Europe, interview (in French) with Charles Taylor in the Italian daily La Repubblica
  7. .Interview with Dr. Charles Taylor on the web site of the Templeton Foundation