Religion science: if you pay the piper, do you call the tune?

A hot debate has been taking place these last few days, in the comments section of Harvey Whitehouse's recent post on religion. Part of the dispute has to do with the way cognitive scientists working on that topic might be influenced by the money they get, particularly from a Christian foundation that hopes to promote a more favorable view of religion by funding research in that area, albeit in a nonintrusive way. What, everyone wonders, does funding of this kind do to the work it finances? Is Christian-funded research biased? Is it more likely to present religious people with a rosy mirror?

This question has been adressed systematically by a recent paper looking at broad trends in the sociology of religion (found via The Immanent Frame). The authors, David Smilde and Matthew May, looked at thirty years of religious sociology in five high-profile social science journals, and (among other things) they looked for correlations between funding types and 'pro-religiousness'. Articles were classified as pro-religious when they considered a religious independent variable and a non-religious dependent variable (say, how being baptized affects your likelihood of being in jail), and concluded that the religious variable had 'positive socio-evaluative effects' (baptized people are less likely to go to jail). As for funding type, they looked more precisely at the papers whose authors were funded by foundations with obvious Christian sympathies like the Pew Foundation, the John Templeton Foundation, the Metanexus Institute, etc. – compared with papers whose authors had money from other sources, and with papers not funded at all.

Bottom line: authors financed by Christian foundations are more likely to write pro-religious papers than authors who declare no funding at all, but the same applies to all financed authors, wherever their money may come from – governments, or non-religious private foundations. This is just one of many surprising findings.


The author's most important claim is that the last 30 years have seen the rise of a Weberian view of religion: religious factors are more and more treated as independent variables, with researchers looking at the way they influence social factors rather than the other way round. This trend seems to be driven by American research on Protestant Chrisitanity. It coïncides with a rise in 'pro-religious' papers (partly because making religion an independent variable is necessary for being 'pro-religious', so that an increase in Weberian papers automatically brings about an increase in pro-religious papers), but also, more recently, with a rise in 'anti-religious' papers (papers reporting unpleasant social effects for a religious variable). I am strongly tempted to see all this as an aftermath of the demise of Marxism, but the authors are unwilling to jump to that conclusion. Articles financed by Christian Foundations seem a bit more likely to treat religion as an independent variable – as indeed the official guidelines of many foundations (Templeton being one) encourage them to do. But stressing the autonomy of religion does not seem to lead these authors to a prettier view of it.

What about 'Religion'?

In his comments, Maurice Bloch is concerned that talk of religion as an abstract object might "confort advocates of soft religiosity". It turns out that one third of the papers under study dwelt on religion in the abstract (and not on a specific religious tradition or a mixture of specific religious traditions). Were researchers more sympathetic to 'Religion' than they were to Christianity, Islam, or New Religious Movements like Scientology? No, and 'Religion' was not more likely to be considered an independent variable than, say, Islam or Buddhism. Obviously this won't allay all of Maurice's concerns, but it is a beginning.

Will the Templetons be happy about these findings? Should they? I don't know. Anyway, the paper is a nice example of cool-headed sociology of sociology.


  • comment-avatar
    Darren Sherkat 2 February 2010 (19:23)

    The religious foundations are fairly savvy, and the problems run deep. In the Smilde report on sociology, one of my studies is noted to be a privately funded (Lilly foundation) negative presentation. I received a very small grant ($4k), and acknowledged this on my ASR paper on the negative effects of Christian fundamentalism on educational attainment. Notably, this was a summer stipend award, and was NOT given for the specific research project. At the conference for the small grant winners, I was told rather directly that people without faith commitments weren’t a priority for funding larger projects. They use the small grants (1) to identify co-religionists; and (2) to generate scholarly legitimacy for their foundations. When Templeton funds a genuine scholar without strings, it makes their multi-million dollar awards to religious ideologues look like genuine grant money. You get $35k for a small project, while professor Jesus H. Christian gets $2.5 million for a 2.5 page “proposal”. In the US, money matters. And, this has led to Templeton etc. grants being viewed as on-par with other sources of funding. The asymmetry in funding makes it very likely that religious scholars will look better to the deans and provosts, and any snarking about the sources of funding is met with “well, they funded Professor Atheist so it must be a legit source.”

  • comment-avatar
    Maurice Bloch 19 February 2010 (20:16)

    To avoid misunderstanding I want to point out that my comments about Harvey’s paper did not mention funding or the Templeton foundation. The issue was neither in the back or the front of my mind. Funding is however important and Olivier and Dan are right to want to consider it.

  • comment-avatar
    Konrad Talmont-Kaminski 20 February 2010 (09:06)

    Susan Haack uses, after Peirce, the term ‘sham reasoning’ to describe situations in which the supposed conclusion is firmly set in advance of the reasoning. Of course, we are all guilty of it to some degree. In so far as science has been able to progress it has been thanks not to individuals free of that tendency but, much more importantly, thanks to institutions that helped to counteract it. Thus, in the case of cognitive science of religion, there will be researchers who have very strong pro or anti religion views that will sometimes infect their argumentation. After all, such strongly held views may be the very thing that motivates looking at religion in the first place. The problem is when the very institutions that constitute science are biased as to the outcomes of the research. That, however, is precisely the case with the Templeton Fund. It is not seeking to find out whether there is agreement between science and religion but aiming to show that there is. Potentially, this could be seriously problematic, leading to a bias in research findings that could set work in the area back by decades. The reality, I think, is that it has not been anything as bad. The reason is that the Fund has seemed to be willing to support research that shows science and religion are compatible in the very trivial sense that religion can be usefully studied by science (just like any other natural phenomenon). Being unfamiliar with the workings of the Fund I can only guess that at least in part this is due to there being very few scientists willing to argue for anything more. Even given potential funding from Templeton.

  • comment-avatar
    Dan Sperber 21 February 2010 (15:27)

    I twice gave “Templeton lectures”. I was invited not by the Templeton Foundation but, in one case by the Vanderbilt University Center for the Study of Religion and Culture in Nashville, and in the other case by the Johns Hopkins Evolution, Cognition, and Culture Project in Baltimore. It was these research groups that were financed by the Foundation, and, as I understand, they freely choose their “Templeton lecturers”. There was no demand, pressure or even hint of any kind that I should say something nice about religion, and in fact I said the same things that I would have said if these lectures had been financed, say, by the Brights, an American atheist organisation to which I belong (and that alas does not have that kind of money). Others I have talked to and who have been financed directly or indirectly by the foundation reported similar experiences. On the other hand, John Horgan, who was the beneficiary of a “Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellows in Science and Religion” had a more ambiguous experience on which he reflected in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education on April 7, 2006. This article was reproduced at where it stirred a very interesting discussion to which Daniel Dennett, George Johnson, Freeman Dyson, Richard Dawkins, Marc Hauser, Jerry Coyne, Leonard Susskind, Lee Smolin, Scott Atran, Colin Tudge, George Dyson, Richard Gregory, and myself participated. If you are interested in the topic, you should look at this discussion at . Note that the Mission statement of the Foundation does not even mention religion but only alludes to it quite indirectly: “The mission of the John Templeton Foundation is to serve as a philanthropic catalyst for discovery in areas engaging life’s biggest questions. These questions range from explorations into the laws of nature and the universe to questions on the nature of love, gratitude, forgiveness, and creativity.” The Templeton Prize, on the other hand “celebrates no particular faith tradition or notion of God, but rather the quest for progress in humanity’s efforts to comprehend the many and diverse manifestations of the Divine.” Should somebody who is not in sympathy with the ‘spiritual’ objectives of the Foundation accept money from it (considering only the cases where the money is given for the pursuit of the researchers’ own objectives)? Some say: “Never! The Foundation is clever and the money it gives always serves its goal to promote religion, even if indirectly.” Others say “Well, if they are so dumb as to finance even research that weighs in favour of a naturalistic world view, sure, let’s take it!” For my part, I don’t believe that they are either that clever or that dumb. I wish all money for scientific research were given by institutions that had no other objective than the pursuit of science, and that were wholly unbiased by ideology or power in their decisions. But this is not so, and there are other funding institutions, military ones for instance, from which researchers accept funding and that are further from this ideal than the Templeton Foundation. In my ideal world, scientific research would have no need for these moneys. As it is, my view is: let’s check in each case if there are strings attached, and, even if there are not, let’s not be naive about the motivation of the funding agency, let’s not pretend that all is nice and dandy, but yes, let’s accept the money and even say Thank you.

  • comment-avatar
    Tom Rees 22 February 2010 (12:37)

    The problem is not direct cash-for-opinions. I work in the pharma industry, and the experience there is not that researchers cravenly report opinions and findings that they think will please the sponsor. Researchers always report their genuine, deeply held convictions. Neither do funders make specific demands of the researchers (well, rarely, anyway). That is not the problem. The problem is that somehow… magically… the genuine, heartfelt opinion of researchers seem to become aligned with those of funders! Money has powerful, deep-seated effects, even (I suspect) on cognitive scientists. It doesn’t require a conspiracy or clever machinations on the part of Templeton for this to happen. It’s just what will happen if you change the nature of the sea in which you swim.

  • comment-avatar
    Olivier Morin 27 February 2010 (08:51)

    To Tom Rees : I agree that this is not a matter of opinions for cash – whatever influence takes place would have to work in more indirect ways. But precisely, this makes the indirect influence all the more difficult to measure. Let’s not assume it is there just because it doesn’t show. To Darren Sherkat : there are two questions here. One is, do religious foundations have a positive overall impact on science? The other is, are researchers like you who accept money from christian foundations biased because of this? I was only interested in the latter. If the Lilly foundation gives much more money to Jesus H. Christian than to Professor Atheist, then, to our point of view, its impact on research is questionable, but it doesn’t necessarily bias either JH Christian or Prof. Atheist. Certainly JH Christian would hold the same opinions with or without the Lilly grant – he would just be less audible. My question was : would Prof. Atheist change his mind because of Lilly money? Seems not.

  • comment-avatar
    Darren Sherkat 2 March 2010 (21:22)

    Changing one’s mind or conclusions is less the issue. Large sums of money change what people are researching, and how they are engaging topics of inquiry. Grant-driven research follows the RFA’s, and if all the money is in positive effects of religion, then one will have to create research proposals geared to the granting agencies’ guidelines. It matters a lot in the US with the declining economy and the lack of support for research in fields like sociology. Worse yet, it influences to content of shared databases which are essential in fields like sociology and political science. The people with the money get to ask the questions, and the rest of us are stuck with their research questions.

  • comment-avatar
    Konrad Talmont-Kaminski 13 March 2010 (08:17)

    Olivier, you are free to ask about particular questions that are of interest to you. However, I think that Tom and Darren raise very good points that bear thinking about. Issues such as those would not have to be a concern were science a mere unfolding of the implications of the application of a formal methodology. However, given the profoundly social nature of science that everyone on this blog rightly takes for granted, it must be acknowledged that it is social institutions that allow science to work and that changes to those institutions can very easily adversely affect science. Again, I am not saying this because I might think, for even a second, that you are not aware of this. Of course you are. I am saying this to remind us of the fragility of the scientific enterprise. Given this fragility, I think it is imperative that scientists remain on guard against attempts to undermine scientific institutions and, unfortunately, it is in such terms that I think of the Templeton Fund. This may well mean that, in practical terms, the attitude taken by Dan is exactly the correct one. Yet I am far from being sure that it is for exactly the kinds of reasons that Tom and Darren point out. All this also has to be considered in the context of the new irrationalism that appears to be currently gripping the planet in various forms.